In the span of six months, the US formally admitted defeat to a band of medieval extremists, then allowed a Russian dictator to invade Europe. Both were met with uneasiness, but a nagging sense that there was very little the US could do to fundamentally change the situation.
To an American in 1991, this United States would be difficult to recognize. Then, we were the world leader, fresh off of victories in the Cold War and an exceptionally quick and successful war in the Persian Gulf. After decades of wrangling, the USSR was defeated and the Middle East could be molded into stability.
Now, the United States is a reluctant power; it remains economically and militarily mighty, but it’s lost its confidence. We are skeptical of our own potential to do good, and doubtful of our ability to determine world history.
Nothing in world affairs stays the same for long, and changing economic conditions, social values, and geopolitical realities have forced the US into an unfamiliar position. But this drift has caused something more important—a psychological revolution in what it means to be American and what we believe our country is capable of. The world order is shifting under our feet, and we’re helping it along.
From Hegemon to Reluctant Power
When the 21st century began, the US was undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world overseeing what promised to be a durable peace. Then came September 11th. Al Qaeda was to blame, the Taliban harbored them, and they threatened America.
On September 14, 2001, President Bush stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a first responder. He bellowed through a megaphone to the men and women digging corpses from the ruin that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” Cable networks played the video of the towers falling on an endless loop. Three weeks later we were bombing Afghanistan. Bush’s approval sat at 89 percent.
A zealous and overconfident nation marched into two wars in the Middle East. “We’re going to stand up an interim Iraqi government, hand power over to them, and get out of there in three to four months,” an official explained. What happened instead was a loss of American innocence.
Barely a year into the war in Iraq, photographs depicting torture at Abu Ghraib prison shocked Americans. Successive troop surges under the Bush and Obama administrations led to limited progress and more death. America’s ability to wage a just war became doubtful.
It was only 2005 when the New York Times ran its first piece describing the War on Terror as a “Forever War.” For the next sixteen years, it would haunt any discussion of the conflicts. The United States no longer waged wars to achieve goals, it bumbled into conflicts it would never get out of. While not entirely correct, there was some truth to it. The impression stuck.
When Barack Obama and John McCain were running against each other in 2008, both ran on campaigns to increase our troop presence in Afghanistan. But by 2016, Republicans and Democrats alike had disavowed the conflict. Our misadventures in the Middle East soured Americans on the idea that our military could successfully conduct war abroad and that we had any interest to do so in the first place. Americans became a people reluctant to go to use force abroad, and emboldened dictators took notice.
When War Becomes Taboo
History might not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. In this case, our experience mirrored that of Britain after the First World War.
Like the Americans after September 11th, the British on the eve of the First World War were a people riled up for conflict. What the soldiers found when they arrived was, from the 1916 war diary of the German painter Otto Dix, “Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, steel.” Millions of lives were lost contesting a wasteland along the trenches of the Western front.
After the bloodbath of the First World War, the British people struggled to understand the purpose of a war they supposedly won. War became taboo; diplomacy alone would be permitted.
In times of peace, dictators prepare for war. Democratic restraint is their opportunity, which they won’t hesitate to take advantage of in an attempt to remake the world order.
In the Far East in 1931, the Japanese invaded China, claiming the region of Manchuria as their own. The international community formed a committee through the League of Nations, decided that the Japanese actly improperly in invading, and reprimanded them. Since that reprimand carried no legitimate consequences, the Japanese were undeterred.
Echoing the sentiments of Russian apologists today, the right-wing Daily Mail published an editorial explaining that “Japan holds in Manchuria a position similar to that of England in Egypt.” It was not wrongly invading a sovereign country, but merely honoring “the prodigious sacrifices of the Japanese soldiers and seaman in the war of 1904-05” when they fought off a Russian invading force. Historical relationships with other regions justify invading foreign countries, apparently. Sound familiar?
As Japan secured its hold on Manchuria, Hitler consolidated power in Germany. When Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, the Daily Mail wrote, “Germany to-day speaks with a new voice… having regained full sovereignty over her own territory feels that she is addressing other nations on equal terms.” Perhaps Tucker Carlson, who said that Putin “just wants to keep his western borders secure,” was reading old newspapers.
Among the British political moderates, the fascists were an immediate concern best addressed with negotiations. When Hitler declared his intention to claim the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia, the democratic European powers scrambled to talk their way out of the crisis. Meeting with Hitler in Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and other European representatives decided to recognize Hitler’s claim to the territory. To a British public terrified of war, Chamberlain became a hero.
Of course, the agreement failed and after a decade of self-defeating diplomatic agreements, Churchill came to power as a wartime prime minister. Remembering the day, Churchill later wrote that “My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me… I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”
Churchill’s aversion to “cheering dreams” wasn’t an absence of hope or a desire for war, but a commitment to reality. While Chamberlain believed in the dream that Hitler and Germany would opt for a happy peace, Churchill believed in the cold, disheartening fact that Hitler could not be stopped with concessions. In Churchill’s account, appeasement was tantamount to delusion.
It’s a sad moment when you want nothing more than to be wrong, just as Churchill felt until he became prime minister and just as RDI Chairman Garry Kasparov feels now, having spent two decades warning that Putin wouldn’t stop threatening the Free World until it united to forcefully defend itself. When the Free World let Putin take control of Crimea in 2014, it proved that Europe was divisible. When the US was run out of Kabul, we signaled that we were no longer in a position to defend our interests abroad. We were naive in our attempts to placate a tyrant. Now, the international world order that led to an unprecedented stretch of peace and prosperity is in the midst of a bloody revision.
As Kasparov wrote last night, “There’s no going back in time, but I hope those who ignored, downplayed, and appeased Putin for so long feel some shame today. Enough at least to do everything possible to stop him now.” With war upon us, the fate of a democratic Ukraine and the lives of millions hanging in the balance, everything possible is the least we can do. Glory to Ukraine.