It isn’t often one can mark the exact day when the world changed, particularly at the time the change occurred. Yes, there was June 28, 1914, January 30, 1933 and more recently, September 11, 2001. But the full significance of these events really was only appreciated well after they happened. No one at the time could imagine that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would precipitate a war resulting in 16 million dead and the demise of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires. Nor was it clear at the time that the appointment of Adolph Hitler as German chancellor would produce not only another global conflagration but the Cold War, decolonialization, the United Nations and a global economic system that endures to this day. September 11 was a tragedy but who could have anticipated that the Al Qaeda attacks would result in a decade-long occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the destabilization of much of the Middle East?
Now we can mark the day when not only did the world change but the end of history ended. It had been fashionable for some time in Western intellectual circles to believe that the forces which had motivated inter-state behavior, indeed the very idea of the nation state, were passé. An element of this construct was the notion that war itself was no longer a credible tool of statecraft and the world faced a future of increasingly peaceful relations, at least between nations. The world was too interdependent and people too connected. Territory, resources and ideologies were not interests over which nations would fight. All these ideas can be collected under the heading of “The End of History” (with apologies to Francis Fukuyama who popularized this idea in a much more limited context).
On February 26, 2014 — the day Russia committed unprovoked aggression against its neighbor, Ukraine, broke its obligations under the 1994 treaty that denuclearized that country and occupied Crimea — the engine of history restarted, if in fact history had ever stalled. The Russian government’s efforts to justify this assault on its neighbor, not to mention the various rationalizations for it by Western sources as disparate as Ron Paul and Henry Kissinger, are redolent with the classic drivers of history: nationalism, ethnicity, geography, territoriality, religion, revanchism, irredentism, economic interests, resource demands, fear and, of course, the distribution of power.
The events in Eastern Europe also validate the argument being made regarding the significance of land power and the dangers associated with proposed deep cuts in the size of NATO land forces and the U.S. Army. The Army, in particular, has sought to warn America’s leaders that history hasn’t ended nor has the nature of war changed: it remains a clash of wills based on dominance and control of people and places. It is necessary, therefore, for nations to retain the means by which to impose themselves on an adversary’s will and to do so by controlling territory and populations (either your own or that of one’s adversary). With some 100,000 Russian troops massed just on the other side of Ukraine’s eastern border it is hard to argue with this view.
It is certainly appropriate for the United States and its NATO allies to reverse their decisions to drastically decrease defense spending and essentially gut their conventional military capabilities. In particular, it is time to reconsider the conventional wisdom that large-scale, combined-arms conventional conflict is highly unlikely. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of threat the NATO Alliance is facing in Eastern Europe. Deterring the Russian threat to Ukraine and, just beyond that, to Poland and the Baltic states cannot be based on air and sea power alone. It will require the kind of serious land power that NATO once had and the United States is about to jettison. Now that history has begun again, peace through strength seems an appropriate strategy to pursue.
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