Are we sure US politicians want to end the war in Ukraine?
The road to war, like the road to hell, is sometimes paved with good intentions. We appear to be chugging toward a broader European war involving nuclear-armed powers, seemingly unable to get off a rhetorical treadmill headed to catastrophe. The New York Post reports that the leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party said Poland would be "open" to having U.S. nuclear weapons deployed on its territory and suggested that the American military presence should be significantly increased on NATO's "eastern flank" in Poland and the Baltic states.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's president accused Russia of committing "genocide," and President Biden called for Vladimir Putin to face a war crimes trial over civilian deaths in Ukraine. And the American media's coverage of the war is reminiscent of the "yellow journalism" of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers that pushed the country toward war against Spain in 1898.
Public opinion in democracies can be, and has often been, manufactured by political leaders and irresponsible media organs. The great American diplomat and historian George Kennan, in discussing the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, explained that a leaked indiscreet letter about President McKinley coupled with the sinking of the battleship Maine — both sensationalized and misinterpreted by the media — led "our government, to the accompaniment of great congressional and popular acclaim, inaugurat[ing] hostilities against another country in a situation of which ... the possibilities of settlement by measures short of war had by no means been exhausted." In America's resort to war against Spain, Kennan wrote, "there was not much solemn and careful deliberation, not much prudent and orderly measuring of the national interest."
The Spanish-American War was a limited regional war against a fading empire. A war between NATO and Russia would be exponentially greater and more destructive. In many ways, the regional war between Russia and Ukraine is comparable to the regional war between Austria-Hungary and the small Balkan state of Serbia in 1914. History teaches about the sorrowful, tragic, step-by-step descent into the cataclysm of the First World War, structured by rival alliances and inflamed by national passions. When the United States finally joined the conflict, it did so not due to a calm and reasoned calculation of geopolitical interests, but because of passions generated by unrestricted submarine warfare and the treachery of the Zimmerman Telegram — and, later, to "make the world safe for democracy."
Again, it was George Kennan who saw how political leaders and media commentators in a democracy can manipulate "public opinion." He wrote:
I ... suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular government is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts; people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent. These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of under-standing any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to mis-interpretation and abuse.
Once the carnage of the First World War ensued, no one, it seemed, could stop it. Winston Churchill memorably described this in The World Crisis: "Events passed very largely outside the scope of conscious choice. Governments and individuals conformed to the rhythm of the tragedy, and swayed and staggered forward in helpless violence, slaughtering and squandering on ever-increasing scales, till injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization."
We are watching today the United States' political leaders and media outlets substituting chauvinistic slogans for realistic terms for ending the Russia-Ukraine war before it spins out of control. Poland's invitation to house U.S. nuclear weapons and increase the number and forward deployment of U.S. troops, and President Biden's call for a war crimes trial for the Russian president, only inflame an already dangerous situation. What we need, in Kennan's words, is "solemn and careful deliberation" and a "prudent and orderly measuring of the national interest."