America’s Dangerous Aversion to Conflict

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by Robert Kagan,

from The Wall Street Journal,

The U.S. increasingly yearns to escape the harsh realities of war, but as recent events make clear, raw force remains a key element in international politics.

First it was the Europeans who sought an escape from the tragic realities of power that had bloodied their 20th century. At the end of the Cold War, they began to disarm themselves in the hopeful belief that arms and traditional measures of power no longer mattered. A new international system of laws and institutions would replace the old system of power; the world would model itself on the European Union—and if not, the U.S. would still be there to provide security the old-fashioned way.

But now, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is the U.S. that seems to be yearning for an escape from the burdens of power and a reprieve from the tragic realities of human existence.

Until recent events at least, a majority of Americans (and of the American political and intellectual classes) seem to have come close to concluding not only that war is horrible but also that it is ineffective in our modern, globalized world. “There is an evolving international order with new global norms making war and conquest increasingly rare,” wrote Fareed Zakaria of CNN, borrowing from Steven Pinker of Harvard, practically on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Islamic State’s march across Syria and Iraq. Best-selling histories of World War I teach that nations don’t willingly go to war but only “sleepwalk” into them due to tragic miscalculations or downright silliness.

For a quarter-century, Americans have been told that at the end of history lies boredom rather than great conflict, that nations with McDonald’s MCD +0.06% never fight one another, that economic interdependence and nuclear weapons make war among great powers unlikely if not impossible. Recently added to these nostrums has been the mantra of futility. “There is no military solution” is the constant refrain of Western statesmen regarding conflicts from Syria to Ukraine; indeed, military action only makes problems worse. Power itself isn’t even what it used to be, argued the columnist Moisés Naím in a widely praised recent book.

History has a way of answering such claims. The desire to escape from power is certainly not new; it has been the constant aspiration of Enlightenment liberalism for more than two centuries.

The impossibility of war was conventional wisdom in the years before World War I, and it became conventional wisdom again—at least in Britain and the U.S.—practically the day after the war ended. Then as now, Americans and Britons solipsistically believed that everyone shared their disillusionment with war. They imagined that because war was horrible and irrational, as the Great War had surely demonstrated, no sane people would choose it.

What happened next, as the peaceful 1920s descended into the violent and savage 1930s, may be instructive for our own time. Back then, the desire to avoid war—combined with the surety that no nation could rationally seek it—led logically and naturally to policies of appeasement.

The countries threatening aggression, after all, had grievances, as most countries almost always do.

So the liberal powers tried to reason with them, to understand and even accept their grievances and seek to assuage them, even if this meant sacrificing others—the Chinese and the Czechs, for instance—to their rule. It seemed a reasonable price, unfortunate though it might be, to avoid another catastrophic war. This was the realism of the 1930s.

Eventually, however, the liberal powers discovered that the grievances of the “have-not” powers went beyond what even the most generous and conflict-averse could satisfy. … it would require letting those powers become strong enough to dictate the terms of international order—for how else could they emerge from their unjust oppression?

By the time all this became unmistakably obvious to the liberal powers, by the time they realized that they were dealing with people who didn’t think as they did, by the time they grasped that nothing short of surrender would avoid conflict and that giving the aggressors even part of what they demanded—Manchuria, Indochina, Czechoslovakia—only strengthened them without satisfying them, it was too late to avoid precisely the world war that Britain, France, the U.S. and others had desperately tried to prevent.

President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, sent half a million American troops to fight thousands of miles away for no other reason than to thwart aggression and restore a desert kingdom that had been invaded by its tyrant neighbor. Kuwait enjoyed no security guarantee with the U.S.; the oil wells on its lands would have been equally available to the West if operated by Iraq; and the 30-year-old emirate ruled by the al-Sabah family had less claim to sovereign nationhood than Ukraine has today. Nevertheless, as Mr. Bush later recalled, “I wanted no appeasement.”

A little more than a decade later, however, the U.S. is a changed country. Because of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest sending even a few thousand troops to fight anywhere for any reason is almost unthinkable.

Americans believe their disillusionment with the use of force somehow means that force is no longer a factor in international affairs.

Today, as the U.S. seems to seek its escape from power, others are stepping forward, as if on cue, to demonstrate just how effective raw power really can be.

They still believe in the old-fashioned verities of hard power, at home and abroad. And if they are not met by a sufficient hard-power response, they will prove that, yes, there is such a thing as a military solution.

This lesson won’t be lost on others who wield increasing power in other parts of the world and who, like Vladimir Putin’s autocratic Russia and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fanatical Islamic State, have grievances of their own. In the 1930s, when things began to go bad, they went very bad very quickly. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 exposed the hollow shell that was the League of Nations—a lesson acted upon by Hitler and Mussolini in the four years that followed.

The wise men and women of our own time insist that this history is irrelevant. They tell us, when they are not announcing America’s irrevocable decline, that our adversaries are too weak to pose a real threat, even as they pile victory upon victory.

Let us hope that those who urge calm are right, but it is hard to avoid the impression that we have already had our 1931. As we head deeper into our version of the 1930s, we may be quite shocked, just as our forebears were, at how quickly things fall apart.

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