The Age of Perpetual Conflict

Email Print


all wars in the twentieth century have both surprised and disillusioned
all leaders, whatever their nationality.  Given the political,
social, and human elements involved in every conflict, and the near
certainty that these mercurial ingredients will interact
to produce unanticipated consequences, leaders who calculate the
outcome of wars as essentially predictable military events are invariably
doomed to disappointment.  The theory and the reality of warfare
conflict immensely, for the results of wars can never be known in

Blind men and
women have been the motor of modern history and the source of endless
misery and destruction.   Aspiring leaders of great powers
can neither understand nor admit the fact that their strategies
are extremely dangerous because statecraft by its very nature always
calculates the ability of a nation’s military and economic resources
to overcome whatever challenges it confronts.  To reject such
traditional reasoning, and to question the value of conventional
wisdom and react to international crises realistically on the basis
of past failures would make them unsuited to command.  The
result is that politicians succeed in terms of their personal careers,
states make monumental errors, and people suffer.  The great
nations of Europe and Japan put such illusions into practice repeatedly
before 1945.

At the beginning
of the 21st century only the U.S. has the will to maintain a global
foreign policy and to intervene everywhere it believes necessary.
Today and in the near future, America will make the decisions that
will lead to war or peace, and the fate of much of the world is
largely in its hands. It thinks it possesses the arms and a spectrum
of military strategies all predicated on a triumphant activist role
for itself.  It believes that its economy can afford interventionism,
and that the American public will support whatever actions necessary
to set the affairs of some country or region on the political path
it deems essential.  This grandiose ambition is bipartisan
and, details notwithstanding, both parties have always shared a
consensus on it. 

The obsession
with power and the conviction that armies can produce the political
outcome a nation's leaders desire is by no means an exclusively
American illusion.  It is a notion that goes back many centuries
and has produced the main wars of modern times. The rule of force
has been with mankind a very long time, and the assumptions behind
it have plagued its history for centuries. But unlike the leaders
of most European nations or Japan, the United States' leaders have
not gained insight from the calamities that have so seared modern
history. Folly is scarcely an American monopoly, but resistance
to learning when grave errors have been committed is almost proportionate
to the resources available to repeat them.  The Germans learned
their lesson after two defeats, the Japanese after World War Two,
and both nations found wars too exhausting and politically dangerous.  
America still believes that if firepower fails to master a situation
the solution is to use it more precisely and much more of it. 
In this regard it is exceptional — past failures have not made it
any wiser. 

Wars are at
least as likely today as any time over the past century.  Of
great importance is the end of Soviet hegemony in East Europe and
Moscow’s restraining influence elsewhere.  But the proliferation
of nuclear technology and other means of mass destruction have also
made large parts of the world far more dangerous.  Deadly local
wars with conventional weapons in Africa, the Balkans, Middle East,
and elsewhere have multiplied since the 1960s.  Europe, especially
Germany, and Japan are far stronger and more independent than at
any time since 1945, and China’s rapidly expanding economy has given
it a vastly more important role in Asia. Ideologically, Communism's
demise means that the simplified bipolarism that Washington used
to explain the world ceased after 1990 to have any value. 
With it, the alliances created nominally to resist Communism have
either been abolished or are a shadow of their original selves;
they have no reason for existence.  The crisis in NATO, essentially,
reflects this diffusion of all forms of power and the diminution
of American hegemony. Economically, the capitalist nations have
resumed their rivalries, and these have become more intense with
the growth of their economies and the decline in the dollar — which
by 2004 was as weak as it has been in over 50 years.  These
states have a great deal in common ideologically, but concretely
they are increasingly rivals.  The virtual monopoly of nuclear
weapons that existed about a quarter-century ago has ended with

Whether it
is called a "multipolar" world, to use President Jacques
Chirac's expression in November 2004, in which Europe, China, India,
and even eventually South America follow their own interests, or
another definition, the direction is clear. There may or may not
be  "a fundamental restructuring of the global order,"
as the chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council presciently
reflected in April 2003, but the conclusion was unavoidable "that
we are facing a more fluid and complicated set of alignments than
anything we have seen since the formation of the Atlantic alliance
in 1949."  Terrorism and the global economy have defied
overwhelming American military power: "Our smart bombs aren't
that smart."

All of the
many factors considered — ranging from events in Africa and the
Middle East and Afghanistan to the breakup of Yugoslavia — wars,
whether civil or between states, remain the principal (but scarcely
the only) challenge confronting humanity in the twenty-first century. 
Ecological disasters relentlessly affecting all dimensions of the
environment are also insidious because of the unwillingness of the
crucial nations — above all the United States — to adopt measures
essential for reversing their damage.  The challenges facing
humanity have never been so complex and threatening, and the end
of the Cold War, while one precondition of progress, is scarcely
reason for complacency or optimism.  The problems the world
confronts far transcend the Communist-capitalist tensions, many
of which were mainly symptoms of the far greater intellectual, political,
and economic problems that plagued the world before 1917 — and still

Whatever its
original intention, America’s interventions can lead to open-ended
commitments in both duration and effort.  They may last a short
time, and usually do, but unforeseen events can cause the U.S. to
spend far more resources than it originally anticipated, causing
it in the name of its “credibility” or some other doctrine to get
into situations which are disastrous and which in the end produce
defeats and will leave America much worse off.  Vietnam is
the leading example of this but Iraq, however different in degree,
is the same.  Should it confront even some of the forty or
more nations that now have terrorist networks then it will in one
manner or another intervene everywhere, but especially in Africa
and the Middle East.  The consequences of such commitments
will be unpredictable.

The U.S. has
more determined and probably more numerous enemies today than at
any time, and many of those who hate it are ready and able to inflict
destruction on its shores.  Its interventions often triumphed
in the purely military sense, which is all the Pentagon worries
about, but in all too many cases they have been political failures
and eventually led to greater American military and political involvement. 
Its virtually instinctive activist mentality has caused it to get
into situations where it often had no interests, much less durable
solutions to a nation's problems, and thereby repeatedly creating
disasters and enduring enmities. America has power without wisdom,
and cannot, despite its repeated experiences, recognize the limits
of its ultra-sophisticated military technology.  The result
has been folly, and hatred, which is a recipe for disasters. 
September 11 confirmed that, and war has come to its shores. 

That the U.S.
end its self-appointed global mission of regulating all problems,
wherever, whenever, or however it wishes to do so, is an essential
precondition of stemming, much less reversing, the accumulated deterioration
of world affairs and wars.  We should not ignore the countless
ethical and other reasons it has no more right or capacity to do
so than any state over the past century, whatever justifications
they evoked.  The problems, as the history of the past century
shows, are much greater than America's role in the world; but at
the present time its actions are decisive and whether there is war
or peace will be decided far more often in Washington than any other
place.  Ultimately, there will not be peace in the world unless
all nations relinquish war as an instrument of policy, not only
because of ethical or moral reasoning but because wars have become
deadlier and more destructive of social institutions.  
A precondition of peace is for nations not to attempt to impose
their visions on others, adjudicate their differences, and never
to assume that their need for the economic or strategic resources
of another country warrants interference of any sort in its internal

But September
11 proved that after a half-century of interventions America has
managed to be increasingly hated.  It has failed abysmally
to bring peace and security to the world.  Its role as a rogue
superpower and promiscuous, cynical interventionist has been spectacularly
unsuccessful even on its own terms.  It is squandering vast
economic resources, and it has now endangered the physical security
of Americans at home.  To cease the damage the U.S. causes
abroad is also to fulfill the responsibilities that America's politicians
have to their own people.  But there is not the slightest sign
at this point that voters will call them to account, and neither
the American population nor its political leaders are likely to
agree to such far-reaching changes in foreign policy.  The
issues are far too grave to wait for American attitudes and its
political process to be transformed.  The world will be safer
to the extent that the U.S.' alliances are dissolved and it is isolated,
and that is happening for many reasons, ranging from the unilateralism,
hubris, and preemptory style of the Bush Administration to the fact
that with the demise of Communism the world's political alignments
are changing dramatically.

Communism and
fascism were both outcomes of the fatal errors in the international
order and affairs of states that the First World War spawned. 
In part, the Soviet system’s disintegration was the result of the
fact it was the aberrant consequence of a destructive and abnormal
war, but at least as important was its leaders’ loss of confidence
in socialism.  But suicidal Muslims are, to a great extent,
the outcome of a half-century of America’s interference in the Middle
East and Islamic world, which radicalized so many young men ready
to die for a faith.   Just as the wars of 1914–18 and
1939–45 created Bolsheviks, the U.S.' repeated grave errors, however
different the context or times, have produced their own abnormal,
negative reactions.   The twenty-first century has begun
very badly because of America's continued aggressive policies. 
These are far more dangerous than those of the preceding century.
 The destructive potential of weaponry has increased exponentially
and many more people and nations have access to it.  What would
once have been considered relatively minor foreign policy problems
now have potentially far greater consequences.  It all augurs
very badly.  The world has reached the most dangerous point
in recent, perhaps all of history.  There are threats of war
and instability unlike anything that prevailed when a Soviet-led
bloc existed.

Even if the
U.S. abstains from interference and tailors its actions to fit this
troubled reality, there will be serious problems throughout much
of the world. Internecine civil conflicts will continue, as well
as wars between nations armed with an increasing variety of much
more destructive weapons available from outside powers, of which
the U.S. remains, by far, the most important.  Many of these
sources of conflicts have independent roots, but both principles
and experiences justify America staying out of them and leaving
the world alone.  Both the American people and those involved
directly will be far better off without foreign interference, whatever
nation attempts it.

The U.S.' leaders
are not creating peace or security at home or stability abroad.
The reverse is the case: its interventions have been counterproductive
and its foreign policy is a disaster.  Americans and those
people who are the objects of successive administrations' efforts
would be far better off if the U.S. did nothing, closed its bases
overseas and withdrew its fleets everywhere, and allowed the rest
of world to find its own way. Communism is dead, and Europe and
Japan are powerful and both can and will take care of their own
interests.  The U.S. must adapt to these facts.  But if
it continues as it has over the past half-century, attempting to
attain the vainglorious but irrational ambition to run the world,
then there will be even deeper crises and it will inflict wars and
turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people.  And
it will fail yet again, for all states that have gone to war over
the past centuries have not achieved the objectives for which they
sacrificed so much blood, passion, and resources.  They have
only produced endless misery and upheavals of every kind.

1, 2007

Kolko is the author, among other works, of Century
of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914
, Another
Century of War?
, and Anatomy
of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience
His latest book is The
Age of War

Email Print