In 1919, having just played a decisive role in winning the most devastating war yet fought, Great Britain stood at the height of its military power. Its armed forces were of unprecedented size, and the invention of the tank had given it a commanding technological lead over any potential rival. Such rivals were, at the moment, nowhere to be seen. England’s archenemy, Germany, lay destroyed and helpless and, under the terms of the Versailles treaty, subject to a rigid disarmament regime. Russia, an enemy of even longer standing, had collapsed into bloody civil war and was even less likely than Germany to pose a challenge for the foreseeable future. In the Far East, England faced no European competitors, while Japan, the only indigenous power of significance, was a British ally. France and the United States, the most powerful states in the world after England, were so closely bound to it in friendship that war with them was unthinkable. Britain’s leaders reckoned that no major conflict lay on the horizon for at least ten years.
They were right about that. And yet, by the summer of 1940, a mere twenty years later, the situation had become completely reversed. Somehow, over the intervening two decades, Germany had arisen in arms once more, had overrun not only Eastern Europe but France as well, and was poised to strike England itself. Russia, too, had revived, and, following the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939, seemed to be placing its massive and modernizing armed forces at Germany’s disposal. America remained obstinately neutral. Japan, openly hostile, was engaged in subjugating China. England stood alone, vulnerable to the terrible new technologies of war that had been mastered, perfected, and readied by Germany for use against its former vanquisher. Night after night, with nearimpunity, German bombers attacked homes and businesses in London and up and down the southeastern coast; civilians were killed indiscriminately, property obliterated. England seemed to be on the road to defeat, if not annihilation.
In 1991, the United States was in a position comparable to that of England in 1919. The Soviet Union, the adversary that had threatened at times to destroy us completely, had collapsed into chaos. In the Middle East, the much-vaunted army of Saddam Hussein had been decimated in a brief and, for America, virtually bloodless war, putting an end to the Iraqi dictator’s bid for regional hegemony. The technologies used in the Gulf war, developed and perfected by us, conferred upon our forces a seeming omnipotence and invulnerability. Finally, with the exception of China, the most powerful nations in the world were now our allies and had just cooperated closely with us in defeating Saddam. The world stood in awe of America’s military might.
That was in 1991. Where will America be at the end of its interwar period? Will we be ready for victory, or will we, like the England of 1940, face a struggle for survival for which we are unprepared?
No one can say for certain. The threat that might undo us is not yet visible on the horizon; if it were, one would like to think we would already have taken steps to meet it. But just here lies the greatest cause for alarm. In England, too, the threat could not be seen; yet partly for that reason, the English proceeded to pursue foreign and defense policies that led in a straight line to disaster. What is apparent from the vantage point of today is that, over the past decade, the United States has done precisely the same.
The end of World War I did not instantly bring peace and stability to Europe, but the earliest trouble faced by the British was not on the Continent but in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. First, in 1919, a rebellion broke out in British-held areas of Iraq. Then, in 1921, Mustafa Kemal, later to be known as Atatürk, made short work of Greek forces fighting in Turkey on Britain’s behalf and was on the verge of annihilating British troops at Chanak on the Dardanelles. Next, in 1923, Italy attempted to seize the island of Corfu from Greece, and the newly created League of Nations, upon which the English had placed their hopes for world stability, proved powerless to intervene. Finally, in Europe itself, throughout the decade of the 20’s, the democratic government of defeated Germany skillfully cheated on the disarmament provisions of the Versailles treaty—despite the presence on the ground of active disarmament inspectors.
Britain’s response to each of these crises was inadequate. Although ground forces were sent to Iraq to put down the rebellion, they did not act swiftly enough, and neither was the British government willing to underwrite the larger garrison that alone would have guaranteed longer-term prospects of peace. Instead, Britain withdrew most of its forces under a deal with the insurgents that greatly weakened the stability of the entire area.
In Turkey, which was deemed partially responsible for having caused the recent world war, England had been determined to impose a draconian peace. But although the Ottoman government accepted British terms, rebels led by Kemal would not. Unwilling to commit its own forces, the English hoped to rely on the Greeks to do their fighting; Kemal routed these surrogates, and went on to face a small English contingent at Chanak. Although British diplomacy brought the crisis to an end, the resultant treaty with Turkey achieved few of the objectives England had sought at the beginning of the crisis.
Another would-be aggressor, Italy’s new dictator Benito Mussolini, was even then taking note of these developments. In 1923, the murder of several Italian nationals on Greek territory led Mussolini to demand the payment of 50 million lira and an apology from the Greek government. When the Greeks refused, he decided to test the international waters with an attempted seizure of the island of Corfu. Though Italy’s armed forces were no match for their own, the British once again forbore to act directly, instead calling upon the League of Nations.
Under British leadership, and with British muscle, the League of Nations might have been able to muster the international standing and support to prevail; but leadership and muscle were precisely what the British would not supply. For his part, Mussolini demanded that the issue be brought not to the League of Nations but instead to the Conference of Ambassadors, a body made up of the victorious powers in the world war and in which Italy’s friends could be depended upon to exert their influence. And so it was. Although, in the end, Mussolini was required by the Conference to restore Corfu to the humiliated Greeks, he received both his apology and the monetary compensation he had demanded. The more important victims were the League of Nations and the cause of collective security, not to mention British prestige.
With every passing year, memories of British strength and determination gave way to a general perception of weakness, passivity, and lack of will. Germany, above all, rapidly concluded that the English were not willing to risk a fight even for their self-proclaimed vital interests, and this only fueled further violations of the critical disarmament provisions of the Versailles treaty—provisions that were essential to England’s own long-term security. And yet, when clear evidence of a rearming Germany was periodically presented to the British government, it was just as regularly ignored, lest England be forced to do what its leaders were determined to avoid at all costs, namely, to rearm in turn. In 1925, with the signing of the Locarno treaty by England, France, and Germany, the whole matter was shelved. Germany had gotten away with it.
The Locarno treaty itself, whereby England promised to come to the aid either of France or of Germany in the event of an attack by the other, was a masterpiece of self-delusion. Far from affording a guarantee to France, as advertised, it paved the way for Germany’s re-entry into the international community, allowing it to join the League of Nations despite the fact that it was clearly in violation of Versailles and more or less blatantly preparing to revise the postwar European settlement. On top of that, the Locarno treaty placed heavy new military obligations on England which, the British chiefs of staff duly protested, could not be met. Five years later, these same chiefs would warn that Britain was “in a less favorable position to fulfill the Locarno guarantees than it was, without any guarantee, to come to the assistance of France and Belgium in 1914.”
The warning was ignored—and little wonder. For, throughout the 1920’s, had not each crisis come to a seemingly satisfactory resolution? The Iraqi rebellion ended. The Turkish emergency was defused. Corfu was given back to the Greeks. Superficial amity was restored with Germany. A guarantee (of sorts) was given to France. It would have taken a greater degree of realism than most British leaders were willing or able to muster to acknowledge that the price paid for these “victories” was exorbitant.
But it was. The Iraq, Chanak, and Corfu crises had made it clear to potential aggressors that England would not fight to stop them, or stand behind the international agencies that had been created to prevent aggression. Failure to enforce the Versailles treaty had even more serious ramifications. Not only did it leave Germany with the basic infrastructure needed to rebuild its armed forces, but it created a serious cleavage with the French, who rightly concluded that Britain would not risk conflict on their behalf. Worse still, a succession of British leaders invoked the Locarno treaty to argue that there was no need ever to worry about another major European war. Throughout the 1920’s, England slept, blissfully unaware of the dangers that lurked just around the corner.
Then came the 1930’s, when the unthinkable not only became thinkable but actually occurred. The combination of military weakness and lack of political will led to England’s timid responses to Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia, and Nazi Germany’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The story of the 1930’s—epitomized for many in the luckless phrase of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain upon his return from Munich in 1938, bringing “peace for our time”—has been told many times, and does not need to be repeated here. But it is the England of the 1920’s, whose story is less well known, that teaches the more relevant lesson. For it was during that period of relative peace and seeming stability that the decisions were taken that shaped England’s feeble responses in the catastrophic decade to follow.
Adecade of relative peace and seeming stability has also followed the end of the cold war. Like Great Britain before it, America, too, seems to be on a path that will constrain its ability to act when the international situation deteriorates—as it is bound to do.
Consider Iraq, an early flashpoint for us as it was for the British. Despite the brilliant performance of American military forces in the Gulf war, the outcome of that conflict was rather less than decisive. Just as American leaders had repeatedly emphasized after the seizure of Kuwait, and before the commitment of American troops, long-term stability in the region clearly required the removal of Saddam Hussein. But the end of the war left him still in power, with the military tools at his disposal to suppress the various indigenous movements aimed at unseating him. The victorious allies were forced to take refuge in a peace that resembled Versailles in crucial ways, with economic sanctions to remain in place until Iraq had complied with a series of disarmament provisions to be verified by an international team of inspectors.
Like the post-World War I Germans, however, the Iraqis proved adept at diverting attention and at skillfully concealing their efforts to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as well as the missiles needed to deliver them. In these circumstances, the U.S. admittedly behaved somewhat better than had the British, periodically taking action (in the form of cruise-missile attacks on military targets) when the evidence of Iraqi malfeasance became unavoidable. At the same time, albeit with much resistance from its allies, the U.S. managed to sustain the economic sanctions on Iraq.
Still, the missile strikes were never quite sufficient to force Saddam into compliance, and the sanctions were ultimately undermined when the U.S. allowed Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil. In 1998, after a series of brazen Iraqi violations of the inspection regime, the U.S. launched a large-scale, multiday attack. This, however, not only failed to destroy Iraq’s well-hidden capabilities but put an end to inspections altogether. Iraq has now had more than a year-and-a-half to work freely on its illicit programs, and inspections are unlikely to be resumed. And so, in the end, a defeated power has once again retained the basic capabilities it needs to reconstitute itself as a highly dangerous military force.
If failure to carry through in punishing aggressors is one mark of similarity between the U.S. now and Great Britain then, another is the misplaced reliance on international organizations. In 1921, at the height of the crisis in Turkey, the leader of the British opposition, Bonar Law, had declared, “We cannot be the policeman of the world.” His words were echoed almost exactly by President Clinton’s first ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright. The United States, she said, in what would become one of the administration’s favorite clichés, “is not the world’s policeman.”
And indeed throughout the 1990’s America looked to the UN as the critical guarantor of international stability. But as in the past, the success of any such policy depended upon the willingness of the leading global power to put its diplomatic and military might behind its designated “policeman.” In our case, this willingness was tested not only in Iraq but in Somalia, Bosnia, Korea, and Kosovo. Almost every one of these crises was resolved to our apparent satisfaction; but the real outcome in each case has been defeat.
By the early 1990’s, civil war in Somalia had produced a widespread manmade famine, and in 1992 a UN peacekeeping force, headed by a large American contingent, entered the country to ensure the delivery of food. But when it became clear that an end to the emergency would require an even greater application of force, the U.S. under President George Bush balked at the prospect of Vietnam-style “mission creep.” Then, under President Clinton, we expanded the mission of the peacekeepers while simultaneously reducing our own forces. The result was catastrophe: a raid that ended in the deaths of eighteen U.S. soldiers, television pictures of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, and, within months, the bolting of the U.S. contingent. Both American credibility and the UN’s ability to function as the world’s policeman had been seriously undermined.
Similarly in Bosnia, where both the Bush and the Clinton administrations at first failed to take action to stop a vicious civil war and then, after joining with the UN to intervene and force both sides to the negotiating table, failed to prevent the spread of conflict to Kosovo. Today, both Bosnia and Kosovo remain highly precarious, their stability maintained only by the continued presence of international peacekeepers. Having once again sought to avoid a Vietnam-like quagmire by postponing intervention and then proceeding with minimal force, we are now trapped in two quagmires.
Still another parallel concerns sheer military capability. In the early 1920’s, when serious conflict threatened the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, a demobilized England no longer possessed the armed strength necessary to wage war in more than one region at a time. That weakness would play a role in the country’s vacillating response to Mussolini’s challenge in 1923. Yet nothing was done to rectify this deficiency, which continued to paralyze the English until 1939. America faced a similar challenge in 1994, when consecutive crises erupted in Korea and Iraq, both of which threatened to require large-scale military commitments and thus to test the stated American policy of being ready to fight two “major theater conflicts nearly simultaneously.”
The first crisis centered on North Korea’s continued noncompliance with the nuclear Non-Pro-liferation Treaty. In mid-1994, driven reluctantly by evidence that the North Koreans were pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, the U.S. set about laying the basis for international sanctions. But when the North Korean regime declared that it would regard the imposition of sanctions as an act of war, and would proceed to attack South Korea, suddenly the crisis changed course, and a deal was hastily put together. In exchange for an agreement to stop working on a nuclear program it had never admitted to, North Korea would receive international assistance in developing peaceful nuclear power, plus hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. As for the inspections that the International Atomic Energy Agency deemed essential, these the North Koreans proceeded to disallow.
The Clinton administration declared victory, but even at the time it was laughably clear that all we had accomplished was to bribe the North Koreans to back away from their threat. And we had done so, it seems, for a simple reason. Among the options that had to be considered by American planners was the possibility, no matter how deeply undesirable, of actual war. But armed conflict in Korea would call for the deployment of about 400,000 U.S. servicemen, and at the time there were only some 525,000 soldiers in the American army. Thus, a commitment of the forces necessary to ensure rapid victory would have stripped us of the ability to respond elsewhere—a crippling prospect even in theory.
As it happens, “elsewhere” in 1994 might have been Iraq. For, only a few months later, Saddam Hussein was to mobilize three divisions of his Republican Guard and move them toward the Kuwaiti border. In this case, the U.S. reply was quick and powerful: within days, tens of thousands of U.S. troops were on their way to Kuwait, and as many as 200,000 were placed on alert for possible deployment. Saddam backed down. But what this sequence of events demonstrated with stark vividness was that we would not have been able to deal with both North Korea and Iraq at the same time: an army of 525,000 could not have dispatched 400,000 soldiers to the one place and 200,000 to the other, or even anything approaching such numbers. The U.S. policy of maintaining forces capable of fighting two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously had been exposed as a myth.
As in England in the 1920’s, all these crises passed; agreements were reached; peace prevails. Today, the inadequacy of American armed forces seems unimportant. Saddam is quiescent, and there even appears to be good news from Korea. Bosnia and Kosovo, under the watchful eyes of peacekeepers, are relatively tranquil. The sky seems blue—as blue as it did for England.
But there are as many potential causes of conflict today as there were then. Indeed, both China and Russia already pose threats considerably more dangerous than those posed by Japan and Germany in the late 1920’s, and potential regional adversaries like Iraq and North Korea are far more menacing than any regional aggressor faced by the British. True, as in the roaring 20’s, many of these dangers have been submerged beneath the swelling tide of international prosperity. It is possible to buy off the North Koreas or the Chinas of this world—because we have the money, and because they are satisfied, for now, to take it. But how long either condition will last is anybody’s guess. Will we, like England, one day find ourselves facing both an urgent need to rearm and insuperable political and economic pressure not to?
No state benefited more from a peaceful and stable world than did England in its day, or than does America today, and none would be more immediately harmed by a return to global chaos and conflict. No other state, then or now, has possessed both the global interests and the means, in principle, with which to protect them. On no other state has it been more obviously incumbent to keep the peace.
The English did rather badly at this task in the 1920’s, and in the 1990’s we followed suit. Both nations, having cut their armed forces dramatically, dreamed of pursuing isolationist foreign policies even as they were dragged unwillingly into continued involvement in the world. Both allowed the friendships and alliances on which they relied for their security to decay. Both permitted aggressors to undermine the international order and the organizations designed to preserve it. Above all, both refused to accept the responsibilities of global leadership that their power and their position in the world had thrust upon them.
When the next war came, the British were unprepared; only the intervention of the United States saved them from perdition. Historical analogies are never perfect, but the similarities between British policy in the interwar years and American policy since the end of the cold war should serve as a warning of the much worse fate that may lie in store for us if we continue to act as if only tranquility lay ahead. For there is no America waiting in the wings today to save us if we err.