Wednesday, April 20, 2016

History Lessons

“Iran test-launched two ballistic missiles Wednesday emblazoned with the phrase ‘Israel must be wiped out’ in Hebrew, Iranian media reported, in a show of power by the Shiite nation as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Jerusalem.”
—Associated Press, March 9
In my previous post I worried that, as we get further removed by time from the horrors of World War II, we may be collectively forgetting the lessons of that war and other catatrosphic military conflicts. That, of naturally enough, prompts the question, so what are the lessons we were supposed to have learned?

And there’s the problem. We are human beings. And one of the things we human beings do is to put interpretations on history that reinforce things we already believe or things that we sincerely want to be true. So what about historians, that is, people who are trained to look at history with a degree of academic rigor? They certainly give us a fuller and more objective understanding of the past, but at the end of the day historians are also human beings and, let’s face it, lessons are ultimately subjective anyway. As the world evolves and major events like World War II recede further into the past, our perspective changes.

When I was studying political science as a graduate student back in the 1970s, the academic thinking was that the way to avoid major wars was to integrate societies as much as possible—economically, politically and personally. The idea was that the more economic interests or political responsibility or citizens on the ground that nations had in each other’s countries, the more they would see it as not in their own self-interest to attack or invade. An attempt at international integration was made after World War I with the ill-fated League of Nations, but the idea really took off after the Second World War with the founding of the United Nations and a multitude of private and government-sponsored international organizations. And maybe it worked—at least to the extent that we have not had World War III yet.

The notion of economic ties being a deterrent to war got refined to an interesting point in 1996 when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously posited that fast food franchising could be a barometer of potential international violence. He noted, “Countries with McDonald’s within their borders do not go to war with other countries with McDonald’s within their borders.” Regardless of one’s feelings about Big Macs as cuisine, there was something reassuring about this observation. On one level it gave one a warm, fuzzy feeling of a world united in love of burgers and fries. On another level it made sense because, if a country was economically modern and stable enough for a corporation like McD to take a risk on it, then it must be steady and reliable enough not to be a candidate for military misadventure.

The McDonald’s theory held for eleven and a half years after Friedman’s column. Then Russia’s incursion into the former Soviet republic of Georgia put the lie to it.

My immersion in German history during my visit to Berlin last month brought a more traditional view of world conflict to my mind. I was reminded that much of modern European history consisted of powers like France, Germany and Russia being paranoid about one another and sometimes taking preemptive action to gain strategic advantage. Ultimately that instability brought about the two world wars. How did that instability end? World War II ended with a new bipolar world dominated by the United States on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. Those countries’ military dominance discouraged any major threats to the new world order. Henceforth the only wars were smaller local ones, sometimes involving proxies of the superpowers. You might not care much for American and/or Russian hegemony, but it did make for a fairly stable world for quite a few years.

But what about now? The collapse of the Soviet Union has put Russia back into something like its traditional paranoid state. This has played out in its incursions into former Soviet republics as well as testing American weakness wherever it can find it. The American weakness narrative has been bolstered by U.S. military pullbacks and cutbacks. In the always volatile Middle East, the Obama administration has tilted from the Saudis and their allies toward the Iranians, shifting a longtime pillar of regional stability. A religiously motivated wildcard, Iran has been conceded recognition of its right to nuclear power in exchange for delaying the exercise of that right for a decade. Meanwhile, in response to economic dereliction on the part of western governments, nationalist populism is on the rise in both America and Europe—something not entirely unlike what preceded the two world wars.

If you’re a pessimist, this is all very worrying. If you are an optimist, you can just sit back and enjoy your burger and fries and take comfort in the belief that surely the world has become way too civilized for another widespread war.

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