The Liberty Expose: The Terrible Ifs

Mikhail Svetlov

Mikhail Svetlov

It is almost a self-evident truth that Winston Churchill was as talented a writer as he was a statesman. In his nearly infinite arsenal of rhetoric and prose, one quote remains particularly relevant: “the terrible ifs accumulated.” He was speaking of the fears fostered by the great powers as Imperial Germany was becoming more aggressive. Churchill had a strong Thucydidean understanding of the power of perception and fear in the international arena.

He was writing in an age of multi-polarism: the international system in which there are multiple great powers competing with one another. This has been the primary system in Europe for centuries, and had many bloody power conflicts to accompany it. The First World War was a continuance of this; after almost a century of unprecedented peace among the owners in Europe (with the notable exception being the Crimean War), multi-parish collapsed on itself, which Churchill was able to articulate. After multiple small land grabs conducted by Imperial Germany under the predication that the territory annexed rightfully belong to Germany, and by the acts of non-state actors, the fear build over and the century of peace came to an end. 

The Great War has had an unusually relevant place in the American concise lately. Last week marks the century since the American entrance in the war. The war began as a breakdown in the multi-polar system, was fueled by nationalism and revanchism, and was fought by resizing power seeking a place under the sun, as well as declining powers attempting to prevent falling into nothingness. American people at least learned that with the benefits of a global presence come the burden of global responsibility. The Atlantic Ocean would prove to not be the formidable defense that many (both then and now) hoped it to be. The United States entered the war after a litany of attacks and insults by Imperial Germany, the United States entered the conflict. The war was won the next year. 

Four years and millions of deaths later, the World War ended and a new order seemed to be on the horizon. Britain would remain the leading great power, national self-determination would be introduced for the small nations who could not defend themselves, and a (albeit flawed) peace would be enforced. The age of great power conflict seemed to be coming a close – until reality set in. The new peace was rejected by the United States, and the giant went back to sleep. Britain and France eventually began to be less attentive police of the new peace, and Germany took notice.

Germany under the Third Reich (and a little before) began rebuilding their military – and begun revanchist power grabs. Mulit-polarity set in again, the power of perception took hold amongst the powers, Poland was invaded, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a costly repeat of an avoidable mistake. This time, the United Sates ostensibly learned the lesson of retreat from global responsibility and remain the most powerful player on the world stage both under the bi-polar order (two main powers) and now under the uni-polar order (one main power). 

However, this trend seems to be reversing. Global responsibility has lost its popularity in America. Because of this, America has been retreating from its role in the world during the last eight years. This power vacuum has not gone unnoticed. Revanchism and nationalism by great powers is flourishing again – and the allies of the United States are preparing to pursue independent strategies to address the revanchism and multi-polarism. 

In the home of power politics, Russia remains the main driver of breakdown in the current order. His 2014 annexation of Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, an act not seen in Europe in decades, has been lambasted as intolerable “19th century behavior.” Mr. Putin seems to be into the 19th century. Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his annexations and invasions of Georgia and Ukraine by saying they were former Russian territory. One should note that annexed Crimea was once Turkish territory as well. Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, multiple states in Central Asia, as well as islands in the Pacific can all be claimed under the Russian historical banner. These tensions have led to Sweden reintroducing conscription, and Montenegro joining NATO. 

The Middle East is also under the threat of multi-polarism. American lack of interest in the region under the Obama administration has led many of the powers feeling like they must fend for themselves.  As a result of increasing Iranian power in the Middle East, a quasi-alliance between some Arab states and Israel, which even the thought such an act would be considered absurd a decade ago, has begun to emerge. There has already been proxy wars in the region, most notably in Yemen.

In Asia, China is the driver of uncertainty. China has claim over territory in SE Asia, Formosa, but most notably the islands in the South China Sea, which the People’s Republic claims under its nine-dash line doctrine. The consequences of this have been alluded to in my previous Liberty Expose column. Japan is increasing its military and is participating in maneuvers with South Korea. The Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan or also becoming increasingly resistant to Chinese aggression. A multi-polar system in Asia is beginning to emerge. Nuclear proliferation also remains a concern in Asia, though the more stable nature of their governments doesn’t make it as large as a threat as it is in the Middle East. The threat of a naval clash is becoming an increasing reality. 

Revanchist behavior cannot be tolerated. One would be hard-pressed to find a nation not either grown or declined by the gaining or loss of territory; territorial change has been an almost constant theme in global history. Ignoring revanchism will give credence to expansionist powers who seek to reunify lost or claimed territory – which is all of them. To excuse it as a thing will allow the morally bankrupt and intolerable to empower other revanchist nations – and further agitate the current order. 

All this comes at the behest of the absence of the global hegemon from the world stage. There has been many excuses for retreat – whether it be “nation building at home” or Libertarian fears of the usage of power, or a general skepticism of American power - whether it by a Hobbesian “realist” who believes such owner is detrimental or insignificant to global affairs, or a post-modem view that America is a malicious force in the world. 

But the price of retreat is greater than the cost. The world has seen the risings of multi-polarity with the decline of a hegemon. Beware the new, old word being resurrected, and fear the mulit-polarism that comes with it, for multi-polarism fosters the banalities associated with perception and fear – and the terrible ifs will begin to accumulate.