When the negotiators of the victorious powers gathered in Paris in 1919 to draft the peace treaty, the consensus view was that war guilt rested solely with Germany and its allies. But no sooner had the ink dried on the Treaty of Versailles than historians and others began to challenge that finding, leading to a century-long debate over the origins and causes of the First World War.
Library shelves are now filled with books about it. Some of them look for answers in the various crises that broke out over Europe in the decade before the guns of August, while others trace the war’s origins to deeper causes in the 19th century. Gradually, points of view began to emerge different from the one of the Paris Peace Conference: that responsibility did not rest on one party; that Britain could have done more to avert the catastrophe; and there was even the realization that it is more important to understand how the war began than to assign blame.
There was no comparable debate or reassessment after the Second World War. The consensus view in 1945 is pretty much that of today: that the war stemmed from the willful act of one man who was bent on hegemonic conquest. The assignment of blame and the search for the war’s origins and causes have not really been controversial.
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The arguments supporting U.S. war policy in Ukraine today has the pattern of the Second World War. The conventional view among foreign policy elites holds that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an open and shut case of “unprovoked” aggression and that it stemmed from the willful act of one man, Russian president Vladimir Putin. “One man chose this war,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, “and one man can end it.” This view goes on to say that Putin sees Ukraine as the first step toward subjugating Eastern Europe into a security belt of vassal states.
The anti-war camp claims that the conventional view is wrong and must be revised. It denies that Russia’s invasion was an act of “unprovoked” aggression and, to the contrary, counters that the United States and its European allies provoked the catastrophe by the imprudent enlargement of NATO into Eurasia. They maintain that Russia went to war for the reasons its leaders have said it did: to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and to remove a potential military threat there that Moscow found unacceptable.
The two sides also have different working definitions of “aggression.” The conventional view holds that Russia is the aggressor because it attacked Ukraine and not the other way around. The anti-war camp holds that an aggressor is not only the one who attacks, he can also be the one who starts the quarrel: these need not be the same person. For this reason, the anti-war camp insists on examining the actions of all parties, going back decades, leading up to the war. The analogy here is to those who sifted through the historical record after the First World War, looking for answers to how it all began.
Not only do the two camps differ on the cause of war, at a more fundamental level they have two different world views, two different understandings of how the international system works. Broadly speaking, the anti-war camp maps onto what is called the realist school of international affairs, which holds that states have interests, not friends, and they must rely on self-help to do what is necessary to protect themselves. Thus, they find that Russia went to war not to conquer but from a no-nonsense threat assessment.
By contrast, the United States entered the fray with an ideologically charged outlook. The U.S. has always seen itself as the savior of the world, as the “indispensable nation.” Its foreign policy, particularly in the period after the Cold War, is not based on a realist’s appreciation of power politics but on a set of assumptions that may be called “liberal hegemony,” which can be reduced to the idea that a world filled with more democracies would be a safer and better place than it is today. This outlook is disdainful of traditional balance of power politics, prefers a “rules based” world order, has domestic bipartisan support, and is the dominant view among American elites. The United States entered the fray with an ideologically charged outlook. The U.S. has always seen itself as the savior of the world, as the “indispensable nation.”Tweet This
Russia’s war policy is the epitome of the realist approach: thus, when a dispute arises among states, the historical and geographic circumstances of the case must be given weight. The approach is “bottom up” and conservative. It grapples with the question, “What is there?” The American view of the same situation tends to be “top-down” and revolutionary. It is less concerned with historical contexts than with hypothetical theorizing about how people and states ought to behave. It grapples with the question, “What should be there?”
“The days of empire and spheres of influence are over,” President Obama proclaimed in a speech in Warsaw in 2014. He was alluding to Russia’s seizure of Crimea that year and voicing support for NATO’s smaller members in Eastern Europe. “Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small or impose their will at the barrel of a gun.” Never mind Obama’s gloss over the Monroe Doctrine; the logic here is that if all countries in the world were democracies, they would settle their disputes peacefully, and things like “spheres of influence” would be discarded as relics of a more primitive time.
Several weeks before the Russian invasion, Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics. There he met with China’s leader Xi Jinping, and although historians will have to wait to get the minutes of that meeting, it is a good bet that Putin told Xi that he had no choice but to go in with force. The two sides issued a joint statement, saying: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” Thus, on the eve of battle, Russia and China, each for its own reasons, made a last call for respecting spheres of influence. The trouble is the United States does not speak that language.
The contrasts between what Obama had said and the Russia-China statement illustrates two different ways of looking at the world. One side is saying that world peace is served when the great powers exercise self-restraint and are respectful of other powers’ security; while the other side is saying that maintaining a sphere of influence is implicitly an aggressive act.
One side is saying that tensions between the great powers do not come from the particular character of their regimes but, rather, are a built-in feature of the international system; the other side is saying that a regime’s character is exactly the point because different characters affect world affairs differently. One side says a state’s historical and geographic circumstances are constants and must always be taken into account; the other side de-emphasizes these in favor of an overlay of law and ethical precepts.
Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, the debate over its causes will remain. The conventional view has a hard job ahead. It must ensure that its snap-shut case of unprovoked aggression stays shut and that the search for responsibility stays inside the Kremlin. The anti-war camp is swinging for the history books. Like the First World War reappraisers, its job is to continually sift through the historical record asking, “Why couldn’t this have been avoided?”
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