With Islamic State lopping off heads and the Russian state lopping off parts of other sovereign states, America suddenly has its enemies back. For a quarter century, the presumption of a creeping, perpetual peace has coloured the research agendas of scholars and informed the foreign policies of western powers.
Can this hopefulness defeat the new barbarism? Given humankind’s propensity for war, why did this optimism become so entrenched?
Francis Fukuyama called it the “end of history”. Democratic peace theorists argued that war between democracies was essentially impossible – so spread democracy. We are all more peaceful now, argued Steven Pinker. US presidents successively claimed that international relations were more or less on a fixed trajectory toward a liberal democratic order. States like China realised the folly of communism and took a capitalist turn. Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama saw all this and said it was good – and inevitable.
Each man waged war on those that did not buy into the narrative. Democracy, of sorts, was taken into the heart of the Middle East and NATO into the former Soviet Union. Who had a right to complain? What alternative political system was on offer? But the complainants have now presented themselves.
Whilst united in not much more than a profound distrust of US power – far more Russians have died fighting the forefathers of IS in Afghanistan than Americans did their descendants – Islamic State and the Kremlin agree on one thing: their values cannot be secure in a world in which Washington and the European Union are the arbiters of global morality.
‘How dare we be condemned for killing journalists and shooting planes out of the sky when America does the same? US power is benign? Tell that to Belgrade’s Serbs and Gaza’s Palestinians. Tell that to the passengers on Iran Air Flight 655.’
And to an extent these questions are legitimate. Since the end of the cold war, the willingness of the United States to use military force has become almost fetishised. Beginning with Panama in 1989, Washington has engineered a significant intervention overseas about every 22 months. Four presidents, both parties, across two eras (pre- and post-9/11). At some point a more decisive counter-response was likely.
Vladimir Putin relied on a cold war template for his. Rather than fear American aggression, he has so far read with a high degree of accuracy Barack Obama’s reluctance to use hard power. Like every president before him, Obama recognises the limited set of options the Pentagon has in the former Soviet Union’s buffer zone. A battle between the KGB man and the community organiser caricatures the realities that geography imposes.
The war against Islamic State should be easier for the US president. The Middle East is much more an American military theatre than Ukraine could ever be. IS has no nuclear weapons. Condemnation of its barbarity is near universal; most Arabs and Muslims detest it. America has toppled far more entrenched states in the region before (including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). If Bill Clinton can bomb Serbs in defence of Kosovo Muslims, why can’t Obama do the same on behalf of the Muslims being butchered by IS?
Several answers present themselves. Americans are war-weary. Their president does not privilege military solutions. IS is so repellent that Arabs will eventually rise against it. America’s larger war is against Syria and Iran and Islamic State is fighting both of them; let them get on with it.
These are all necessary but insufficient explanations for US reticence. Could it be that the west simply does not believe in war anymore?
We have too often imbibed the triumphalism of The End of History and ignored what the author said such a world would be like. Dull. Very dull. A society of “men without chests” (see chapter 28). With no ideological goal, no vision of a better world to strive for, people would have no need to fight.
Instead, citizens of liberal democracy would expect the perpetual protection of a warm, fuzzy security blanket. Government technocrats would fulfil human desires, from education to healthcare – with no corollary expectation that the protected would ever be asked to defend the blanket by force of arms.
Fukuyama was not the first author to worry about where the west was tending. Alexis de Tocqueville did it brilliantly in Democracy in America (1840). “Soft despotism” would bring about a society of sheep, bleating for government protection and hand-outs. Chestless men would expect the government to fight for them, not them for it.
Allan Bloom, in his The Closing of the American Mind (1987), asks us to consider the kind of citizens democracy (through its universities especially) is creating:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative […] Practically all that young Americans have today is an insubstantial awareness that there are many cultures, accompanied by a saccharine moral drawn from that awareness: We should all get along. Why fight? (pp. 25, 30)
If all cultures and beliefs systems are relative, why would men and women in a democracy seek to impose theirs on others? Resistance to waging war on IS is, of course, partly grounded in not having many palatable options for doing so. But if we cannot fight IS, or indeed want to fight it, what are we prepared to fight?
“War is an ugly thing, but it is not the ugliest of things”, [wrote John Stuart Mill](http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ncps:@field(DOCID+@lit(ABK4014-0024-103). “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”