Dear Reader (And purveyors of fine Jewish Space Lasers everywhere),
I liked the TV show House of Cards for a while, but gave up on it in the third season when it took a ridiculous turn. (Rather than bore those of you understandably don’t care about that, I’ve cut the first 500 words of this “news”letter and made it into a sidebar.)
In the show, Frank and Claire Underwood were murderous, conniving, and cruel political operators who would stop at next to nothing to gain power. The thing I liked about the show was that it asked a fun question: What would modern American politics look like with protagonists who practice pre-modern politics?
You see, in the grand sweep of human history, the political ethics practiced by the Underwoods are normal. In every civilization known to man, the powerful—or at least many of them—schemed, blackmailed, and murdered in private while extolling virtue in public. Machiavelli never said, “Politics have no relation to morals”—despite what all the quotation sites say—but it’s not a terrible summary of his attitude.
One of the hallmarks of human progress is that, in America and other liberal democracies, what was once normal is considered abnormal. One of the problems we have in foreign aid is that what we call “corruption,” more traditional societies call “the way business is done.” And they’re right. Doing favors for kith and kin is normal. Putting projects out for competitive bidding is just plain weird, man. “What if a member of a rival clan wins the contract?”
In a modern society, where the state has a monopoly on the use of violence, private violence is largely criminalized save in self-defense. If you grew up in such a society—which I assume most of you did—using violence to achieve private benefits is rightly seen as abnormal. Of course, it’s a constant struggle to keep it that way, because humans by nature have a violent streak that can come out among the poorly socialized. This is why calls to abolish the police are so idiotic. Human nature doesn’t change. Fail to tend the garden of civilization, and nature will reclaim it. Because gardens are not natural, they do not spontaneously emerge. They must be cultivated (a word that shares its root with culture). But given human nature, if crime no longer seems like a problem because it doesn’t touch your life, it’s no wonder that some people will think policing has outlived its usefulness. As G.K. Chesterton teaches us, it’s common for people to arrogantly assume a fence serves no purpose just because they don’t know what purpose it serves.
A similar principle applies to international affairs. Peace between nations is not the norm of human existence. Wars for resources, prestige, power, and vengeance are like chapter breaks in the story of humanity. Vladimir Putin is a kind of Russian Frank Underwood. He scoffs at democratic and moral norms. He, like Nietzche’s Übermensch, makes his own morality (which is why, I think, so many power-worshippers in the West have man-crushes on him). Putin’s quest for power and prestige is the norm in human history. He doesn’t just want to go down in the history books like the czars, he wants to be like a czar.
This is why, as Noah Rothman notes, the current brahmins of foreign policy have such a hard time understanding what motivates Putin. He would be utterly recognizable to pre-modern thinkers, because he’s a pre-modern man. The internationalists are flummoxed by his willingness to invite scorn from the enlightened, while the realists struggle to account for the fact that his motivations do not fit the materialist paradigms of their theories. They’re like Christian monks who can’t understand why the Viking invaders burning their monasteries seem unconcerned with Jesus’ teachings.
Since 1945, there have been plenty of wars. But very few of them have been between democracies and none of them—save for the 1990s Balkan conflict—took place in Europe. This fact has led many people to think that relative stability and security of the post-World War II international order is natural.
We have an expensive army we never use, so why not get rid of it? This is a bit like thinking your ship doesn’t need a life raft because you’ve never used it. But it’s even worse than that, because a life raft doesn’t keep the ship afloat. It’s more like saying you don’t need to patch holes in the hull because you’re such a good navigator.
Europe, when the walls fell.
For some people, NATO itself is like Chesterton’s fence. We haven’t “needed” it for a long time, so it must no longer be necessary. Col. Jessup may have been the villain in A Few Good Men, but his courtroom speech about the necessity of walls was exactly right (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.”). The only thing he got wrong was when he said to Tom Cruise, “You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall—you need me on that wall.”
The real truth is that a lot of people don’t feel this way. They’ve forgotten why walls—and men with guns—are necessary. Indeed, they’ve convinced themselves that the peace they enjoy has nothing to do with such things.
I’m reminded of a piece I read 20 years ago, in which German political scientist Karl Kaiser said, “Europeans have done something that no one has ever done before: create a zone of peace where war is ruled out, absolutely out.” And, he added, “Europeans are convinced that this model is valid for other parts of the world.”
Twenty years later, it appears that model isn’t even valid in Europe, never mind the rest of the world.
That article is really amazing because it begins with a lengthy account of a legal fight at the European Court of Justice over the quality standards for … parmesan cheese. This episode of legalistic and bureaucratic wrangling is cast as proof of the “European miracle” of peace and prosperity:
Score one for the cheesemakers of Parma. And score one more for the European Union and the process that, over the years, has built—case by case, decision by decision, negotiation by negotiation—a continental structure that may be the great international success story of the post-World War II years.
Right. Europe’s miraculous peace was made possible by a commitment to Jesuitical bureaucratic wrangling. NATO and the U.S. Seventh Army had nothing to do with it.
In an interview earlier this week, John Kerry, former secretary of state and Biden’s climate envoy, bloodlessly described Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Putin’s disregard for international norms and then said, “I thought we lived in a world that said ‘no’ to that kind of activity.”
Well, that’s a problem now, isn’t it? Kerry was secretary of state when Putin seized Crimea. Before that he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. And now he’s like, “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.” If I were him, I might not want to admit that.
And this is the problem in a nutshell. In domestic politics, there is a government—a state—that imposes and regulates social peace. There is nothing equivalent in the international realm. The “world” doesn’t say “no” to that kind of activity, because the “world” doesn’t say jack. And even if you think “international opinion” is a serious and important thing, that doesn’t mean international opinion does anything. To paraphrase Stalin, how many divisions does international opinion have?
Kerry then segued into his real concern: that the Ukrainian crisis will distract from international cooperation on climate change. Look, I get it. Climate change is real and Kerry thinks it’s the most important thing in the world. But it’s simply amazing to listen to him fret over the “massive emissions consequences” of the war and the fact countries will take their eye off the ball of climate change while Putin is saying “no” to the world Kerry thought was real.
In the wake of 9/11, it became commonplace to describe the 1990s as a “holiday from history.” And I agreed with those who said that given the context of the time. But in one sense, we’ve been on a holiday from history for far longer. In my book I argue that the holiday began 300 years ago. But, for our purposes, the holiday began when World War II ended. For eight decades, the West kept the historical norm of wars of territorial aggression and irredentism partially at bay. But it’s worth remembering just how partial and difficult that effort was.
If the 1990s were a holiday from history, why did we have to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait? Why did we have to bomb the stuffing out of the Serbs? The 1990s weren’t a holiday from terrorism, either. We simply dismissed the decade as a nuisance or a series of one offs—the USS Cole, the World Trade Center, our African embassies—until our complacent self-delusion invited the attack that shattered it.
And even the post-WWII era was less of a holiday than our nostalgic memories would suggest. We didn’t stop the Soviet Union from conquering and effectively colonizing Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Estonia, LatviaLatvi,a and Lithuania. We helped them fail in Afghanistan and kept them out of Cuba and Nicaragua. Even the talking points about how the current invasion of Ukraine is the “first” violation of European peace leave out not just the Balkan wars, but Vladimir Putin’s previous assaults on Georgia and Ukraine.
The compelling part of the “holiday from history” phrase is the suggestion that it’s kind of a short-lived break from reality—vacations always end. The problem with the metaphor is it was never a vacation, not really. It can feel like one for those who are lucky enough not to be on that wall and thus enjoy the benefits of someone else being on it. But the wall always needs to be there—not physically, but conceptually and strategically. Because “history”—a confusing euphemism for the passions, ambitions, and barbarisms that will always be part of human nature—is always out there, just beyond the tree line, staring at us with feral yellow eyes that are hard to see through the light pollution of modern civilization. History is always waiting for an opportunity to invade that “zone of peace.”
Because history, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Nice essay Claire. They say that everything goes for shit once per lifetime. WWII generation knew, up close and personal, what it’s like when barbarism advances and more importantly they knew what it takes to roll it back. The Buddhists have more than one word for ‘know’ – there is what you think you know – what you know as an intellectual construct in your head – and then there’s what you know up close and personal – the difference between ‘knowing’ that war is hell, and what my favorite grunt knows:
As you say, Putin is what’s normal. Can a civilization that now concerns itself with pronouns and micro-aggressions resist him?