Are there parallels between today’s situation in eastern Europe and the Europe of 1914? History may not always repeat, after all, but it frequently rhymes. David P. Goldman thinks there are such parallels. Excerpt:
World War I had no good guys and no winners. France rightly sought the return of the provinces Germany had annexed in 1870. Russia rightly feared that German influence would sever its industrial centers and tax base in the Western parts of it its empire; England feared that Germany would encroach on its overseas empire; Germany feared that Russia’s railroad system would overcome its advantage in mobility and firepower. None of them wanted a war, but each of them decided that it was better to fight in 1914 than fight later at a disadvantage.
Historian Christopher Clark in his 2013 book The Sleepwalkers forever buried the black legend of German aggression in 1914, with proof from Russian archives that the Czar’s mobilization – with French incitement – provoked the outbreak of war. There’s no hero to cheer, no villain to boo in the first tragedy of the 20th century, just mediocre and small-minded politicians unable to step back from the brink.
All of them acted rationally in the pursuit of their vital interests, but at the same stupidly as well as wickedly, and the ensuing world wars undid the achievements of a thousand years of Western civilization. We look back to 1914 in horror, and wonder how the leaders of the West could have been so pig-headed. Nonetheless, we are doing it again today.
That should be an object lesson for today’s Ukraine crisis. Vladimir Putin acted wickedly, and illegally, by invading Ukraine, but also rationally: Russia has an existential interest in keeping NATO away from his border. Russia will no more tolerate American missiles in Kyiv than the United States would tolerate Russian missiles in Cuba.
The United States could have averted a crisis by adhering to the Minsk II framework of local rule for the Russophone provinces of Eastern Ukraine within a sovereign Ukrainian state but chose instead to keep open Ukraine’s option to join NATO. That was rational, but also stupid: It backed Putin into a corner.
I’m not so sure keeping that option open was rational, but I wholeheartedly agree it was stupid. And I’m not 100% certain NATO is still relevant, although it’s vastly more relevant and useful than the UN at this point. Frankly, Ukraine isn’t any of our damn business. Is the Russian invasion a bad thing? Certainly. Are there any compelling U.S. interests involved? Not so that I can see.
Look, Russia is likely due for a scrambling overhaul in any case, and within a generation. Putin won’t live forever, the Russian GDP is roughly the same as Spain’s, and the Russian people aren’t having babies. A poor state whose people aren’t reproducing isn’t a recipe for long-term success; at this point it would seem Russia is doomed for the ash-heap of history in time, Putin’s desire to resurrect the Soviet Union aside. But now we are involved, and without one U.S. soldier involved, we are paying the price – at the gas pump and, with the latest boom in inflation, everywhere else.
In Chinese official media, there is a grim discussion of the parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan. We misjudged Putin, just as he misjudged us. No sanctions or denunciations will hold back the Russian Army. We should not misjudge China. Sometimes an uncomfortable status quo is infinitely preferable to a roll of the dice on peace or war.
Especially when the folks you’re rolling dice with have nuclear warheads on intercontinental launchers.