The new global arms race will lead to catastrophe. The west can pursue it – or choose peace

Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli

Thu 26 Oct 2023

Military spending is up and global conflict is looming. Intellectuals, scientists and the public must speak out for the future of the planet

Nato soldiers from the US, Romania and Croatia at a military parade in Warsaw, Poland, 15 August 2023
Nato soldiers from the US, Romania and Croatia at a military parade in Warsaw, Poland, 15 August 2023. Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images

In the autumn of 1914 a frantic race to build weapons and decouple economies was under way among the countries of Europe. As the war cry on both sides intensified, a young Albert Einstein, together with the astronomer Wilhelm Foerster, physiologist Georg Friedrich Nicolai and philosopher Otto Buek, signed a Manifesto to the Europeans, inviting scholars and artists, “those of whom one should expect such convictions”, to speak against the escalation, think in terms of a common culture, transcend nationalist passions and call for a “union of Europeans” to prevent Europe from perishing in a “fratricidal war”. Few listened. Europe sank into the catastrophes of the two world wars, which led to the end of its pre-eminence.

We are in a similar situation now. This time it is the entire planet at stake, hanging between prosperity and catastrophe. The world has changed since 1914: western economic and cultural dominance is fading. A rapid and welcome global development is redistributing power. The major challenges are global. Opportunities are global as well, opened up by technological developments that have generated widespread prosperity and taken hundreds of millions out of misery.

Yet we are plunging again into a frantic race to build weapons and restrict international trade. Proxy wars fire up. Opposite sides demonise each other as horrific, rapacious, uncivilised – just as France and Germany were doing to each other in the run-up to the first world war. Narrowly avoided during the cold war, a global conflict is looming, with nuclear risks. Support for this drive towards developing more armaments and decoupling is almost unanimous in our media and politics.

It is much less so in society at large, and rare in the world I know best, academia. The intellectual world balks at this belligerence not so much because knowledge needs to ignore boundaries to grow (I have Iranian and Chinese colleagues in my research group), but because the wider perspective that intellectuals try to have on affairs makes it manifest that choosing conflict over collaboration is irrational.

The concern extends far beyond academia. Many young people think in terms of a common world; they are worried for the future of the planet as a whole. Wise politicians warn us of the risks of the current direction – Kevin Rudd, for instance, a former prime minister of Australia, does so in his book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China. Leaders of the digital economy who are interested in global stability express similar worries. Even those contesting globalisation a few years ago are now scared by the global fracturing. Despite the political class’s consensus, polls show an unusually large and increasing discrepancy between governments’ choices and public opinion, even in the US.

The US aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford in the eastern Mediterranean, 13 October 2023
The US aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford in the eastern Mediterranean, 13 October 2023. Photograph: Maxwell Orlosky/US Navy/AFP/Getty Images

Yet little of this dissent emerges in the mainstream press, or permeates European or American political discourse. This is dominated by calls to limit international collaboration and trade, and increase the belligerence. Global military expenditure increased by 3.7% in real terms in 2022 reaching a new high of $2,240bn. In Europe, it saw its steepest year-on-year increase in more than 30 years.

My worries are not based on a naive or idealist pacifism. On the contrary, they stem from an effort to be cynically rational. With cynic’s eyes, I see the framing of China as a “threat” for instance, for what it is: a garbled reaction to the fact that an economic power is freeing itself from Washington’s dominion. Similarly, it is not the high moral ground of wanting to restore an international legal order (which our “side” has repeatedly violated) that motivates the west’s approach to Ukraine, where a bloody and devastating war continues, or to the current tragic events in the Middle East: rather it is, I believe, a geopolitical power struggle. Militaristic choices, cloaked under hypocritical rhetoric, are forestalling a more sober discussion.

The west faces a choice. Its cultural and economic success has led vast areas of the world to flourish. These have grown to the point where they match western economic and cultural weight. They ask for a seat at the table, for shared decisions. The only clear superiority that the west maintains is its overwhelming military capacity, based on absurdly high spending (US military spending per capita is 15 times higher than China’s). This situation confronts the west with an existential choice: either impose global dominion solely via military force, as we are trying to do, or accept the idea that the democracy we preach is actually sincere: the world must be governed together with everybody else. This, I think, is the choice.

From young people in the streets demonstrating for climate action to political philosophers such as Zhao Tingyang in the east and Lorenzo Marsili in the west; from the UN leadership to the Dalai Lama and the pope; and then innumerable people around the world – they are all asking leaders to recognise that our homeland is the world.

Can these voices please speak louder? Can “those of whom one should expect such convictions” speak against the escalation, see humankind as a whole as the relevant political subject, prevent the planet from perishing in a “fratricidal war”? Can the media please listen? Can politics listen?

Or will all this fall on closed ears, like Einstein’s manifesto of 1914? This time, we are not risking the deaths of 20 million people: we risk total nuclear winter.

  • Carlo Rovelli is an Italian physicist and writer. His latest book, White Holes, Inside the Horizon, is out this month