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Foreboding historical rhymes alert us to dangers to peace and stability

Philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This wisdom holds special significance today when conditions at home, in Europe and beyond bear a troubling resemblance to those preceding the Great Depression and World War II.

Among the commonalities, international trade has emerged as an expedient scapegoat for complex domestic economic challenges. Anti-immigration is a central pillar of populism on both sides of the Atlantic. Authoritarian nationalism is resurgent worldwide. Global institutions and alliances created to foster order and maintain peace are under attack, while once again a revanchist ruler, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, is annexing land in Europe and testing the bounds of international tolerance.  

American leadership made the difference in redeeming the human condition from depression and war in the last century. It is essential now to avoid great calamity today. The exercise of such leadership must be enlightened by the alarming historical parallels and alert to differences today that enhance uncertainty and danger.  

Now, as then, blaming economic distress on global trade and foreign competition enables politicians to soothe the public’s anxieties with simplistic explanations and a foreign enemy to blame. Existing trade pacts need modernization, but an outright rejection of vigorous international trade as a central pillar of U.S. national prosperity could spiral into a full-on global economic war, creating long-term harm.

Protectionism poses an even greater danger for the U.S. than it did in the 1930s. America’s future prosperity and geostrategic influence depend on vigorous international economic engagement. Neither the United States nor our allies can prosper simply selling to ourselves.

Now, as then, population flows create diplomatic and humanitarian challenges. Migration again has become a whipping horse for xenophobic political movements.

Sovereign nations should enforce responsible border protection and immigration laws, but the world is more informed and mobile today. Distressed populations know where to find a better life. Managing population flows demands remedies beyond walls. The most effective, lasting policies will be those that foster a more hopeful future where would-be emigrants and refugees live. Wise nations and alliances address causes, not just effects.

Now, as then, international institutions and arrangements created to foster peace and prosperity are criticized as burdensome or intrusive. Today, the cornerstones of the transatlantic community — NATO and the European Union (EU) — face unprecedented challenges to their viability, just as the League of Nations did in its time. Both NATO and the EU have been pillars of reconciliation, peace, security and prosperity in Europe and they are key to meeting both threats and opportunities.

Now, as then, authoritarian nationalism is on the rise, intensifying great power rivalry and tensions. Adolf Hitler rose to prominence by blaming domestic problems on foreign powers, enemies within, and injustice meted out by foreign tormentors in the aftermath of World War I. He sought to reclaim national pride by rearming, creating enemies, rejecting international norms, and militarily appropriating land. Emboldened by his successful annexation of Austria, his appetites grew. Satisfying them caused a second world war.

Developments in Russia eerily echo the dynamics that characterized the interwar period, with one significant difference. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet empire, the West did not penalize Russia. Instead, it extended a hand of partnership in the form of political engagement and billions of dollars of development assistance. Genuine hope permeated the West’s policy that Cold War confrontation would fade and a collaborative relationship based on shared values would emerge.

Instead of driving forward the difficult reforms necessary to transition Russia to democracy and a rule-based market economy, Putin instead chose extreme nationalism, statism and foreign intervention to consolidate his authority. He bemoans the end of the Soviet Union as tragic and attributes to Western treachery the desires of former Soviet-controlled nations to join NATO and the EU. He uses economic pressure, military force and hybrid warfare to reinstitute Moscow’s control over the former Soviet space.

The weakness of the West’s response to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Georgian territories and intimidation of other neighbors through energy shut-offs and trade embargoes emboldened Putin. Russia has steadily increased military provocations against U.S. allies and partners on both sides of the Atlantic, including his invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, China is seeking to expand its boundaries and exert global influence. As happened with pre-war Japan, the Asia-Pacific nations and friends around the world look with intensifying concern at China’s increasing military might, territorial claims and global ambitions governed by values hostile to human freedom and liberal democracy. Sino-Russian relations are warming, along with strengthening military ties, partly out of shared antipathy for western values.

Mankind must be alert to these foreboding historical rhymes, and to the reality that dangers to global peace and stability are even greater than generally recognized. The threat of traditional nation-state conflict is complicated by modern strategies, tactics, and capabilities, particularly in cyberspace. cyber attacks. Digital communications and social media can be exploited to foment hate and domestic conflict. The time from provocation to reaction is on a hair trigger, sharpening the threat of misunderstanding or miscalculation and bloodshed. Numerous nations possess weapons of mass destruction, and non-state actors possess state-like capabilities to create instability that can burst into conflict.

These realities must focus U.S. power and leadership on preventing our times from becoming another prologue to human catastrophe. The potential for failure is all too real as the lessons of history fade and many underestimate the value of global safeguards and alliances.  

The United States and its allies must recognize their inherent advantages. We account for over half of the world’s GDP and our military forces — NATO — are second to none. As a community of democracies, our political legitimacy is unmatched.

Using these assets with determination can strengthen the prospects of enduring peace, expanded prosperity and, hopefully, genuine cooperation with rivals and potential rivals. The key ingredient remains U.S. leadership that:

  • Reaffirms our commitment to the rules-based international order that respects national sovereignty;
  • Underscores our commitment to bilateral and multilateral alliances, including NATO;
  • Modernizes U.S. and allied global engagement to more effectively address poverty, instability and conflict;
  • Further develops and enforces an international system of free and fair trade; and
  • Promotes democratic principles and practices around the world.

It is not cost-free to lead an international community of democracies whose military, economic and political resources, if nurtured and leveraged effectively, will remain unmatched. This necessitates stronger foreign assistance, robust defense and diplomatic finesse, including engagement with adversaries to manage tensions and work arduously for peace. Moreover, in this era of clever autocracies, the need for rapid decision-making by democracies is essential. But the cost of leadership earns advantageous returns. As we saw in the last century, the alternatives can be far costlier.

U.S. leadership requires statesmen willing and able to transcend partisan interests, heal social antagonisms and bridge generational, racial and cultural identities to inspire consensus. And it requires an appreciation for the timeless value of patriotic cooperation and principled compromise in the name of something bigger.

John Raidt is a former legislative director to Sen. John McCain and staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Ian Brzezinski is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO policy, leads the Brzezinski Group, a strategic advisory services company, and serves as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags International relations migrants NATO Russia US allies Vladimir Putin World War II

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