Robert Kagan had an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago. Titled “Power Failure” it discussed the parallels between the aftermath of WW I and today. In it he talks about the feeling in the US and the UK after WWI that war itself had seemingly become impossible.
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.
That the US and Europe would pare back their military spending after a cataclysmic war is understandable. That the peace of the Roaring Twenties led them to believe that war was sufficiently passé it need no longer be prepared for is not. War has been a hallmark of human history since recorded time. Those few times when War seemed to be absent from large swaths of land it was often because peace was imposed at the tip of a sword, not because everyone just wanted to get along. While the Roman citizens who lived during Pax Romana enjoyed a relative peace, that peace was guaranteed by tens of thousands of soldiers dispersed throughout the Empire and along its borders.
The logical outcome of the winnowing of the American and British military muscle and resolve post WW I was of course WW II. From ignoring the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to allowing Hitler to rearm in 1935 to abandoning the Czechs in 1938, it became increasingly clear to the Axis powers that they could act with impunity. It was only a matter of time before such appeasements led to a second world at war. As Kagan points out, we see a similar pattern today. Weakness begets belligerency. And that is the key takeaway from his piece, and from history in general.
The post WW II period has been one of the most peaceful in human history, primarily because of American – and to a lesser extent NATO – military strength. While hotspots cropped up from time to time in places like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cuba and various other Latin American nations, there was a distinct absence of the world wide conflicts that highlighted the first half of the 20th century, and a dearth of wars between European states such as those that characterized much of the 18th and 19th centuries. A more recent example is the fact that after George Bush decided to go after the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, suddenly Muammar Gaddafi decided that he wanted to give up his terrorist ways. Conversely, as the west has appeased both Iran and North Korea, both nations have continued to develop nuclear weapons.
Osama Bin Laden may have been wrong on many things, but one thing he was right about was this: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse”. Today the strong horse is Vladimir Putin as he seeks to reassemble the Soviet empire. Today the strong horse is Communist China as it bullies its neighbors from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines and thumbs its nose at Britain as it ignores the democracy agreement it signed on Hong Kong. Today the strong horse is ISIS as it shows its enthusiasm for raining down terror across Mesopotamia and showcasing the murder of innocents of children, civilians and foreign journalists.
Sadly, with Barack Obama holding the reins, America is no longer seen as the Strong Horse. Domestically as his major military initiatives involve eliminating the ban on homosexuality, shifting military spending to social programs and saddling American troops with dangerous Rules of Engagement, Americans are left wondering if the military is supposed to be a fighting force or a social experiment masquerading as a traveling vaudeville act. Internationally, with Obama’s not so red red lines, his abandoning of various allies, his feckless leadership in the face of uprisings in Iran, Libya and Syria, his tepid response to Russian and Chinese aggression and his explicitly taking “boots on the ground” off of the table in his response to ISIS, America looks like a papier-mâché tiger.
Whether it’s the “Peace Dividend” that came after the collapse of the Soviet Union or the relative peace in post Surge Iraq, liberals are like the man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. They seek to bask in the glory of peace but denigrate how it was achieved in the first place. The Soviet Union did not collapse because Gorbachev was a nice guy who wanted to attend the then nascent Burning Man festival. It collapsed because it couldn’t compete with American military and economic might. Post Surge Iraq was not relatively peaceful because the insurgents suddenly decided to become BFFs with the Americans. It was because American troops went in and killed significant numbers of their fighters and leaders.
Today, after six years of Barack Obama’s leadership Americans may finally be waking up to the folly of the liberal notion that the world could be a peaceful place if America just stopped trying to impose its will on everyone else. The folly of that notion is twofold. The first is that while the United States – like most nations – does seek to influence events in various places around the world, the nation has rarely used its might to impose its will on other nations. Second, and more importantly, it misses the lesson to be had from Bin Laden’s quote. The world is not made up of leaders and people who seek to sit around holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Nations that believe in freedom, individual liberty and democratic government are greatly outnumbered by those where citizens enjoy none of those things. If the United States does not provide leadership in the world, make the case for freedom and individual liberty and make it clear that it will not only defend itself and its allies, but will stand up for others who share its values, who will?
Like a bully on the playground, if no one stands up to him he will continue to wreak havoc until recess becomes little more than a veritable “Lord of the Flies”. The United States cannot and should not try to be the policeman of the world. But if we do not make it perfectly clear that we will do whatever is necessary to defend our national interests and work to advance our values, then it won’t be a policeman the world has to worry about, but rather dictators who have little love for freedom of any kind and even less for individual life and liberty.