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Which Lessons of History?

June 19, 2010

The experience or legacy of history shapes our view of the world as much as it does the world itself. In the case of the United States, it is often observed that America’s two oceans have insulated it from the sort of national tragedies which have beset most of our rivals. The notion of losing territory to a foreign power or any lasting defeat has been alien to American leaders and policymakers,* and so despite appeals by some to America’s historic restraint from overseas crusades or entangling alliances, the American way of strategy and war has embraced the straightforward, just war. Though realpolitk and duplicity have always been part of American policy, American leaders and publics seem uncomfortable with the idea of negotiating or allying with former enemies.

As Walter Russell Mead explains, American wars have generally been simple, at least in comparison to wars of similar intensity. He compares the Napoleonic Wars to America’s own great conflicts:

In some ways, the Napoleonic Wars seem very alien to us.  Americans are, mostly, used to short and simple wars.  Our three greatest military conflicts — the Civil War, World War One and World War Two — were relatively short.  The alignment of forces was relatively stable — few powers switched side.  After some initial setbacks, victory came relatively swiftly; we never suffered the shattering setbacks that drove the British out of Europe during the Napoleonic wars as coalition after coalition went down to defeat.  We have sometimes had a hard time envisioning the road to victory; we have had some grim moments, but in those wars at least we have never stared total military defeat in the face.

Also notable, I think, is the nature of victory – orderly, unconditional surrender, with the total compliance of the vanquished states. As Jeremy Black explains in a brilliant lecture, America’s major wars have had clear ends and clear endings. This is not always how wars work, even relatively “conventional” wars such as the Napoleonic wars. Mead goes on to exhort Americans to familiarize themselves with the Napoleonic wars and their strategic and diplomatic complexity. However imperfect the analogy to the geopolitics of the young century, this appears to be a better alternative than to continue relying on World War II and the Cold War for historical guidance. For while we can always learn from these events, it is too easy to draw on the self-affirming lessons, rather than the most relevant ones, from those triumphant struggles.

To the extent we appeal to the moral righteousness and ideological clarity of those periods in our strategies today, we hamstring our policies to a fading past. Grand moral aims might convince allies of a common mind, but it will do no good in the “kaleidoscopic politics,” as Mead terms them, of less orderly international systems, for common moral aims did not emerge without an overwhelmingly powerful enemy. Despite the attempts of American liberals and conservatives to resuscitate their respective worldviews from the mid-20th century, there is no common threat to provide the moral clarity and unity of purpose that strengthened American aims more than half a century ago. Terrorism, global warming, pandemics, poverty – these are big problems, but they are not existential threats to the free world. America has historically been reluctant to participate in sustained games of power politics – the enduring legacy of Washington’s farewell address. It arrives on the scene only after the wars have grown not just too enormous to ignore and the fighting has reached American shores. But we threaten to confuse the overwhelming force or moral crusading that marked the interventions after the fact for the statesmanship that would have precluded it. The World War II-Cold War order is receding, but re-embracing its founding principles will not save it. Geopolitics will restrain ideals, and systemic complexity will restrain hegemonic force; these lessons seem worth taking into the years ahead.

*Woodrow Wilson being the closest to an exception, though he had moved beyond his Confederate sympathies before becoming President.

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