The multipolar world that has emerged from the brief moment of American unilateralism following the end of the Cold War has pitted the United States against strategic competitors in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Taking advantage of American military and economic weakness, but more importantly acting on a very real perception that American policymakers are no longer capable of providing the leadership required to knit together a global order, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian leaders are busy carving out pieces of neighboring regions. While China’s creation of facts on the water in the form of engineered islands in the South China Sea, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine, and Iran’s bid for hegemony in the “Shi’a Crescent” in the Middle East may seem to Americans to be, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, quarrels in far away lands between people of whom we know nothing, they do matter a great deal to U.S. allies in these regions. And they should matter to us as well.
The danger is that America’s enemies will mistake temporary political vacillation for permanent weakness. History is replete with examples of wars erupting over such miscalculations.
In 1914, Germany might have stayed its hand had British leaders provided an unequivocal guarantee that they would come to the aid of France in the event of a German invasion of the Low Countries. Instead, German leaders wrote a “blank check” to Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia and then launched their military forces west in accordance with the dictates of the Schlieffen Plan. The result was the four year slaughter of the trenches, the end of the old European order, and the stifling of the first wave of globalization.
In 1938, British and French opposition to Adolf Hitler’s machinations in the Sudetenland might not have prevented war, but it certainly would have put the Western allies in a much better strategic situation had war broken out given the size of the Czech military forces that would have been added to the Allied force pool and the weakness of the Wehrmacht at that point in time. Instead, Hitler outmaneuvered vacillating British and French leaders, emerging from the crisis with the quip, “I saw my enemies in Munich, and they are worms.” The following August, convinced that Britain and France would not intervene, Hitler launched the Wehrmacht in its invasion of Poland. Thus began World War II—a war that ended six years later with 70 million dead as the butcher’s bill.
In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union similarly underestimated American resolve in the wake of defeat in Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter, much like Neville Chamberlain, was a well-meaning man of peace and a great humanitarian, but to Soviet and Iranian leaders, he appeared weak. The period of détente ended with the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the latter event ironically working to the advantage of the United States—at least in the context of ending the Cold War.
As these examples show, in the world of international relations, national reputation and the strength of leaders matters. Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” This does not mean that leaders must exhibit bellicose behavior to stave off strategic competitors, but they must be willing to go occasionally to the mat. President Teddy Roosevelt’s wisdom is operative here: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” When leaders fail to use military force when circumstances warrant, such as happened when President Barrack Obama set a red line over Syrian use of chemical weapons and then failed to match his words with actions, national reputation suffers. The result is a little more disorder in the already anarchical world of international relations—and the prospect for future miscalculations that can lead to disaster.