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Defending the indefensible . . .

Opinion Piece

The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan made sense, in an old-fashioned way. The dispute was about territory — borders that were drawn almost a century ago by a Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin — and Azerbaijan had lost the last war and a lot of land.

So the Azerbaijanis spent a lot of money (they have oil), bought some key weapons (cheap Turkish-built drones), and took most of the land back. Human cost: around 5000 dead on both sides, and a great many refugees. But at least it was about something real.

Now the United Kingdom is keen to buy some of those Turkish TB-2 drones, because they're cheap ($1-2 million per copy) and very good at killing tanks. Armenia lost 224 tanks; Azerbaijan lost 36. But whose tanks is Britain planning to kill? Russia's?

It's 2500km from London to Moscow, and most of the countries in between are part of the same Nato alliance that the UK belongs to. Nato countries have six times the population of Russia and 10 times the GDP — and by the way, there are no territorial disputes between Nato countries and Russia. What are they all playing at?

You could see the same irrationality in the weapons-grade squabble between the US Congress and the White House over this year's defence budget. It is $740 billion, or $2235 for each American man, woman or child, although there is no evidence that the US government fears a simultaneous attack by Russia, China, India, Germany, France, the UK, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea.

Indeed, none of those national capitals is less than 5000km away from the United States, and most of the distance in every case is open ocean. Only Mexico and Canada are physically able to invade the US, and either could be stopped with a few harsh words, or by the highway patrol.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell explained that the disputed defence appropriations bill “will cement our advantage on the seas, on land, in the air, in cyberspace and in space,” but you have to ask: an advantage that enables the United States to do what?

Stay in Afghanistan another year? The US couldn't win there in 19 years, but just one more year will do the trick? Deter China from militarising some reefs in the South China Sea? Well, not so much deter the Chinese (for the airstrips are going ahead on those reefs — China is also playing the “Great Game”), as harass and annoy them about it.

You can see why Armenia and Azerbaijan spend money preparing for war, but for the great powers it's just silly. They have no disputes worth going to war for, and conquering any of them has been out of the question since the advent of nuclear weapons 75 years ago. Why are they still doing it?

In the 1960s an American anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, went to the Brazilian Amazon to study the Yanomamo, some 25,000 “horticulturalists” (slash-and-burn agriculture plus hunting) living in many villages of around a hundred people each. Each village was absolutely independent — and always potentially at war with every other village.

There was enough land and food for them all, and nothing to be gained by grabbing more territory. In fact, they left huge buffer zones between the villages to discourage raiding.

They invited other villages to feasts, intermarried, traded with one another, made complicated alliances, all in order to shrink the risk of the chronic, devastating wars that could annihilate whole villages. And still the wars happened.

So the only safety lay in being heavily armed and implacably ready to take revenge, even though there was really nothing at stake that was worth fighting about. Deterrence, in other words.

It's exactly the same for today's great powers, even though the ministers for war and secretaries of defence no longer wear feathers in their hair and bones in their noses. Except on state occasions, of course.

Gwynne Dyer