'Collective Security': A Historical Failure that Will Fail Again in Syria

'Collective Security': A Historical Failure that Will Fail Again in Syria

In 1975, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad told Henry Kissinger, “You abandoned Vietnam, you will soon abandon Taiwan, then Korea. We will be here when you abandon Israel.” The next month, Syria invaded Lebanon. Last week, his son, Bashar al-Assad, said almost exactly the same thing to the Russian daily Izvestia: “Failure awaits the US as in all previous wars it has unleashed starting with Vietnam and up to the present day.”

The problem with conducting foreign policy based on abstract principles like “international law” is that leaders have such a hard time making distinctions between individual cases. The one unbreakable law of geopolitics is that there is always a direct and proportionate relationship between power, prestige, and credibility. Credibility means following through with threats against enemies and keeping promises to friends. The all too common consequence of friends no longer trusting promises and enemies no longer fearing threats is war. 

History shows what often happens when the world’s smartest and best educated people allow their ideological passions to so thoroughly cloud their view of reality that they end up wrecking the world they believe they were put here to perfect.

This is the story of the interwar years which began at the end of World War I in November 1918 with one of the greatest geopolitical mistakes of the 20th Century. The German high command asked for an armistice before the German Army had been beaten and before a single Allied soldier had set foot on German soil. This enabled the German High Command to blame its own defeat on their civilian successors they were forced to do the actual surrendering. Too many Germans thus believed they lost the war not because their army was beaten at the front, but because it was “stabbed in the back” by politicians of the hated new Weimar Republic.

Britain and France spent most of the interwar years at cross purposes. France lost British support by its insistence that German demands always be denied, while Britain undermined France by its insistence that German demands always be appeased. 

The war’s only real winner was America and its idealistic, inflexibly arrogant, and self-righteously confident President Woodrow Wilson, who used his power not to help Europe reconstruct a semblance of the pre-war realpolitik framework that had more or less kept the peace for almost a century. Instead, Wilson used the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to brow beat his allies and the world into accepting his new and untested concept of geopolitical management he promised would prevent future wars. “Collective security”, he vowed, would guarantee world peace by creating a “moral consensus” of all peaceful nations. Since all nations had an equal interest in peace, Wilson argued, all nations would have an equal interest in punishing any nation that broke the peace.

The world’s first experiment in “collective security” was such a colossal failure, it should have confined the concept to the ash heap of bad ideas right then and there. That experiment was the League of Nations. Throughout the 1920’s, whenever the democracies reached an impasse among themselves or with aggressors, they preferred appealing to the League rather than confronting their own geopolitical realities.

Long before Hitler ever came to power, German politicians were able to weaken the allies much the same way Arab leaders have been able to weaken Israel. From nearly the moment the ink on the Versailles Treaty was dry, the Allies sought to “build confidence” by encouraging Germany to seek changes to or waivers from many of the treaty’s most onerous provisions.

By volunteering to so often proclaim that the Versailles Treaty was unjust and immoral, the allies forfeited nearly all grounds to defend it. Ironically, Versailles ended up accelerating the very geopolitical outcome it was written to prevent. In being too harsh to permit real reconciliation and too weak to prevent Germany from recovering her pre-war strength, the treaty made Germany stronger and France weaker. Before the war, Germany faced three strong neighbors. After the war, she did not face any. France was spent, Russia was pushed 500 miles east and nearly consumed itself in civil war, while the Austro-Hungarian empire vanished entirely.

The first real challenge to “collective security” came with the “Mukden Incident” of 1931, when Japan “annexed” three Chinese provinces. After the League did nothing, Japan invaded Manchuria. All the league could muster was perfunctory condemnation; this proved too much for Japan, which left the League in protest. 

These events were closely followed in Europe, where Mussolini was looking to dominate Africa much the way Iran seeks to dominate the Middle East today. Mussolini cleverly used French and German fears that he would ally himself with Hitler to win a freer hand in Africa, which he used In October 1935 to invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia). 

Demonstrating the preposterousness of the League’s fatal false promise of “collective security,” the borders and sovereignty of Abyssinia, a tribal monarchy still dependent upon slavery, enjoyed the same League “security guarantee” as every other nation, which of course in reality meant a guarantee of no security. Not only were no nations prepared to fight Italian aggression with force, none were even willing to impose meaningful sanctions. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin prevented the only sanction that might have worked–an oil embargo. When put to the test, Baldwin’s phrase “All Sanctions Short of War” was exposed as feckless bluster.

When his vaunted Italian army unexpectedly found itself besieged in early December 1935, Mussolini ordered a massive chemical weapons attack that ended the siege and saved his army (not to mention himself) by gassing at least 50,000 people. It was history’s single most lethal use of chemical weapons. While dissension prevented the League from condemning the chemical weapons attack, that dissension had vanished just a month later, when the League reversed the meaningless non-binding sanctions it imposed before chemical weapons were even used. 

By early 1936, Mussolini felt free enough to authorize his commanders to use chemical weapons at their own discretion, which they did almost daily until the war ended in May 1936. After a daring escape, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie arrived in New York to deliver the most devastating critique ever issued against the League. “It is us today”, he said, “but tomorrow it will be you.” 

While the West’s abysmal response to Italy’s Abyssinian war certainly encouraged Europe’s aggressive powers to engage in predatory behavior, the successful battlefield use of chemical weapons in Abyssinia did nothing to unleash the poison gas “genie”–if such a genie ever existed. In fact, after Abyssinia, chemical weapons were never again used on any battlefield or conflict until the Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980’s. Neither Hitler nor Stalin, Mao, or the North Vietnamese or even North Koreans ever used them in war. Nor, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, until August 2013, were chemical used in the three decades since Saddam’s defeat.

One man upon whom Mussolini’s battlefield success with chemical weapons did leave a lasting impression was none other than Winston Churchill. In response to Germany’s “doodlebug” raids that killed 3,000 English civilians in June 1944, the British leader warned his military chiefs, “I may have to ask you to support me in using poison gas to drench cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would require constant medical attention.” 

“It is absurd” he thundered, “to consider morality on this topic.” Of course, that request from Churchill to drop poison gas on German cities never came.

Hitler saw Ethiopia as his chance to throw off the Versailles Treaty’s last restraints upon his army. Germany’s industrial Rhineland was demilitarized after the war to protect France and the Low Countries from another German invasion. Early on Sunday morning, March 7, 1936 Hitler ordered his army to march into the Rhineland with secret instructions to turn tail if confronted by French forces. France did nothing. Four years later France would be conquered by armies launched from the Rhineland.

The West “punished” Hitler’s illegal re-militarization of the Rhineland by granting him greater prestige and respect than ever before. France’s Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum waved off the fatal blow to his country by saying, “We can’t achieve anything if we treat ideological barriers as insurmountable.” Britain’s War Minister, Lord Halifax, went to Berlin where he personally praised Hitler as “a bulwark against Bolshevism.”

Germany began massive military support to the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War almost the moment it begin in 1936. France talked about the need to help the Republicans fight back, but Britain pressured France to drop the idea since that would mean partnering with the Soviet Union. Spain’s Nationalists were to Germany what the Syria regime is to Iran now, and its opponents are to the West. Just as Iran and Lebanon send “volunteers” to fight for Assad, the Germans created and dispatched the “volunteer” Condor Legion together with the Luftwaffe to fight for Franco. Just as France and Britain offered only half-hearted support to the Republicans, the West dithers in its support or assistance to Assad’s opponents.

By the time Hitler’s forces marched into Austria in March 1938, the Allies had already used up all the censorious adjectives in previous resolutions condemning Hitler. After Austria, other than war, the only policy left for the allies was abject appeasement, which Britain embraced with particular enthusiasm.

Hitler’s next “peaceful” conquest would be his last. Czechoslovakia was by far the most advanced and prosperous of the new states born after World War I. It had a large, highly trained, and well armed military with huge domestic industrial capacity, not to mention natural defensive fortifications that made Czechoslovakia all but impossible to invade. But like Israel today, Czechoslovakia failed one key test for “collective security” purists: it was not “perfect.”

About a third of Czechoslovakia’s 15 million people were neither Czechs nor Slovak. Three million ethnic Germans lived in the Sudeten region bordering Germany. That these German speakers were far richer, not to mention freer, than their brethren across the border did not matter to the purists. What mattered was that they violated the gospel of “self-determination.”

Western elites of the age all agreed that World War I was caused in large part by the “multiculturalism” of Europe’s pre-war monarchies. Today, their descendants believe no less fervently that “multiculturalism” is the antidote to war– except of course for Israel, which is stigmatized for including among its enfranchised citizenry 1.5 million Arabs.

In the 95 years since it was first evoked, there has not been single case where “collective security” has defeated or even stopped the aggression of a major power. The Korean War and both Iraq wars were fought primarily by the United States, which lead alliances after itself deciding upon military action.

“Collective security” never worked in the past for the same reason it will never will work in the future; it presumes countries are moved to act by abstractions rather than national interest. As the Syria fiasco shows, countries are not equally committed to stopping each act of aggression, nor is every country ready to assume the same risks in confronting aggression.

Yet failure seems to have done nothing to lessen the left’s commitment to the theoretical principles of “collective security.” By more on process than on substance, “collective security” has turned aggression into the muddle of abstract legal theory. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “No foreign policy has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.”


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