I spent the 1980s teaching at Carnegie Mellon and writing two books, my second and third. The second book was relatively short: an analysis of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which I completed on behalf of William Young, a dear friend of mine who had researched the case for decades, made important discoveries, and died of cancer in 1980. The second was still probably the most demanding project I have ever undertaken: Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler. It focused on four periods of general war: 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815, and 1914-45. Writing it involved reading most of the available literature in English, French, German and Spanish on those conflicts--while working in an institution with almost no library resources of its own. I completed it around 1988 and it was published early in 2000. In one respect it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams: it was a main selection of the History Book Club, back in a day when book clubs still meant something. But I had counted on it to vault my career to a new level. There I was disappointed. It turned out that there was almost no one left in the historical profession, even then, who would take an analysis of European war on that scale seriously.
The key question that I focused on was what powers were fighting about, in those various eras, and whether they could achieve it by military force--very Clausewitzian questions, and the ones that I subsequently spent 20 years dealing with at the Naval War College. For that first long period, which I called the general crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the answer to the second question was generally no. In nearly every major European empire or nation--Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and eventually, Britain--monarchs tried to establish real control over their subjects, particularly their high nobility. They were never more than temporarily successful. Civil wars rocked every major country, and the nobility frequently got assistance from foreign powers. Sensitive observers understood what was happening, but no one could stop it. A combination of noble power and religious zealotry doomed Europe to a century of anarchy.
A new era began with Louis XIV, who became the hero of the book. He had somewhat more success centralizing power in France, although the nobility remained strong, but more importantly, he put war firmly in the hands of himself and his fellow monarchs. His wars were long and eventually extended over much of the globe, but they did not disrupt domestic institutions. He worked through his fellow monarchs, and his alliances frequently crossed religious lines. As a result, civilization progressed, and a new pattern of limited, relatively small-scale wars persisted until the French revolution.
The wars of 1792-1815 took place on an unprecedented scale, but they too managed to accomplish a purpose. They consolidated Europe into larger political units and spread some of the principles of the French revolution, including equality before the law. But the era of the two world wars was catastrophic. European nations were fighting for larger empires, which they did not really need, and to solve conflicts among different nationalities. They exhausted themselves, lost their empires, and redrew the ethnic boundaries of Europe with ethnic cleansing and murder. Two non-European powers, the US and the USSR, emerged as Europe's overlords and remained so for many decades.
Today Europe is dealing with a refugee crisis, but remains largely at peace, except on its eastern frontier. But looking at the world more broadly, I see a blend of aspects of the first two eras that I wrote about. On the one hand, we have a multi-polar world of great powers focused, like Louis XIV and his contemporaries, upon relatively small-scale territorial issues like the Russian-Ukraine border and rights to the South China Sea. On the other hand, the Middle East is in anarchy, and the western powers seem committed to policies that have done nothing but harm, and which indeed have increased the severity of the crisis, rather than helping to solve it.
The issue is the political stability of the Middle East, which we now see was relatively stable under authoritarian governments for the period of the Cold War. Largely because most of those governments were hostile to Israel, neoconservatives in the US, who secured control of our foreign policy in 2001, fantasized that they could create a democratic paradise in the region by toppling its governments. That fantasy led to utter disaster in Iraq, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the ethnic cleansing of millions, but it did not die with them. The Obama Administration replayed the same scenario in a new area, in Libya, with similarly disastrous results, and it committed itself to the fall of Bashar Assad in Syria and intervened in the civil war there.. ISIS has now emerged as the only entity that has managed to create something lasting out of the resulting chaos, and we are determined to "crush" it. But while we can kill some of its members from the air, it is recruiting much faster, and above all, like the monarchs trying vainly to assert their authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have no political alternative to propose.
Meanwhile, the illusion of American omnipotence--a phrase coined about 65 years ago by a British historian, Denis Brogan--has never been stronger, and dominates our military and foreign policy establishment. That is why 50 courageous military intelligence analysts are complaining that their reports have been altered (like U.S. intelligence estimates of Viet Cong strength in 1967) to make it look like we are winning. We are also refusing to recognize that in one way or another, nearly every regional power in the Middle East wants to make the conflict worse, not better--including the Turks, who are much more interested in fighting separatist Kurds (emboldened by the U.S. led liberation of their brethren in Iraq) than doing anything about ISIS. We are still chasing the phantom of a "third force" in Syria that will somehow defeat both ISIS and Assad, which, as I said here many months ago, is comparable to intervening in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany on behalf of the Jews. Fourteen years after 9/11, the Taliban is gaining again in Afghanistan. We have, in short, no clear policy objectives--defeating ISIS does not suggest any alternative for the future--and no means of reaching the objectives we have.
For a wide variety of reasons, which I cannot possibly take up today, it is less likely than at any time in my lifetime that either the government or the public could achieve a real strategic grasp of these problems. As a result, we will continue to flounder, like the European monarchs of 1559-1659, until the conflicts burn themselves out decades from now. This is one of many serious warnings against believing that our civilization is still progressing in the political sphere. It isn't: a great era in western politics came to an end several decades ago and a new one is not in sight. We can thank our stars that the conflicts were are involving in do not approach the scale of those of the first half of the twentieth century--but it will be a long time before we are again living in an era of genuine peace.