History Lessons Forgotten
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A quote from the philosopher George Santayana’s writing- “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”- is frequently used when someone is trying to make a point for or against war, or halting a nation’s aggressive behavior. One of the reasons for this is the ambiguity of the quote, as it can be interpreted to support different positions. Yet, there is truth in what Santayana wrote. National leaders tend to ignore the lessons of history except when it suits them, as their actions can look foolish at times when examined in the context of past events. Neville Chamberlain and the Munich pact he signed with Hitler in 1938 are also often employed as admonitions of history, to demonstrate that appeasement of dictators does not work. After Chamberlain had ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia to the Germans to avoid war, he returned to tell the British public he had secured “peace with honor…and peace for our time.” Of course, Hitler’s appetite was merely whetted by his annexation of the new territories and perceptions of British and French weakness. World War Two started shortly afterwards.
Western nations are currently facing three major threats to the order and stability that undergirds the world’s prosperity expected after the end of the Cold War. Leaders of the industrial democracies do not appear to be reacting in a manner that suggests an appreciation of history and instills confidence that Western ideals and values will be protected. The threats of course are from Putin’s Russia, the Iranian nuclear program, and radical Islam manifested by ISIS and Al Qaeda. In these conflicts, Western nations look to the United States to project its power to defend them, if agreements with Russia do not hold, or if ISIS and Al Qaeda are not defeated, or if Iran proceeds with the development of nuclear weapons.
Currently, the European Union, led by Angela Merkel of Germany and Francois Hollande of France, are hoping to limit Putin’s expansion in Ukraine by the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. But though the Russian economy has been damaged by these sanctions (and the low price of oil), it is Putin who continues to speak (and act) from a position of strength. The military power is in his hands and his control of the media has guaranteed backing from the Russian people. There is also the European dependence on Russian energy as part of the equation and the volume of trade between the E.U. and Russia that sustains businesses in the E.U.
In addition, the Ukrainian armed forces are weak compared to Russia and Europe provides little in the way of military back-up. Germany spends only 1.4% of its GDP on its military, France 2.2%, compared to 4.1% for Russia and 3.8% for the U.S. (However, in actual dollars, the U.S. spends more on its military than all of Europe and Russia combined.) European powers do not want a direct military confrontation with Russia and Putin is using this knowledge to expand the territory he controls. It should be remembered that Putin backed separatists in Georgia (as he is doing in Ukraine) and still controls Georgian territory (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Part of Moldavia is also under Russian occupation (Transnitria). Eastern Ukraine and these other areas have ethnic Russians residing there. But so do the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, and other countries that were once in the Soviet orbit. If Putin is not blocked in Ukraine, what will stop him from fomenting revolts in other states and grabbing more territory?
Radical Islam is obviously a major threat to the Middle East, but also to Europe as well as the United States. Yet European nations have done relatively little militarily or economically to aid in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, aside from dealing with their own nationals who might pose a danger to them. Though the total GDP of the E.U. is similar to that of America, E.U. states are reluctant to fund the build-up of their armed forces or engage in military conflict. Combat seems like such an uncivilized way to solve problems in the 21st century.
The E.U. (and Russia) along with the U.S. are involved in the nuclear talks with Iran, imposed sanctions appearing to have brought Iran to the negotiating table. The question is what action the E.U. will take (along with the U.S. and Israel) if Iran is unwilling to halt its nuclear weapons program. In addition to increased sanctions, will the E.U. be prepared to bomb Iran or take any other military steps?
Before the European Union (and Japan) can be partners with the U.S. in the confrontations against bad actors who threaten to upset world stability and order, they must increase the size of their military forces and acquire greater amounts of modern arms. The United States cannot be and does not want to be the world’s policeman. Other Western democracies must be willing to ramp up economic sanctions when necessary, and the use (or at least the threat) of force if nothing else works in halting aggression and attempts at intimidation of free nations. If one appears weak and vulnerable, a bully will not back down.
Photo Frederick Legrand COMEO Shutterstock