World War Three? Worry more about World War One

Finland and Sweden are on the brink of applying for NATO membership, despite Russian president Vladimir Putin's warning that such a move could result in the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war.  Finland's European Union minister told Sky News that it is "highly likely" that Finland will join NATO in the near future.  Polls show that a majority in both countries favor joining NATO.  Russian spokesmen reacted by threatening to deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles near those Scandinavian countries and strengthening Russia's land, naval, and air forces in the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, American politicians and others are criticizing the Biden administration for not doing more to help Ukraine "defeat" Russia in the war.  Retired U.S. general Ben Hodges, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe, says America needs to be "all in to win" in Ukraine.  He told CBS News, "We have exaggerated the potential for a so-called World War III."  Hodges's sangfroid notwithstanding, the statesmen of Europe and the United States may be sleepwalking us into a Third World War.

In 2013, British historian Christopher Clark, in The Sleepwalkers, explored the events that led to the First World War.  The book's title reflects the author's view that the European statesmen of that time almost blindly led their nations and empires step by step into what George Kennan rightly called the "seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century.  Clark's European "sleepwalkers" realigned Bismarck's European order, mobilized armed forces, dreaded appearing "weak" on the international stage, and transformed a terrorist incident in June 1914 in Sarajevo into a European conflagration that unleashed the demons of the 20th century.  Clark told NPR that the most troubling thing about the outbreak of World War I was that "none of the individuals who brought about [the] war, none of the civilian leaders who were really responsible for it, actually wanted war, and certainly none of them wanted the war that actually happened between 1914 and 1918."

Today's "sleepwalkers" include Vladimir Putin, who started the war by invading Ukraine and, like his 1914 predecessors in Europe, miscalculated both the resistance of Ukrainians and the reaction of the international community.  (In this respect, Putin is not unlike the rulers of Austria-Hungary, who thought they could attack Serbia without grave European repercussions, though, just in case, they secured the infamous "blank check" from Germany.)  After all, this same international community did nothing when Putin seized Crimea in 2014.  This same international community did nothing when Russia waged war in Syria in 2015, in Georgia in August 2008, and in Chechnya in the 1990s.

But Putin is not the only leader sleepwalking toward a broader European war.  The roots of the Russia-Ukraine war go back to assurances by Western statesmen in 1990–91 that NATO would not expand eastward — not "one inch eastward," secretary of state James Baker told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during negotiations for unifying Germany.  In 1993, President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, told Russian president Boris Yeltsin that the United States was promoting an inclusive "partnership for peace" rather than NATO expansion.  Yet, only a year later, Clinton told Yeltsin that NATO would be expanding.  And NATO kept expanding — closer and closer to Russia's borders.  And Russia in the wake of its defeat in the Cold War was powerless to do anything about it.

As Brookings Institution scholar James Goldgeier has written, "for many Russians, most importantly Vladimir Putin, the 1990s were a decade of humiliation, as the United States imposed its vision of order on Europe ... while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch.  In 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine, Putin made clear there were red lines he would not allow NATO and the European Union to cross."  Goldgeier wrote those words in November 2019.  They resonate even more today.

 Now Finland, which shares an 830-mile-long border with Russia, and Sweden, which is Finland's eastern neighbor, threaten to join NATO.  Should that happen, we should expect Putin to further escalate tensions with NATO, perhaps even, like Nikita Khrushchev, raising the specter of nuclear war, as some of Putin's spokesmen have already done.  And the fact that Russia is having more trouble than it expected in subduing Ukraine does not diminish the specter of escalation.  Indeed, should Russia suffer "defeat," as U.S. leaders publicly call for, and should Finland and Sweden join NATO, Russia's "humiliation" and its extreme nationalism will likely intensify with consequences that nobody can predict.

Like in 1914, the statesmen of the last four decades realigned the world order after the Cold War's end — pushing NATO ever eastward despite the assurances and understandings of the early 1990s.  Like in 1914, a regional war involving a great power and a smaller country threatens to escalate with unpredictable consequences.  Like in 1914, a European great power miscalculated the resistance of its target country's population and the reaction of the international community.  Like in 1914, European statesmen — including Putin, Ukraine's President Zelensky, and more recently the leaders of Finland and Sweden — appear to be sleepwalking toward a precipice instead of seeking an imperfect negotiated settlement.

As Clark and other historians have noted, none of the European statesmen in 1914 thought the war they unleashed would last more than four years and cause more than 40 million military and civilian casualties, including more than 16 million deaths.  Should our sleepwalkers of today unleash a broader European war — with the possibility of nuclear exchanges — the casualties could be greater.  Let us hope that in this instance, history does not repeat itself.

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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