By the time Japan ran up the white flag in August of 1945, the United States had produced nearly 61,000 tanks, 285,000 air craft, 147 capital ships, 41,000 cannon and more than 12 million rifles. Using this material, we had killed or captured more than a million enemy soldiers and dropped well more than two million tons of explosives on Germany and Japan (not counting the atomic bombs) and killed somewhere in the range of two million German and Japanese civilians. Our enemies were cratered wastelands entirely at our mercy. Peering up from the rubble, the world drew a very vital lesson: you don’t want to fight the United States of America.
This lesson was tested, of course. First in Korea – where potential enemies learned that you could draw the United States into a war and not suffer complete destruction – but you had to be willing to absorb immense casualties at the hands of American forces disposing of more firepower than anyone could possibly imagine (in return for the privilege of killing at bit more than 33,000 Americans, the North Koreans and Chinese exchanged at least 400,000 military deaths and 1.5 million civilian deaths). It was re-tested in Vietnam and finally confirmed – as long as you were willing to lose your people at a fantastic rate, eventually the Americans will get tired and leave, as long as the United States, itself, wasn’t at risk. But, still, those piles of smoking rubble in Germany and Japan kept the world entirely unwilling to tangle with the United States in a fight to the death. And, so, no general wars since 1945.
But such a state of affairs only lasts as long as the world is convinced that fighting the United States is something to take into consideration. Small scale = can be done, at enormous cost. Large scale = national suicide. But what if it comes to pass that you don’t have to worry either about large scale or small scale war with the United States? Then you get the invasion of Crimea.
The problem Obama has – and its common throughout the leadership elite of the Western World – is that they have convinced themselves that it wasn’t American power which kept the peace. Indeed, they have convinced themselves that more than anything else, American power has been the threat to peace (and they use things like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq as proof – never mind that in none of these cases did the United States just blindly go in for aggressive action…right or wrong, in all of these cases a threat was perceived prior to American action). To an Obama, the world is kept at peace by international law; by the United Nations; by NGO’s; by conferences at swank, European resorts. Everyone agrees to be nice – and see how well it works! But, here’s the thing, it only worked because at the back of it all were the smoking piles of rubble in Germany and Japan circa 1945 and a worry that really challenging the post-war settlement would mean a new World War with the United States. But Obama and his like don’t see it like that. Putin, however, does.
With the decline of American power and the global perception that the United States simply lacks the grit to carry out a long, grinding fight to a victorious finish we have returned to the world of 1938 – precisely when the world held American power at a discount figuring that we probably wouldn’t fight, to begin with, and that if we did, we wouldn’t stick it out (it really cannot be stressed enough that the leaders of both Germany and Japan figured the American people simply lacked guts…that we were too soft to fight it out like men in desperate battle). Putin isn’t doing anything but living in the real world – and the real world of 2014 is the international anarchy of 1914, prior to the application of overwhelming American power to the globe 1941-45. In this real world, you grab what you think you can get away with – you know you won’t have to fight even a small, expensive (but ultimately victorious) war against an America which just gets tired and neither will you risk a World War which would bring all of America’s might to bear until your country is reduced to a pile of smoking rubble.
It is an open question as to whether this will work out badly for the world – we simply don’t know. Perhaps if we hadn’t intervened in World War One things would have been better in the long run? Maybe if we had dodged the World War Two bullet then having the Japanese Empire run Asia would not be as bad as China attempting to run Asia? A revived Russian Empire might put a definite check on Turkish and Iranian ambitions, after all. But while we don’t know how this will come out, there’s no sense getting mad a Putin or acting like he’s not behaving rationally. He’s doing what he thinks is best – that we think it wrong is immaterial. Unless we want to declare war on Russia, there’s not much we can do, after all.
But here is the risk – without fear of America’s overwhelming power (and it still is overwhelming – it still could take on, for instance, Russia and China at the same time and beat them into the ground), things could get a bit dangerous out in the world. It could be that as nations take the lid off and start competing for territory, resources and prestige that one or more of them decides to challenge us directly, thinking that we can be cowed – or, if not cowed, then easily beaten. It would be much better, I think, that once having won overwhelming global dominance that we had maintained it – we have let the scepter slip from our hands, however, and there’s no getting it back without war. The world is now at genuine risk of World War Three.
This is not just Obama’s fault – though he has put the final touches on it. This stretches back to the immediate post-WWII era, when we didn’t firmly put Russia in her place…and when we failed to pick up the real challenge in Korea and take out China and Russia. It is the result of thinking that the world is governed by something other than force; that sweet reasonableness and treaties make the world safe. They don’t. Power and the willingness to apply it is what makes the world safe – or, as safe as it can be. Putin is living in the real world. So is China. So is Iran. The sooner we join them there the sooner we can start to rationally think about what we want – and where we’ll draw a line and tell them, “thus far and no further”.