Don't Talk World War III Blues

It's not WW3, it's just foreign affairs


"all of the people can't be all right all of the time"
White House

This week while in the Philippines, at the tail end of his nine-day trip to Asia, President Obama bemoaned that his critics at home tie every foreign policy event that doesn't play out in America's perceived favor to his failure last summer to intervene militarily in Syria over chemical weapons allegations. "Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" the president asked at a press conference in Manila, insisting his foreign policy was one that sought to "avoid error." Yet President Obama has continued America's decade of war, trying to delay the end of the Iraq war and continuing aimlessly with the Afghanistan war for nearly six years.

One thing Obama's approach has done to "avoid error," or the perception of error, is to finely tune his foreign policy decisions to broad trends in public opinion. Vali Nasr made the case that the Obama Administration's foreign policy was driven by domestic political concerns in his book Indispensable Nation. "The Obama administration's reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns," he wrote.

Thus Obama was able to maintain many of his predecessor's pillars of war policy—"hunting and killing terrorists," to borrow a phrase from 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry—without the political costs associated with prominent, prolonged land campaigns that the Bush Administration learned about during George W. Bush's second term. Obama ran as an anti-war candidate in 2008 and as the candidate that could keep the peace in 2012.

Nearly a hundred years ago another president, Woodrow Wilson, campaigned for re-election under the slogan "He Kept Us Out of the War." Democrats insisted if Republicans won that year they'd lead the U.S. into a war with Germany and Mexico. Tensions between the U.S. and Mexico had escalated under Wilson, with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raiding a town in New Mexico in 1916. The Republican's presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, criticized Wilson's "pacifist" stance, pushing for more military mobilization and preparedness, while simultaneously attacking Wilson for intervening militarily in the Mexican Civil War.

In 2012, too, Democrats insisted Republican victory would spell war. That summer, a friend of mine who worked in Europe told me he worried Mitt Romney would start World War III if he won. My friend was not a U.S. citizen, but the attitude was not alien to American detractors of Mitt Romney either. And indeed, Romney did little to disabuse his critics of this notion, surrounding himself with neoconservative advisors and bemoaning a lack of military preparedness, as Hughes had nearly a century earlier. In Romney and Republicans' view President Obama, he of the expansive drone policy, of the intervention in Libya's civil war, of the protraction of the conflict in Afghanistan, of the expanding footprint of the U.S. military worldwide, was too much of a pacifist for Republicans. With such a large percentage of Americans opposing the war in Afghanistan, is it any surprise Romney lost even against a relatively unpopular incumbent?

As it turned out, Wilson went to Congress seeking a declaration of war, and American entry into World War I less than a month after his second inauguration. The U.S. would only officially declare itself at war one more time after that. President Obama has less than 1,000 days left in office, and while Ukraine's interim prime minister says Russia "wants to start World War III," the rest of the world doesn't seem that interested.

Obama's critics at home, of course, say he's not doing enough in Ukraine. Senator John McCain, the Republicans' 2008 presidential candidate, faults the president for not sending weapons to our "friends" in Ukraine. Forget war weary Americans, he said in an NPR interview, mothers in Syria are war weary. It's just the kind of tenuous connection Obama complained about in the Philippines this week. Obama continued at that press conference: "Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?" He hit the nail on the head but was not content to stop there. "Are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we're applying?" he continued, defending the sanctions regime against aides and companies close to Vladimir Putin that the U.S. has expanded. While the likelihood that such U.S. sanctions will be successful is low, polls show sanctions against Russia enjoying broad support among the American public. So at least the sanctions will be effective in aligning President Obama's policies with what's popular in the polls.

World War III would obviously not be as popular. More importantly, the president was right in dismissing the role his actions in Syria played in influencing subsequent foreign policy developments, like the current tensions in Ukraine. Setting red lines and then ignoring them when they're crossed, as the president did last summer, reinforces the idea that the U.S. is an unreliable partner in foreign affairs, but that is hardly a new notion. Saddam Hussein decided to keep bluffing about weapons of mass destruction because he did not expect the U.S. to actually invade over the issue. Iran insisted it was interested in cooperating on Afghanistan since the climate in that country affects the security situation in its own. Instead, Iran was branded part of the axis of evil. In 2006 hard-liners called the U.S. an unreliable partner for its "stop and go diplomacy," in that case on the issues of Iraq and the country's controversial nuclear program.

So while President Obama's half-hearted red line may have reinforced the idea of America as a capricious participant suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder on foreign policy, it's unlikely military intervention in Syria would've dissuaded Putin's aggressive decisions vis-á-vis Ukraine. John Glaser explained why at Reason last month; because international relations don't work that way. In fact, it's easy to imagine how a U.S. military intervention in Syria may have made it even easier for Putin to operate aggressively in Ukraine—the U.S. could've mired itself in a not-quite-regime-change-but-definitely-do-some-peacekeeping-style open-ended mission in Syria. Or Putin could've used the precedent of U.S. intervention in Syria to defend his intervention in Crimea. The possibilities multiply if, in this hypothetical, Russia decides to intervene in Syria, too. Perhaps then World War III might be possible.

A hundred years ago today, few could imagine the year would end with the (European) world at war. Even when 20-year-old Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, few at the time understood that moment would become "a shot heard round the world." That summer, Germany believed the Balkan conflict could remain local while Russia looked to escalate the fight and push for broader war. By the end of the war Germany was the ultimate loser, blamed for the war's start and punished at its conclusion. The Russian government that pressed for war didn't survive it, being replaced by a communist government of the October revolutionaries. It was dubbed "the war to end all wars," but it didn't.

Putin's actions in Ukraine are today compared to the other World War, while Putin cloaks his actions in rhetoric pulled from that war. The interim government in Kiev, he insists, is filled with neo-Nazis whose lineage can be traced to groups like the Bandera, pro-Nazi insurgents during World War II. Western critics, meanwhile, point to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, approved in a conference at Munich that's served as the go-to source for metaphors targeting contemporary examples of perceived appeasement. In this case, Crimea is Sudetenland and Putin gets Godwinned as Hitler.

The situation today is different from the preludes to the first two world wars not just because of the role of deterrence played by nuclear and other technology as well as an interconnected global economy (Russia's biggest hit for its aggression toward Ukraine is economic and unrelated to the limited sanctions imposed), but because of the signals world leaders are sending and the intents behind them. Hitler's quest for power, through the democratic process at home and then through war abroad, was couched in decidedly nationalistic and racist terms. Lebensraum, living space, demanded war.

The agreement in Munich didn't fail insomuch as it wasn't relevant, just as U.S. sanctions aimed at Russia today aren't relevant. Yet, for all his faults, Putin is no Hitler. The European Union is not Putin's foe, there to be conquered militarily. Instead, it is a primary consumer of natural gas exported from Russia. Outside of tensions in Ukraine (through which Russian pipelines run and which Russia says owes it more than $2 billion in delinquent gas bills), Russia continues to expand its energy portfolio, one on which the European powers of the 21st century rely absent the military means of  previous centuries that permitted such resource disputes to be resolved on battlefields.

President Obama is unlikely to be convinced to commit military forces to a resource conflict on the European continent, if only because he's committing military assets to an "Asia pivot" that appears to be positioning for a possible resource conflict with China. China has responded with its own massive military buildup. It is in territorial disputes with each of the countries Obama has visited on his tour of Asia (Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines). It is also America's No. 2 trading partner, and holds nearly a quarter of U.S. foreign debt, incentives that work to dissuade both sides from war.  Whether that's enough may, for the duration of President Obama's term, rely on public opinion polls. Then there's the 2016 election. For America, at least, the greatest bulwark against stumbling into a global war could be its electorate. An authentically anti-war candidate may be a unicorn, but if the American people continue to roundly reject openly pro-war candidates, like they did Romney and McCain, those in power won't be able to be as trigger-happy as previous presidents have been.

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  1. When you play the game of drones…

  2. Good article. One thing to note though – sanctions are unlikely to work… If Putin manages to paint NATO and the West as external enemy, his popularity will only grow.

    If you want to do anything at all, you need somehow to shore up Kiev government power structure in the East of the country. And guns are not the way to do it – you need to change out police/military personnel in order to stop them from passively supporting separatists. Not sure what US can really do there.

    In the grander run of things, its not US problem though – if Russia starts killing people left and right, maybe, but so far nobody in East Ukraine seems to care who’s in charge.

  3. The “war to end all wars” didn’t end all wars because it ended in a screwjob stalemate and had to be refought 20 years later to a definite finish.

    1. That’s definitely one factor. But another possibly more significant factor, is that Britain and France put the screws to Germany via reparations after WW1.

      Which then set the stage for a humiliated Germany with a basket case economy to demand revenge.

      1. Don’t forget how Germany put the screws to Russia with the Brest Livosk treaty in WW1,
        Russia had to pay Germany 6 Billion marks,
        Historian Spencer Tucker says, “The German General Staff had formulated extraordinarily harsh terms that shocked even the German negotiator,

    2. You know who else thought the war needed to be refought 20 years later to a definite finish…

      1. Was it Tulpa?

        1. Ho Chi Minh? JFK? LBJ?

  4. Bingo Singo hootin Ringo!

    1. Finally…someone on this thread is making a little sense!

  5. Economic interdependence is not necessarily a deterrent to war,
    A good example is Europe prior to WW1, Germany and England had extensive trade leading up to the Great War,
    European countries traded with each other before WW1 and they still duked it out,
    Although I don’t believe Putin would be so stupid as to risk economic devastation, The Russians enjoy their Gazprom paychecks too much.

  6. The electorate knows little and cares less. We have had far more deaths of American servicemen in Afghanistan since Obama, but clearly the public thinks the war is over. These are actual human beings with families at home who are, like me, furious when they constantly hear how Obama has overseen the great peace on earth.

  7. Wow, if you read this treatment you could almost forget that Obama was the one with a hard-on for war with Syria at the time, and the guy who got us involved in the civil war in Libya, something you’d think Krayewski would find appropriate to mention here.

    But no, Obama’s just the victim of the evil warmongering GOP and public opinion.

    1. I’m a little surprised at that glaring omission myself.

      I wish I were still surprised at Obama’s ability to rewrite history in his own mind, and at the media’s failure to call him out on it.

    2. My thoughts exactly watching that presser. Thank god we live in1820 and there is no video showing him beating his chest over Assad.

  8. As Reason mentionned in the past from this article from April 2011, https://reason.com/archives/201…..ure-babble it’s hard to make prediction in the future. But seems then one of George Friedman’s predictions in his book “The next 100 years” about Ukraine was right. http://hennessysview.com/2014/…..ands-next/

    It could be interesting to compare the predictions of George Friedman with the ones of Gerald Celente.

  9. “The Obama administration’s reputation for competence . . . . ”

    I had the most difficult time reading the rest of the article.

  10. Don’t we still need the Ruskies to get our astronauts in and out of space? Or are we pretty much giving up on participating in space station activities for the foreseeable future?

    1. Yikes. There are 2 Americans and 3 Russians (plus a Japanese astronaut) up there right now. Wonder if that is a little awkward.

      1. Stan: Hey uh Vlad… can i get some of that ice cream? I’m all out.

        Vlad: You vill not share my astronaut ice crrrream!

        Stan: Awww come on. You’re still sore over this Ukraine stuff?

        Vlad: my grandma said to your grandma she vill set her house on fire! Talking bout…

        Stan: hey now!!

        Vlad: hey now!!

        Stan: hey now!!!

        Vlad: hey now!!!

        Stan: .Iko, Iko, un de’

        Vlad: Jockamo feeno ai na nay’!

        Stan: Jockamo fee na nay’!

        Lum: Seppuku sounds much better then hearing these two bitch and fight all night.

        1. Don’t make me open the airlock!

          1. Lol.

            Awesome choice for a name. Vampire likes :0)

  11. hope WWIII is never to happen!

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