A Hundred Years After World War One, Americans Have a Lot to Learn

A Hundred Years After World War One, Americans Have a Lot to Learn

On the centennial of World War One, perhaps the most urgent question is this: Could we fall into another such global war? Could we end up in another conflict such as the one, a century ago, that took 20 million lives? Essayist Roger Cohen, writing for TheAtlantic.com, has his glum answer: “Yes, It Could Happen Again.”

Hmm. If Cohen is correct about the risk, perhaps it would be useful for Americans to consider how much of that risk they themselves wish to bear.

As Cohen observes, it’s perfectly possible to look at current crises around the world and imagine a chain of circumstances in which another Great War breaks out. That is, mostly through miscalculation: In 1914, few of Europe’s leaders looked forward to a general conflict, and even if they did, they never dreamed that it would drag on for four years. The most bellicose of Europe’s leaders, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, foresaw a lightning victory over France in a matter of weeks, not an agonizing defeat that would lead to his own overthrow in 1918.

So if we’re looking for then-and-now parallels, we might start with the possibility that the fighting in Ukraine could spin into a broader conflict between Russia and the NATO alliance–of which the US, of course, is the leading member.

Or the tension over small Pacific islands–and potentially huge oil reserves–between China, on the one side, and Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam on the other side, which could erupt into genuine fighting. And once again, the US finds itself backstopping, by treaty, most of the anti-China powers.

Moreover, in that East Asian hot corner, we also have the additional variable of the crazy nuclear dictator in North Korea. 

Indeed, the example of Kim Jong Un reminds us that mostly rational leaders aren’t the only leaders we have in the world. Kim seems to be the type who could get into a war just for the fun of it. In that sense, he reminds us of Hitler.

Indeed, as we think about whether World War One can happen again, we should also be asking ourselves, could World War Two happen again? And the answer, of course, is yes. Hitler and the Nazis were unique in their evil, but plenty of other marauders and mayhem-wreakers were, and are, unique in their evil as well.

So if past is prologue in human events, we can assume that some new monster will come along soon enough. Only this time, he or it might possess nuclear weapons or other WMD. Who will it be? North Korea? Al Qaeda? ISIS? Iran? Or might it turn out that we have been overestimating the rationality of, say, Vladimir Putin? Place your bets.

In the meantime, Cohen’s piece provides some useful perspective. For example, if we ever get to wondering how it is that the US has been surprised by events, we might think back to the strategic thinking displayed by US leaders since the end of the Cold War. Cohen recalls that President Clinton told a press conference in Madrid in 1997 that great-power politics were a thing of the past. As Clinton put it, “I believe that enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more constructive ways.”

Four years later, of course, came 9-11. Not only did it become obvious to all that Osama Bin Laden was an implacable foe, but it also became apparent that countries such as Pakistan did not, uh, share our values. Indeed, Americans learned to their horror that across much of the Muslim world, Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Yasir Arafat, and other rogues enjoyed higher approval ratings than Uncle Sam and his policies.

Yet even so, the US charged ahead with policies aimed at bringing democracy to the region. As President George W. Bush said in his second inaugural address in 2005

By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well–a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

Come to think of it, that sort of heated language–yes, Bush really did use the words “untamed fire”–sounds more like someone who wishes to start wars than prevent them.

So it’s little wonder that US efforts at “nation-building” in Muslim lands–a policy that actually reaches back to George H.W. Bush’s 1992 intervention in Somalia, which culminated in “Black Hawk Down” under Clinton a year later–have proved so disappointing. To cite just one data point: the Washington Post recently quoted a US Army sergeant serving in Afghanistan, where Americans have fought for 13 years, who said of the county’s prospects in the face of the Taliban: “It’s going to fall a lot faster than Iraq did.” Those words are worth pausing over: Kabul, Afghanistan, as another Saigon, 1975.

As Cohen and many others have pointed out, World War One began with grotesque over-optimism. And as we can see today, there’s been plenty of over-optimism here in the US.

We might also note that wars begin when countries simply blunder. For example, it’s a blunder to worry more about climate change than actual enemies. And yet here in the US, we’ve seen some strange strategic assessments; back in February, Secretary of State John Kerry summoned the world to new exertions to prevent the dreaded threat of . . . climate change. As he put it, “Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Really? Are we really more afraid of greenhouse gases than Iranian nukes?

If that’s the sort of thinking that holds sway at the State Department, it’s no wonder that the crises of Ukraine, the Middle East, and East Asia have all taken Uncle Sam by surprise. If great wars can happen because great powers are overoptimistic and not very smart–well, perhaps we Americans should count ourselves lucky that we have, in fact, managed to avoid such a big conflict in recent decades. Yes, we’ve had small conflicts, and they haven’t gone very well, but at least they haven’t become big.

So what to do? How should we think about avoiding another World War? For all the thoughtfulness of Cohen’s analysis, his prescription isn’t too terribly helpful: “In this context, nothing is more dangerous than American weakness.”

Well, yes, weakness is never an asset, but the recent record shows that we need a few more pointers on how to use our strength. 

It’s a dangerous world, to be sure, and yet America can’t be isolationist; Pearl Harbor, alone, proves that point. We can’t hide from the world.

But we also have to be both stronger and smarter.

Today, China has a larger economy than the US. As queried here at Breitbart News back in March, can we really expect to be able to contain China if that country is bigger than we are? Is that how things work? And can we also expect to contain Russia, Iran, Al Qaeda–and the dreaded carbon dioxide molecule? Can we really pull off such a quintuple containment? Are the trendlines showing America as getting stronger? Or weaker? If the former, what should that tell us?

If we want to be strong, we either have to grow stronger as an economy–unleashing our hundreds of trillons of dollars worth of energy reserves would be one place to start–or else we have to get a lot smarter in our strategy. Or both. That couldn’t hurt.

Perhaps, most of all, we might come to grips with the world as it is. And that means recognizing that other peoples do not necessarily aspire to become Americans, or even if they do, they might not be fond of America as a country. The default mode, for much of the planet, is anti-American, not pro-American.

And that means that when Americans go some place, they might be greeted as liberators by some among the local population, but, by others, they will be greeted as conquerors. So we Americans must be careful about using our strength–what strength it is that we have left.

Indeed, as we search around for the appropriate mental prism through which to view the world, we might take a cue from the British intellectual Matthew Arnold, who, in his famous poem of 150 years ago, Dover Beach, counseled against over-optimism: 

For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Is Arnold’s poem too pessimistic? Too bleak? If the last century brought us not only World War One, but also World War Two, as well as myriad other horrors, then it’s hard to say that Arnold misread the condition of humanity.

Yes, there’s been plenty of good news, too, in the last century, but Dover Beach provides a realistic baseline. And that’s what we need: A sober apprehension of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Anything less than that is an open invitation to sleepwalk into yet another disaster.

The best “ism” for American foreign policy is realism.