Our Own Hundred Years’ War

Thursday, October 30, 2003

From the fall of the Berlin Wall until the September 11 attacks, Americans believed they were living in a largely post-conflict world—the “end of history” as Francis Fukuyama titled his famous 1992 book. Humanity was embracing an enduring state of liberal democratic happiness, a world entirely broken from the bloody past. Since the September 11 attacks, a shadow of doom has run across this new-age portrait, but the belief that we are in an entirely new age remains.

Yet, viewed with a little more attention to history and less to the euphoria and hysteria of the moment, this “new world” appears hardly new at all. Instead the major conflicts of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries appear to be chapters of a single story, of a single epochal struggle: a new hundred years' war that is almost finished and will shape human institutions for centuries to come.

Fallen Empires

Dean Acheson titled his memoirs Present at the Creation, the creation being the years immediately following the Second World War when many of our current international institutions were founded. Yet while the late 1940s and early 1950s proved formative in many ways, these years were not the big bang of the modern moment. To find the death of an old international universe and the violent, consuming birth of a new star of history that still blinds us with its light and challenges our comprehension, we must reach back farther.

Writing in the early 1950s, the celebrated British historian A.J.P. Taylor termed the period 1848?918 “the last age when Europe was the center of the world.” In that time, the European balance of power served as a kind of unwritten international constitution. It defined the manner in which major countries related to one another. As Taylor noted, with the end of the First World War: “Not only had men ceased to believe in the Balance of Power. It had, in any case, ceased to exist.”

The First World War led to the shattering of three imperial systems, and it is not too much to say that the world is still struggling with their demise and that of the international system of which they were so integral a part.

The three imperial systems were the uneasy German imperial brotherhood of Prussia-dominated Germany and Vienna-centered Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. From this perspective, the three major post-war struggles have been part of a single struggle about the character of the successor regimes and whether they or the democracies that prevailed in World War I—particularly the United States and Britain—would establish the norms of the international system that would eventually emerge. In World War II we dealt with Nazi Germany, the successor to the Germanic empires. In the Cold War, we dealt with the Soviet Union, the successor to the tsarist Russian Empire. Now we are grappling with those who followed the Ottomans.

In each conflict, our adversaries on the European end of Eurasia have found counterparts, at least for a time, on the Pacific end: Japan for the Germans, China (until Richard Nixon's opening) for the Russians, and now North Korea for our Middle Eastern opponents. But in each case, including the current North Korean challenge, the center of danger has been the successors to the toppled World War I-era imperial orders.

So what we see in the Second World War, the Cold War, and the current Middle Eastern conflict is not three distinct conflicts but a single hundred years' war of a piece with World War I. The opening phase left three major political systems in ruins, all to be replaced with monster regimes led by gangster cliques that used terror, persecution of minorities, and the promise of glory through expansion to substitute for the legitimacy they entirely lacked.

This is not to say that these regimes have been identical. Far from it. Indeed the success of the democracies in defeating the Nazis and the Soviets came from their ability to adjust strategy and tactics to meet these challengers in precisely the arenas the challengers regarded as their greatest areas of strength. It is worth looking at those strategic adjustments to draw lessons for winning the current phase of this new hundred years' war.

Defeating Fascism and Communism

Hitler's Germans regarded Prussian military prowess and Bavarian-Rhineland industrial efficiency as their greatest sources of strategic strength. Their conquest of France and their initial assault on Russia featured mechanized speed and terrifying air strikes almost entirely new to warfare. Yet the Allied armies that came ashore at Normandy five years later were vastly more mechanized and received vastly greater air support. The United States and Britain also helped ensure that their Red Army ally was heavily mechanized.

In the Cold War, the Soviets claimed not just greater military and economic strength but superior ideological appeal. It is now said that the policy of containment brought down the Soviet Union, but as of the late 1970s containment was not working. The Soviets had evolved an endgame strategy that would have left them in effective control of the entirety of Europe and left the United States isolated and embattled—all but impotent.

The Soviets had begun pouring resources into insurgencies at the mouth of the Red Sea and in the lower quarter of Africa—chokepoints in Western Europe's access to supertanker-delivered Middle Eastern oil. Soviet-sponsored “peace” movements had intimidated President Jimmy Carter into canceling NATO deployment of the neutron bomb. They would soon attempt to stop President Reagan's plans to base Pershing missiles in Europe in response to Soviet SS-20 deployments. Soviet-sponsored insurgencies were under way in Central America, and, if successful, destabilization of southern Mexico was a likely next target.

Unstopped, by the year 2000 these Soviet initiatives would likely have produced (1) a Soviet chokehold on Western Europe's economy; (2) an effective Soviet veto over NATO weapons deployments; (3) collapsed credibility for the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Europe as Europeans saw that the Warsaw Pact could hit European targets from non-Soviet Eastern Europe while the United States would have to respond from its mainland, escalating a regional nuclear exchange into an unacceptable global one; and (4) pressure on the U.S. southern border that, as instability in Mexico increased, would compromise the ability of the United States to maintain a troop presence in Europe. By 1981, the Soviets were rushing toward what some characterized as the “Finlandization” of Western Europe, meaning not outright occupation but hegemony in the manner of Soviet hegemony over Finland. Instead, on Christmas Day one decade later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, America and its allies moved from a passive and failing policy of containment to matching and besting the Soviet Union in all the areas where it claimed superiority.

Putting economic stress on the Soviet systemeading it, in Reagan's word, to “implode”—was central to the strategy. Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer has found that the concept of linking a military buildup with the goal of bankrupting the Soviet Union appeared in Reagan's statements reaching back several decades before his presidency.

Other elements of the strategy were military modernization and political persuasion, including public information campaigns making the Soviets accountable for their actions at home. As military historian Norman Friedman has said of the administration's thinking: “A Soviet regime that had to recognize the rights of its citizens would be accountable and could not be aggressive. Thus human rights in the Soviet Union—irreversible domestic liberalization—became the central policy goal.”

Reagan and his associates stopped the Soviet encirclement strategy, meeting Soviet-sponsored insurgencies with counterinsurgencies, including arming the Afghan mujahideen to stop the Soviet military itself. They went forward with Pershing deployment. They made the case for freedom's superiority to communism more insistently than any other Cold War administration, not only in the president's own statements—beginning with his first press conference—but also through Radio Free Europe and every vehicle of communication at their disposal. Russian and Eastern European dissidents of the period have spoken since of how much these words heartened them and helped them persevere, in the process driving up the cost and complexity of holding together the Soviet empire.

According to Hoover's Schweizer—who studied Moscow's own numbers in data now available to researchers—the list of U.S.-induced Soviet costs included blocking a second strand on the Russia-to-Europe natural gas pipeline ($7-8 billion a year), operations against U.S.-backed guerrillas ($8 billion a year), extra arms to Cuba after the U.S. operation in Grenada ($1 billion), matching the U.S. arms buildup ($10?5 billion a year), costs associated with technology import restrictions ($1? billion a year), lost revenues from oil price declines that were in part the product of U.S. diplomacy ($5-6 billion a year), and extra aid to Poland following U.S. sanctions ($1 billion).

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has written that Reagan's missile defense plans, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), tipped the balance. Its promise to make the Soviet Union's massive post—Cuban Missile Crisis investment in a first-strike capacity obsolete crushed the will of the USSR's leadership. But military historian Friedman suggests that SDI was just the most spectacular manifestation of a broader revolution in military affairs driven by application of the microchip to both weaponry and operations. The Soviets understood, he maintains, that this information revolution threatened to make their entire military establishment obsolete, and their political and economic systems left them incapable of matching it. John Lehman, Reagan's secretary of the navy, has told of intimidation tactics, such as the decision to find and photograph the wreck of the Titanic, to demonstrate to the Soviets the gulf between U.S. undersea capabilities and theirs.

The payoff started coming in earnest in 1989, the first year of the Bush presidency. In the months preceding the opening of the German border and in the two years that followed, the brilliant diplomacy of President Bush, pursued in some cases to the catcalls of the U.S. media, created an international environment that opened the way for peaceful German reunification within the Western sphere and allowed the Soviet Union to fall of its own weight.

Just as had been the case with the Nazi phase of the hundred years?war, so it was with the Communist phase: The West, particularly the United States and Britain, met the opposition on ground of the opposition's choosing and won.

Now, however unwillingly, we find ourselves in the final phase of this long struggle.

The Last Battle

Surveying the Middle East during the mid-1990s, Bernard Lewis, America's leading scholar of the region, wrote that the Western influence on the region's culture and politics is far greater than most Westerners imagine. The socialism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, pan-Arab prophet and Egyptian nationalist strongman of the 1950s and 1960s, was a Western transplant, as is the heroic concept of revolution (whether Marxist, Baathist, or Islamist). Indeed, Lewis said that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism, the Middle East retained only “two main ideological streams: Islam and democracy.”

With the exception of Turkey and Iran, the Middle Eastern landscape of today is a Western invention. Britain and France drew most of the present borders in the years immediately following World War I. Iraq, for example, was the product of the imperfect fusing of several Ottoman provinces. As in Africa, the result of this colonial country creating has been lands of political pathologies. Turkey, Jordan, and Israel have the region's sole claims on the legitimacy that even an element of popular sovereignty confers, and only Israel's claim is secure. Surely the insight that Reagan and Bush and their teams brought to the Soviet phase of the hundred years' war applies here: Regimes that must recognize the rights of their citizens will be accountable to their citizens and cannot be aggressive.

Other strategic and political insights from earlier phases of this war also apply. Speaking of the terror threat of the mid-1980s, then CIA director William Casey noted that terrorist training centers were “heavily concentrated in the Soviet bloc . . . and in the radical entente countries of Syria, Libya, and Iran.” These nations were the roots of terrorism, he said. Stopping their sponsorship of terror was essential to eliminating the threat.

And so it proved to be. Throughout the 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to falter and fail, virtually all of the non-Islamist terror groups active in Europe failed as well. Germany's Red Army Faction, Italy's Red Brigades, France's Direct Action: Today these are as much on the ash heap of history as the Soviet Union itself. Middle East scholar Michael Ledeen has written that by the time President Clinton left office, the states still backing international terror organizations were Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Remove them from the terror business, he argues, echoing Casey, and today's Al Qaeda and other terror gangs will also be well on their way to oblivion.

The position of the democracies in the post—World War I phases of the new hundred years' war can be summed up simply: two down, one to go. Of the major powers, the United States and Britain remain of single purpose, joined by all of the old and new European democracies except Germany, France, and Belgium. The exceptionalism of Germany and France is less unusual than most Americans think. West German public opinion opposed deployment of Pershing missiles in the 1980s, and West Germany saw the period's largest and most violent anti-American demonstrations. French leaders have long been uneasy about an overarching American role in Europe, initially trying to keep the United States out of World War I and, decades later, under de Gaulle, removing the French military from NATO. Those who we must have with us to complete the war's current phase are already with us.

And what of the world after the hundred years?war truly ends?

We will almost certainly not see a return to a balance of power. Nor will the emerging era likely prove a new age of empire. The stationing of U.S. troops in other countries is clearly not a sign of imperial presence, not when a country housing one of the largest concentrations of U.S. troops can do everything in its power to thwart a major U.S. international goal, as Germany recently has done.

Rather, we appear to be entering something akin to the Concert of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. Powers sharing common values are determining that they also share a common interest in other nations reflecting those values. This time democratic rather than autocratic states are determining the shape of the new world. And in classic democratic form, this new international concert appears to be evolving into a kind of party system—with the United States the leader of the governing party and France the leader of the opposition.

The end of the new hundred years?war is in sight. Again and again in an unbroken line stretching from Wilson's 14 Points to Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter to George W. Bush's recently issued National Security Strategy, the United States has proclaimed as its goals free peoples, free nations, free expression, free commerce, enduring peace among less fearsomely armed nations, and human dignity. Woodrow Wilson called World War I “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” He may well have been right, but the war into which he led us is not yet over. It will be soon.