Austin Bay opens his new book on the world’s flashpoints with a scene from the end of the Cold War. Or, at least, a scene from an American high-school during those strange days, as the Soviet bloc crumbled in the early 1990s. A retired Army colonel turned military historian and novelist, Bay was invited to join a panel of successful people who could tell an auditorium of high-school students and their parents about career development.
As he was leaving, however, a peacenik parent—Bay describes her as an aging hippie, flash-forwarded from 1968—planted herself in front of him. Mocking his military background, she gleefully announced that “with so many people waging peace,” Bay would “have to find another subject” to write about. Unwilling to argue the point, Bay slipped out the school door, mumbling that if not war, still what we faced was “a hazardous form of peace.”
Two hundred pages later, after sketching what his subtitle calls “Five Complex Wars Shaping the 21st Century,” Bay returns to those Cold War days and that high-school auditorium. Despite the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, we have seen in the years since 1991 the disaster of the Balkans as the former Yugoslavia fell apart. Despite the “Peace Dividend” and the promise of a Pax Americana, we have witnessed the slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwandan genocide. Despite the end of Soviet funding for insurgents, we have lived through two invasions of Iraq, endless struggle in Afghanistan, the brutal treatment of the Kurds, and plenty more besides.
Yes, war in the sense we feared it most from the early 1950s through the early 1990s, the long anxiety of nuclear brinksmanship with the Soviet Union, didn’t happen. But if the result was lack of global conflict, then it proved a pretty hazardous form of peace. Not the sudden loud clangor of war, exactly, but a kind of ceaseless murmuration, the rumors of war. And the end is not yet.
In Cocktails from Hell, Bay deliberately sets aside America’s current direct conflicts to look at the places where, he thinks, the 21st century will find its coming wars. Some of this, he notes, is rooted in the old soil of the Cold War. The first case study in the book is North Korea, which wouldn’t exist except for the interventions of global communism. Even after the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018, the Korean War is still occurring, officially: We have never had a peace agreement, just a ceasefire.
You might think the success of South Korea has proved the failure of North Korea’s dictatorship. Even with considerable skepticism about the honesty of official statistics from Pyongyang, those figures show that North Koreans have an average life expectancy 10 years shorter than people in the South. They have a maternal mortality rate eight times higher. North Korea’s Gross Domestic Product, per capita, is estimated to be around 5 percent of South Korea’s.
What Austin Bay recognizes, however, is that the failure of North Korea is the reason the world will continue to face a crisis on the Korean peninsula. The huge success of South Korea proves an unbearable insult. The patterns of asymmetrical conflict will always allow rivals to seek other routes to victory: Unable to compete economically or socially, North Korea competes militarily, with a nuclear program, a rising missile force, and thousands of artillery pieces pointed at the population centers of the South. The result might not be an open war, but it sure ain’t a stable peace.
Meanwhile, Bay points out in his second case study, we have the problem of China, with its interventions in the South China Sea, its expansionist “Belt and Road Initiative,” and its internal repression of its huge ethnic minorities, from the Tibetans to the Muslims in Western China (of whom at least a million are now interned in “reeducation camps”). Part of the problem is the residue of the Cold War in what is still, in name, a Maoist communist state. Another part of the problem is the growing pain of a rising power in old-fashioned geopolitics. China is both newly rich and overwhelmed by the corruptions and inequalities invariably created by sudden wealth. The temptation to flex its muscles can easily stack on top of the need to use national purpose to avoid civil unrest—and external war is always the likely result. From Japan to India, Taiwan to Vietnam, none of China’s neighbors sleep well.
And then, of course, there’s Russia. Bay looks at Russia’s recent aggressions in Georgia and Ukraine, and he concludes that the desire to be a world power, to reclaim the status of the Soviet empire, will drive future conflict. From the Black Sea to the Baltic, the Caucasus to the Pacific, Russia will act in coming decades as we should expect a second-tier power to act when it rages against its fall from the first tier.
Throughout Cocktails from Hell, Bay asks us to consider the principles that drive a conflict. Is it ethnic identity? National pride? Amelioration of suffering? Religious fervor? Similarly, he demands we understand that war is caused by human beings, and the key actors in any military clash have hungers and goals that shape their battles.
The final two case studies in the book emphasize the need to seek these questions. The interventions of Iran in Yemen are caused by religious identity, imperial ambition, the need to protect trade routes, and the envy of wealthy neighbors. All of which means that small-scale conflict in Yemen will not go away, and large-scale conflict may well come. So, too, the conflicts in Congo are motivated by tribal identity, the (reasonable) ethnic fear of annihilation, and the competition for resources. Nothing in that mix suggests that the clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo have visible solutions. And much in that mix—that cocktail from hell—tells us that the small wars of the region are likely to blow up into larger, even more murderous conflict.
At points in Cocktails from Hell—just as at times in the informative posts he makes to the StrategyPage blog—Austin Bay seems on the edge of developing an overarching theory of the historical elements driving the contemporary practices of war. He hasn’t quite arrived at the theory, and he sometimes appears, in truth, not to want to arrive at it. A kind of practical wisdom about military conflict, derived from wide-ranging knowledge, seems to suggest to him that a true unified theory will never fully explain what he calls the “complex wars” of the 21st century.
Still, with his insistence that we appreciate the human factors in war—the factors that lurk beneath the grand propositions of geopolitics—Austin Bay does us a favor in the slim volume of Cocktails from Hell. As it turned out, he didn’t need to find another topic to write about after the end of the Cold War. Almost 30 years on, and we are still negotiating a world of hazard.