The Age of Perpetual Conflict
by Gabriel Kolko
Posted February 3, 2007
Nearly all wars in the twentieth century have both surprised and disillusioned all leaders, whatever their nationality. Given the political, social, and human elements involved in every conflict, and the near certainty that these mercurial ingredients will interact to produce unanticipated consequences, leaders who calculate the outcome of wars as essentially predictable military events are invariably doomed to disappointment. The theory and the reality of warfare conflict immensely, for the results of wars can never be known in advance.
Blind men and women have been the motor of modern history and the source of endless misery and destruction. Aspiring leaders of great powers can neither understand nor admit the fact that their strategies are extremely dangerous because statecraft by its very nature always calculates the ability of a nation's military and economic resources to overcome whatever challenges it confronts. To reject such traditional reasoning, and to question the value of conventional wisdom and react to international crises realistically on the basis of past failures would make them unsuited to command. The result is that politicians succeed in terms of their personal careers, states make monumental errors, and people suffer. The great nations of Europe and Japan put such illusions into practice repeatedly before 1945.
At the beginning of the 21st century only the U.S. has the will to maintain a global foreign policy and to intervene everywhere it believes necessary. Today and in the near future, America will make the decisions that will lead to war or peace, and the fate of much of the world is largely in its hands. It thinks it possesses the arms and a spectrum of military strategies all predicated on a triumphant activist role for itself. It believes that its economy can afford interventionism, and that the American public will support whatever actions necessary to set the affairs of some country or region on the political path it deems essential. This grandiose ambition is bipartisan and, details notwithstanding, both parties have always shared a consensus on it.
The obsession with power and the conviction that armies can produce the political outcome a nation's leaders desire is by no means an exclusively American illusion. It is a notion that goes back many centuries and has produced the main wars of modern times. The rule of force has been with mankind a very long time, and the assumptions behind it have plagued its history for centuries. But unlike the leaders of most European nations or Japan, the United States' leaders have not gained insight from the calamities that have so seared modern history. Folly is scarcely an American monopoly, but resistance to learning when grave errors have been committed is almost proportionate to the resources available to repeat them. The Germans learned their lesson after two defeats, the Japanese after World War Two, and both nations found wars too exhausting and politically dangerous. America still believes that if firepower fails to master a situation the solution is to use it more precisely and much more of it. In this regard it is exceptional – past failures have not made it any wiser.
Wars are at least as likely today as any time over the past century. Of great importance is the end of Soviet hegemony in East Europe and Moscow's restraining influence elsewhere. But the proliferation of nuclear technology and other means of mass destruction have also made large parts of the world far more dangerous. Deadly local wars with conventional weapons in Africa, the Balkans, Middle East, and elsewhere have multiplied since the 1960s. Europe, especially Germany, and Japan are far stronger and more independent than at any time since 1945, and China's rapidly expanding economy has given it a vastly more important role in Asia. Ideologically, Communism's demise means that the simplified bipolarism that Washington used to explain the world ceased after 1990 to have any value. With it, the alliances created nominally to resist Communism have either been abolished or are a shadow of their original selves; they have no reason for existence. The crisis in NATO, essentially, reflects this diffusion of all forms of power and the diminution of American hegemony. Economically, the capitalist nations have resumed their rivalries, and these have become more intense with the growth of their economies and the decline in the dollar – which by 2004 was as weak as it has been in over 50 years. These states have a great deal in common ideologically, but concretely they are increasingly rivals. The virtual monopoly of nuclear weapons that existed about a quarter-century ago has ended with proliferation.
Whether it is called a "multipolar" world, to use President Jacques Chirac's expression in November 2004, in which Europe, China, India, and even eventually South America follow their own interests, or another definition, the direction is clear. There may or may not be "a fundamental restructuring of the global order," as the chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council presciently reflected in April 2003, but the conclusion was unavoidable "that we are facing a more fluid and complicated set of alignments than anything we have seen since the formation of the Atlantic alliance in 1949." Terrorism and the global economy have defied overwhelming American military power: "Our smart bombs aren't that smart."
All of the many factors considered – ranging from events in Africa and the Middle East and Afghanistan to the breakup of Yugoslavia – wars, whether civil or between states, remain the principal (but scarcely the only) challenge confronting humanity in the twenty-first century. Ecological disasters relentlessly affecting all dimensions of the environment are also insidious because of the unwillingness of the crucial nations – above all the United States – to adopt measures essential for reversing their damage. The challenges facing humanity have never been so complex and threatening, and the end of the Cold War, while one precondition of progress, is scarcely reason for complacency or optimism. The problems the world confronts far transcend the Communist-capitalist tensions, many of which were mainly symptoms of the far greater intellectual, political, and economic problems that plagued the world before 1917 – and still exist.
Whatever its original intention, America's interventions can lead to open-ended commitments in both duration and effort. They may last a short time, and usually do, but unforeseen events can cause the U.S. to spend far more resources than it originally anticipated, causing it in the name of its "credibility" or some other doctrine to get into situations which are disastrous and which in the end produce defeats and will leave America much worse off. Vietnam is the leading example of this but Iraq, however different in degree, is the same. Should it confront even some of the forty or more nations that now have terrorist networks then it will in one manner or another intervene everywhere, but especially in Africa and the Middle East. The consequences of such commitments will be unpredictable.
The U.S. has more determined and probably more numerous enemies today than at any time, and many of those who hate it are ready and able to inflict destruction on its shores. Its interventions often triumphed in the purely military sense, which is all the Pentagon worries about, but in all too many cases they have been political failures and eventually led to greater American military and political involvement. Its virtually instinctive activist mentality has caused it to get into situations where it often had no interests, much less durable solutions to a nation's problems, and thereby repeatedly creating disasters and enduring enmities. America has power without wisdom, and cannot, despite its repeated experiences, recognize the limits of its ultra-sophisticated military technology. The result has been folly, and hatred, which is a recipe for disasters. September 11 confirmed that, and war has come to its shores.
That the U.S. end its self-appointed global mission of regulating all problems, wherever, whenever, or however it wishes to do so, is an essential precondition of stemming, much less reversing, the accumulated deterioration of world affairs and wars. We should not ignore the countless ethical and other reasons it has no more right or capacity to do so than any state over the past century, whatever justifications they evoked. The problems, as the history of the past century shows, are much greater than America's role in the world; but at the present time its actions are decisive and whether there is war or peace will be decided far more often in Washington than any other place. Ultimately, there will not be peace in the world unless all nations relinquish war as an instrument of policy, not only because of ethical or moral reasoning but because wars have become deadlier and more destructive of social institutions. A precondition of peace is for nations not to attempt to impose their visions on others, adjudicate their differences, and never to assume that their need for the economic or strategic resources of another country warrants interference of any sort in its internal affairs.
But September 11 proved that after a half-century of interventions America has managed to be increasingly hated. It has failed abysmally to bring peace and security to the world. Its role as a rogue superpower and promiscuous, cynical interventionist has been spectacularly unsuccessful even on its own terms. It is squandering vast economic resources, and it has now endangered the physical security of Americans at home. To cease the damage the U.S. causes abroad is also to fulfill the responsibilities that America's politicians have to their own people. But there is not the slightest sign at this point that voters will call them to account, and neither the American population nor its political leaders are likely to agree to such far-reaching changes in foreign policy. The issues are far too grave to wait for American attitudes and its political process to be transformed. The world will be safer to the extent that the U.S.' alliances are dissolved and it is isolated, and that is happening for many reasons, ranging from the unilateralism, hubris, and preemptory style of the Bush Administration to the fact that with the demise of Communism the world's political alignments are changing dramatically.
Communism and fascism were both outcomes of the fatal errors in the international order and affairs of states that the First World War spawned. In part, the Soviet system's disintegration was the result of the fact it was the aberrant consequence of a destructive and abnormal war, but at least as important was its leaders' loss of confidence in socialism. But suicidal Muslims are, to a great extent, the outcome of a half-century of America's interference in the Middle East and Islamic world, which radicalized so many young men ready to die for a faith. Just as the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 created Bolsheviks, the U.S.' repeated grave errors, however different the context or times, have produced their own abnormal, negative reactions. The twenty-first century has begun very badly because of America's continued aggressive policies. These are far more dangerous than those of the preceding century. The destructive potential of weaponry has increased exponentially and many more people and nations have access to it. What would once have been considered relatively minor foreign policy problems now have potentially far greater consequences. It all augurs very badly. The world has reached the most dangerous point in recent, perhaps all of history. There are threats of war and instability unlike anything that prevailed when a Soviet-led bloc existed.
Even if the U.S. abstains from interference and tailors its actions to fit this troubled reality, there will be serious problems throughout much of the world. Internecine civil conflicts will continue, as well as wars between nations armed with an increasing variety of much more destructive weapons available from outside powers, of which the U.S. remains, by far, the most important. Many of these sources of conflicts have independent roots, but both principles and experiences justify America staying out of them and leaving the world alone. Both the American people and those involved directly will be far better off without foreign interference, whatever nation attempts it.
The leaders of the United States are not creating peace or security at home or stability abroad. The reverse is the case: its interventions have been counterproductive and its foreign policy is a disaster. Americans and those people who are the objects of successive administrations' efforts would be far better off if the U.S. did nothing, closed its bases overseas and withdrew its fleets everywhere, and allowed the rest of world to find its own way. Communism is dead, and Europe and Japan are powerful and both can and will take care of their own interests. The U.S. must adapt to these facts. But if it continues as it has over the past half-century, attempting to attain the vainglorious but irrational ambition to run the world, then there will be even deeper crises and it will inflict wars and turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people. And it will fail yet again, for all states that have gone to war over the past centuries have not achieved the objectives for which they sacrificed so much blood, passion, and resources. They have only produced endless misery and upheavals of every kind.
Gabriel Kolko is one of the leading historians of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written a well regarded history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book, After Socialism: Reconstructing Social & Political Thought, was published in September 2006.
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