Should John Kerry be surprised that history has given us a back-kick?

Fareed Zakaria attacks those who criticized John Kerry’s assertion that changing borders by force, as Russia has done and may well do again, is 19th century behavior. Zakaria relies on statistics showing that wars between nations resulted in border changes more frequently in the 19th century than in the 20th, and have done so infrequently during the second half of the 20th century. He also points out that the occurrence of wars between nations has declined dramatically.

But Zakaria misapprehends the criticism directed at Kerry. Critics don’t deny that wars, and border changes resulting from war, are less common these days. Instead, they deny (1) that these events are an essentially 19th century phenomenon and (2) that we should be surprised to see them occur in these times.

Critics also wonder, perhaps, why Kerry’s comment is germane. If a disease that had been suppressed for years broke out, would doctors complain that “this is a 19th century disease?” Is Kerry trying to overturn or deter Russian aggression by making Putin feel guilty for not getting with the times?

In any event, Kerry’s critics are clearly correct that grabbing territory through force or its threat is not a distinctively 19th century occurrence. To believe otherwise, one would have to overlook the conduct of Hitler, Stalin, and imperial Japan.

Zakaria seems prepared to do so. That conduct rates nary a mention in his column, enabling him blithely to conclude that “Putin’s behavior, in fact, does belong to the 19th century.” Yes, but it is quite at home in the 20th.

But Hitler, Stalin, and imperial Japan are becoming ancient history. What of the fact that since 1950, war between nations has become relatively infrequent and virtually non-existent in Europe? Doesn’t this make Russia’s aggression surprising?

The answer depends in part on why one thinks war has become infrequent. Zakaria thinks it’s because of capitalism and free trade. He never considers that it might also be because of NATO and America’s commitment to thwarting wars of aggression. His failure to address this possibility is a shocking bit of intellectual dishonesty.

If we attribute the “Pax” in part to NATO and to American military preparedness and will, then we should not be surprised if, as NATO and America demonstrate less preparedness and less will, we see an uptick in wars of aggression and/or the extraction of major concessions in response to credible threats of war.

We should also not be surprised to see military aggression as a delayed response to the fall of the Soviet Union and the reordering of Eastern and Central Europe. Russia was never likely over the long haul to accept the astonishing shrinkage of its territory and influence that occurred 20 plus years ago. So John Kerry should not have been surprised to see Putin become militarily frisky.

Zakaria concludes that Russia, not John Kerry and President Obama, is living in a “fantasy world.” Why, then, are Kerry and Obama surprised by Russia’s conduct, while Putin seems able to predict, and at times even direct (see Syria), American policy.

Putin’s “fantasy” is becoming reality in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Kerry’s faith that wars of aggression are a thing of the past has been exposed as fantasy.


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