It is clear by now that foreign policy will be center stage in this Presidential election, as it should be. Conservatives have made much of the fact that Democratic nominee Barack Obama has pledged to meet with rogue leaders. They have even taken to calling Obama’s foreign policy appeasement.
Of course this is ludicrous. The problem in the 1930s was not that Neville Chamberlain talked to Hitler at Munich, but that he actively gave away the Sudetenland and encouraged the Nazis’ land lust. So unless anyone has some evidence that Obama plans to give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a nuclear weapon or Kim Jung Il South Korea in negotiations, the term is not appropriate. This is not to say that we shouldn’t debate whether meeting with a man like Ahmadinejad unnecessarily enhances his prestige, or whether Obama was wise to promise unconditional meetings with enemy leaders in a debate last year.
My larger problem is that too many conservatives want to make every foreign policy issue into 1938 at Munich. Any leader who talks tough and rattles his saber becomes Winston Churchill. Any adversary becomes Adolf Hitler. And everyone who urges any sort of diplomacy is suddenly Neville Chamberlain. But the foreign policy challenges we face today are much more reminiscent of the years before World War One than they are of the years before World War Two.
Prior to the First World War, there were many great world powers. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all jockeyed for global hegemony and influence. As militarism and nationalism dominated the European continent, career diplomats knew that the slightest misstep could lead to war. That misstep came on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand. This triggered a now infamous chain of events. Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, issued an extreme ultimatum which the Serbs rejected. Austria-Hungary promptly declared war. Russia rushed to the defense of Serbia, and Germany declared war on Russia. France and Britain were rapidly brought into the war.
The First World War would last for over four years and leave millions dead. Indirectly, it also caused the Second World War, which left millions more dead. If anything, this demonstrates the paramount importance of active diplomacy. What if European powers had engaged in more diplomacy, instead of going to war as a knee-jerk reaction? Foreign policy hawks don’t want to cause world chaos, but it is instructive for them—and for us—to remember that our actions can have dramatic consequences.
Today, the US is the world’s last superpower. But we have many rivals for world influence such as China, India, Brazil, Russia, North Korea, and perhaps most dangerously Iran. There’s no shortage of serious issues either. We have to keep Iran from deploying nuclear weapons to fulfill Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. We need to prevent the Iranians from aiding Shiite terrorists in Iraq as well. These are urgent matters, and responsible people from across the political spectrum agree that something has to be done.
President Bush’s invasion of Iraq demonstrates the problems of rash foreign policy decisions. Vice-President Cheney told us we would be greeted as liberators. Ideologues within the administration didn’t send enough troops, and didn’t adequately consider the fact that a prolonged occupation of the country would empower Iran. The war has sapped billions of dollars in treasure, taken millions of lives, and tarnished America’s reputation in the world. We shouldn’t have gone in the first place, but at the very least, neoconservatives who were bent on going to war could have considered the consequences more fully than they evidently did.
Some have speculated that Bush plans to attack Iran before the end of his Presidency. Others have actually counseled the use of military force against the regime. Perhaps some sort of military action will become unavoidable, especially if we know that Iran is planning to launch a nuclear strike. But in contemplating our options, we need to draw the right historical lessons. If we insist upon making an analogy, it’s 1914, not 1938. The wrong moves could lead to an all-out war which threatens Israel, further destabilizes the Middle East, and requires an untenable American military commitment in the region. The next leader who talks of aggressive unilateral strikes might be Winston Churchill, but he could also be George W. Bush.