20 December 2021

Strategic rate errors

 There's apparently a fair bit of talk about Wilhelmine China.  It collapses into tactical neepery or remote psychoanalysis really fast.

The Great War --  millions dead, Zone Rouge aftermath, death of empires, social convulsion, mechanized warfare, the oil commitment, queuing up the next world war, all of it -- kicked off in the universal presumption that it would be, by necessity, a short war.

It would be a short war because Imperial Germany required imports of nitrates -- bird guano -- to make agricultural fertilizers and nitrocellulose propellants.  Once stocks were exhausted, the war would be over.  New stocks could not be procured because Imperial Germany did not have and could not get control of the sea.

Imperial Germany went with artificial nitrogen fixation via the newly invented Haber process. They didn't run out of propellants. Imperial Germany expected they could avoid a blockade; they'd put immense investment into a battle fleet.  Surely there would be enough time to accomplish their territorial objectives.

In the end, Imperial Germany disintegrated.  It took a lot longer than anyone thought.  The distant blockade worked; nearly all else was corpse-stacking.

This sets the pattern; wars take a long time, people will not stop trying to substitute blood for treasure, and substitution of overlords is impossible in the presence of the existing force-multipliers. (One determined person with explosives can decide there's no peace.  Couldn't do that before explosives.)

So the rule for post-1870 wars is "this takes longer, costs more, and has more lasting consequences than anyone expects".

China's experience of the 19th and early-to-mid 20th has almost nothing to do with the Great War.  It's a long struggle to establish sovereignty and reverse colonization.  It's become a rationalization for territorial ambition -- it must not be possible for that to happen again -- but the viewpoint of the PRC and any colonial power on strategic questions will split sharply between constructions of security from sovereignty and constructions of security through profit.  (Remember you're sovereign when you can shoot someone who is on your territory without your permission and the other sovereigns agree that was right and proper for you to do.)  The PRC is existentially committed to recovering the entirety of its rebellious province of Taiwan.  Until it does that, its legitimacy as unquestionably sovereign is in some sense fake.

The rule for climate change is "this is worse, sooner, than you expect".  The projections are relentlessly optimistic.

Everybody doing strategic analysis right now is caught between these two things; climate is about to prevent the possibility of action on strategic scales while all conflict is protracted.  It's impossible to tell if the window for effective action has closed.

You know that thing with prices? as soon as you know they'll go up, they do go up?

An economic resiliency contest -- even one without shooting, pure blockade by insurance regulation -- takes a long time, cause permanent unpredictable change, and (as COVID-19 has been making clear!) cannot have a clear winner. (Where the anxious traders know/Each is surety for his foe,/And none may thrive without his fellows’ grace.) All the branches of the decision tree go to strategic exchange (because the alternative is losing), and the best time to have a strategic exchange is immediately, before other causes have diminished capability.  That way you come through with the largest possible remnant capability.

This pushes any open conflict to immediate full strategic exchanges.  Everyone on the planning side knows this.  To a first approximation, no one on the political side does.  They have trouble with the domain of necessity at the best of times, which these are not.

Extremely public proxy competition by decarbonization would be a much better idea, but the US would have to go first and no one seems prepared to start shooting US senators over decarbonization just yet.

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