While the EU has fallen on hard times in recent years, the economic arrangement between the growing number of members has served the region immeasurably better than the recurring wars of the past. Death and devastation on an unimaginable scale marked relations between European powers in the first half of the 20th century. This followed centuries of irregular but recurring wars on a smaller but still damaging scale between various European countries.
But there comes a time in the affairs of men (usually the ones in charge) when they see the advantages of living in peace and trading with their neighbours and are prepared to forego the pleasures of stalking about with bemedalled chests, making hysterical speeches, taking salutes at massed military parades and other traditional forms of sabre rattling.
The result is a large peace dividend as opposed to the unquantifiable costs of carnage and conflagration.
Whatever the flaws of Europe’s regional union created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, it has reversed the tide of history, finally halting the ongoing destruction of centuries. The worst that has happened since is the domino effect of unmanageable government debt and collapsing banks. And even this tragedy is slowly receding.
But the flashpoints in the Middle East and Ukraine show that parts of the world remain mired in the past, trapped in a cycle of hatred and fear – perpetuated by the ambitions of self-serving politicians – often hostage to extremists on their own side. Whether wars are a struggle over economic resources or inspired by religious fervour they extract huge financial penalties.
A report from the US Congressional Research Service in 2011 put the military cost alone to the US of Second World War at $296 billion (R3 trillion) between 1941 and 1945 – or just over $4bn in 2011 US currency. The military cost of the Korean War was $30bn at the time, worth $341bn in 2011, while Vietnam was $111bn ($738bn). Another study by the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies put the cost of that war in the peak year at 37.5 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP).
And that was just the military cost to that country.
Other regions, more directly involved in the war, were turned into vast battlefields with massive collateral damage to cities and the countryside, as well as enormous losses in human terms including civilian deaths, injuries, permanent disabilities and the displacement of whole populations.
And there are the immeasurable opportunity growth costs that did not occur. Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its forecast for growth in Russia’s GDP this year to 0.2 percent from the 1.3 percent it had estimated in April.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in March and is now seen to be backing pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine. After the adverse political fallout from the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger aircraft over rebel-held territory earlier this month, Russia was forced to cancel an auction of government debt last week due to “negative market conditions”. The IMF noted that investment in Russia is “expected to remain weaker for longer”, given geopolitical tensions. The country’s central bank raised its key rate last week from 7.5 percent to 8 percent.
But, however clear the picture is in the hindsight of history or to outsiders at a geographical and political distance, the parties locked in the battle seem unable, and often unwilling, to break out of their historical trap. There are always old scores to be settled and emotions preclude a rational look at the future.