War seems to come out of nowhere, like rust that suddenly pops up on iron after a storm.
Throughout history, we have seen that war can sometimes be avoided or postponed, or its effects mitigated — usually through a balance of power, alliances, and deterrence rather than supranational collective agencies. But it never seems to go away entirely.
Just as otherwise lawful suburbanites might slug it out over silly driveway boundaries, or trivial road rage can escalate into shooting violence, so nations and factions can whip themselves up to go to war — consider 1861, 1914, or 1939. Often, the pretexts for starting a war are not real shortages of land, food, or fuel, but rather perceptions — like fear, honor, and perceived self-interest.
To the ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Plato, war was the father of us all, while peace was a brief parenthesis in the human experience. In the past, Americans of both parties seemed to accept that tragic fact.
After the Second World War, the United States, at great expense in blood and treasure, and often at existential danger, took on the role of protecting the free world from global Communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Democratic and Republican administrations ensured the free commerce, travel, and communications essential for the globalization boom.
Such peacekeeping assumed that there would always pop up a Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden who would threaten the regional or international order. In response, the United States — often clumsily, with mixed results, and to international criticism — would either contain or eliminate the threat. Names changed, but evil remained — and as a result of U.S. vigilance the world largely prospered.
This bipartisan activist policy is coming to a close with the new “lead from behind” policy of the Obama administration. Perhaps America now believes that the United Nations has a better record of preventing or stopping wars — or that the history of the United States suggests we have more often caused rather than solved problems, or that with pressing social needs at home we can no longer afford an activist profile abroad at a time of near financial insolvency.
Yet the reasons for our new isolationism, analogous to early 1914 or 1939, do not matter; all that matters is the reality that lots of bad actors now believe that the United States cannot or will not impede their agendas — and that no one else will in our absence. Americans are rightly tired of the Afghan and Iraq wars. Yet we left no monitoring force in Iraq and are winding down precipitately in Afghanistan, and thus have no guarantees that our decade-long struggle for postwar consensual government will survive in either place.
Much of North Africa is beginning to resemble Somalia. Our tag-along strategy in Libya resulted in sheer chaos, with an American ambassador and three others killed in Benghazi. The Muslim Brotherhood, headed by anti-Semite Mohamed Morsi, has turned Egypt into a failed state. Islamists killed dozens of Western hostages in Algeria. The French are unilaterally trying to prevent an Islamist takeover of Mali. Meanwhile, 60,000 died in Syria, with thousands more fatalities to come.
The common theme? Middle East authoritarians and Islamists expect that the United States will probably lecture a lot about peace and do very little about war.
China and Japan appear to be on the verge of a shooting incident over unimportant disputed islands that nonetheless seem very important in terms of national prestige. A more muscular government in Tokyo and an expanding Japanese navy suggest that the Japanese are running out of patience with Chinese bullying.
Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan all have the wealth and expertise to become nuclear to deter Chinese aggression, but so far they have not — only because of their reliance on a previously engaged and militarily omnipotent United States.
A near-starving North Korea, when not threatening South Korea, periodically announces that it is pointing a test missile at Japan or the United States. Few believe that the present sanctions will stop Iran’s trajectory toward a nuclear bomb. The more the Argentine economy tanks, the more its government talks about the “Malvinas” — replaying the preliminaries that led to the 1982 Falklands Islands war.
In the last four years, tired of Iraq and Afghanistan, and facing crushing debt, we have outsourced collective action, deterrence, and peacekeeping to the Arab League, the French, the British, the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, and the United Nations. Does America now believe that our weaker allies, polite outreach, occasional obeisance and apology, euphemism, good intentions — or simple neglect — will defuse tensions that seem to be leading to conflict the world over?
Perhaps, but there is no evidence in either human nature or our recorded past to believe such a rosy prognosis.