Tuesday, August 5, 2014

To make the world safe...

World War I began one hundred years ago this month. Three years later the United States declared war on the Central Powers. David Adesnik explains why and draws lessons for today:
.... Today, even a well-rounded college graduate is unlikely to know more about American intervention than the fact that it had something to do with German submarines. Yet why did the United States send two million men to fight in France and Belgium after the Germans sank a handful of merchant vessels? The answer is that Americans across the political spectrum believed they were fighting to defend their inalienable rights, which included the freedom of the seas. If the United States let the German empire trample on its rights, this weakness would invite other challenges. There seemed to be no option but war. ....

As in Wilson’s time, Americans want the benefits of order while remaining uneasy about the costs. This does not mean that the United States must respond with force every time that order is threatened. It may reconcile itself to Russia’s flagrant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. It may reconcile itself to Beijing’s intimidation in the South China Sea, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the rise of a terrorist protostate within Syria and Iraq. What cannot be known is whether and when a crumbling order will bring the threat of violence directly to American shores.

The choice confronting Americans is whether to remain the kind of country that will act before its back is against the wall, or whether it will accept whatever kind of security environment emerges in the absence of American leadership. The advantage of being proactive is that the United States can respond to threats before they achieve maximum lethality. The disadvantage is that Americans will never know, even in hindsight, whether a war was truly necessary. What would have been the impact of a German victory in the Great War, a Communist occupation of South Korea, or Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait? .... [more]