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.