Underestimating human stupidity


Yubal Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, published in 2018, is indeed a “probing and visionary investigation” into the most imperative, most compelling issues in the 21st century. Equally intriguing are the sub-headings he assigned to each sub themes of the five challenges he identified for this century, namely, technological, political, despair and hope, truth, and resilience.

On work, he warned us “when you grow up, you might not have a job.” On civilization, he argued that “there is just one civilization in the world.” On justice, he opined “our sense of justice might be out of date.” On education, he was rather emphatic that “change is the only constant.”

Under the challenge posed by despair and hope, the 11th lesson for Harari has something to do with war.

War remains resonant to us today because despite two world wars, we continue to think and act cluelessly as to their painful lessons. George Santayana’s warning against those who cannot remember the past seems lost to many generations of political and military leadership. We continue to see and experience conflicts in the 21st century. The Imperial War Museums (IWM) chronicles the wars in Sierra Leone which started in 1991 and lasted until 2002, Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, Iraq from 2003 to 2011, Libya from 2011 to 2020, Syria from 2011 to 2023, and Yemen in 2014 and the situation there is still precarious.

War remains a buzzword today because nations continue to play hegemony as a board game. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was actually its third after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014 and the war in Donbas between 2014 and 2022. We cannot overemphasize the IMF’ reference to the war in Ukraine as an unmitigated catastrophe for global peace. Aside from the inevitable consequences on human lives, the Ukraine war has also compounded the challenges of inflation, poverty, food security, deglobalization, and environmental degradation. The war has so far destroyed physical capital, millions of residents have fled the country, and the economy is a total mess.

War troubles us to no end because its unnecessary brutality could truly make us skeptical about humanity. The heinous attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, unleashed another endless cycle of retribution. Many Arabs have themselves held Hamas accountable for what happened. One can denounce Hamas’ brutal takeover of Gaza, its strategy of “armed resistance,” Hamas’ strategy of hiding behind the civilian Palestinian community, and its desire to continue destabilizing the Arab world. They fuel dissent to force other Arab nations to rescue it from the war it initiated against Israel. So far, some Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been reported to view Hamas and Islamic Jihad as “threats to their own national security.” Hamas’ agenda goes beyond the possible two-state solution; it is pledged to protect its own fighters rather than uphold its broader governance responsibility over the citizens of Gaza. Brutality stares in the face of Gaza residents who have no food and water, have seen their shelters flattened to the ground, and are always vulnerable to murder and rape.

The brutality of war can be inflicted not only on human lives and national security, but also on national and global economies. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva was more than diplomatic when she said that un-certainty now hangs over the Middle East region. Some 80% of Gaza’s economy has been wiped out, while the scope of the war has expanded with Iran launching its first direct attack on Israel two weeks ago. Attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen on ships navigating the Red Sea have disrupted trade routes in the Suez Canal, quadrupled transport cost, and cancelled many tourist trips to the area. Funds that could have financed economic devel-opment will now have to be diverted to war rehabilitation.

For Harari, the last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Human violence in early agricultural times caused 15% of human deaths; in the 20th century only 5%; today, human violence is responsible for only 1% of deaths. Ironically, since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, the international situation has deteriorated, warmongering has resumed, and military expenditure has risen.

But there is a difference between what is happening today and the First World War.

In the past, successful wars held much appeal to the ruling elite. Successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. From the times of the Assyrians and the Qin, Harari claims that great empires owed their status to violent wars of conquest. In the same way, Japan, Germany, and Britain founded their territorial power on victorious war exploits and plunder. The US expanded the Union by military action in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.

Today, successful wars may be extinct. This may have been caused by a change in the nature of the economy. Economic assets back then were mostly material such that military success could easily enrich conquering states. Ancient empires prospered from the trade of slaves and taking over wheat fields and gold mines. Yes, some terrorist states could still loot oil wells and plunder banks, but the returns could be relatively feeble.

Today, this is no longer feasible for giant states like China and the United States. With a GDP of over $20 trillion, how would China justify fighting a direct war against the United States and paying the huge expenses of waging a war, and after that, paying all the war damages for a hundred billion dollars? It’s arguable unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army would march into Silicon Valley and loot Apple, Facebook, and Google. As Harari said, “there is no silicon mine in Silicon Valley.”

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the big powers have refrained from fighting one another directly. They have instead shifted to what used to be called low-intensity conflict, or low-stake conflict, in which the use of nuclear arms is not an option. Proxy war is one option. Even provoking a small country with nuclear capability should not be considered; one cannot underestimate human folly.

Cyberwarfare, according to Harari, is another reason why a hegemonic agenda may not prosper today. One does not even have to possess an enormous mighty army or nuclear armament. If China, or the United States, at-tacks even just an emerging country with moderate cyberwarfare capabilities, malware and logic bombs, Harari projects, “could stop air traffic in Dallas, cause trains to collide in Philadelphia and bring down the electric grid in Michigan.” We are living with technologies that could cause high damage but low profit in establishing economic empires.

But people can be stupid, Harari warned. World War II could have been avoided if the Japanese generals, admirals, economists, and journalists did not concur with the view “that without control of Korea, Manchuria, and the Chinese coast, Japan was doomed to economic stagnation.” With Germany and Italy, Japan fought and lost the war, but they prospered after their defeat.

How do we then appreciate the bullying by China of the Philippines?

China is definitely playing with fire. It simply ignored the unanimous ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea (read, West Philippine Sea) that “the pre-existing historic rights no longer exist as they are not com-patible with UNCLOS. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that China’s claims were contrary to UNCLOS and exceeded the geographic limits imposed by it.”

There is definitely a scope for understanding Beijing’s stubborn attitude. As Former US State Secretary Henry Kissinger emphasized in his interview with Charlie Rose in December 2023, China has both a long history and a different sense of history.

They will continue to insist on their historic rights because they believe they are simply restoring them over the whole of the South China Sea, even with territorial overlaps with several countries. Despite the cultural revolu-tion and the demolition of ancient feudal culture, China continues to adhere to the idea that they are zhongguo, or the “Middle Kingdom.” China believes that what it is doing is in keeping with its majestic conduct and great achievement accumulated over thousands of years.

If Chairman Mao were alive today, we don’t know what kind of policy he would take on the South China Sea. It would not be too unlikely for him to instruct the Chinese Cost Guard to continue hosing us with water for the next 1,000 years. They have been into brinkmanship for thousands of years, they can afford to sustain it for another millennium. We hope war with China is not imminent.

For Harari, the exit strategy is humility.

If China realizes that its interest could be parallel with world peace as well as regional stability and understanding, humility has a chance of being born. The only wild card is when human stupidity gets in the way.

Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former deputy governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was alternate executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.