I read an interesting article and comment that I wanted to share from the Wall Street Journal.
Democracies are averting their eyes from the threats we face.
After 9/11, historians and pundits rushed to give a new era a suitable name. My favorite was Norman Podhoretz’s, who called it “World War IV.” In doing so, he recast the Cold War as World War III while putting the attacks in a century-long context of the global struggle between democratic and totalitarian forces.
But the election of Barack Obama and the financial crisis have now ushered us into the post-post-9/11 world, and this era, too, needs a name. Let’s call it “the Locarno Restoration.”
Locarno, a picturesque Swiss town on the shores of Lake Maggiore, was the site of a series of treaties signed in 1925 between France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Belgium. They ostensibly guaranteed the post-World War I borders on Germany’s western frontier with France and Belgium, but agreed that Germany’s eastern frontiers could be subject to revision. They also paved the way for Germany’s membership in the League of Nations.
Though now mostly forgotten, the Locarno Treaties were, as Henry Kissinger once wrote, “greeted with exuberant relief as the dawning of a new world order.” For the rest of the 1920s, people spoke of “the spirit of Locarno,” which meant, in effect, that personal good will begat good political results, whatever the underlying facts. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain each won a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts — proving, if nothing else, that the Nobel committee was in the grip of fools long before the prize went to Jimmy Carter.
Of course Locarno failed. It failed in part because it implicitly acknowledged that Germany would not have to honor the terms (however invidious) of the Versailles Treaty, in part because it exposed the limits of how far Britain and France were willing to go to guarantee the peace in Europe, and in part because it betrayed smaller powers, particularly Poland, whose parliamentary democracy was soon overthrown in a coup d’état.
Above all, Locarno failed because it combined wishful thinking with political weakness in a way that was bound to be tested and exploited by the fascist powers. If the 1930s were, per W.H. Auden’s line, a “low, dishonest decade,” it was mainly because the 1920s were so high-mindedly self-deceived.
We are in a similar state today.
As in the 1920s, we have emerged (if only partially), from several years of war — scarcely anticipated, earnestly begun, bravely fought, often badly waged and, at least in the case of Iraq, ambiguously won. It was an emotionally exhausting war justified first on grounds of national survival, then for spreading democracy. The moral clarity and political unity that went with the war’s beginning collapsed into political division and disillusion.
From this there has emerged under the Obama administration a new kind of moral clarity. It is founded on conciliatory tendencies, a preference for multilateral solutions, a powerful desire to be on the right side of global public opinion, and an instinct for looking away from that which we’d rather not to see. This has put some political stress on our residual post-9/11 commitments, particularly in the case of Afghanistan, while creating an overwhelming aversion to possible confrontations, particularly against revanchist Russia and millenarian Iran.
The Locarno generation felt similarly about standing in the way of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s of Abyssinia and Germany’s of Czechoslovakia. In their case, as increasingly in ours, a weak foreign policy was a function of severe economic distress. But economic considerations were as often an alibi for inaction as they were a reason for it. Folklore aside, the German economy was in considerably worse shape than Britain’s for most of the ’30s. But while the British were timid, Hitler was willful.
Today, Russia and Iran are in a parlous economic state, but they are also keen to seek their advantage through calculated acts of provocation and aggression. They sense that the commitments the Bush administration made to the security of our allies aren’t ones the Obama administration is especially eager to honor. That goes for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic; for the independence of Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics; for the status of forces agreement with Iraq; perhaps also for the security of Israel if it opts for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
We know how this movie ends. So here’s a suggestion: If we’re going to squander trillions in “stimulus,” let’s spend more on defense. An F-22 assembly line adds just as much to employment as a few thousand more “green” workers, with the added bonus of deterring our enemies. That’s a lesson the democracies learned almost too late in the dismal post-Locarno years. Why make the same mistake twice?
Here is one of the first comments from that article.
Excellent article – and darkly prescient, unfortunately.
In response to Stephens’ question at the end of the piece: “Why make the same mistake twice?” – I wanted to share the following ten historical laws set forth by Professor Rufus Fears, a professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma (he’s probably the best speaker and storyteller I have ever heard – if you want to find out more about him, please look at http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/CourseDescLong2.aspx?cid=4360:
Ten Lessons of History
We may sometimes refer to the following 10 lessons of history as laws, but they are more like signposts to guide us in the right direction.
A. The first of these lessons is that WE DO NOT LEARN FROM HISTORY, and the consequences of this failure are tragic. This law explains why the same cycles of oppression and war – brief glimpses of freedom before a return to tyranny – have occurred throughout history.
B. The second law is that science, technology, the global economy, and the information superhighway do not make us immune to the lessons of history. We tend to believe that the lesssons of the past simply do not apply in our advaced age of instant communication, but people held the same misguided belief in 1914.
C. We also tend to believe, as a nation – and our foreign policy has been based on this belief – that freedom is a universal value, but this is simply not true.
1. In this course, we will distinguish among national freedom, that is, freedom from foreign control; political freedom, the freedom to elect officials and to make laws; and individual freedom to live as one chooses as long as others are not harmed.
2. We will see that freedom is not a universal value; if it were, perhaps so much of world hisotry would not be a recurring story of war, tyranny, and oppression.
D. The fourth law of history is that power – the desire to dominate others – is a universal value. We see this throughout history, from the very beginning of civilization, in individuals seeking to become absolute despots and in empires or superpowers expressing the national statement of this universal value.
E. Fifth, we will learn that the Middle East is the graveyard of empire. From the beginning of civilization, invaders have repeatedly come to the Middle East with good intentions, and repeatedly, these invaders have failed, frequently bringing down their own empires in the process.
F. The sixth lesson of history is that America shares the destiny of the great democracies, republics, and superpowers of the past. The Founders of our country understood that the Athenian democracy and the Roman Empire offered profound lessons for our democracy and our republic.
G. The seventh lesson is that religion and spirituality, along with a lust for power, are the most profound motivators in human history. It is difficult for Americans to understand societies, such as those in the Middle East, in which religion provides a comprehensive worldview.
H. The eighth lesson is the great nations rise and fall because of human decisions, not anonymous social or economic forces. This course asserts that history is made by great individuals, such as Winston Churchill, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, or the Founders of our country. Decisions made by such leaders can lead a nation to greatness or bring about its ruin.
I. A corollary to the eighth lesson is the idea that there is a dinstinction between a politician and a statesman. We will see that a true statesman has bedrock principles, a moral compass, the ability to build a consensus to achieve a vision, and the vision itself.
J. Finally, the last lesson is that America has charted a unique role in history, from its foundation in freedom and guided by science and technology, America may still be able to lead the world into a new age of peace and prosperity – if we are willing to learn from the past.
1. We live now in an ahistorical age. Althought we have a good deal of historical knowledge, we do not think historically.
2. We must learn to use history as the Founders did – to make decisions at a critical time
3. As a group, the Founders met the definition of true statesmen, establishing the country on a bedrock of principles, based on an absolute sense of moral values and with the vision of peace, prosperity, and security for citizens of the future.