President Barack Obama likes to say that America and the world have progressed beyond the unpleasantness of the nineteenth century and, for that matter, much of the rest of human history. He could not be more wrong. And as a result, he is well on the way to repeating some of history’s most dangerous mistakes.
Few would think to compare Obama to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II. Nevertheless, Emperor Nicholas II, like President Obama, thought of himself as a man of peace. A dedicated arms controller, he often called for a rules-based international order and insisted that Russia wanted peace to focus on its domestic priorities. Of course, Obama’s philosophy of governance and world outlook differ profoundly from those of this long-dead autocrat. Yet there is one disturbing assumption they appear to share in foreign affairs: the idea that as long as you do not want a war, you can pursue daring policies without risking conflict or even war.
Consider Ukraine. In March, Obama said, “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” Nicholas II also declared that there would be no war between Russia and Japan on multiple occasions on the eve of their 1904–1905 conflict. How could there be a war if he did not want it, the czar said to his advisers, especially because he considered Japan far too small and weak to challenge the Russian Empire.