2017, hardly a year of world peace
An almost civil war in Ukraine, a real civil war in Syria, violence in Thailand and Venezuela — it’s a busy time in global affairs. And as usual, you can hear people who have lost patience with any or all of these situations say, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” I have a great deal of sympathy for this, but as a student of global affairs for almost four decades, I must ask, “Do what exactly?”
I know, America put a man on the moon, and the Europeans have created a system on the continent that has kept the peace for generations (unless you count Yugoslavia’s ugly breakup). So, there must be something we can do together to fix things.
Well, sadly, there isn’t. This is the hardest of all lessons for policymakers, pundits and the public to understand. Sometimes, there just isn’t a solution. You only have to look at the Middle East to see that. I would argue that Europe spent two centuries trying to figure out what to do about Prussia, and from Fredrick the Great and the Austrian War of Succession to the Second World War, the answer seemed to be: go to war every generation. Hardly a solution.
Before this gets more depressing than a Morrissey album on a rainy day, let me borrow a bit from the British sitcom “Yes, Minister.” If you are unfamiliar with the program, it pit the elected politician who ran a government department (Jim Hacker played by the late Paul Eddington) against the permanent department secretary (Sir Humphrey Appleby played by the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne). You must watch it if you ever want to understand politics. In one episode, a foreign president is going to give a speech that the minister doesn’t want given because it will upset negations on an oil rig. Hacker asks Sir Humphrey what to do.
Sir Humphrey tells him, “Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options: One, do nothing. Two, issue a statement deploring the speech. Three, lodge an official protest. Four, cut off aid. Five, break off diplomatic relations. And six, declare war.”
Then he adds, “If we do nothing we implicitly agree with the speech. Two, if we issue a statement we’ll just look foolish. Three, if we lodge a protest it’ll be ignored. Four, we can’t cut off aid because we don’t give them any. Five, if we break off diplomatic relations we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts. And six, if we declare war it might just look as though we were overreacting.”
In addition to these, one can impose economic sanctions. These are largely pointless and can be dangerous. The embargo against Cuba hasn’t worked worth spit. The top guys in the Syrian government have had assets frozen and can’t get visas to go shopping in Paris, but that hardly matters if you’re fighting for your life in Damascus. They’ve got bigger problems. And let’s remember how effective the American oil embargo against Japan was in 1941. They were so tight and so effective that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they were running low on oil. If they had waited much longer, Japan would have had to yield to America’s will. Tojo preferred fighting and possibly winning to not fighting and definitely losing. Economic sanctions were the catalyst for the war in the Pacific.
In each of the crises I noted at the beginning, we have the same options. Let’s take Ukraine and Putin as an example. The first three options are unhelpful and less than workable. Any aid that is cut off will probably be replaced by Putin’s Russia. Does President Yanukovych care if he can’t visit Austria for a skiing holiday right now?
Breaking off relations with Kyiv (Kiev if you take Russia’s side in this) will ensure that a nation cannot take part in a diplomatic solution. And sending the troops will only give Putin a reason to invade. And remember, Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama both have thousands of nuclear warheads to play with yet. I care about Ukraine, but I don’t think I’m willing risk thermonuclear war for it.
How many times have I heard the dumbass at the end of the bar say, “We oughta send our troops in there, take over that country, that’ll solve the problem.” Yes, and it will create a new universe of headaches — e.g., Iraq. Winning a war is easy compared to administering the peace that follows.
America is the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. With our European allies, that power is multiplied greatly. Yet, that isn’t the same has having infinite power. Get used to the idea.
We put a man on the moon, to be sure, but there are problems we cannot solve, merely manage. After all, the moonshot was largely a matter of physics. As Dr. Einstein of Princeton observed, “Politics is a lot harder than physics.”