In 1990 I published Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler, which was in many ways my most ambitious book and the one that took the longest time to write. It was a comparative study of four periods of general war in European history: 1559-1659, years characterized in general by anarchy and civil war; 1661-1715, during which Louis XIV created a much stronger national state, leading other European nations to follow suit; 1789-1815, when the French Revolution set the European state system aflame and introduced a new scale of warfare; and 1914-45, when European war became world war. The field of European international politics had lain at the center of scholarship at least since Ranke in the late 19th century, but I can now see that I finished that book at the moment that it was dying. Offhand I do not know of a single college or university that still offers a course on the development of the European state system and its spread around the world to include nations like the United States and Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus graduates emerge from our finest institutions knowing nothing about these subjects, and without learning French, German, or Russian. One such was Barack Obama, who graduated from Columbia in the early 1990s.
The world depends upon diplomacy for peace and stability because it is divided into independent sovereignties capable of unleashing war. European and Atlantic civilizations in the eighteenth century made enormous progress, especially intellectual progress, because war, while frequent, had become a small-scale enterprise, and diplomacy always managed to bring it to and end within a maximum of about seven years. War before 1791 was not sufficiently destructive to halt the progress of civilization or bring down states. After the cataclysm of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the great age of European diplomacy began. In the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the Holy Alliance of eastern European monarchies kept order and maintained peace throughout central Europe, while Britain and France did the same in western Europe. Several wars created modern Italy and Germany in 1859-71, but none of them lasted as long as a year and clever diplomacy kept them from becoming general. After 1871, Bismarck, the creator of modern Germany, insisted for twenty years that Germany had no more ambitions and strove successfully to maintain European peace. Customary machinery had developed to settle important disputes. In 1878 and 1884, meetings of high officials in Berlin settled a Russo-Turkish war in the Balkans and partitioned much of Africa. Lesser crises were solved by conferences held in one European capital, where the home foreign minister would negotiate a settlement with the Ambassadors of other major European countries. All diplomats spoke French and carried on their business in that language. Although in the 1860s huge civil wars erupted in the United States and in China, Europe remained at peace for a century.
In the two world wars Germany and then Japan explicitly abandoned diplomacy in favor of force in an effort to turn themselves into worldwide empires. The task was beyond their means, and catastrophe resulted. The United States entered both those wars on behalf of certain principles, including the self-determination of peoples and the respect for international law--principles that commanded widespread support around the world. The victory of two ideologically very different powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, led inevitably to the Cold War. That war had three fronts. The first front developed at the point where Soviet and American troops met at the end of the conflict, in central Europe and at the 38th parallel in Korea. The second, which developed in the 1950s, was the nuclear front, on which each threatened to destroy the other. The third involved a highly complex contest for power and influence in the Third World, where nearly all the wars of the period took place. In the more developed world, the victors in the Second World War organized coalitions--to be sure, in very different ways--and kept the peace for 45 years. Civilization once again advanced.
The collapse of Communism in 1989 ushered in a new era--one whose consequences were deeply misunderstood. George H. W. Bush had fought in the Second World War and had a natural flair for diplomacy, and he tried to handle the shift to a new order in a way that took account of the legitimate interests of other states. He was in effect preserving the traditions established by Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Thus, when he and James Baker insisted over Gorbachev's objections that a united Germany join NATO, they also promised that the newly freed former Warsaw Pact states would not do so. But to the new Boomer-dominated foreign policy establishment that emerged in the US during the 1990s and seized total power after 2001, the new situation looked very different: it gave the US the chance to impose its will all over the world. The new states were welcomed into NATO during the 1990s. The entire UN security council, including the Russians, backed the war against Iraq in 1990-1, but in 1999 the Clinton Administration fought to free Kosovo despite the opposition of the Russians. George W. Bush, as I have discussed many times, openly embraced a world founded on social Darwinism and embarked upon a campaign to take down hostile states--one that began and ended, as it turned out, in Iraq. And after 2001, the US became more and more focused on the Islamic world.
Barack Obama's decision this week to forgo a brief meeting with Vladimir Putin during a broader summit shows how far things have gone. The United States and Russia do not, like the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War, threaten each other with instant destruction and they are not engaged in a worldwide struggle for power and influence. Their militaries are shadows of their former selves. But incredibly, they seem to lack any common principles upon which to build better relations and promote a more peaceful world. Even in the days of Kennedy and Khrushchev and Nixon and Brezhnev, the two sides acted on their interest in preventing nuclear war and reducing tensions. Now the United States in effect claims the right to help overthrow any government violently opposed by a substantial portion of its people--a claim the Russians understandably, and in my opinion sensibly, reject. On the other side, Putin has returned to the pre-modern traditions of his country, blaming foreign influence for everything that goes wrong in his country, and evidently dreaming to restoring some of the lost influence of the Russian and Soviet empires in some of the other successor states. Neither they nor the Chinese leadership is offering the world a model in which all nations will live together in peace--much less attempting seriously, as the Europeans in the late 19th century would have done, to halt violent civil wars in places like Syria, or to make peace in the Middle East. (John Kerry, whose father was a diplomat, is bravely going through the motions on these issues, but without the backing to actually bring them to fruition.)
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama has turned out to be most unfortunate. At no time in his Administration has he shown any particular talent for diplomacy and his record is largely bereft of achievement. He did reach a new strategic arms treaty with the Russians in his first term, but that process seems to be at an end. (Putin, to be sure, bears just as much blame for this.) Regarding China, with whom we also lack common values, the US has been returning to the traditions of John Foster Dulles and trying to organize some sort of anti-Chinese coalition rather than establishing some common ground about the principles of international affairs, to include, for instance, a moratorium on hacking into one another's computer systems, as well as an agreement on freedom of the seas. The President is remarkably wooden and embarrassingly repetitious in photo ops with foreign leaders. He and his administration have treated the European economic crisis as none of our business. That may be because, as good American neo-liberals, they would just as soon see the whole European economic model fail. (I'll have more to say about that during the next month.)
I was a product of the earlier age of diplomacy. Because my father became a diplomat when I was 14 I had to live abroad and learn two foreign languages. That in turn made me, originally, a European historian. But in that respect as in others, I was one of the last survivors of a dying tradition. The world may be flat in cyberspace, but it has much less of a common value system than it did 100 years ago. Values are key to politics, both domestically and internationally, because they set the limits of what people and governments will attempt to do. The statesmen of the last era--the last saeculum, as Strauss and Howe put it, from about 1867 to 1945--had greater ambitions, and greater achievements, than those of our own. Like domestic anarchy, international anarchy is a new disease whose progression cannot yet be foretold.