British historian A.J.P. Taylor once quipped that July 1914 must be the most studied month in history. Library shelves are filled with volumes about how a crisis that started in the Balkans spun out of control and engulfed Europe in war. The run-up to the First World War has since become a kind of laboratory to test ideas about how wars start.
Why did France go to war in 1914? The short answer is because Germany declared war on her on August 3. But Germany had no quarrel with France; its problems were in the East. In June, a group of Serb youths, citizens of Austria, conspired to murder the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia, then part of the Austrian empire. Austria accused Serbia of having a cross-border hand in the deed and wanted to teach it a lesson. As tensions rose, it became clear that if war broke out, Russia would help Serbia against Austria, and Germany would help Austria against Russia.
On July 31, Germany demanded France declare its intentions; it was seeking a pledge of neutrality because such a stance would give Germany a free hand in the East. The deadline was 1 p.m. the next day. The German ambassador arrived at the foreign ministry two hours early. He was received by French prime minister René Viviani. When asked for the response, he gave the government’s prearranged reply: “France would consult its own interests.” That was it. Diplomacy had come to an end, Germany mobilized, and Europe was at war a few days later.
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Neutrality was never an option for France, and the German ambassador allowed as much when he met with Viviani. Still, the German demand is part of the July Crisis, and it points to, as we would say today, an “off ramp,” a way for France to avoid war. In effect, Germany was saying to France: “Do not let the problems of the Balkans concern you. We don’t have a quarrel with you, and your neutrality would mean peace between us. Consider your good friend, Britain. It, too, is entertaining a neutral stance. Be sensible.”
France could have opted for neutrality, but only if it was willing to give up its status as one of Europe’s great powers. Neutrality would have cleared the way for Germany to arrange matters in the East and then to go on to dominate Europe. That is the take-away from this vignette. States go to war for many reasons, and among them would be a situation in which a state is faced with a choice between war or a humiliating retreat.
It was a different world when President John F. Kennedy developed this theme decades later. The occasion was his speech before the graduating class at the American University in Washington, D.C., in June 1963. It was five months before his death and eight months after he had confronted Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had recklessly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest approach during the Cold War by the U.S. and Russia to a nuclear confrontation.
After the crisis subsided, Kennedy wanted to say something about how the two superpowers could avoid a situation like that again and find a way to live together. In his speech, he signaled American readiness to join with Russia in banning the future tests of nuclear weapons, and he opened the door to peaceful coexistence. The speech is also noteworthy because it contained a passage that is relevant today because of the war in Ukraine.
Nuclear powers, Kennedy said,
must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.
Kennedy was forty-six when he passed on that advice to future generations of American foreign policy experts. It has not been heeded. Judging from the level of antagonism in Russo-American relations, many of these experts today would be of the view that Kennedy got it wrong: humiliating Russia is a goal to be desired, not avoided.
A confrontation with Russia over Ukraine had been brewing for years. Its origin lies in the post-Cold War decision in the Western capitals to enlarge NATO’s membership to include the countries of the old Soviet bloc, and ultimately Ukraine. Russia had repeatedly warned that this latter step would be a grave threat to Russian security and would not be allowed to stand. A confrontation with Russia over Ukraine had been brewing for years. Its origin lies in the post-Cold War decision in the Western capitals to enlarge NATO’s membership to include the countries of the old Soviet bloc, and ultimately Ukraine.Tweet This
The dispute stayed mostly in the verbal domain until 2014, when a stridently anti-Russian nationalist movement came to power in Ukraine. At that point, the situation was militarized: a civil war broke out, Russia seized Crimea, and NATO boosted its military aid to Ukraine.
All along, Russia was looking for a statement from NATO that Ukraine would never become one of its members. Russia wanted other things too, such as limits on Ukraine’s armaments, an understanding that Ukraine would be a neutral country, and even a new security arrangement in Europe, which would entail a rethinking of NATO’s purpose.
Variations of these elements were on the table, but the important thing was to get a commitment from NATO saying that membership would not be extended to Ukraine. It never came. To the contrary, the U.S. pushed back with support for the so-called “open door” policy on NATO membership.
The U.S. insisted that the “open door” was a “core principle” of American policy. It rested on the putative right of all states to choose their own security arrangements without outside interference. The U.S. was “committed” to this principle and said it would “defend” it. The principle was held up as something Russia, too, could go along with, if only it would be sensible. The confrontation thus reduced to a clash between American ideals and Russian realpolitik. Neither side would yield.
“There is no change, there will be no change,” is how Secretary of State Antony Blinken answered a reporter’s question in January 2022 on whether a recent exchange of diplomatic notes between Russia and the West, aimed at defusing the crisis, included any flexibility on changing NATO’s “open door” policy. There would be none.
We do not know what Russia and the Western capitals talked about in those notes. They are not yet in the public domain. But we do know that whatever was in them came to no avail. Weeks later, diplomacy ended and Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia could no more accept NATO in Ukraine than France could have accepted neutrality in 1914. Both states were reacting to conditions created by an opponent, both saw themselves in jeopardy, and both had in front of them a no-war option leading to a peaceful exit. But to take that option would have meant their abdicating any claim to great power status, a “humiliating retreat” in Kennedy’s words. It would have passively allowed one’s adversary to emerge as the dominant player in the system.
Today, American policy makers are pushing ahead in Ukraine, convinced that they possess the right kinds of “core principles,” that the enemy is morally depraved, and that they know how to calibrate military responses to Russia in a way that keeps the pressure on while sparing the world the nightmare of a nuclear showdown.
If there is any consolation in all this, it is that Divine Providence decreed from the foundation of the world that not one of the architects of current American policy toward Russia would be in the White House situation room when John F. Kennedy confronted Nikita Khrushchev sixty-one years ago.
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