In which a long-awaited war finally begins.
It was bound to come.
The Indian War raised the question, but could not answer it; the Great War killed thirty million men and ended in a peace of exhaustion that did not settle the matter; the brushfire conflicts of the thirties carefully danced around the point, ratcheting the tension higher and higher without, quite, setting off the conflagration. But nations and states, however skilled and dedicated to peace their statesmen, cannot sit forever in such a dynamic equilibrium. Every skirmish has some finite chance of being the spark that finally triggers the explosion. And until the answer is at last made known, there will be skirmishes, and brushfires, and provocations. For the question is of the sort that drives humans (and, for that matter, chimpanzees) into action whether they care for the consequences or not; that causes great and decisive wars to be fought over the most trivial points of dispute, because any excuse will do to settle the thing that is truly on everyone’s mind.
Just who is top dog around here, anyway?
The great problem of a balance of power, the dynamic-equilibrium method of keeping the peace between several powerful polities, is precisely that it is dynamic, and that it has two steady states. In the normal course of things, it prevents local conflicts, the little grumbles that always exist between neighbouring communities – down to the neighbour who doesn’t paint his fence as often as you’d like – from escalating into state-destroying total wars, by providing support to the losing side – often even before the first shot is fired. But slowing down the process of war feeding on war is insufficient; the old truism still holds, “them as has, gets.” Sooner or later, every equilibrium becomes unbalanced. And when it does, the mechanism of the balance of power, the diplomacy that gathers support for the underdog, keeps right on working, even when the prerequisite, the genuine and undoubted ability of that support to make the cost of gaining too much unbearable for the stronger side, has gone. In many cases the nation that gets greedy is still, actually, weaker than the coalition that gathers to stop it; what is required to flip from the low-conflict state to the Great War is not the emergence of a real hegemon, but the belief, among some sufficient set of decisionmakers, that it might just be possible to overcome the inevitable coalition.
A Great War, then, is in some ways similar to a bank run, a stock-market crash, or a recession created by a demand-side shock: They occur because some number of people believe in the possibility. Most human organisations above the level of the family are to some degree consensual fictions, operating because a large majority want them to and believe they will; but fractional-reserve banks and balance-of-power state systems are particularly obvious examples, because their failure modes are so spectacular. A fractional-reserve bank works just so long as most of its customers believe it is “sound”, ie able to pay all its demand deposits on demand – and therefore, most of its customers do not in fact demand their money back. But let a sufficient minority begin to doubt, let there be some visible disturbance in the system… and the fact is that a bank that actually can pay all its depositors at once is not fractional reserve, it is full-reserve and makes its money in some other way than lending out most of what is deposited. Thus, the good state, in which people can write checks and there is credit available to build up businesses, is only quasi-stable: The transition probability to the bad state, the bank run, is small but constant. Likewise, in the case of a balance of power, the fact is usually that if a stronger state were to truly push its desires to the fullest, the balancing coalition would face a stern and exhausting struggle to defeat it, and might crack under the strain. But as long as statesmen believe that they would lose, they do not care to really test the opposing coalition; they do not, so to speak, check their beliefs by taking money out of the bank.
In the case of banks, the transition probability from good to bad is tiny but nonzero; the transition probability from bad (ie, a bank run) to good is, effectively, zero in the absence of outside intervention. The balance-of-power system is less afflicted on this score: There is, roughly speaking, a certainty that the world will eventually return to peace, either with a hegemon that has just won its defining war and demonstrated that it is, actually, top dog; or with a restored balance of power. But the war that creates such a long-lived peace is always something close to the maximum of what the technology and organisation of the participating states can support.
The precipitating incident, then, is unimportant. The Chinese government was perfectly correct in claiming that it was only retaking land that the Mongol Khanate had annexed from China, in some cases within living memory. The Indian government, likewise, had some justice on its side in its official reasoning for intervention: The atrocities perpetrated by Chinese troops against the “nomads” are still sickening to read about. Each side called its allies – respectively Malaya, eager to cement its control over the South China Sea against a modernising Chinese navy, and Russia, unhappy with a powerful India on its southern border and ready to launch an attack when its adversary was distracted elsewhere. Italy and heavily-militarised Bavaria, smarting from recent defeat, likewise saw their chance at revenge while their oppressor’s troops were marching through the Caucasus mountains – and a localised conflict over grazing rights in the Amur Delta became a worldwide conflagration as Russia’s European friends stepped in to protect their ally. But the precise steps are irrelevant. The underlying cause, the telos of the War, is not to be found in analysing the diplomacy, the frantic telegrams back and forth, the ultimata, mobilisation orders, railroad schedules, military geography, or personalities of the statesmen involved. The real cause was India, and its drive to become the undisputed master of the Asian mainland and, by extension, the world; which in turn is only a special case of the eternal Human Question, the one we ask whenever we manage to build up enough of a surplus that we don’t have to pull together and work by consensus just as a question of having something to eat tomorrow: Who is in charge around here, anyway?
It had to come.