The mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler prophesied that “We shall not get through this time without difficulty, for all the factors are prepared” Kepler was predicting the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, that would launch the modern international state system in which America and the nations of the world still operate.
What ominous factors caused Kepler to shiver? Disturbances, uphealvals and conflicts. Merchants moaned about untrustworthy bankers. Diplomats strutted even as they wavered. The masses sullenly made deals they needed to survive when the gathering storm broke. Varieties of religious fervor caused many to prepare to be slain rather than submit to rule by others.
The 1648 settlement at Westphalia, though setbacks were many and vicious, enabled procedures fostering what eventually would be called “the international community,” a term that curled many a lip in the midst of twentieth-century world wars. Those wars were attempts to overthrow the established world order. Those wars failed, but in recent decades have become seemingly interminable, and have required the stewards of world order to confront what George Shultz labels “asymmetrical” warfare in which professional standards have been turned into self-imposed liabilities by enemies who reject civilized international conduct.
No international order has proved immortal. Kepler today might note that the world order shaped by the war he predicted, might now fail to survive to celebrate its 375th anniversary. As President Obama ponders his Second Inaugural Address, what Keplerian factors are now “prepared” for war?
The causes of war as discerned ever since Thucydides’ time are three: wars of ideology, of fear, and of gain.
The ideology of Islamism has been on the rise for generations and now aims to expropriate the Arab Spring. The ambitions of the1979 Iranian Revolution and Sunni fanaticism are transmogrifying into the kind of major religious war that the Treaty of Westphalia sought to forestall.
Thucydides traced the war that ruined ancient Greece to Sparta’s fear that Athens’ growing power was crossing the line where it would be impossible to contain. Israel faces that threat from Iran, as today’s international structures for the maintenance of international security have failed to halt Iran’s drive, propelled by religious ideology, to possess nuclear weapons. Israel, bereft of its traditional sense of American support, is making ready to act against Iran’s menace to its existence. President Obama’s priority must repair relations with Israel by visiting the Jewish state and convincing its leaders that the U.S. understands Israel’s uniquely dangerous position.
And there now grows a deepening appetite for gain. America, perceived as eager to shed the burdens of world order in order to be “fundamentally transformed” through European-style social commitments, talks of engagement even when Iran’s “diplomacy” is a form of protracted warfare. The enemies of world order translate the American election results into the lexicon of abdication, telling themselves that their time has come: there is a world to be gained.
Only America’s return to world leadership can halt this deterioration. “Sequestration” will relegate the U.S. to a second rate power and must be reversed to enable American strength and diplomacy to be employed in tandem. Without this the prediction of a Kepler for today must be grim. As the biographer of Augustus Caesar wrote in the years just before the Second World War, “Once again the crust of civilization has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of primeval fires. Once again many accepted principles of government have been overthrown, and the world has become a laboratory where immature and feverish minds experiment with unknown forces. Once again problems cannot be comfortably limited, for science has brought the nations into an uneasy bondage to each other."
In this maelstrom lie opportunities not for idealism but for the cold, austere use of power, soft and hard, in order to, as Augustus was advised, teach the arts of peace to all. The old platforms for the region, including the “peace process,” are gone. New structures must be built and only the US can lead the construction job. Peace is not at hand, but statesmen can see the possibility of laying foundations for a new Middle East in Syria-Lebanon, Egypt-Gaza, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and even, should we finally get serious, in Iran.
Charles Hill is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale University and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Obama’s Second Term – Middle Eastern Memos is provided by Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Robert Satloff, Asli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.