Much of the European world is lining up to oppose Russia’s war with Ukraine. Very quickly, support for Ukraine has also become an unquestioned article of faith in American politics. Patriotism now apparently also requires support for any degree of sanction, military aid, or other measure that the United States and NATO can take against Russia. Hope for peace, worries about unintended consequences, or a general aversion to getting into conflicts halfway around the world are now dissident beliefs.
Being a history buff, the intensity of Putin and Russia’s demonization strikes me as overwrought propaganda. The war is arguably unjust and disproportionate, and the Ukrainians are, at least at the moment, highly sympathetic, and their spirit of resistance is inspiring. But, by any historical standard, the scale, casualties, and degree of destruction from this war has been modest. Also, the causes of the war, including the Maidan revolution and the conduct of the war against the separatist Donbas, reveal less than exemplary displays of Ukraine’s democratic bona fides.
War: Dispute Resolution or Law Enforcement?
As Clausewitz taught us, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” And wars are something states do pretty regularly. There is a reason every nation has a military, and its use as an instrument of policy long predates Hitler and the Nazis, which seems to be the only history anyone knows.
Wars often arise from irreconcilable claims to the same piece of territory or mutually hostile beliefs about identity and history. The phrase “arbitration of arms” comes to mind, which exemplifies war’s function as a means of resolving serious disputes. It’s hard to take seriously characterizations of the Russia-Ukraine War as the actions of an irrational madman, unless one would classify all of the European Wars stretching back to the early modern era as such.
Americans and Europeans are accustomed to the current order, including multinational institutions like the U.N. and the European Union. These all suggest rationality, permanence, legality, and the use of diplomacy over warfare. Under this model, wars should be akin to law enforcement, with the United States and its allies deciding who the aggressors are. While it’s obvious why U.S. elites favor this approach, it’s also obvious why other nations view it as a serious threat to their own sovereignty and independence.
President George H. W. Bush sold this as the “New World Order” in response to Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. This expansive notion of national security later led to the “humanitarian war” in Kosovo and “expanding democracy” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
This self-appointment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as the global arbiters of foreign policy morality has also led to ludicrous results in some cases, as in America’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
NATO and the New World Order
Far from a mere defensive alliance, in recent years NATO served to augment America’s “sole superpower” status by reducing the need for Western Europe to arm itself, as they benefited from America’s large conventional and nuclear arsenal. NATO was also the platform used to wage offensive wars in Kosovo and Libya, after the U.N. demurred.
NATO wouldn’t agree with this characterization of its actions; for NATO, these were wars of liberation aimed at vindicating important, objective interests of the “international community.” We are supposed to forget here that every combatant in every war from time immemorial believes he is on the side of angels.
The Russia-Ukraine war is rapidly beginning to pollute our domestic life. Like “freedom fries” and other Manichean rhetoric on the eve of the Iraq War, no one is allowed to be neutral. The United States and NATO are demanding that every nation line up against Russia, and they are demanding their citizens adopt similar unanimity, even under threat of imprisonment.
Because an alliance-centered approach to war threatens to escalate the Russia-Ukraine conflict into a world war, we should look to history to find alternate approaches, not merely the overused example of appeasement at Munich in 1938.
Consider, as two alternative outcomes, the two wars in which France and Germany fought one another: in 1870 and 1914.
Two Types of Wars
In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, after years of tension between France and its rising, militarist neighbor, Germany defeated France in a swift campaign. Even though France declared war and mobilized its forces first, France’s armies in the field were poorly led and were either quickly defeated or surrendered en masse. When the war was over, the French Second Empire had been replaced by a republic, and France endured a brief and brutal internal conflict over the Paris Commune. Ultimately, France agreed to pay massive reparations and give up most of the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. This created a seething irredentism among the French, particularly its army, which vowed to reconquer the lost territories.
The only combatants in that war were France and the confederated states of Germany, acting under Prussian leadership. England, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and the rest of Europe stayed out of it. It was a bilateral squabble over disputed borderlands, fueled by the inherent tension between a rising Germany and a more mature, not-quite-modernizing France.
Like any war, there were competing arguments about who was at fault, civilians and soldiers suffered, and it imposed a significant cost on the French. But this did not lead European powers to declare either France or Germany the evil aggressor, whose transgression mandated a unified response from every neighboring nation.
There are degrees of evil and degrees of necessity. The Franco-Prussian War did not turn into a continent-wide conflagration like the earlier Napoleonic Wars or the Thirty Years War because all of the other major powers remained neutral. Generally, the century following the Napoleonic Wars has been correctly described as a time of industrial development, nationalism, modernization, competition, but, above all, a time of peace.
In contrast, World War I also involved France and Germany, but, unlike the Franco-Prussian War, it drew in the rest of Europe and eventually the United States. The inherently massive empires were augmented by hair-trigger alliances—France with Russia, Germany with the Austrians, the Ottoman Empire with Germany, and England with France.
In combination, these alliances allowed a relatively small spark in the Balkans, directly implicating only Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to metastasize into a conflict that became a true world war, costing millions of lives. The Concert of Europe system that allowed firewalls around conflicts had devolved into one where nothing—not even a limited punitive war following a terrorist assassination of the heir to the throne—could be left solely to the belligerents.
Alliances and Security
Today’s structures have more in common with the conditions immediately preceding World War I than the earlier balance of powers regime. Defenders say that multilateralism and alliances secure peace by offering small countries, otherwise easily bullied by powerful neighbors, protection by an alliance structure that renders them powerful when joined together—NATO being the prime example of such an alliance system with teeth.
Of course, this also makes such an alliance particularly threatening to those outside the club. Alliances guarantee that any war involving any members of the alliance will assume a much larger scale than if each were left to its own devices. More important, as we see now in Ukraine, attempts to expand an alliance can be interpreted as mortal threats by opposing states.
In other words, it is not clear that alliances, including NATO, serve the cause of world peace. The bilateral NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances of the Cold War are usually touted as the preeminent example, but there is an important confounding factor in this precedent: During the Cold War, both sides had large nuclear powers on each side, and these nuclear powers have assiduously avoided direct conflict since that weapon’s development.
In the current conflict in Ukraine, if NATO were to get involved directly, it would pit the United States and other nuclear powers like France and Great Britain against a nuclear-armed Russia. Such a conflict would further join China and Russia together, as each views the United States as a hostile power. Needless to say, coupled with Putin’s obvious appetite for risk, this radically increases the danger of a global nuclear war, even though no one directly intends that outcome.
As with domestic policy, mere good intentions are not enough in foreign policy. A statesman is also accountable for the foreseeable consequences of his policies. A poorly considered policy that ignores obvious and predictable risks—an insurgency in Iraq, mass refugee flows following the removal of Gaddafi in Libya, nuclear war risk arising from a conventional conflict with Russia—cannot be redeemed by purity of intention, even if such purity were extant.
One important feature of the Concert of Europe era missing today was a hard-headed appraisal of interests, widespread understanding of the balance of power, and a mutual commitment to prevent small wars from becoming larger ones. Even during the Cold War, policymakers and the public had comparatively more sophistication and awareness that a nuclear war was a risk of such magnitude that direct confrontations between the Soviet Union and NATO had to be avoided, even after acts of Soviet aggression in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
We now live in a world where our leaders invent cartoonish villains and talk in sentence fragments that don’t even qualify as “sound bites.” People of goodwill should instead be thinking about a means to let Russia and Ukraine both save face, end the war, and reach an agreement that accommodates each side’s core interests: Ukraine’s insistence on its independence and sovereignty and Russia’s entirely predictable fears of an encroaching NATO alliance and concern for ethnic Russians in its near-abroad.