During the early 1990s the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia fell apart. The collapse of the first two--and especially of Yugoslavia--involved considerable violence. But it occurred to me at the time--even before Strauss and Howe had discovered the 80-year cycle in human affairs--that these events, parallel in many ways to those of 1914-18, had not involved the rest of Europe and the world in a general war. When Serbia and Austria-Hungary came to blows in 1914, Russia and Germany regarded the outcome as critical to their own futures, and European war resulted. That war in turn shaped the great crisis in the Atlantic world that began in the early 1930s and unleashed an even greater war. It seemed in the 1990s that we were going to be spared such events. In 2000 Harvard Press reissued my book Politics and War, and I wrote a new concluding chapter. Things seemed to be going well in Eastern Europe by then, but I referred briefly to the possibility that nationality conflicts in the Soviet Union (where war was already raging in Chechnya) might draw in Western Europe. Little did I know. The events in Georgia this past week suggest that we are witnessing a reply of the first half of the twentieth century, one with potentially disastrous consequences.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is looking more and more like the collapse of the Russian Empire 74 years earlier, which culminated in the spring of 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and the German empire. Brest-Litovsk rolled Russia back almost to where is today, excluding Russian influence not only from Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland, but also from Ukraine, the Caucasus (including Georgia), and part of Cental Asia. (Belarus remained part of Russia, but significantly, Belarus has already become a Russian satellite again now.) The restoration of Russian power under the Soviet Union occurred in two phases. In the first, the Communist Party re-assimilated Ukraine, the Caucasus region and Central Asia during the decade after the revolution and turned them into constituent parts of the USSR. Western Europe, pre-occupied with its own problems, did nothing to intervene, and Poland managed to save itself from a Soviet military offensive. The Soviet borders remained stable from the early 1920s until 1939, when the second stage began with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. That Pact allowed the Soviets to regain Moldavia from Rumania, to annex a substantial portion of Poland (one that today remains part of Belarus and Ukraine), to absorb the Baltic states, and to start a war with Finland that moved the Soviet-Finnish border to where it is today. The third stage, of course, took place during the latter stages of the Second World War, which brought Soviet troops to the heart of Germany, and the early stages of the Cold War, during which Communist governments came to power peacefully in Hungary and Czechoslavakia.
The various regimes established after 1919 in Eastern Europe also began as democracies but most did not remain so for very long. Westerners, and particularly neoconservatives, proclaimed "the end of history" again in the 1990s, and did not allow the rapid evolution of Russia from a proto-democracy into an authoritarian state dominated by oligarchs, the secret police, and a government-controlled media to disburb their inspiring vision. Meanwhile, two Administrations--those of both Clinton and George W. Bush--decided to regard the Soviet collapse simply as an opportunity to expand American influence as far as possible. With the Soviet threat gone, NATO became an expanding American sphere of influence, soon including Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States. NATO in 1999 went to war against what was left of Yugoslavia to free Kossovo, and has recently blessed its independence. Bush also abandoned the cornerstone of Cold War arms control, the ABM treaty, and halted progress on the reduction of Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. The Russians protested all these moves--and we ignored their protests. Most recently the decision to install anti-missile batteries in Poland and Czechoslovakia--weapons which are well known to be ineffective--has led the Russians to denounce the Conventional Forces Treaty that kept their army away from their western borders. The US also cultivated various Central Asian successor states, albeit with decidedly mixed results. 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, meanwhile, diverted our attention from what was happening in and around the former Soviet Union.
Those wars, however, and particularly the war in Iraq, now loom as the beginning of a new age of international anarchy which the United States should have done whatever it could to avoid. With only one real ally, Britain, in tow, the US government decided that the government of Iraq had to be removed and replaced, and proceeded to do so without UN endorsement. Last week President Bush and Secretary Rice issued daily pronouncements claiming that Russian tactics--the invasion of a sovereign state--did not belong in the 21st century. It would never occur to them, of course, that they themselves had made them a centerpiece of the twentieth century in Iraq and constantly reserve the right to revive them against Iran. The United States now has to deal with potential new crises in Eastern Europe without much of the moral and diplomatic capital it had accumulated in Europe during and after the Cold War.
The Russians have now lifted the taboo on the use of their armed forces (which they have evidently strengthened somewhat in recent years, even though they, like our own, remain relatively small) outside their borders. They did so partly because of the aggressively pro-western stance of Georgia's new President Shakashvili, who wants to get into NATO and who has also been trying to re-assert control over breakway regions with Russian populations. Lots of Russians still live in Ukraine (which wants to enter NATO) and the Baltic States (which already have), and similar scenarios are entirely possible there, too. Meanwhile, Russia retains a large nuclear arsenal, and--unlike either Germany or Japan in the 1930s--benefits economically from any increases in international tension because of its oil exports. On the other hand, Russia does not have, and is not going to have, a major European ally like Germany in the 1930s that is going to collaborate in re-occupying Eastern Europe.
In retrospect it looks more and more unfortunate that the US and the Western Europeans decided to substitute NATO expansion for further work on creating an international regime within which everyone could live in peace. Cooler heads of all political persuasions had doubts about NATO expansion into Eastern Europe from the start, regarding it as needlessly provocative. I suspect that the acceleration of NATO expansion to include Ukraine and perhaps even Georgia will now become a neoconservative demand and an issue in the Presidential campaign. But before taking such steps we have to give some thought to what they would mean in practice. We do not have the forces to set up a defense line on the border between Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states on one side and Belarus and the USSR on the other. Nor are we going to be stationing tactical nuclear weapons there as in days of old. Some believe that merely enlarging NATO will have the necessary deterrent effect on the Russians, but I am not so sure. We would still be much better off to focus on a peaceful competition for influence--in which we hold most of the cards--than to do anything to militarize the confrontation any further.
In 2003 Condoleezza Rice made a famous speech arguing in effect that the world had no choice but to accept American leadership (or hegemony) in the promotion of democratic values. It remains my belief that this is a fantasy. Perhaps at some level our increasingly conservative foreign policy establishment has welcomed Russia's nationalistic resurgence, thinking that it will help us rally a defensive coalition behind us, as in days of old. John McCain, I suspect, will make this a major theme of his campaign and it will not be easy for Barack Obama to respond effectively. And if Russian troops stay in Georgia and threaten new moves elsewhere, eventually there will be a call for the return to the draft.
The United States fought the Second World War to save western civilization in Europe--and won only by promoting the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Far East. During the Cold War, in my opinion, our biggest problems invariably stemmed from our inability to distinguish between territory that was vital and territory that was not. The defense perimeters around western Europe and Japan served a very useful purpose (and did not lead to war); attempts to defend areas like Vietnam or to promote friendly clients in Africa led to nothing but misery on an enormous scale. It does not increase the security of the United States, in my opinion, to treat territories like Georgia or Ukraine as comparable to West Germany or Japan in their importance. I shall try to think in weeks to come about how we might begin to reverse the track that we are on, but it looks harder and harder. The world order is disintegrating in ways similar to those of the early 1930s now, and a new catastrophe is slowly becoming a real possibility.