A large war is looming absent preventive American vigilance.
The world is changing and becoming even more dangerous — in a way we’ve seen before.
In the decade before World War I, the near-hundred-year European peace that had followed the fall of Napoleon was taken for granted. Yet it abruptly imploded in 1914. Prior little wars in the Balkans had seemed to predict a much larger one on the horizon — and were ignored.
The exhausted Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were spent forces unable to control nationalist movements in their provinces. The British Empire was fading. Imperial Germany was rising. Czarist Russia was beset with revolutionary rebellion. As power shifted, decline for some nations seemed like opportunity for others.
The same was true in 1939. The tragedy of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 was not that it had been too harsh. In fact, it was far milder than the terms Germany had imposed on a defeated Russia in 1918 or the requirements it had planned for France in 1914.
Instead, Versailles combined the worst of both worlds: harsh language without any means of enforcement.
The subsequent appeasement of Britain and France, the isolationism of the United States, and the collaboration of the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany green-lighted Hitler’s aggression — and another world war.
We are entering a similarly dangerous interlude. Collapsing oil prices — a good thing for most of the world — will make troublemakers like oil-exporting Iran and Russia take even more risks.
Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State feel that conventional military power has no effect on their agendas. The West is seen as a tired culture of Black Friday shoppers and maxed-out credit-card holders.
NATO is underfunded and without strong American leadership. It can only hope that Vladimir Putin does not invade a NATO country such as Estonia, rather than prepare for the likelihood that he will, and soon.
The United States has slashed its defense budget to historic lows. It sends the message abroad that friendship with America brings few rewards while hostility toward the U.S. has even fewer consequences.
The bedrock American relationships with staunch allies such as Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, and Israel are fading. Instead, we court new belligerents that don’t like the United States, such as Turkey and Iran.
No one has any idea of how to convince a rising China that its turn toward military aggression will only end in disaster, in much the same fashion that a confident westernizing Imperial Japan overreached in World War II. Lecturing loudly and self-righteously while carrying a tiny stick did not work with Japanese warlords of the1930s. It won’t work with the Communist Chinese either.
Radical Islam is spreading in the same sort of way that postwar Communism once swamped post-colonial Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But this time there are only weak responses from the democratic, free-market West. Westerners despair over which is worse — theocratic Iran, the Islamic State, or Bashar Assad’s Syria — and seem paralyzed over where exactly the violence will spread next and when it will reach them.
There once was a time when the United States encouraged the Latin American transition to free-market constitutional government, away from right-wing dictatorships. Now, America seems uninterested in making a similar case that left-wing dictatorships are just as threatening to the idea of freedom and human rights.
In the late 1930s, it was pathetic that countries with strong militaries such as France and Britain appeased Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and allowed his far weaker Italian forces to do as they pleased by invading Ethiopia. Similarly, Iranian negotiators are attempting to dictate terms of a weak Iran to a strong United States in talks about Iran’s supposedly inherent right to produce weapons-grade uranium — a process that Iran had earlier bragged would lead to the production of a bomb.
The ancient ingredients of war are all on the horizon. An old postwar order crumbles amid American indifference. Hopes for true democracy in post-Soviet Russia, newly capitalist China, or ascendant Turkey long ago were dashed. Tribalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism are the norms in the Middle East as the nation-state disappears.
Under such conditions, history’s wars usually start when some opportunistic — but often relatively weaker — power does something unwise on the gamble that the perceived benefits outweigh the risks. That belligerence is only prevented when more powerful countries collectively make it clear to the aggressor that it would be suicidal to start a war that would end in the aggressor’s sure defeat.
What is scary in these unstable times is that a powerful United States either thinks that it is weak or believes that its past oversight of the postwar order was either wrong or too costly — or that after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, America is no longer a force for positive change.
A large war is looming, one that will be far more costly than the preventive vigilance that might have stopped it.
© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
26 thoughts on “War Clouds on the Horizon?”
Few people have the knowledge of history as does Prof. Hanson. Thanks for the warning sir !
jfk wrote a book called ” while Europe slept”‘ these days the usa seems to be suffering from the same malaise that affected Europe in the 1930’s. the usa is in grave danger and dear leader, a person whose educational credentials are suspect–that possibly these credentials were purchased by large middle eastern donors for the advanced degrees for a radical muslim being groomed to take over the presidency of the usa. a very lazy individual who seems to not understand constitutional law, accountin,’ economics or military strategy. he has become a dictator with his pen and his phone.. he is destroying American culture with open borders’ he is impoverishing the working middle class of the usa, he does not execute our laws nor uphold our sovereignty. when will the sleeping giant awaken?
Few people have the knowledge of history as does Prof. Hanson.
As usual your reservoir of historical knowledge coupled with your insights are invaluable. We can only hope that these ill winds change… Thanks.
While I lament the lack of increase in the defense budget, to say it has been cut to historic levels is a misstatement. A defense budget of $640-billion, larger than the next 8 countries combined is hardly a budget of historic slashes.
In government-speak, a “cut” is merely a cut in the rate of growth. The defense budget in real dollars has not been cut in two-decades, at least.
William C. Donohue
Very few other nations on this planet carry the burden for 25 or 30 other nations who are either too lazy to do anything to protect themselves, or don’t have the stomach for it. The US carries the water for many peoples and tongues and our glorious leader has had enough of that. In his mind, we are pathologically suited only for domination and war-mongering, and should be taken down a notch to cure our warlord tendencies. There are far too many in this country who have no understanding of history and agree with the disturbing summary that Obama makes of the US. Obama wants to make everything “fair,” without acknowledging or even knowing that “if you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.”
I’ve always found it curious where these number come from…I assume like the poverty and healthcare numbers, they come from countries reporting to the U.N. My question is if we know countries like Cuba falsify their healthcare numbers why would a country like Russia disclose their military spending. If I was Putin I would never tell the “allies” what my budget was to an organization that would largely use that information against me. Second, comparing our budget/expenses has no relation to military readiness. I attended the Sunbird Conference two weeks ago that Hanson was supposed to speak at, where an ex-pentagon defense official gave us current numbers, to the hour, of our available servicemen and ships in all branches year over year. Go check out those numbers and compare them overtime to previous years. When we say America has the strongest military in the world its a lie. I say no, if we fought America of last year we wold lose.
I am also a little uncomfortable with that complaint about the defense budget. Surely, the military assets of the US exceed the requirements for operation in two theaters – if they are used correctly? It seems to me that often, their hands are tied behind their backs by political considerations and the brainless, judgmental glare of international media. I suspect that a General Pershing or Bradley could achieve similar results with half the assets.
I am reminded of a quote in “Secrets of Japanese Strategy” by Fredrick J. Lovret:
“An army with ‘kokoro’ thinks only about destroying the enemy… With true professionals the [leader’s] task is to restrain them. He holds the troops back until the proper moment then releases them. Their kokoro does the rest”
Such thinking is a long way from worrying about Rules of Engagement, waiting for Taliban to shoot first and allowing religious buildings to be used as military command centers, etc.
An argument could even be made for cutting the budget further, but balancing it with a corresponding reduction in the restrictions placed on combat operations. Such a politically unpalatable act as the latter, could then then be sold to the electorate on economic grounds. It would also most probably, reduce the number of casualties and deaths, so would also have attractions for the military.
But, I’m dreaming again. I thought I was in the middle of the 20th century for a minute, and everything made sense.
Absolut right and absolut horrific. If Putins Russia invades Ukrainia, Estonia or even Poland – nobody in Germany will call to arms. They will call for more understanding of the Kremlin position. The social demokrats of the german government showed more or less openly strong support for Putin following their former chancellor, the now gasman of Gazprom. While the russian airforce crossed the european airspace risking accidents, instead of shooting down one of the jets, the Nato followed them doing nothing. Instead of sending large and fully equipped forces to Ukrainia, Brüssel activated a plan of a so called rapid response team.
And nobody expects any tough resistance against the islam in Europe. The last months have seen the recognition of another islamic state by Sweden, Spain, France and even GB: Palestine. But the only explicitly anti-islamic party in Germany – the Alternative for Germany – supports Putin. When the muslims killed thousands and thousands of christians in Syria and Iraq no protester here in Germany send any statement to Riad or Teheran.
Where is the christian western world? May be in eastern Europe. Perhaps in Japan. May be in the shadow of the medias dominated by left wing writers and intellectuals. At least here in Germany there is actually a silent but strong resistence especially with younger people. But first and for all the west today is the USA. Very often in the last months I thought about the possibilities to leave Berlin for some place in the USA. And I m sure, many Eurpeans thought the same in the thirties of the last century.
As morally and spiritually weak as the west is these days, evidence of this being western capitulation to the Islamic Fascists who murder Christian communities in the Middle East and Nigeria, there is still hope for the west and for Judaic-Christian civilization. The peoples of South America, whether they be mestizo or indigenous will fight to the last man (and woman) to defend their land, their religion and their civilization against the encroachment of radical Islam.
Prof. Hanson, this essay reads as though it were dictated to you by the spirit of Winston Churchill!
A couple of comments: “It sends the message abroad that friendship with America brings few rewards while hostility toward the U.S. has even fewer consequences.” Worse – attempted friendship with the US brings the certainty of being stabbed in the bad by the US, as both Canada and Egypt can testify.
As Geert Wilders has recently emphasized, Western Europe is rotted out by its large, young, and vigorous Muslim population. Even in the late `30s Britain and France did nothing about the rise of Nazi Germany – even as late as 1938 the Wehrmacht could probably have been defeated without a world war – but they did nothing, and are less likely to do anything now.
And then there is Hillary Clinton. While most of the problems with current US foreign policy rest on Barack Obama’s shoulders, she has done her own little bit to make things worse. In her memoirs, for example, she boasts of her actions and speeches on her 2009 trip to Russia – delineating pretty much what diplomacy ISN’T. When Charles de Gaulle did something similar during his trip to Canada we threw him out. Hillary isn’t weak, but she is a fool – as President she could easily blunder into a war.
it’s hard to see the upside of one of the regional power states making a land grab anywhere. Not even Russia, who’s thrust appears to be more puffery than actual results. On the other hand Europe and the EU states are ripe for permanent prostration and retreat even in the face of no real aggression so it’s likely that sabre rattling would result in something like massive trade or economic concessions to pretty much whomever wants them. It’s not as if there’s anyone in Europe with the capability to actually fend off any attack. And let’s be serious here, the British and French nuclear deterrent are paper tigers. Politically, they will never have the courage or the desperation to use it. Better to live on your knees, etc. As we see the Iranian arc of influence is nearly complete but at the cost of near permanent civil anarchy. If civil wars and all the other atrocities continue for another 20 years then so what? Just another place that looks like one of the obscure places in SE Asia like Burma or central Africa that’s been engaged in genocide for decades. If anything I think what we’ll see is not so much massive nation state warfare as something akin to a global collapse like the post Bronze Age Dark Ages. In a hundred years it’s just as likely that England resembles Somalia today than the other way around.
VDH is correct. For America’s sloth and lack of attention, a butcher’s bill has to be paid.
It just seems to be the case, that people tire of being vigilant. I can’t help but agree with Professor Hanson. It’s coming. And now some of the players will be armed with Western technology and nuclear weapons. I can’t understand how leaders in the US and in particular the one in the WHouse can ignore these danger signs, esp. with a despotic regime as Iran, and think that everything will be ok. It’s inexcusable. Great piece and very, very timely.
Good grief, I hope that this time Cassandra is listened to.
I have some vague feeling that if Putin was to swap desks with Obama for a month, world affairs would look quite agreeable next year.
Let me describe America’s position today in VDH’s words. America still is a positive force. The force for change award however goes to Russia.
Wolfgang, come on over. I would suggest out West but east of California. Try Utah, Nevada, Idaho, for example.
There is one preventive and only one—- Commander in chief Hillary, the old battle-ax.
My dream bumper sticker reads:
Ready for Hillary with
armor piercing .50!
History does tend to repeat itself, of course, Hillary says we should show our enemies a little empathy. I wonder how that will work out?
“The Gathering Storm” as Winston Churchill called it.
Where is the next Churchill?
Thanks, VDH, for another spot-on article.
Wise and scary Words from Monsieur Hanson;
A big conflagration is looming at the horizon and the west is turning his back against the dark Clouds of war .
Radical Islam is already writing on the wall with blood, with the help of Putin’s Russia and Chinese belligerence…both waiting to push forward their respective expansionist agenda. President Obama is doing nothing about the coming chaos as foretold in ancient prophesies..He is doing his part for the coming Anti Christ.
By asserting that we must understand our enemies, Hilary has just demonstrated that she is not the change we are looking for. Her comments are sure to be taken as weakness by adversaries, just as JFK’s appology to Kruschev for the Bay of Pigs signaled to Kruschev that the American president was weak. Kruschev moved to put nuclear weapons in Cuba, nearly igniting WWIII. JFK’s weakness nearly led to WWIII. Obama and Hilary’s weakness will not end well either.
Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, Asst. Sec of Treas. for Pres. Reagan, co-founder of Reaganomics, offered a competing point of view to “its the fault of the the other guy”… China…Russia.
Roberts illustrates our current neo-con driven, endless wars mentality is the fool’s game driven by western banking hegemony through a central banking system run by privitized interests.
According to Dr. Roberts, Putin could bring down the entire banking system quickly by simply stepping into gold commodity market and instead of playing the insider’s game of not demanding delivery of gold on contracts, simply start demanding delivery of gold on the contracts. Treasury sponsered naked shorts in the gold markets would either have to deliver or close the gold markets. To close the gold market would lead to a cascading disaster to western currencies.
Putin or proxies have not done this however. Why?
We should be asking ourselves why they have not crashed our currency markets and perhaps stop building the case, we must prepare to war with them.
Perhaps if we shifted privitized ownership of our Federal Reserve over to government controlled Federal Reserve we would find many of the world hot spots no longer hot and lay to rest the old adage once and for all: all wars are banker’s wars.
The point surely is that Putin is far from perfect. But we are not looking at a clear-cut case as we did with Nazi Germany. Cameron wanted to bomb Syria, at the time being unaware that they were fighting ISIS. Fortunately prevented by China and Russia (I don’t care about their reasons, fortunately he was opposed – othewise the Middle East could be awash with ISIS by now).
The EU has driven Putin into a corner. And oh dear, he hasn’t just folded up and dissolved.
And with terrorists travelling via Turkey, the States want Turkey to join the EU.
Not mentioned on western news but on Al-Jazeera – Israel has bombed Damascus.
There is the mess.