This Is Not a Drill: The Anomaly of Peace and the Fragile Structures that Make it Possible

This Is Not a Drill

The Anomaly of Peace and the Fragile Structures that Maintain it

In the early part of the 20th century, the modern world was beginning to take shape. Exploitative business models like that of the East India Trading Company were becoming the rule, the direct subjugation of the 3rd world by the first was becoming concretized, the world powers were now competing not merely with their neighbors for land and power, but with every player on the world stage both economically and militarily. In short, no longer would it be possible for a world power to war with another without very real and immediate consequences for the rest of the world. In 1914, these heads of state could not possibly have fully grasped what war with one another meant. The world in it’s modern incantation had never existed before. After the dust settled in 1918, they could do nothing but drag the bodies off the field, brush the wreckage off the streets, and ask themselves: what the fuck did we just do? They named it a “Great War” and vowed that it would end all wars. They assumed that everyone was so equally horrified by the devastation that no one would dare allow it to happen again. Mad follies such as these led them to lower their guard and begin a long tradition of taking peace for granted.

In order to ensure the prevention of such carnage institutions like the League of Nations were established. The powers that be believed that the shared horror of the world coupled with joint institutions such as this would be enough to prevent it. This however was a naïve hope for two reasons that I can think of. The first should be obvious. Said institutions were still run by a handful of powerful nations to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Hence dismissing, opressing, or any other measures of violence could still be done to those who were often not invited to the table at which greivances could be brought to light. Sometimes these were weaker nations, but often they were populations within the super powers’ own boarders — a lesson we would learn at great cost during the second World War. In short, Institutions such as the L.O.N. were could only maintain civility between the governments of super-powers, which is of course invaluable. But it could do little to see that so-called crimes against humanity or internal struggles weren’t getting out of hand in the world; struggles which could lead to instability of regions, and the taking over of governments by hostile forces from within for whom commitments to such institutions were that of made by those overthrown. Stanley Tucci said it best in Captain America. People often forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.” In short, establishing treaties between world powers was absolutely necessary but it was only half the battle.

The other reason is outlined nicely in Timothy Snyder’s new work, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century. In a nutshell, never assume that the institutions themselves will save you. Like any other system of government they can always be infiltrated, loopholes can always be found and exploited, and at times they may be cleverly sidestepped entirely. Even if the proverbial table was large enough to seat every world leader from the mighty American empire to the island nation of Cypress it would still need constant maintenance. Once it becomes a stale formaility which is taken for granted, it loses all effect. It ceases to be something crucial to the prevention of our complete destruction and becomes just some thing we do to keep everyone happy.

Just like those world leaders had no idea the kind of destruction they were about to rain down on the earth in the early part of the 20th century, we too have zero understanding of just how devastating a war between world powers will be in the 21st. In 70 years of relative peace we have on at least one occasion come within “1/3 and 50/50”[1] of complete nuclear war. None of us will ever fully appreciate just what was averted thanks to the actions and diplomacy of John and Bobby Kennedy. And though we may respond at first with a warranted sense of gratitude and admiration, we must not forget to follow it up with a terror. This terror is the result of two realizations.

A: The more we research this incident the more we come to see that the cratering of the world was averted as much by dumb luck as it was by Kennedy & co.’s strategy[2] and that no matter how prepared and careful we are this will always be the case.

B: This is perhaps the worst of the two. We should be terrified at the obvious truth that the world cannot learn from lessons that were never taught.

Our only hope is to constantly strive towards a) knowing more about the world goings-on and b) surveying and reinforcing those institutions which preserve the relative peace. The general acceptance of a president like Trump (and make no mistake, the new normal has very much been accepted by all sides) is a sure sign of these fatal flaws within our historical eye. It is no small thing that Trump’s age is almost exactly equal to the time since the formation of NATO and the beginning of the abnormally long peace the Western world has enjoyed since. Indeed, phrases like “relative peace” seem to fly in the face of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan etc. But the goal of using such phrases is not to downplay the devastation caused by these “conflicts” but rather to emphasize how much more substantial the devastation would be were full blown war ever to break out between world powers like the U.S., Europe, China, or the like. Furthermore it is not to suggest that this peace and prosperity has not been achieved at the expense of both for the other half of the planet. To be sure, the former is as dependent on the latter as the American liberal North was on the slavery of the south. The constant work that must be done very much includes raising our institutional evils to the ground.

In fact we became so comfortable in our position as the wealthiest, most militarily sophisticated nation in a world which would not dare challenge our dominance that we underestimated the northern half of a tiny, undeveloped country, like Vietnam, which was able to exploit our hubris resulting in our defeat. It was not until decades later when Robert McNamara was meeting with Vietnamese officials did he realize that what we thought was a war on communism, the other side perceived as a war against another occupying empire attempting to “enslave” them.[3] We would not have been the first powerful nation to do this. The last occupation was by the French, which had quickly moved in after the successful defeat of China following 1000 years of their rule. Yes, China. The same country our government believed Vietnam would align with in a coalition of communism set on the destruction of the Western World. 10 minutes in a library and perhaps 10 more having a discussion with the “other” and we would have quickly realized that the Chinese were no less objects of resentment than we were.

Donald Trump’s response to this type of “embarrassment” is to double down on the same mistakes, dismissing the importance of NATO — which in no small way is one of the reasons he and many of us are still alive — and insulting, provoking, and breaking agreements with the rest of the world because he takes it as simply a given that they wouldn’t dare. “History” it has been said, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” This attitude certainly rhymes with the prevailing attitudes between the first and second World Wars. After insulting and condemning our allies, making life easier on some enemies and provoking others, brushing off NATO, etc., he pulled us out of the Paris agreement and publicly expressed a complete lack of understanding as to what it even was. It should have come as no surprise to us when he suggested he’d by open to renegotiating it and all of them refused. Had Obama or Bush before him been the only one in 200 to say the agreement must be renegotiated there can be little doubt that the other 199 would believe it was in their best interest to indulge us. However having displayed a lack of respect for the world matched only by an equally absent comprehension of it, the rest of the world feels more comfortable stating very public and often humiliating NO’s to the U.S. They know they may rest assured they will not be alone. It also has been made quite clear to them that either Trump will be gone soon and most of his “actions,” tweets, and policies will go with him, in which case there is no harm in simply taking them with a grain of salt while we wait for an adult to take over, or he will continue his efforts to remove us from our position of power in which case there will be no pressure on them to continue bending over backwards in order to keep us happy. Since no strong relationships can be maintained with an unpredictable and manic man like this, and the position we have held up until now in the arena of give-and-take has been greatly compromised, our relationships with most of them will have to be revised, redefined, or rebuilt all together anyway. In the meantime the rest of the world has something of a free pass to do as they wish without worrying about what Washington wants for a change. To think that they will not take full advantage will likely prove to be a terrible mistake. And by pulling out or threatening the Paris Accords, NAFTA, TPP, or NATO, we have necessitated that others take our place. To assume that they won’t take this opportunity to innovate and elbow us out of changing markets, establish trade deals with each other that leave us out in the cold, reposition themselves militarily, or otherwise fill important gaps which Trump and his 2-dimensional notions of “America first” is leaving, out of some kind of “loyalty” or shared desire to keep the peace is absurd. And finally, to make matters imminently worse, Trump believes that despite all of this we will somehow still maintain a dominance that will enable him to continue poking beehives all over the world with no repercussions. Again, he, and we along with him, are dismissing, misjudging, and underestimating potential enemies, and taking for granted the delicate peace, which most of us have never lived without. Most of us remember what it was like during George W. Bush’s presidency and his invasion of Iraq. We all criticized him and his administration for alienating us from our allies. But despite his taking us into an immensely unpopular war under verifiably false pretenses without UN approval, and with very public denunciation by countries like France, the administration had two very crucial things going for it. For one thing, while Dick Cheney and the rest of them were happy to lie to the American people they — unlike Trump — did not actually believe the lies they were telling, and therefore still made decisions the reasons behind which were rooted in reality. And also at the end of the day, people simply liked Bush. By all accounts he’s a really nice guy. When asked about his relationship with George W. Bush Tony Blair responded shrugging, “well, I like him.” While France refused to support our war, and Americans started serving “freedom fries” (yes, that happened) nobody would have considered abandoning commitments to maintaining diplomatic relations and the institutions that have kept us safe from one another since 1945.

For history, peace is never the ultimate goal of governments, but only a happy byproduct of their victories. Its establishment and successful maintenance is never the rule, but always the exception. Everyone believed that their shared horror at the end of the so-called war to end all wars would be enough to keep it from happening again. The world made it barely 20 years before learning just how wrong they were and only then did they begin genuine attempts to keep us from a potential Armageddon. In the 21st century with an even smaller world and a greater abundance of weapons of mass destruction second chances of this sort may not be possible.

For this administration to even suggest that NATO is obsolete is essentially the same thing as a diabetic throwing away his insulin because his blood sugar has been fine lately. The carelessness with which the now most powerful man in the world (no, not Putin) handles this house of cards is perhaps the single greatest threat we face. Continuing to operate as though this is business as usual, repeating over and over again on the nightly news that “this is not normal” or attempting to block harmful policies in the Senate and House as though it is just another bad administration, is simply not an option. Cuddling up to Putin and potential collusion with Russia is not the worst thing this president is guilty of. Hate crimes against, blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community have risen dramatically as a result of a toxic atmosphere that his rise perpetuated and thrived on. Millions are about to lose Healthcare. Green Energy has been the fastest growing industry of the 21st century as well as one of the most promising job creators, and the industry is slowly moving to more welcoming parts of the world. Even our tech companies are threatened by the loss of their immigrant workforces. However in the founders’ efforts to create a country where anyone who gained the confidence of the people could rise to power they provided little means by which to remove someone purely on account of how unqualified, mentally unstable, and dangerous they are. The Russian investigations are important primarily because they are the most promising avenues towards a clear illegal act, which can be used to remove these people from office. Should these efforts fail we will not be off the hook. The consequences of allowing the current situation to persist are simply too catastrophic.

[1] The odds Jack Kennedy gave to his brother, Bobby during the Cuban missile crisis.

[2] Many historians have written about the various incidents that could have turned the Cold War hot. In the introduction to his new book, Destined For War: Can America Escape Thucydides’s Trap Graham Allison offers a rather concise overview.

[3] From the interviews of Robert McNamara, conducted by Errol Morris in his 2003 documentary, Fog of War.