Is the 20th Century Alive in Europe?

Busy with classes and students, I often have time during the day to only glance at the headlines.  When the news came the President Obama was scrapping the missile defense plan for Poland and the Czech Republic that President Bush had begun, perhaps in thanks for Iraq war support, I thought “that makes sense.”  The plan was always an irritant to the West Europeans who felt there should have been NATO wide planning, and needlessly antagonized Russia.  It’s not like anyone is planning to nuke Warsaw, for crying out loud.

Then I got a call from someone whose views and integrity I respect who seemed positively livid about the decision, thinking it represented a level of foreign policy incompetence on the part of the Obama administration that rivals Kennedy’s early weakness vis-a-vis Khrushchev.   We seemed to give in the Soviets, he argued, projecting weakness, looking like we’re not loyal to our allies, again leaving Poland in the lurch as we’ve done so many times.    Chamberlain and Daladier gave Hitler the Sudeutenland and assured Czechoslovakia’s doom, then after the war we allowed Poland to fall under Communist control.

As I thought about his argument I realized two things:  1) his argument makes sense, is rational, and well thought out; and 2) I nonetheless disagree.   Our different opinions rest on how we are conceiving of European foreign policy and geopolitics in the 21st century.   His view, which may well be correct, is that the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t changed the general set of political interests that guided policy for the last sixty years.  Moreover, the US is still a major super power; if Obama simply scraps something like this giving the Russians a cheap win, it causes others to question our resolve and emboldens would be rivals.   Even if the missle shield was a bad idea, we need to get something in return for scrapping it.

My view, is that Russia is a weak state, whose foreign policy interventionism is limited to its “near abroad,” places like Georgia and Ukraine.   Russia has no chance to expand back into Eastern Europe, or gamble that they can attack NATO memberstates and get away with it.  The cost would be huge, and there is nothing to gain.   Russia wants influence, but it can’t handle another empire.

In fact Europe in the 21st century is in a totally new position than any time in the recent past.  Instead of being internally divided, most of Europe is united within the EU, with a level of not just interdependence but common identity that has never before existed.  Moreover, there is no real external military threat to Europe.  There are threats of terrorism, economic crisis, and of course things like global warming or pandemics to fear, but not military invasion.  Even if Iran got a nuclear weapon, the idea it’d somehow want to hit Europe is not credible.  Mutually assured destruction still works.

So I view this as a logical, rather minor move.  Sure, the Poles and the Czechs will complain, but it’s not like we owe them anything.   They’re still in NATO, after all.  Russia gets a “victory,” but given how often the US has bullied Russia in recent years, that’s not about to create a resurgent activist Russia.  In fact, there are probably aspects of this we don’t yet know.   The Europeans want Russia to be a stable part of the European system, and this could be a move designed to make it easier for Russia to back off on provocative postures.

To be sure, even during the Cold War I thought the power of the then Soviet Union was over-rated.  Communism was an utterly unworkable economic system that sucked the soul out of the country and caused internal decay and collapse.  The idea they could successfully attack and hold a vibrant western Europe never seemed credible to me in those days.  Obviously, that wasn’t the majority opinion then, and it pre-disposes me to see Russia as even more a second rate minor power now.  They have nukes, but really no way to throw their weight around, save economic clout via their oil reserves.

Moreover, I think the US, while immensely stronger than Russia, has also been shown to be far weaker than people believed.  After the heady victory in Iraq in 2003 the US was unable to transform military victory into political results.  Thus the occupation of Iraq dragged on to the point that people stopped even remembering that the war had actually been won years before.  In Afghanistan things are worse — the Taliban is strengthening, the government is corrupt and likely guilty of voter fraud, and the country finds itself in chaos.  If the US can’t manipulate politics in those cases, how effective should one consider our military power to be?  We have nuclear weapons, but there are limits to what we can do.  Add to that the economic crisis and our likely inability to maintain the costs of an interventionist “imperial” foreign policy, we may decide that it’s not in our interest to try to manipulate world affairs or be a guarantor of stability.

My friend’s counter-perspective, of course, sees all that differently.   The US nuclear umbrella is important, it prevents proliferation and helps assure that regional rivalries don’t spin out of control — such as North Korea vs. Japan.  Even if, as he acknowledged, the economic crisis means we have to curtail obligations, this must be done carefully and from a posture of strength, not weakness.   The world is a potentially much more dangerous place, and how we restructure our military and political role is important — to simply retreat is to create a power vacuum that other states will fill.

It’s also not clear what the military perspective was — what did the Pentagon advise or tell the President?

In all the unknowns the big question remains just how different this new era is than the old.  As my blog title indicates, I’m of the opinion that we are going through a change of historic proportions.   This creates danger, but it’s not clear how to respond to those dangers.  Do you move cautiously and slowly, or should you embrace bold new ways of conceptualizing the way the international system operates?   I think the latter is necessary, believing that systemic change is usually violent because people don’t give up the patterns of thought that have become obsolete.   Yet what if I’m wrong?

Ultimately, those are decisions the President makes, often with information and negotiations that we do not know.  This means all any of us can do is speculate.   Still, one thing is clear: we definitely live in very interesting times!

  1. #1 by Diane on September 18, 2009 - 13:00

    Hi Scott,
    I guess that I would take your side in this debate, agreeing with you about this being a logical minor move on the part of Obama, which will of course be blown out of proportion by some as weakness and cowardice. I think that this move shows strenth and courage. I think that Europe is not under threat, nor will it likely be, and Russia is certainly in no real position to be a threat, and even if it were, as you point out, Europe is not in the same place it was 70 years ago. They are more unified and would not sit back and cut off Poland and the Czech Republic as they did then telling them “see ya and sorry!”

    Strength and power do not always need to be shown by aggression and intimidation, just as concessions do not necessarily imply weakness. Giving Russia this “win’ could very well leave them a ‘saving face’ option for backing down, thus creating a more stable region. Being antagonistic with our ‘defense’ plan does not help stabilize anything, as we should well know.

    I definitely think you use the correct term when calling it an ‘imperialist’ foreign policy, and we – as citizens – need to take more notice of how we – as a nation – use all sorts of excuses to continue these types of policies, and also find a way to stop it. Quitting this nuclear defense program, I believe, is a good way for us to show that we are making that change.

    Your friend may be correct in his thinking, but he is thinking from the wrong place. He is thinking from the place of defensive “power over” and “imperialist foreign policy” and our traditional “bully policies” from where we stood throughout the 20th century. We should be thinking from a 21rst century place of cooperative “power with” and “interconnectedness” and “peace”. We cannot promote peace with bullying and provocation.

    As for your final question “Do you move cautiously and slowly, or should you embrace bold new ways of conceptualizing the way the international system operates?” I think we, as the super power in the world, should work diligently to make changes and lead the rest of the world through these changes from hostile, imperialist, protectionist, forceful military control towards the direction of peace and cooperation where bullying and aggression is not tolerated. For those who will criticize this, no I do not picture a fluffy utopian world where eveyone just gets along and love and harmony reign. But I do think that we should be leaders towards the direction of peace and cooperation, as I said above, and follow Gandhi’s advice to “be the change we want to see”.


    • #2 by henitsirk on September 18, 2009 - 19:17

      “Strength and power do not always need to be shown by aggression and intimidation, just as concessions do not necessarily imply weakness.”

      Yes. Yes!

      I would say that aggression and intimidation are the signs of fear and weakness, and the ability to concede is a sign of strength. Concession doesn’t mean you were forced by a superior power; it can mean you were willing to negotiate on your own terms. Bullies operate from fear and an irrational need to self-protect.

      It’s hard for me (or really, almost anyone) to know if these decisions are right. What information does the administration have about current Russian or Iranian military power? What other deals are being made that we don’t know about? I’m not a conspiracy theorist; it’s just that there is so much opacity in politics at this level. (And, admittedly, complexity that I’m unwilling to try to follow.)

  2. #3 by Mike Lovell on September 18, 2009 - 18:00

    “Do you move cautiously and slowly, or should you embrace bold new ways of conceptualizing the way the international system operates? I think the latter is necessary, believing that systemic change is usually violent because people don’t give up the patterns of thought that have become obsolete. Yet what if I’m wrong?”

    What if you are? It seems that any violent sudden change, is rarely successful long term. Its often enlightenment through certain individuals disseminated throughout larger and larger segments of society that slowly build up within the system that create a more lasting legacy. As an example, the Civil War was a result of longstanding differences that boiled over, and even after such a violent surge and change in official policy with regards to treatment of blacks, how many years did it take to actually change?

    Looking at military concepts of defense, strategy, and governmental use of….how many centuries have we essentially practiced the same modus operandi? Despite being militarily powerful, the US still uses full frontal force aggression (depsite guerilla tactics of militia being one of the major linchpins to success in the Revolutionary War), against a guerilla-minded opponent (something we’ve dealt with since Vietnam, and still havent figured out). We are taking so long to shed off the ‘conventional warfare’ style of fighting, and any change to that policy will be long in coming, despite the obvious advantages of changing our style in that respect.

    • #4 by henitsirk on September 18, 2009 - 19:18

      Mike, are you calling us Redcoats? 🙂

      • #5 by Mike Lovell on September 18, 2009 - 19:50


        I guess in a way you could say that I made such an implication. I was somewhat thinking about that as I wrote everything down, without actually writing that specific point. Very perceptive of you to read my mind. I’d better drink more often and cloud my mind so as not to be seen through so easily! LOL

        “I would say that aggression and intimidation are the signs of fear and weakness, and the ability to concede is a sign of strength.”

        I would say that this statement is not 100% absolute. The ability to concede CAN be a sign of strength in some situations. Like my ability to admit that maybe I am wrong from time to time could show strength of character*

        *anyone tells my wife I said this, gets it! ya hear?

        However, sometimes aggression and intimidation are born out of something more than just fear or weakness. Sometimes, whether wrongheaded or not, aggression is merely one way of sending a message, be it preemptive aggression (which is more often the type to make your statement true), or retaliatory aggression, which in proper fashion says to the other party and any observers that we aren’t the ones to be trifled with. For instance, should someone come after my family physically, it will not be fear from which I operate, but a mode of striking fear into those parties that I am more than trained, willing and able to stop an outright threat (not merely perceived threats), without hesitation towards the guilty party(ies).

  3. #6 by henitsirk on September 18, 2009 - 21:57

    OK Mike, I think we’re just differing in semantics. I did not mean “aggression” to mean all military or diplomatic activity. I always think about these things on the human scale: if my kid does something wrong, there’s a consequence, and I will enforce that. I’m not being aggressive there. If my kid says something rude and I flip out because he pushed one of my buttons and I smack him, that’s aggressive. It’s more a matter of scale and context. And of motivation: there’s a difference between acting from an attempt to do good or defend oneself and an attempt to preserve one’s power or self-definition at the expense of another.

    Now, I know on the level of international politics, this is oversimplified. There are always numerous reasons why a country does what it does. Notice that we’re not abandoning our military presence worldwide, which would be an excessive concession. We’re refocusing our presence in one arena toward an updated possible opponent. It’s drawing a new boundary, which presumes that we are the boundary setter — a position of reasonable power, as when I enforce a consequence with my kids. On the other hand, we might also be motivated by the desire to secure future access to fossil fuels — a position of preservation focused on solely our own good, as when I smack my kid to preserve my sense of personal power.

  4. #7 by Mike Lovell on September 19, 2009 - 15:56

    First off, let me apologize for my misinterpretations of what you meant, and my A.D.D.-like response. I did sort of go off on a tangent for now real apparent reason. All I really started off to do was reply to the redcoat question! Again, Sorry.

    As for laying down the law with the kid… that just may be out of fear…of losing control of the household. I remember intimidating my oldest into timidity very early on (more of a drill sergeant stance as i had just come out of the military, and that’s the only type of authority I really knew), and then to avoid that with my youngest, I swung too far the other way…that was bad, and have since fought an upward battle to get myself somewhere in the middle.

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