Great pow­ers are de­fined by their great wars

Even the most ra­tio­nal lead­ers are in­flu­enced by the power of col­lec­tive mem­ory

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL - By Stephen M. Walt

How to ex­plain — and, if pos­si­ble, pre­dict — a great power’s for­eign pol­icy is a peren­nial ques­tion for schol­ars of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Al­though a lot of schol­arly writ­ing in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions fo­cuses on the broader sys­tem of states (bipo­lar, mul­ti­po­lar, open, closed, norm-driven, ide­o­log­i­cally di­vided, etc.), we are also in­ter­ested in why Coun­try X tends to act in one way while Coun­try Y acts dif­fer­ently.

For re­al­ists, for ex­am­ple, a key dif­fer­ence is rel­a­tive power. Re­al­ists tend to see all great pow­ers as mostly alike, in the sense that all are con­strained by the ef­fects of an­ar­chy, and what makes one great power be­have dif­fer­ently from another is its power rel­a­tive to oth­ers. Ris­ing states tend to de­fine their in­ter­ests more ex­pan­sively as their power in­creases, and big shifts in the bal­ance of power typ­i­cally cre­ate win­dows of op­por­tu­nity and some­times in­crease in­cen­tives for pre­ven­tive war.

For oth­ers (in­clud­ing a few re­al­ists), ge­og­ra­phy is a key de­ter­mi­nant of a state’s for­eign pol­icy. One sees this ap­proach in John Mearsheimer’s dis­tinc­tion be­tween “off­shore bal­ancers” (Great Bri­tain, the United States) and land pow­ers (e.g., Ger­many or Rus­sia). Ge­og­ra­phy can also drive a na­tion’s de­sire for “de­fen­si­ble bor­ders” or spheres of in­flu­ence and af­fect the ease or dif­fi­culty of achiev­ing that goal.

Another ob­vi­ous way to ex­plain a na­tion’s for­eign pol­icy is by regime type. Demo­cratic peace the­ory posits that lib­eral democ­ra­cies act dif­fer­ently than au­thor­i­tar­ian states do, at least in the sense that they don’t fight each other. And there are lots of other the­o­ries link­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics to for­eign-pol­icy be­hav­ior, in­clud­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial sys­tems, the im­pact of in­ter­est groups or “se­lec­torates,” and the long-run­ning de­bate over whether dic­ta­tor­ships are more or less ag­gres­sive than their coun­ter­parts.

Lastly, we can also fo­cus on in­di­vid­ual lead­ers. It makes a dif­fer­ence when some­one like Napoleon Bon­a­parte or Adolf Hitler or Lee Kuan Yew or Mao Ze­dong takes over a coun­try, and some­times the ef­fects of a par­tic­u­lar leader can over­ride those other fac­tors. Speak­ing hy­po­thet­i­cally, if a great and pow­er­ful democ­racy were to elect an un­qual­i­fied, ig­no­rant, vain, and in­se­cure nar­cis­sist as its chief ex­ec­u­tive, we might ex­pect this de­ci­sion to have dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects on that coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy and in­ter­na­tional stand­ing. Not like some­thing like this could ever hap­pen, of course.

Th­ese are all valid ways of think­ing about for­eign pol­icy, but I want to fo­cus on yet another way to un­der­stand why states act as they do. It is a more his­tor­i­cal ap­proach and cen­ters on the im­pact of great wars. To give credit where it is due, my think­ing on this topic has been in­flu­enced by two re­cent works: Austin Long’s ex­cel­lent book The Soul of Armies and Ari­ane Ta­batabai and An­nie Tracy Sa­muel’s In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity ar­ti­cle, pub­lished this sum­mer, on “What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us About the Fu­ture of the Iran Nu­clear Deal.”

Each of th­ese works ar­gues that ma­jor wars have pow­er­ful and long-last­ing ef­fects on a na­tion’s sub­se­quent for­eign or mil­i­tary pol­icy. In Long’s case, he ar­gues that a coun­try’s first ma­jor war tends to shape how it thinks about mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion and doc­trine for decades af­ter­ward and that the lessons of that ini­tial war ex­pe­ri­ence end up be­ing trans­mit­ted and re­pro­duced through the en­tire mil­i­tary train­ing sys­tem. For their part, Ta­batabai and Sa­muel show how the Iran-Iraq War had a pro­found and en­dur­ing ef­fect on how Iran’s rul­ing elites per­ceive the out­side world and how they think about dif­fer­ent for­eign-pol­icy tools. In each case, a par­tic­u­lar war turns out to be a sem­i­nal event from which much sub­se­quent be­hav­ior fol­lows, in­de­pen­dent of the coun­try’s rel­a­tive power, regime type, or the char­ac­ter of par­tic­u­lar lead­ers.

When you think about it, th­ese in­sights make per­fect sense. Great wars are wrench­ing, costly, and fright­en­ing events that af­fect all of so­ci­ety; they are episodes where the fu­ture of the en­tire coun­try is on the line. Those who fight in th­ese wars are of­ten scarred by the ex­pe­ri­ence, and the lessons drawn from vic­tory or de­feat will be etched deeply into the na­tion’s col­lec­tive mem­ory. The ex­pe­ri­ence of past wars is cen­tral to most na­tional iden­ti­ties, and na­tional se­cu­rity re­mains one of the para­mount jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for hav­ing a strong state ap­pa­ra­tus. The nar­ra­tives that states con­struct about great wars help de­fine what it means to be a pa­triot, or a “good cit­i­zen,” and help set the bound­aries for po­lit­i­cal dis­course for years to come.

If you want to un­der­stand the for­eign pol­icy of a great power, there­fore (and prob­a­bly lesser pow­ers as well), a good place to start is to look at the great wars it has fought.

And for most of the ma­jor pow­ers, the last great war is still World War II. If one asks what this per­spec­tive to some con­tem­po­rary pow­ers, what might it re­veal?

Win­ston Churchill called World War I and II the “Thirty Years’ War of the 20th Cen­tury.” Not sur­pris­ingly, th­ese two con­flicts have shaped Bri­tain’s views on for­eign and mil­i­tary pol­icy ever since. As the in­ter­war writ­ings of B.H. Lid­dell Hart re­veal, the car­nage of World War I made the Bri­tish leery of a fu­ture “con­ti­nen­tal com­mit­ment” and en­cour­aged the pol­icy of ap­pease­ment. Af­ter World War II bankrupted the em­pire, Bri­tish lead­ers con­cluded that the key to fu­ture in­flu­ence was nur­tur­ing a “special re­la­tion­ship” with the Amer­i­can colos­sus. That les­son has re­mained pretty much in­tact to this day. Ge­og­ra­phy, rel­a­tive power, and ide­o­log­i­cal affini­ties no doubt play a role here, but th­ese two great wars are what drove that les­son home.

For Ger­many and Ja­pan, the im­pact of World War II was very dif­fer­ent but no less pro­found. The war ended dis­as­trously for both — Ger­many was split in two, and Ja­pan was fire­bombed and had two atomic bombs dropped on cities — and each learned that unchecked mil­i­tarism and/or fas­cism was a recipe for dis­as­ter. Not sur­pris­ingly, each has been among the most paci­fist coun­tries on the planet ever since, even in the face of chal­leng­ing se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ments. Even if th­ese ten­den­cies even­tu­ally fade (as they may now be do­ing in Ja­pan), it is clear that the his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of that great war had a ma­jor im­pact on both states’ for­eign and de­fense pol­icy for the past 70-plus years.

For Rus­sia, the “Great Pa­tri­otic War” was also an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter, ex­act­ing a price of more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple dead, along with thou­sands of ru­ined cities, towns, and vil­lages. Not sur­pris­ingly, the ex­pe­ri­ence strongly re­in­forced Rus­sian lead­ers’ sen­si­tiv­i­ties about bor­ders, their de­sire for a sphere of in­flu­ence in the “near-abroad,” their ten­dency to as­sume the worst about oth­ers’ in­ten­tions, and their will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice crea­ture com­forts for the sake of se­cu­rity. If you don’t un­der­stand what World War II was like for the Soviet Union, and how that ex­pe­ri­ence is still cen­tral to Rus­sia’s world­view to­day, you’ll miss a lot of what is driv­ing Moscow’s cur­rent be­hav­ior.

China’s sit­u­a­tion is more com­pli­cated in my view. I’d ar­gue that World War II is not the dom­i­nant his­tor­i­cal event shap­ing China’s be­hav­ior to­day. The bru­tal­ity of the war helps ex­plain China’s en­dur­ing sus­pi­cions of Ja­pan, but the more im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence is the two prior cen­turies of hu­mil­i­a­tion China suf­fered at the ends of the West and then Ja­pan. To­day, the be­lief that China has now re­gained its “right­ful” place among the ma­jor pow­ers is a pow­er­ful source of le­git­i­macy for China’s lead­er­ship and mo­ti­vat­ing force for its pop­u­la­tion.

And what about the United States? For Amer­i­cans, World War II is still the “good war,” a heroic episode that has in­formed and guided the na­tion’s think­ing about it­self and its role in the world since 1945. It taught sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans about the haz­ards of ap­pease­ment, the (al­leged) im­por­tance of cred­i­bil­ity, the dan­gers of iso­la­tion­ism, the value of al­lies, and the need for mil­i­tary supremacy. And be­cause Amer­i­cans con­vinced them­selves that they were pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for the Al­lied vic­tory (a view that con­ve­niently ig­nores the far greater role played by the Soviet Union in de­feat­ing Ger­many), the “lessons” of World War II re­in­forced the no­tion that Amer­ica was the “in­dis­pens­able” power that must lead every­where.

One could ar­gue that the Cold War had an equally pro­found im­pact — es­pe­cially in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Soviet col­lapse — but the ef­fects do not ap­pear to have been as last­ing. True, Amer­ica’s Cold War tri­umph ush­ered in a pe­riod of heady op­ti­mism and led Amer­i­cans to think that lib­eral democ­racy was the wave of the fu­ture just about every­where, but that naive vision crashed and burned in the sands of the Mid­dle East and the moun­tains of Afghanistan. None of Amer­ica’s Cold War con­flicts went es­pe­cially well, and one of them — Viet­nam — was a dis­as­ter. The Cold War was ul­ti­mately won not on a bat­tle­field but in the mar­ket­place

Speak­ing hy­po­thet­i­cally, if a great and pow­er­ful democ­racy were to elect an un­qual­i­fied, ig­no­rant, vain, and in­se­cure nar­cis­sist as its chief ex­ec­u­tive, we might ex­pect this de­ci­sion to have dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects on that coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy and in­ter­na­tional stand­ing.

and at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table, and there’s re­ally no great mar­tial les­son or mo­ment of Ge­orge Pat­ton-like panache in that long strug­gle. The West tri­umphed be­cause its eco­nomic model was su­pe­rior — which al­lowed its ci­ti­zens to amass suf­fi­cient power to pro­tect them­selves and live pretty well while do­ing so — and be­cause the United States was much bet­ter at re­cruit­ing wealthy and pow­er­ful al­lies than the Soviet Union was.

More­over, the lessons of Viet­nam — and es­pe­cially the fu­til­ity of na­tion-build­ing in poor and di­vided so­ci­eties that we do no un­der­stand — were for­got­ten with re­mark­able speed. Nor do I ex­pect Iraq or Afghanistan to ex­ert as pro­found an im­pact on Amer­i­can con­scious­ness, be­cause a rel­a­tively small per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans fought in those wars, those who did were mostly vol­un­teers, and the costs of the war will be borne by gen­er­a­tions who have yet to be born.

But one can­not help but won­der if the lessons of World War II are bound to fade as well. The “Great­est Gen­er­a­tion” is nearly gone, and watch­ing Pat­ton, Fury, Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan, or, god for­bid, In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds is no sub­sti­tute for liv­ing through the real thing. Memo­ri­als, books, and other cul­tural con­structs can keep th­ese nar­ra­tives alive for a long time, but they are al­ways vul­ner­a­ble to new events.

The dan­ger of war is ever present (even to­day), but per­haps some com­bi­na­tion of nu­clear de­ter­rence, eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence, good judg­ment, dumb luck, and care­ful diplo­macy will pre­vent another great-power war for another 70 years or so. If that is the case — and I hope it is — and if the long shadow of World War II even­tu­ally dis­si­pates, then it might be some other vast col­lec­tive event that shapes our per­cep­tions of dan­ger and our def­i­ni­tions of hero­ism, sac­ri­fice, and even iden­tity. If events like Hur­ri­cane Har­vey be­come the norm rather than the ex­cep­tion, maybe cop­ing with re­cur­ring nat­u­ral dis­as­ters will be­come how states and so­ci­eties de­fine them­selves and their heroes.

None of the above im­plies that rel­a­tive power, ge­og­ra­phy, regime type, or lead­er­ship is ir­rel­e­vant to un­der­stand­ing a state’s for­eign pol­icy. But the wise an­a­lyst will re­mem­ber that so­cial mem­o­ries of big col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences — like wars, de­pres­sions, plagues, rev­o­lu­tions, etc. — in­evitably have strong and lin­ger­ing ef­fects on how those other qual­i­ties op­er­ate. Or as William Faulkner fa­mously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Win­ston Churchill (L), Franklin D Roo­sevelt (C) and Joseph Stalin (R)

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