At least since the time of the French and American Revolutions, international politics have involved conflicts among different domestic political systems. In the periodic crises in the international system since the 1790s, the warring parties have fought in part to establish their own form of government. The Napoleonic Wars ended with the old aristocracy firmly entrenched in Great Britain and bureaucratic monarchies firmly in control in nearly all of Europe. In the 1860s the victory of the democratic North over the aristocratic South in the American civil war helped lead to the institution of some form of democracy in Britain France, and Germany. William II of Germany and Woodrow Wilson both saw the First World war as a context between absolute monarchy and democracy. In the Second World War, the communist USSR and the democracies in Britain and France fought National Socialism in Europe and the Japanese military regime in Asia. In each case, the resolution of the crisis left some forms of government more popular than others, helping to determine the course of politics for decades to come.
We are now sliding into the next great international crisis. I have never thought that it was going to lead to all-out world war on the scale of twentieth century conflicts, but it does revolve, in part, around an ideological struggle. Among the three most important world powers, the United States still stands for democracy, in theory at least, and for an open global political and economic order. Both Putin's Russia and Zhi's China stand for something very different: an authoritarian model of government that they specifically distinguish from the weak, divided, socially permissive democracies of the decadent west. Both also have rhetorically challenged the US claim to lead the world and determine the rights and wrongs of international disputes. And both have festering territorial demands. Putin clearly wants to restore more of the old USSR, and looks longingly at the Baltic states. China insists that Taiwan remains a part of it and has extensive claims on the seas and islands surrounding them.
Alarmingly, the governments of both Russia and China seem far more firmly established, at this moment, than our own. Zhi is strengthening the control of the Communist Party and the state over public opinon and the economy, reversing the trend of the last couple of decades. Putin has a stable authoritarian regime without serious opposition that has weathered the impact of economic sanctions. The United States government is unorganized, almost leaderless, and floundering on mnay fronts. Most key State Department positions have not even been filled. Low-level functionaries in the White House such as Steven Miller and Jared Kushner are evidently exerting important influence on foreign policy. The kind of policy process that has allowed our government to survey the world scene and identify the most important threats seems not to exist any more.
Meanwhile, the President has brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, and is reversing the Obama Administration's move towards peaceful co-existence with Iran. What disturbs me more than anything is how easy it would be to set off a replay of the events that led to US involvement in the Second World War. In an increasingly anarchic world, war anywhere can easily lead to war almost anywhere else.
Thus, in 1939, Japan was already in the third year of its attempt to subjugate mainland China, and the Japanese were claiming a special leadership role in Asia, an idea that the United States rejected in favor of the maintenance of an "open door." In September of that year, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and the British and French declared war on Germany. Then, the next spring, Hitler successively invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, forcing France to conclude an armistice, and leaving Britain perilously exposed to a possible German invasion. Those events had enormous repercussions in the Far East,. The French, who ruled Indochina, and the Dutch, the rulers of what is now Indonesia, would clearly not be able to defend those territories against a Japanese attack. The British would be hard put to defend Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and perhaps even India. The Japanese moved into northern Indochina almost at once and laid plans to go further. Meanwhile, the US government also prepared to meet German or Italian moves into French, Dutch and British possessions in the western hemisphere. The lend-lease agreement of September 1940, in which FDR gave Churchill 50 destroyers in exchange for US bases in an Atlantic arc of British possessions from Newfoundland to Trinidad, moved the US defense line hundreds of miles to the east. A year later, in the second half of 1941, with the US effectively at war against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the Japanese decided to attack British, Dutch, French and American possessions in the Far East, beginning on Decmeber 7, 1941.
The possibility that some one in Washington, it seems to me, needs to think about,. is that war--perhaps in North Korea--could easily tempt Putin to move into the Baltic states, claiming a need to protect their ethnic Russian inhabitants, or China to move further away from its coastline. It would be extremely difficult, I think, for the US to react effectively to such moves while fighting a war against North Korea (or, for that matter, while fighting one against Iran.) Putin has pointed out many times that successive US Administrations have acted unilaterally to alter borders (in Yugoslavia in 1999) or to overthrow governments (in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011) without getting the permission of the world community. He did the same thing in Crimea in 2013 and has weathered the subsequent sanctions. He could certainly do it again.
Traditionally the world's leading power has a strong interest in maintaining peace. That was what Bismarck understood in Europe after 1871, and what American leaders including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon understood in their time. Peace does not seem to be one of Donald Trump's priorities. He is more interested in intimidating or defeating enemies and proving that we can "win" again. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush managed to achieve similar goals in Grenada and Panama, but those nations were close to the US and did not have nuclear arms. War against North Korea and Iran could very easily set off a new era of worldwide conflict. No one would come out of it better off than when they began.