The one-year mark of this terrible war in Ukraine brings up a range of emotions, including deep admiration for the Ukrainian people and dismay over the unfolding Russian offensive. But another feeling comes up, too, that doesn’t get talked about enough: awe at the breathtaking waste of war.
How sad that human beings survived deadly waves of COVID only to get right back into the business-as-usual of killing one other. It’s senseless to spend tens of billions of dollars on missiles, tanks and other aid, when more needs to be done to help communities adapt to rising oceans and drying rivers.
It’s lunacy that farmers in a breadbasket of the world have gone hungry hiding in bomb shelters. It’s madness that President Vladimir Putin of Russia declared Ukrainians to be part of his own people — right before he sent his army into the country, where Russian soldiers have been accused of raping and murdering civilians.
Governments gussy up war. They talk of victory because that gives soldiers hope and the will to fight on. But in the end, war is death in a muddy foxhole. It’s an existential fight over a frozen field with no strategic value. It’s a generational grudge that begets new generational grudges.
It’s an $11 billion, roughly 740-mile pipeline laid across the Baltic Sea rendered useless overnight. It’s some of the largest steel plants in Europe unable to produce or ship a single metal sheet. It’s a charming seaside city emptied out by bombings and siege.
When a country is fighting for its survival, as Ukraine is, the ability to wage war is essential. Indeed, it can feel like the only thing that really counts. But it is also true that our collective prosperity as human beings depends upon the absence of war, which gives people the breathing room they need to farm, to trade, to make scientific breakthroughs and art.
The economic rewards reaped by not being at war can be hard to quantify. But researchers report that peace is wildly profitable. The Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, scores peacefulness according to factors like “good relations with neighbors,” corruption, free flow of information and representative governance.
Its recent report shows that countries that saw improvements in peacefulness between 2009 and 2020 also saw gross domestic product per capita rise by an average of 3.1% per year. Countries where peacefulness deteriorated saw an increase of just 0.4% per year.
Putin’s war in Ukraine makes us all poorer, hungrier and more insecure. Although the world has avoided the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war so far, it has not dodged the slow-moving bullet of mutually assured economic degradation.
Real global incomes this year could be $2.8 trillion lower because of the Russian invasion, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ukrainian towns that have spent at least a month on the front lines have seen their economic activity cut roughly in half, estimates Yuri Zhukov, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He’s been using light emissions as seen from space as a proxy for economic activity in areas with heavy shelling.
“At its heart, war is a fundamentally stupid enterprise,” said Gerard DiPippo, a former CIA analyst who now works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If all you care about is maximizing economic output and security, you would almost never choose to start a war.”
DiPippo researches the impact of sanctions on Russia as well as the likely economic fallout if China were to invade Taiwan. His assessment? Even if President Xi Jinping managed to retake the island, the price he would have to pay in lost economic and diplomatic clout would render it a Pyrrhic victory.
The costs would be catastrophic, both for China and the United States. According to a 2016 study by the Rand Corp., a yearlong clash could curb China’s GDP by 25% to 35%, and U.S. GDP by as much as 10%.
“China would have gained Taiwan but sacrificed its larger ambition of becoming a global and comprehensive superpower,” DiPippo and a co-author wrote for CSIS.
One hopes that the destruction in Ukraine will help convince Chinese leaders that reunification with Taiwan by force would be a self-defeating policy. But countries blunder into disastrous military conflicts all the time. Mutual arms buildups are one reason. Another is that leaders chronically downplay their costs and undervalue the benefits of peace.
The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a case in point. Those wars were treated as an emergency expense for a decade, and funded outside the Pentagon base budget for the second decade, avoiding normal financial oversight and scrutiny of the full costs, according to Linda Bilmes, author of a forthcoming book on ghost budgets that paid for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
With the war in Ukraine, the United States is once again underestimating the cost of our involvement, since replacing the weapons that have been given to Ukraine will likely cost 10% to 30% more than their current value on average, Bilmes says. To date, there has been no serious attempt to estimate or budget for the long-term expense of this war.
Acknowledging the real cost of war — and the benefits of peace — doesn’t mean that we’ll lose our will to fight. To the contrary, an honest accounting of what war is and what it costs is essential to victory over the long run.
Farah Stockman is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. Her previous article was “We can learn from China’s mistakes.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.