Robert Kagan: America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict


By the time all this became unmistakably obvious to the liberal powers, by the time they realized that they were dealing with people who didn't think as they did, by the time they grasped that nothing short of surrender would avoid conflict and that giving the aggressors even part of what they demanded—Manchuria, Indochina, Czechoslovakia—only strengthened them without satisfying them, it was too late to avoid precisely the world war that Britain, France, the U.S. and others had desperately tried to prevent.

This searing experience—not just World War II but also the failed effort to satisfy those who couldn't be satisfied—shaped U.S. policy in the postwar era. For the generations that shared this experience, it imposed a new and different sense of realism about the nature of humankind and the international system. Hopes for a new era of peace were tempered.

American leaders and the American public generally if regretfully accepted the inescapable and tragic reality of power. They adopted the posture of armed liberalism. They built unimaginably destructive weapons by the thousands. They deployed hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, in the heart of Europe and along the rim of East Asia, to serve as forward deterrents to aggression. They fought wars in distant and largely unknown lands, sometimes foolishly and sometimes ineffectively but always with the idea—almost certainly correct—that failure to act against aggressors would only invite further aggression.

Once again, they are people who never accepted the liberal world's definition of progress and modernity and who don't share its hierarchy of values. They are not driven primarily by economic considerations. They have never put their faith in the power of soft power, never believed that world opinion (no matter how outraged) could prevent successful conquest by a determined military. They are undeterred by their McDonald's. They still believe in the old-fashioned verities of hard power, at home and abroad. And if they are not met by a sufficient hard-power response, they will prove that, yes, there is such a thing as a military solution.

This lesson won't be lost on others who wield increasing power in other parts of the world and who, like Vladimir Putin's autocratic Russia and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's fanatical Islamic State, have grievances of their own. In the 1930s, when things began to go bad, they went very bad very quickly. Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 exposed the hollow shell that was the League of Nations—a lesson acted upon by Hitler and Mussolini in the four years that followed. Then Germany's military successes in Europe emboldened Japan to make its move in East Asia on the not unreasonable assumption that Britain and the U.S. would be too distracted and overstretched to respond. The successive assaults of the illiberal aggressors, and the successive failures of the liberal powers, thus led to a cascade of disasters.

The wise men and women of our own time insist that this history is irrelevant. They tell us, when they are not announcing America's irrevocable decline, that our adversaries are too weak to pose a real threat, even as they pile victory upon victory. Russia is a declining power, they argue. But then, Russia has been declining for 400 years. Can declining powers not wreak havoc? Does it help us to know that, in retrospect, Japan lacked the wealth and power to win the war it started in 1941?

Let us hope that those who urge calm are right, but it is hard to avoid the impression that we have already had our 1931. As we head deeper into our version of the 1930s, we may be quite shocked, just as our forebears were, at how quickly things fall apart.