That currently dot the landscape.
At first glance, historical comparisons to the times before World War One and World War Two seem far-fetched. Can we truly compare today’s signs to those of a century ago that led to the wholesale slaughter of millions of people?
Yes and no. We should not expect another war that comprehensive and destructive in scale—at least not anytime soon. American military power, though currently diminished, provides a ready deterrent to a conflict on that scale. To Hanson’s point, however, there is an abundance of data to support the conclusion that a smaller-scale—or a number of smaller-scale—conflicts are coming.
A lack of moral leadership and resolve breeds an element of a chaos and we see that element proliferating throughout the world. North Korea is firing off missiles with greater impunity and Iran is more willing to confront us on the high seas. The Russian shadow is spreading over its former satellites and Chinese imperialism in the South China Sea is continuing apace. ISIS still controls wide swaths of territory in the Middle East and continues to inflict deadly attacks on the West.
Decades of peace are often purchased at the expense of future decades. The utopian illusions of the ability of bankers to keep us out of wars presaged WWI. Political concessions to Hitler prior to WWII are now cited when explaining what it is we mean by “appeasement.” In the 1990s, we responded to the growing terrorist threat with vague rhetoric and half-hearted measures. The bill came due in the early 2000s.
It is not merely a lack of leadership that allows these threats to germinate and grow, but a lack of realism about human nature and world affairs. We assume that most foreign leaders would rather have peace than a growing sphere of influence, but we make this assumption because we think like Americans. Since Woodrow Wilson and the rise of Wilsonian idealism, we have eschewed explicit power grabs in the name of broad, internationalist ideals. Even in that age, however, our aims were thwarted at numerous points by nations (like France) that desired revenge, the recovery of territory, and repayment from a nation that was broke. Reality swamped our idealism.
It is not simply that many powers (virtually every non-democratic nation) do not subscribe to our ideals, but they also do not understand or respect them. When we offer a brutally-repressive Russian regime a “reset” button, they do not see a token of goodwill, but one of naiveté and weakness. They see an America more interested in preserving nominally-good relations than defending her interests and those of her allies. When we negotiate with terrorists and release several of their number to retrieve Bowe Bergdahl, they have greater incentive to capture more of our number. When we pay Iran to release Navy seamen that they took captive, we give them incentive to harass our ships. In all of these cases, the course these adversaries subsequently took should make perfect sense—if only we would take off our American blinders and presume that not all people think like we do.
This level of ignorance is perhaps a greater menace to our peace than fighting wars that perhaps are unnecessary. We should avoid war when possible, but we should take every measure to reassure our allies and constrain the malevolent ambitions of our enemies. Our enemies may not appreciate our tough stances, but it speaks their language and they will be bound to respect us more (and fear us, if necessary).
The tides of war are rising, stirred by a lack of leadership and carried on the waves of ignorance and blind idealism. We can try to put it off indefinitely, but, at some point, the bill will come due and we will have to pay for another decade of appeasement and equivocation.