In The Hunt for Red October, the actor and future Senator Fred Thompson uttered a classic line. Observing the aftermath of a confrontation between US and Soviet forces in the North Atlantic, he spat out: “This business will get out of control. It will get out of control, and we will be lucky to live through it.”
That quote has been running through my head for the last few weeks, and not just because events in Ukraine seem like a throwback to the bad old days of the Cold War. It’s because the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine is starting to look like the moment when this business got out of control.
The shooting down of the airliner is easy enough to explain. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave ground-to-air missile batteries to his Ukrainian rebels so they could neutralize the central government’s air power and continue their campaign to wrest Eastern Ukraine into Russian control. It’s a measure of Putin’s desperation and also of his ruthlessness. He doesn’t need the Ukrainian rebels to definitively win against the central government. He just needs them to keep the conflict going, to keep Ukraine weak and chaotic. Russia is surrounded by these “frozen conflicts,” borderlands of chaos where there is no definitively established government.
But these are sophisticated missile systems that aren’t supposed to be used by ragtag rebels. They’re supposed to be part of a larger system that is monitoring all air traffic and is capable of distinguishing between the enemy and a civilian airliner. The rebels couldn’t do that, and it seems the Russian intelligence forces sent to keep an eye on them weren’t up to the job, either. So they couldn’t properly identify their targets, and they shot down the wrong plane.
But why was an international airliner, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, routed over a conflict zone in the first place? Because it was an established air route, the fastest way from point A to point B, and because it was assumed that no weapons on the ground were a threat to a high-altitude airliner. In short, everyone assumed they were still living in a Europe without conflict—at least, no conflict serious enough to have any impact at 30,000 feet.
Thanks to Vladimir Putin, that’s not the kind of place Europeans live in any more. Think about that.
Compare that to what’s happening in the conflict between Hamas and Israel. Last week, our Federal Aviation Administration suspended flights to Israel because of the supposed risk of rocket attacks at Ben-Gurion Airport. There was a good case that the FAA decision was unfounded and that it was a form of backdoor regulatory boycott against Israel. But again, an international air route had been disrupted.
The important thing is to consider the ramifications for the people who fired those rockets and sought to threaten the airliners. Will this shock to the international system cause Hamas to regret their rocket barrage as a calamitous miscalculation and back down in the face of global condemnation?
No, because the whole conflict in Gaza is set up to make Hamas into a protected entity. The Hamas script is obvious. By putting its own people in the line of fire—Hamas has built miles of tunnels to attack Israel, but no air-raid shelters for civilians—Hamas is expecting that the mounting casualties will cause the “international community” to put pressure on Israel to stop the offensive and leave Hamas intact. And in 3, 2, 1…President Obama dutifully plays his part in the script.
The only bright spot in this story is that no one in Israel seems to be interested in listening to him.
Now let’s add one more data point. There’s another disruption to air traffic going on: a massive Chinese military exercise which includes some Chinese saber-rattling over another form of transportation: the sea lanes for shipping that pass through most of Southeast Asia, and where China is claiming control along a “nine-dash line” hundreds of miles off of its shoreline.
The disruption of international air travel is just a small symbol of a bigger issue: the sense that the whole system of international politics—the one that allows us to travel freely and safely across most of the globe and trade trillions of dollars of goods across the oceans—is coming unglued.
Mind you, it was never glued together all that well to begin with, and it always required a lot of effort to maintain. But that’s the big reason for concern: the sense that the United States, under Barack Obama, is no longer interested in maintaining it. That’s why, even though we still live in a relatively peaceful era by historical standards, there is a pervasive sense that everything is moving in the opposite direction, and fast.
The great free-market economist Frederic Bastiat observed the effect of “what is seen and what is not seen”—that is, the tendency to see the tangible effect of government action without seeing the intangible consequences. I think this is an issue that applies far more widely than just in economics.
When America takes action in the world, it looks like we’re the ones who are going around stirring up trouble and breaking things. That is what is seen. But there is something that is not seen, because it’s churning on quietly in the background in thousands of ordinary, everyday actions like hopping on a flight from Europe to Southeast Asia. What is not seen is the international order that is maintained when there’s someone around to deter the rogue actors who have an interest in chaos.
My fear is that we will only see that international order when we see it breaking apart.