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Friday, February 24, 2017

War in the age of democracy, past and present

For reasons that shall eventually emerge, I have been reviewing my work as an historian over the whole of my lifetime, and have been most recently looking at Politics And War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler, which appeared in 1990.  While it is not my favorite among my books, I do think it was my most remarkable achievement.  For more than ten years previously I had been reading very widely indeed in the literature of European international politics in four periods of general war: 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815, and 1914-45.  The book told much of the story of those conflicts, but that was not its main purpose. Instead, I tried to define the essence of international conflict in each period by asking two questions: what were nations (or men) fighting about, and were they able to achiever their goals?  Those questions ultimately turned the book into a meditation on the nature of modern politics and its discontents.  Such a book, if successful, should remain relevant 27 years later, and I would argue that it has.

In each of my four periods, I argued, conflicts revolved around one or two fundamental issues.  From 1559 through 1659, I argued, monarchs in Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and England fought in vain to impose their will upon their aristocracies.  Conflict in that era combined civil and foreign war, disrupting economies, crippling whole nations, and achieving very little.  In the era of Louis XIV (1661-1715), by contrast, war became the province of monarchs. Louis XIV managed to tame his aristocrats and enlist them in his own wars, and indirectly helped his fellow monarchs do the same.  He also fought--for most of his reign--for much more limited and achievable goals.  His era set the tone for conflict in most of the 18th century, allowing Europe to make remarkable economic, intellectual and artistic progress.  In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the ideas of the Enlightenment--that the state could be reconfigured along rationalist lines--unleashed the ambition of monarchs, both to remake institutions at home and extend their power as far as they could abroad.

"The era of the two world wars, I wrote, "witnessed new attempts to transform European society according to abstract principles, with tragic and horrifying consequences."  Two ideas--the demand for great empires, most notably within both Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany, and the attempt to create homogeneous national communities all across Central and Eastern Europe--drove the two world wars.  They did so even though economic progress was coming far more from international trade than from empires, even for imperial nations like Great Britain and France, and even though the populations of those regions were too mixed to create homogeneous national states without ethnic cleansing and murder on a gigantic scale.  But another, deeper problem emerged, relating to the demands of modern democracy. "Modern societies," I wrote, "demand that wars be fought to a brilliantly successful conclusion, and wartime governments have become hostages to realities far beyond their control. ... War has been harder to begin, but also much harder to end, in the era of democracy."

I wrote those sentences with the two world wars in mind, and modern society has changed enormously in the last 70 years.  After the Vietnam War, the United States gave up conscription and shrank its army, and most nations around the world have followed suit.  Even with anarchy spreading around the world, today's conflicts do not approach the scale of those that began 100 years ago.  Yet Vietnam, where the US intervention lasted nearly eight years, showed how hard it was to end even a clearly mistaken war. It took more than half a century to the United States to end its economic war on Cuba, which had had no result.  President Obama courageously reached the nuclear deal with Iran, but did not dare even try to resume diplomatic relations  And we are now in an age of endless war, comparable, in one sense, to the 16th and 17th centuries.  We have begun wars for unattainable objectives, such as functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan--and those wars are more than halfway through their second decade.  In an attempt to fight terror, we have spread anarchy.   While our capabilities have shrunk, our pretensions have increased: to spread democracy and western ideas of human rights literally all over the globe. And while our public hardly feels the same stake in Iraq and Afghanistan as the European publics did during the First World War, it is much less engaged, and therefore less likely to protest the interminable conflicts.

The dreadful crimes and sacrifices of the Second World War, including not only the Holocaust but also the ethnic cleansing of millions of people by the victors after the war was over, did provide much of the world--and the whole industrialized world--with more than half a century of peace.  We are now at sea, with the political order that grew out of that war in headlong retreat in the United States and Britain, and threatened all over the EU.  Much conflict lies ahead, and it may be decades before the world achieves a measure of stability.  Perhaps by then, a new realism about the possibilities of international affairs will have emerged.


Energyflow said...

We have ideology in a period of democracy, dependent on public acceptance of state policy,propelling this concept of personal liberty, human rights, economic freedom and growth forward in a sort of inconclusive madness beyond its own cultural boundaries. Industrialism with urban centers, mass education created in Europe, America, later Russia and Asia middle classes with asprations, secular concepts, humanism. Outside of a culture of wealth, urban equality and growth with opportunity for education and upward mobility there can be no culture of liberty, democracy or even equivalent socialist ideas. To transfer European culture to America with its same population was natural. The democratization of consumption and daily life which America popularized and reexported to Europe, eliminating hierarchies, giving everyone a car, later making jeans a universal suit for all, classless and making radio, films with American culture a unifying Western medium is superficial at best outside of cultural context. Certain presumptions post sexual revolution of sexlessness, or post civil rights movement and colonial, racial wars of racelessness are superficial. These presumptions, extending the concept of equality to its ultima ratio, eliminate right of individual cultural specificity. We invade with our films, jeans, corporate logos Africa, Middle East, Asia and create desires for wealth, freedom, cognitive dissonance where traditional lifestyles, sexual norms, religious habits dominated for milennia. Worse these aspirations are unfullfillable. They rely on massive growth, whereas resources such as oil, coal have been mostly used while population grows, environments have been destroyed. Traditional families without modern medicines and modern agriculture remained in balance with nature. Starvation swept away many early or diseases. Introduce miracles in nature for the masses and end up with hell on earth for all. The masses are now invading the north increasingly as the burden of billions of impovershed is inbearable. We are sinking our own boat. Demographic transitions with excessive frugality like poorest indian households could give us time but we are exporting war from our side when we observe relative injustices, and greed, American dream of permanent growth, perfect equality of all, along with perfect opportunity(dishwasher to
millionare). This push/pull is creating a disaster. The world wars were about a Northern economic entente among peoples of similar mindsets. Russians, Japanese, Germans all created similar worlds. India, Africa, Middle East will never get there. So eradication of poverty and injustice remains impossible. The cognitive dissonance created is similar to the problem with American blacks. Poverty remains, some climb upwards.Injusctice is decried. Incremental change is acheived on a whole over generations. On a global scale this means all boats being brought down to lowest level, not being raised as billions more are born, all resources are wasted for plstic trinkets and rusting automobiles. Once it is all gone the real wars will begin. Will Chinese invade Africa for croplands in desperation or siberia? England cannot feed itself even with fossil fuels. Africa and Middle East must be more inefficient still with high birth rates. We have a biological problem, not an historical or ideological one.

Bozon said...

Thoroughly enjoyed Politics and War.A lot of great condensation in a not too big book.
It made more accessible other history books I have read since.
I don't agree with everything, but then I never do, with anything I read.
All the best

Bozon said...

Not only Politics and War, an important influence for me.

I also read Bailyn because you had mentioned him, back in 2010.

Kennan was another very important influence I picked up because of your blog at some point.

Skimpole said...

"Modern societies," I wrote, "demand that wars be fought to a brilliantly successful conclusion, and wartime governments have become hostages to realities far beyond their control. ... War has been harder to begin, but also much harder to end, in the era of democracy."

I think that's very open to question. Clearly it's not true of the second world war, where the Axis leadership was far more belligerent than their populace. And it's hardly true of the Allied side, unless one assumes that there was an alternative to unconditional surrender, and that it was forced by public opinion on an otherwise skeptical Anglo-American leadership. As for the first world war, Italy's entry into the war was forced by the king in defiance of Parliament. The 1917 Peace Resolution in Germany would have been more effective if Germany had a responsible parliamentary government. Earlier election in pre-October Russia would have shown the weakness of the Allied cause even earlier. It's not even clear there was majority support for American entry into the war. It's certainly not true that popular pressure forced its WASP anglophile elite into a war it didn't want to fight.