Americans have forgotten that historic tragedies on a global scale are real. They’ll soon get a reminder.
- By Hal BrandsHal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of several books, including Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order and What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft From Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. He served as the special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning from 2015 to 2016., Charles EdelCharles Edel is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. He served as a special assistant to the secretary of state on the Asia-Pacific region in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. He is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.
The ancient Greeks took tragedy seriously. At the very height of Athenian power in the 5th century B.C., in fact, citizens of the world’s first democracy gathered annually to experience tragedy. Great theatrical productions were staged, presented to the entire community, and financed by the public treasury. While the dialogue and plot lines varied, the form, and the lesson, remained consistent. Prominent individuals fell from great heights due to their own errors, ignorance, and hubris. The injunction was clear: The destiny of society was in the hands of fallible men, and even in its hour of triumph that society was always perched on the abyss of catastrophic failure.
This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate.
Americans, too, once had an appreciation of tragedy. After World War II, Americans intuitively understood — because they could remember — how catastrophic a breakdown of world order could be, and they were constantly reminded by the looming Soviet threat that international stability and peace could not be taken for granted. And so, over a period of decades, the United States undertook the unprecedented geopolitical efforts necessary to ensure that world order did not collapse once again. The result was something like a flawed masterpiece — a postwar international system that was never perfect, but one in which aggressors were contained and ultimately defeated, democracy spread more widely than ever before, and both global and American prosperity reached dizzying heights. A tragic sensibility propelled Americans to do great things.
But as has been said before, Americans are serial amnesiacs. And today, after more than 70 years of great-power peace and a quarter-century of unrivaled global supremacy, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. The U.S.-led international order has been so successful, for so long, that Americans have come to take it for granted. They have forgotten what that order is meant to prevent in the first place: the sort of utter breakdown of the international system, the descent into violence and great-power war, that has been all too common throughout human history. And this amnesia has become most pronounced, ironically, as American power and the international order are coming under graver threat than at any time in recent memory. Today, the United States and the world it did so much to create are once again courting tragedy — precisely because Americans have lost their ability to imagine what tragedy really is.
Tragedy as the norm
We tend to think of a full-on collapse of global order, characterized by widespread international violence and great-power war, as something that cannot happen in our time — a relic of a bygone era. But such a perspective is profoundly ahistorical, for such breakdowns have long represented the norm as much as the exception in international affairs. Indeed, the classical realists — Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes — and their 20th-century counterparts, such as Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr, understood that the history of international relations was in large measure a story of precisely such tragedies.
After all, it happened to the Greeks, despite their efforts to cultivate a tragic sensibility. In the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century B.C., Athens and Sparta, the two dominant powers in ancient Greece, came to blows. The war was not unforeseen, as tension had been rising between the two powers for years, but the timing and the rapidity of its outbreak was. After all, Sparta and Athens were technically at peace with each other, having signed a 30-year peace treaty, agreed to settle disputes through arbitration, and having generally avoided escalation throughout multiple crises over the proceeding 15 years. But, in response to a seemingly trivial dispute involving their allies and the imposition of economic sanctions against the city of Megara, the Greeks voted for war.
The resulting conflict inexorably expanded into something like a world war, as most of the known world was drawn into the vortex of a struggle that lasted nearly three decades. The conflict was so costly in lives and treasure that it devastated winner and loser alike, precipitating massive social and political ruptures and leaving the Greek city-states divided and vulnerable to external conquest. Few observers had initially expected that a quarrel over client states would bring about the end of Greece’s golden age and the eventual eclipse of the Greeks as powerful and independent actors on the world stage, but this was precisely what happened.
More recent centuries give little reason to think that the nature of international relations has fundamentally changed. Europe, which stood at the center of the international system for nearly 400 years, suffered repeated descents into cataclysm, from the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century to the French revolutionary wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the two world wars of the 20th century. Each of these conflagrations was preceded by intensifying challenges to, and then surprisingly rapid breakdowns within, the prevailing international order. And, in each case, the ensuing destruction and violence were appalling.
The Thirty Years’ War, which began as a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states within the Holy Roman Empire, eventually expanded to encompass all of Europe. In the German states alone, it resulted in demographic disaster — a population decline of roughly 25 percent by even the most conservative estimates, equivalent to 80 million American deaths today. The French revolutionary wars lasted for over two decades, revolutionized European politics, and unleashed warfare on a scale and intensity previously unknown. Sobered by these upheavals, the major powers constructed a fairly stable peace thereafter, marred “only” by localized great-power conflicts such as the Crimean War and the wars of German reunification. But this comparative tranquility utterly collapsed in the 20th century with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 — another global explosion triggered by a seemingly minor spark — and then, after a mere 21 years’ respite, the unleashing of World War II. These conflicts fundamentally transformed the modern world: They devoured tens of millions of lives, empowered some of the most brutal political and ideological forces in human history, and ultimately brought Europe’s time atop the global system to an end.
Even a casual survey of modern history thus suggests that breakdowns of international order litter the historical landscape. These breakdowns occurred for multiple and varying reasons: sometimes having to do with relative shifts in the balance of power, sometimes having to do with clashing ideologies, sometimes having to do with simple blunders and other idiosyncrasies of statecraft. But the results were all too often similar — and catastrophic. In an anarchical world characterized by sharp competition between states, tragedy is often simply a fact of international life.
Tragedy as inspiration
In fact, these breakdowns were so traumatic that modern international orders — systems of rules, norms, and power relationships that govern international affairs — have generally taken shape in the wake of such tragedies and been designed to prevent their recurrence. International orders rest on more than historical memory, of course. They are also dependent on favorable configurations of power in the global arena and often on some degree of ideological consensus among the system’s leading actors. But it has often been the recollection of tragedies experienced — and the hope that future tragedies might be averted — that has motivated key states and leaders to summon their creativity and power in the service of order.
Consider the order-building project that established the modern international system. Exhausted by the violence of the Thirty Years’ War, the rulers of Europe signed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to control the forces that had stoked that violence. Westphalia was a diplomatic revolution. It created a political order that precluded interference in other states’ domestic affairs, enshrined secular and not religious authority as the basis for state sovereignty, and attempted to prevent aggression and war through the maintenance of a balance of power between those states. And it rested on a recognition, shared among key participants, that the continental cataclysm that had befallen Europe in the three decades prior to Westphalia simply could not be permitted to happen again.
Similarly, the British-led Congress system after 1815 was designed to prevent Europe from imploding as it had during the French revolutionary wars and succeeded in that task for nearly a century. It did so by drawing the five major powers of Europe into a system in which they had at least minimal incentive to uphold a stable peace. This system was anchored by British and Russian power and by the conservative political values that prevailed in most European capitals after 1815. It, too, was a profound innovation in the history of modern international relations — one that featured regular consultation to contain local conflicts and diplomatic antagonisms and one that required each member to forgo some degree of unilateral advantage as the price of relative peace. But like Westphalia, it was an innovation that looked backward as much as forward, for it was designed to stifle the sources of the conflicts that had plagued Europe after 1789 — and what ultimately held it together for so long was the hard-earned recognition that the likely alternative to such a system was a resumption of bitter upheaval.
One need not even look so far back into history to understand that tragedy has often served as inspiration for such painstaking efforts to reconstruct international order and preserve the peace. This was precisely what motivated the generation of Americans who lived through World War II and shaped America’s response to the postwar world. American leaders and elites — the “wise men,” as they were known for decades; “the blob,” as they would be called less generously today — consciously rejected the isolationist attitudes that had prevailed in the 1930s. They committed to making the extraordinary exertions necessary to stabilize the postwar world and prevent World War II from coming to be seen as mere prologue to an even more destructive global conflict.
They did so by embracing American leadership, embedding the United States within a global network of security alliances, participating in multilateral institutions, and promoting broadly beneficial concepts like free trade, democracy and human rights, and respect for the rule of law. They committed to confronting aggressors early, before they could destabilize key regions or pose an existential threat to international peace and security. They accepted that there would be no “return to normalcy,” that the United States — as the world’s strongest nation and the only one capable of bearing this burden — would have primary responsibility for upholding a congenial world order. And they based these efforts on a set of basic intellectual principles that guided U.S. policy for generations: that it was cheaper to maintain international order than to restore it once it had been destroyed; that it was better to make modest sacrifices now rather than enormous sacrifices later; that global norms and stability were not self-sustaining but rather required continual support and maintenance by those countries that sought to perpetuate and advance them.
In the late 1940s as in the years after 1815, the U.S.-led world order was informed as much by haunting lessons from the past as by inspiring visions of the future and particularly by the multiple failures of the isolationist strategy of the 1930s. After the searing experience of World War II, American leaders concluded that failure to stand up for friendly nations in the face of external aggression, failure to speak up on behalf of democratic values under assault, failure to prevent a trade war born of or sparked by protectionism, and failure to support international organizations by withdrawing American support produced a world with a leadership vacuum and an invitation to chaos. These failures, in turn, directly informed the great successes of postwar American foreign policy: the creation of a positive-sum global economic order anchored by the Bretton Woods institutions, the erection of a containment policy that for decades checked the aggressive impulses of the Soviet Union, the building of an international alliance system that maintained stability and tamped down conflict in key regions, and many others. What we now think of as the brilliantly successful postwar international order was a response to the repeated tragedies that had preceded it — and the menace of an expansionist, illiberal Soviet Union reminded Americans that tragedy could all too easily recur if the United States pursued a different path.
Indeed, America’s leaders were acutely aware of how precarious and easily disrupted international peace traditionally had been, and this knowledge steeled them in the face of the challenges of the postwar era. In January 1950, for instance, the Harry Truman administration declared that the Korean Peninsula lay outside the American defensive perimeter, based on the judgment that it was not, by itself, critical to the global balance of power. But when Kim Il Sung marched his forces southward five months later, Truman quickly made the difficult decision to resist. He based that decision, he later wrote, on his earlier experiences living through the dark years preceding World War II:
In my generation, this was not the first occasion when the strong had attacked the weak. I recalled some earlier instances: Manchuria, Ethiopia, Austria. I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead.… I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.… If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on the second world war.
International order had to be reinforced when challenged, Truman understood; the use of military force now could prevent the necessity of fighting an even larger conflict later. To the generation of statesmen who had seen just how rapidly and completely the international system could erode, the lesson was clear: Eternal vigilance was the price of an enduring peace.
This approach led to tragedies and excesses of its own, of course, with a costly and divisive U.S. intervention in Vietnam being the most notable example. There is such a thing as being too vigilant, and the United States occasionally learned this lesson the hard way. But on the whole, it is hard to argue with the approach that U.S. policymakers took in the postwar era. The Cold War is now generally seen as a “long peace,” the postwar era as a veritable golden age in which human prosperity increased by leaps and bounds and the democracies — not the brutal authoritarian regimes that threatened them — came to dominate the global arena. All of these accomplishments rested on the unique and unprecedented ways in which the United States deployed its unmatched power in the decades after World War II. And those efforts, in turn, were inspired by tragedy.
The contemporary amnesia
This postwar order has been so successful, in fact, that Americans now seem to be losing the tragic sensibility that brought it about in the first place. It has been — thankfully — almost three-quarters of a century since the United States last confronted the sort of catastrophic insecurity associated with a crackup of the international system. And it has been 25 years since the end of the Cold War, leading many observers to conclude that geopolitical competition itself is a thing of the past. The effect has been a natural slackening of the efforts required to maintain the stability and security to which Americans have become accustomed. In 1961, John F. Kennedy could confidently assert that Americans were willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” in support of a favorable concept of world order. That willingness now seems, increasingly, to be in doubt.
Consider the state of the U.S. defense budget. A robust, well-funded peacetime defense has been the cornerstone of America’s order-building efforts since World War II; outright military primacy has been the foundation of the international system since the end of the Cold War. But today, America’s dominance is slipping, and its willingness to stem that decline is uncertain. Russia and China are pouring money into their own military capabilities in hopes of negating U.S. power in Eastern Europe and East Asia and projecting their own influence farther afield. The U.S. military budget, meanwhile, declined in real terms from $768 billion in 2010 to $595 billion in 2015; on its current trajectory, defense spending will soon represent a smaller share of GDP than at any time since the outbreak of World War II. Steps to bolster the American military deterrent in any meaningful way — as opposed to the smoke-and-mirrors “buildup” proposed by President Donald Trump — are politically infeasible, with entitlement spending still a sacred cow and tax increases apparently unfathomable.
Americans and their elected representatives seem to have forgotten, in other words, that there are worse things than having to reform Social Security or pay another 3 to 5 percent of one’s earnings in income taxes and that American military dominance has traditionally been what prevents those worse things from happening.
Or consider the broader state of American public opinion on foreign affairs. The last several years have seen a remarkable resurgence of sentiment to the effect that it is time for the United States to tend its own garden, rather than tending the world’s. In 2013, 52 percent of Americans agreed that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Three years later, the number agreeing with a similar statement had risen to 57 percent. This is some of the most pronounced anti-internationalism that we have seen since the years immediately following the Vietnam War, and it reflects a growing sense that Americans are no longer so eager to bear the burdens traditionally associated with global leadership.
And it is hard to blame them. Their leaders, in recent years, have too frequently stoked that very sentiment. Barack Obama repeatedly argued that it was time to forsake nation building abroad in favor of nation building at home, and he claimed that the arc of the universe bent inevitably toward justice — thereby implying that America didn’t need to do much bending of its own. Senior Obama administration officials dismissed Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine as “distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions” instead of acknowledging such actions as typical of the renewed great-power revisionism that increasingly threatens to define the 21st century. More recently, Donald Trump has repeatedly characterized America’s alliances and other commitments as sucker bets that allow other countries to make a killing at Washington’s expense; he has revived the language, and even proposed reviving some of the policies, associated with the “America First” program of the 1930s.
There is, particularly in Trump’s worldview, no tragic sensibility to be found here — no recognition that the international system, and the United States itself, has avoided tragedy and made so much progress over the past seven decades only because America has labored so diligently to make it so. And there is no recognition that attacks on free trade, admiration for autocratic leaders, and questioning of U.S. alliances threaten to undo these very accomplishments.
Indeed, if Americans have grown tired of bearing the burdens of international leadership, it is probably because they have simply forgotten why that leadership is worth bearing in the first place. Why do we have troops and military hardware stationed around the globe? Why do we have an extensive system of alliances the world over? Why do we worry so much about what happens in faraway places like Ukraine or the South China Sea? Why do we pursue free trade even when it sometimes comes at a near-term cost to certain industries and workers in the United States? There are, of course, good historical answers to all of these questions, and they all come back to the very nasty things that tended to happen to the international system before the United States took up its ambitious, globe-girdling role. But now most of the country has forgotten that history, in part because of the simple passage of time but more precisely because the successes of American leadership have made it possible to forget. America’s tragic sensibility has faded and has increasingly been replaced by a worldview that is equal parts naive, dangerous, and ahistorical.
The darkening horizon
The irony is that this amnesia is afflicting us precisely as the international environment is once again becoming more threatening. In East Asia and Eastern Europe, revisionist authoritarian powers are coercing their neighbors and nibbling away at the international order. Chinese leaders are laying plans for a Sino-centric Asia, and Russian leaders are talking about the transition to a “post-West” world: It is hard to see how either transition can be accomplished without coercion and violence. In the Middle East, Iran is asserting its regional ambitious, Bashar al-Assad is perpetrating a slow-motion genocide, and the Islamic State and other jihadi groups continue to wreak havoc even as their military fortunes decline. North Korea is racing ahead with its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of the international community, posing an ever greater threat not simply to its neighbors but to the United States as well. And across these various regions and issues, the rules that seemed to have gained such global dominance in the wake of the Cold War are increasingly being challenged and transgressed. Nonaggression and the peaceful resolution of disputes, the ability of countries to choose their economic and geopolitical alignments free from intimidation or coercion, freedom of navigation in the world’s key waterways — all of these norms are being tested more severely today than at any time in decades.
The threats today are diverse, but they do share a common theme. They represent the warning lights flashing on the dashboard; they are indications that an international system that has long been so historically exceptional in its effectiveness and stability is now fraying at the edges. The revival of great-power competition is particularly concerning: Geopolitical revisionism on the part of unsatisfied major powers is traditionally the sort of thing that has preceded large-scale war with all of its horrors. Hard as it may be for us to imagine, it is by no means inconceivable that we will one day look back on the challenges and disruptions the international system is now experiencing as auguries of the greater tragedy that would follow.
But if tragedy is commonplace, it is not inevitable. And this dark scenario need not materialize, for the United States and its myriad allies do not lack the strength to prevent it from materializing. Yes, the international power balance is undoubtedly shifting; it is no longer as favorable as it was in 1945 or 1991, and some corresponding degree of change is therefore unavoidable in global politics. But the United States is no fallen hegemon just yet; it still commands unmatched economic and military capabilities, and Washington and its allies still control a preponderance of global military and economic power. The existing international order is under challenge, then, but it can still be effectively defended; the alliances, institutions, and arrangements that have underpinned it may yet remain resilient if the countries that have so vigorously supported them in the past make up their minds to do so again.
The key questions, then, are not simply questions of power — they are also questions of willpower. Will the countries that have historically defended the international order summon the nerve, unity, and resources to defend it again today? Will they realize that it is not historical inevitability, or some triumph of “the better angels of our nature,” but rather incessant and determined effort that holds disasters such as great-power war and catastrophic instability at bay? Will they remember precisely how bad things can get, and how quickly they can get that way, when international orders fall apart? The United States and its allies once found, in tragedy, the determination necessary to create something beautiful. Will they now recover an equivalent determination to keep that good thing going?
In writing about the successes and ultimate failure of the Congress system in the 19th century, Henry Kissinger observed that “in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable.” Today, Americans are likely to end up rediscovering their sense of the tragic one way or another — either by reacquainting themselves with the tragic sensibility that they seem to have lost or by experiencing the real-world tragedy that their amnesia, if not corrected, may help bring about.
Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Getty Images