It’s been a red-letter week for commentators on geopolitics, with President Obama making two significant speeches on American power and foreign policy. Most of the attention has gone to his address to the graduates at West Point on Wednesday (full transcript here; additional commentary on the speech and its reception here, here, here, here, and here).
But Major Garrett picked up for National Journal on the less emphasized speech Obama gave Tuesday, announcing the troop plan for Afghanistan through 2015. And that little speech – indeed, just a short passage in it – merits more of our consideration than the mostly-boilerplate, left-wing-bumper-sticker speech the president delivered at West Point.
Garrett keys directly on the fateful words uttered by Obama, unerringly capturing the zeitgeist by setting them thus (emphasis added):
In a sun-splashed Rose Garden, warmer and more humid than that sun-splashed September morning of horror in September 2001, President Obama declared an end to the war in Afghanistan provoked by al-Qaida’s atrocities.
It had about as much fanfare as the science fair Obama celebrated hours earlier.
“I love this event.”
Obama said that about whiz kids and their science inventions in the East Room, not his decision to decide exactly how and when to end the nearly 13-year war in Afghanistan.
“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” the president said, restating a truism embedded within Pentagon planning at least since the Korean War. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century—not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility.”
Maybe. We do love our underwhelming to pieces, in this age of self-deprecating narcissism. But then again, maybe not.
“This is how wars end” is a dangerous thing to think or say at any time in a century, much less the beginning of it. As we near the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (August 1914), I am reminded of nothing so much as the pillars of complacency on which that “war to end all wars” was predicated. The certainties with which the European nations embarked on the war were remarkably similar to the ones our president has just invoked. What they centered on, in particular, was a self-satisfied idea that our civilization understood war and the direction it was headed. This mindset was a terribly costly mistake.
Necessary conditions, then and now
Several pervasive features of the international landscape are eerily similar today to the landscape of the early 1910s. I mention these particular features because they are the ones that engender complacency in us. We take the stability they bring for granted.
One is the existence of a global naval power with overwhelming superiority to all others. The United Kingdom was that power prior to World War I; America has been the naval superpower since 1945. The UK’s power was never as outsized as America’s in this regard, but it was greater at the time than the might of any premier naval power that came before it.
Although Great Britain was not a continental-size nation with a top-tier population, she held a vast colonial empire which made her the first true global “superpower.” The sun never set on the British flag, and there were few places on earth her rivals could go without running into her navy, her colonial staff, and – perhaps most importantly – her merchants and settlers. The phenomenon of “British empire” exerted a unifying and stabilizing effect on six continents – if not to the degree achieved by the Pax Americana’s alliance network, at least on a similar principle in the conditions of the time.
The second feature is the distance at which the last mass-scale war is disappearing in the rearview mirror. When 1914 rolled around, it had been a century since the Napoleonic Wars had racked Europe from one end to the other, transforming it forever. At the Congress of Vienna, in the years after Waterloo, Europe’s seasoned statesmen cobbled together a modus vivendi for the nations and city-states designed to prevent a recurrence of the Napoleonic upheavals. Over the ensuing century of revolution and unrest, the “spirit of Vienna” remained a compelling factor in European stability. The settlement at Vienna, like the settlement at the end of World War II, wrote the script for international stability – as regards both its primacy in policy and its literal geostrategic outlines – for the next several generations.
The third feature – and here is where Obama has entered such dangerous waters – is a settled, and shortsighted, concept of how war works. In 1914, Europeans were coming off of nearly a century of “limited” wars – as America, today, is coming off 70 years of them. What the living generations of Europe knew of war was colonial skirmishes; the odd revolution in Europe in which few if any borders changed, and princes were deposed in bureaucratic procedures; and wars with limited objectives to unify city-states and provinces (e.g., the wars of German and Italian unification), which were short and sharp, and designed to avoid drawing in outside powers.
Germany was the dominant power on the continent, and was seen as the supreme practitioner of effective, limited war. War planners in Europe were fascinated by the American Civil War, but in a macro sense, no one in Europe had fought on such continent-spanning, “total war” principles of operation since 1815. It was not a cavalier attitude about “total war” that suckered the Europeans into World War I; it was the assumption, based on recent history, that war could be kept limited with the application of the right strategy and policy – especially, perhaps, if Germany, the skillful warrior state, were one of the belligerents.
The thinkers of Europe were apt, in early 1914, to believe as Obama does that they could see “how wars end” in the 20th century. Complacency reigned in their various philosophical camps. Some, like the Englishman Norman Angell, believed that “war” – in the limited, bureaucratized guise to which he was accustomed – simply made no sense anymore.
It was an illusion – he called it The Great Illusion, in his popular, eponymous work of 1909 – to imagine that in the modern world, one nation could “conquer” another in any meaningful sense. Nations, he said, couldn’t literally destroy one another; it was economically impossible, and in any case, they would find it economically disadvantageous to themselves to do so.
Angell had in mind the counterpoint between the Napoleonic “total war” concept, which could not recur and which alone could produce conquest, and the “limited-war” concept exemplified by Germany’s dynamic duo, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the elder Count Helmut von Moltke, Bismarck’s great military leader. The “total war” could no longer erupt, and the “limited war” made less sense politically and economically with each passing decade. War as a tool of policy had become a great illusion, and ultimately, the Western nations would have to recognize that.
At the other extreme were policy-makers who were certain that war still had utility, and could be waged intelligently and aggressively, for limited objectives, according to well-tested plans and principles. That, after all, was what Bismarck and von Moltke had made their names doing. Students of World War I will remember the “Schlieffen Plan,” the plan by which Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany was to win the 1914 war on a tight time schedule.
The poignant element of this is not so much that German planners had a named plan – almost all great powers have started the wars of the last century with named plans on the shelf – as that everyone else, in London and Paris and the Low Countries and Vienna and Moscow, had plans too, and policy-makers started with a straightforward sense that the plans would be executed and would basically work. There was no pervasive sense in anyone’s mind, as the trains started moving the troops out in August 1914, that the continent was embarking on a dark and uncharted road whose end would in fact never be seen, and from which there would be no turning back.
We can see in hindsight that our forebears, in 1914, had no vision for what the emerging technology of war would do to their assumptions. Indirect fire and trench warfare turned the static battlefields of France into immense charnel houses, while submarines and torpedoes changed permanently the rules of blockade and naval superiority – and thus undid much of Britain’s and France’s natural advantage of geography. By the end of World War I, most of the 20th-century refinements to warfare had been introduced, from the airborne bomber to the armored tank and the aircraft carrier. Technology answered Norman Angell’s proposition – that total war was no longer a viable concept – with a knockout punch to the face.
But lack of vision about the possibilities of technology was the lesser problem of pre-Great War Europe, in my view. The greater problem, of thinking and attitude, was the one echoed by Obama on Tuesday: an invincible complacency about war’s definition, mode, scope, and place in policy. Obama shows no understanding of the fact that his characterization of war is only feasible under specific conditions: a superpower of overwhelming superiority; a general commitment to settled borders and to preventing the last “total war” from recurring; and a recognition that war is a function of policy – of what nations, factions, and peoples want – and is neither self-limiting nor subject to being limited in isolation from policy.
The president is not alone in this blinkered complacency. It is endemic throughout the West. There were observers in 1914 who could see past the complacency of that earlier time, but it was the complacency that ruled policy then, as it is complacency that rules policy today. We should take caution, looking back at 1914, from what happened next.