Friday, February 21, 2014

WWI Lessons For Today

Beleaf it or don't - the events of a 100 years ago are like totally on it in the new millennium...


World War I reminds us that even amid the worst carnage imaginable there will likely be a victor and a loser, even if both sides would usually have been far better off negotiating rather than destroying their youth over sometimes solvable differences. That sophisticated Westerners deny this fact does not make it go away, much less convince their adversaries of the futility of ideas like victory and defeat.

We can still learn lots from World War I, if only in the sense of how to avoid disasters of this nature — especially given the present age of gathering war clouds not unlike those in 1914 and 1939.

China, like the Westernized Japan of the 1930s, wants influence and power commensurate with its economic clout, and perhaps believes its growing military can obtain both at the expense of its democratic neighbors without starting a wider war. North Korea is not convinced that demanding concessions from South Korea — or simply humiliating it and the U.S. — by threats of war would not work. Iran trusts that the age of the U.S. mare nostrum in the Mediterranean is over, that the Sunni Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms are spent, that once-unquestioned Western guarantees to Israel are now negotiable, that nuclear acquisition is an agreed wink-and-nod obtainable enterprise, and that terrorist appendages can achieve political objectives in the Middle East just as effectively as carrier groups.

Putin dreams that the Russian imperial world of the 1950s can live again, through coercion, Machiavellian diplomacy, and the combined lethargy of the EU and the U.S. — and he often is willing to take some risks to refashion current realities. Failed socialist and Communist states in Latin America nonetheless believe that a distracted or uninterested U.S. no longer cares to make the argument that transparent democratic capitalism is the region’s only hope for the future. The miseries of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are apparently no reason for them to feel that they should not extend them to other countries.

Amid all that, a minor bow and apology here, or an inadvertent pink line and empty deadline there, matters. Gratuitous talk of “reset” and “lead from behind,” coupled with serial scapegoating of past U.S. policies and presidents, massive new debt and vast cuts in defense, also sends a message to our rivals and enemies that occasional gambles and aggressive moves that would usually be seen as stupid and suicidal may not be any more.

We are reverting to our posture of 1938–40, when the United States talked very loudly of what it might do and what the Axis should not do, but had no intention of backing up such sanctimoniousness with force and was more likely to cut than augment its defenses.

War is the messy arbiter of peacetime false perceptions about relative power. Peace returns when all the nations involved have learned, after great agony, what they really could and could not do. Or as Thucydides sighed, war is “a harsh schoolmaster.”

Given that reality, the U.S. should start quieting down and stepping up, rather than stepping back while sounding off — before others come to believe that their own wild fantasies are reality, and the harsh schoolmaster of war intercedes to correct everyone’s shared false perceptions.

Pic - "German foreign policy was not well managed. And you can say the same thing today of China's foreign policy"