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The dreadful simplicity

of today's war-mongers



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 12, 2008

LONDON - Does America know what a dangerous game its leaders are playing? Does it know its history? And do the leaders of Europe, who should be a brake on American determination, go along with Washington because they are almost equally ignorant? After all none of the present crop of European leaders have had time to study much history, and all of them made their way upwards in their party ranks because of their skill and knowledge of domestic affairs. They have had little or no preparation for the affairs of the world.

On the Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian side one can make the same argument. Ignorance reigns so history can be repeated.

World War I was the most important geopolitically of the last century. After forty three years of unbroken peace in Europe, the continent slipped into war with barely a diplomatic thought. The issues were there, whether or not Austrian power could prevail in Italy, the degree of influence Russia was allowed to enjoy in the Ottoman Empire, the balance of power between Prussia and Austria in Germany and that between Prussia and France across Europe. But Europe had managed these tensions for four decades until an assassin's bullet murdered Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and leaders across Europe lost their perspective.

Without this tragic mistake of statecraft, owing more to insouciance than malevolence, there would not have been the massive carnage of 1914-18. There would have been no Great Depression, no rise of Hitler, no consolidation of the autocracy of Stalin, no World War II, no unilateral development of the nuclear bomb, and no Cold War.

Yet the people of all sides enthusiastically supported a war their leaders had led them blindfold into. War was terrible, yes, but it was also necessary and sometimes splendid. It rings out in the poetry of Rupert Brooke and can be found in prose form most stirringly in Pat Barker's bitter evocation of the loyalty to the cause by the doomed young officer class of England.

Tolstoy in War and Peace made a similar point about the French war led by Napoleon against Russia. War is here! - cried Prince Andrey, This is it! God, I'm scared, but it's marvelous! Later in the day's battle, and more wise after tens of thousands on both sides had been killed, he exclaimed, How can God look down from heaven and listen to it all?

But for us, the descendants of these people, Tolstoy wrote in his novel fifty years later, as we contemplate this vast accomplishment in all its enormity and seek to penetrate its dreadful simplicity, the explanations seem inadequate. It is beyond our comprehension that millions of Christian men should have killed and tortured each other just because Napoleon was a megalomaniac, [Tsar] Alexander was obstinate, the English were devious and the Duke of Oldenburg was badly done by......The more we try to explain away such phenomena in rational terms, the more irrational and incomprehensible they become.

Interestingly, the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, in a speech three years ago, condemned 'balance of power' politics as outmoded and dangerous. 'We tried this before; it led to the Great War', she said.

Yet she and her president, George W. Bush are trying it again. Having moved NATO up to Russia's borders, attempted to encircle Russia in the South and tried to enlist India and China in the east, they are playing this old game.

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For what intent? The end of The Cold War was the time to stop this discredited macho diplomacy. It was a time to build a new more stable and harmonious relationship with Russia. Ronald Reagan, if he had had another term (which he told the students of Moscow university he would have liked to have), might have done it because he saw the futility of nuclear war perhaps clearer than any post-war president. But Bill Clinton, for all his intellectualism, was not a student of history and he did not take the opportunity. Bush built on his mistakes.

The Americans preparing to vote in November have the chance to repudiate this legacy, incarnate now in the candidacy of John McCain who would pursue war both in Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps extend it to Iran, while at the same time ratcheting up confrontation with Russia. If they vote for Barack Obama, it will not be a cure-all, judging by some of his foreign policy advisers who are from the Clinton school, but he will be a moderating force.

The electorate before they vote need to study some history. So too do the candidates. And so do the European leaders, both of the West and East. Only then can we avert a new Cold War with all the "dreadful simplicity" it would bring in its wake.

Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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