It is no surprise to readers of our essays – that we’re a bit obsessed with history. And this is a good week to reflect, indeed, it is a good day to reflect on some of the lessons of history. One hundred years ago today Gavrilo Princip, a young, rather non-descript, Serbian nationalist fired a volley of six shots from his American designed, Belgium manufactured pistol and assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie as they began the first day of their goodwill journey to Sarajevo.
And before you could say, “Oh no, not again,” 16 million pathetic souls lie dead and another 20 million maimed. And given that the First World War set the stage for the Second World War, in which more than 60 million people were slaughtered, the shots Princip fired were, indirectly, responsible for the deaths of about 4.0% of the planet’s population.
Another 41 million people in about 70 countries have been killed in conflict since the end of the Second World War. Add civilian (non-combat) deaths to these statistics and the totals easily exceed 200 million deaths. So what is the take away for America from this most gruesome reality?
There are many who would simply say, stand down, and avoid getting involved in distant battles that do not directly threaten us. Iraq, many would say (and get no argument from us) was a war we didn’t need to fight. Many would say the same thing about Afghanistan.
Most Americans would, we believe, concur that America is left with little choice but to fight should we be directly attacked as in the Second World War, or as in the First World War when American shipping was the target of German U-Boats. It is the more ethereal or nebulous circumstance of our national interests being threatened that makes the decision to fight or to stand down more difficult. There are wars and regimes that simply bear no relationship to American interests. Certainly the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 caused not so much as a yawn in Washington.
One of the great 20th century thinkers and writers on the subject of national interests and foreign policy was Hans Morgenthau, an émigré from Nazi Germany who became a consultant to the US State Department and an advisor to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His thinking and advice was highly valued until he broke with the Kennedy-Johnson administrations over Vietnam.
Morgenthau was both direct and unambiguous. He expressed his views with eloquence and clarity, and his magnum opus, “Politics Among Nations,” is still considered by many to be the seminal work on foreign policy.
In his “Defense of National Interest” he wrote:
“Forget the sentimental notion that foreign policy is a struggle between virtue and vice, with virtue bound to win.
Forget the utopian notion that a brave new world without power politics will follow the unconditional surrender of wicked nations.
Forget the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world over in its own image.
Remember that the golden age of isolated normalcy is gone forever and that no effort, however great, and no action, however radical, will bring it back.
Remember that diplomacy without power is feeble, and power without diplomacy is destructive and blind.
Remember that no nation’s power is without limits, and hence that its policies must respect the power and interests of others.
Remember that the American people have shown throughout their history that they are able to face the truth and act upon it with courage and resourcefulness in war, with common sense and moral determination in peace.
And, above all, remember always that it is not only a political necessity, but also a moral duty for a nation to always follow in its dealings with other nations but one guiding star, one standard for thought, one rule for action: The National Interest.”
So where, precisely, do we draw the line in defining our national interest? Certainly, the two world wars into which we were drawn, the consequences of which we discussed earlier in this essay, would warrant little criticism. Our imperatives were quite clear-cut. Few would argue with our decision to confront the Soviet Union on the high seas during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What about the Berlin Crisis in 1961 when we came dangerously close to war with the Soviet Union? What about Truman’s drawing a line in the sand when we believed Stalin was eyeing Greece? Was our driving the Taliban from power in Afghanistan warranted following the attack on the World Trade Center in 2011?
The national interests debate that will rage for years to come, of course, involves the Bush Administration’s decision to attack Iraq. We ostensibly went into Iraq to find and destroy Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There were none, and the popular conceit is, therefore, simply that Bush lied and people died.
We, personally, are inclined to believe that the Bush Administration saw Saddam Hussein as a perpetual trouble maker who was an agent of instability in the Middle East and who would, sooner or later, drag us into yet another war in the region. While the Administration focused on Saddam’s presumed stockpile of (WMD) as the reason for invading Iraq, we suspect the Administration considered Saddam to be a renegade who had attacked Kuwait, and lobbed missiles indiscriminately at our ally Israel, which was not a belligerent in the Kuwait War, and we presumed there was a high degree of certainty that all of the considerable (WMD) arsenal that he had previously built up had not really been destroyed, all of which provided substantial justification for the war.
Our certainty that we would find WMD was, of course, an immense miscalculation and one that is certain to relegate the Bush Administration to one of history’s failed presidencies.
The goal of avoiding conflict, however, is not enhanced by appearing to run from it.
We are a war weary nation, and every instinct is to avoid every confrontation and every conflict like the plague. History, however, does not suggest that pronouncements or actions that seem to equate avoidance with policy will result in a less confrontational world. Quite the opposite. The stronger our defensive capability, the greater the likelihood that no nation will confront us militarily.
George Washington, in our view one of America’s greatest and most prescient Presidents articulated the best strategy for keeping the peace. He believed the only way to keep others from the temptation of war against us was by making sure that they know beforehand that America is ready for war. In his Fifth Annual Address to Congress, given in Philadelphia on December 3, 1793, Washington said:
“There is a rank due to the United States among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure the peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”
Washington’s advice on how best to keep the peace was: (1) we must be ready for war, and (2) just as important, the enemy must know we are ready.
World affairs, like nature, abhors a vacuum. We retreat from the world stage, or give the appearance of retreating from the world stage, at our own peril. For every step we appear to be taking back, an adversary will take a step forward. That is as it has always been, and, sadly, probably the way it will always be.
As Aldous Huxley wrote: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
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