Back in the 1970s, my college history thesis was on British appeasement of Hitler in the period before the Second World War. At that time, the general outline of the facts of appeasement were known to anyone with a serious interest in European history or international relations. Chamberlain appeased Hitler, sacrificing allies and abandoning treaty commitments along the way, only to end up in the war with Germany he had tried so desperately to avoid, and having to fight from a position of disadvantage and not strength.
Back in the 1970s, most important political figures at the national level had served in the military in some capacity. While the agony of Vietnam cured policy-makers of reflexive military responses to any act of aggression, it did not end the basic understanding, familiar to anyone who had an unpleasant playground interaction in junior high, that plausible deterrence is a necessary component of keeping the peace.
Our political elites are a very different group today. Few individuals at the top ranks of politics, the press, universities, or major corporations have ever served in the military. As I’ve noted before, to an unprecedented degree the Obama administration consists almost entirely of members of the chattering classes, with few individuals who have ever had to make a payroll, construct a building, perform a medical procedure, or fire a weapon in anger. And the teaching of history has largely collapsed. I would not be surprised if neither Obama nor Kerry even recognized the name Anthony Eden, never mind Duff Cooper or Leo Amery.
As I’ve also noted, Obama is careless with words. He fashions his dialogue for immediate advantage, without appreciation for the long-term consequences of an empty promise or threat. Hence his lies about keeping your plan and doctor under Obamacare, and his red line over chemical weapons in Syria, both statements abandoned when they became inconvenient.
In 1938, Hitler commented to Mussolini about Chamberlain and Daladier, the leaders of Great Britain and France. “I saw them at Munich. They are little worms.” The German dictator judged the resolve of the two democracies by his observation of two individuals. A persuasive reading of history suggests that Hitler believed Britain and France would not actually fulfill their treaty obligations to Poland. In that sense, the war he ended up fighting and losing (thank God), was a war that took him by surprise. Churchill called it, “the unnecessary war.”
Putin has clearly made a similar judgment about Obama, whom he sees as lacking in essential courage, as someone whose words are without weight. Putin neither fears nor respects Obama either as man or President. It seems fair to say that his disdain for Obama is part and parcel of his lack of respect for the United States and its European allies.
Vladimir Putin is a man from another time. When the President observes that Putin is acting contrary to international norms, he is making a statement that is accurate, but not dispositive. If Putin can re-make the world to his advantage, because we lack the means and will to resist him, what cause has he to regret the passing of that more peaceful and polite world? One of the lessons of the failure of appeasement is that means and ends cannot be separated. A nation that violates international law to incorporate ethnic minorities is a nation that violates international law, and will do so again any time it perceives such violation to be in its interest.
Obama spent the early part of his time on the international stage apologizing for the United States’ past actions. To paraphrase, he told listeners, “Sorry about that whole Great Power thing. It won’t happen again.” Yet for the entire modern era, until very, very recently, a balance of Great Powers has been essential to preserving peace.
There was a brief period in the early 1990s when it appeared Russia would become a normal nation, a responsible member of the international community, a peaceful democracy and an ally of the West. Unfortunately, that period of international hope for Russia was coincident with a period of chaos and poverty for ordinary Russians. Putin stepped into the vacuum left by Yeltsin, restored order, and rode rising oil prices to a temporary recovery of Russia’s economic fortunes, in turn raising living standards.
For most of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was the center of a slave empire consisting of hundreds of millions of people. Putin calls the disassembly of Soviet tyranny a geopolitical disaster. Today, Putin’s Russia is a gangster state, run without regard for basic human rights. Putin kills journalists by the hundreds, murders opponents of his regime in foreign capitals, arms genocidal dictators.
The response of the President and the NATO allies has actually been encouraging over the last two weeks, but there remains a crucial series of unknowns. What are Putin’s intentions? How does he believe the West will act, given any specific provocation? How will the West act? At the intersection of these judgments, what are the risks of actual armed conflict?
It seems possible that we are entering a new era of geopolitical instability, the dimensions of which are difficult to predict. The costs of restoring a stable balance of power, based as it must be on credible deterrence, once that order has been violated, could be terribly high.