FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Welcome all of you. My name is Fred Logevall. And I am the director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, which is the capacity in which I'm here. I'm also a member of the faculty in the history department. And I serve currently as Vice Provost for International Affairs.
This is one in our series that we call the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series at the Einaudi Center, which is a series that we've had going now for several years. We've had a range of very distinguished speakers come in, hence the name of the series. And if you have a program, you have a list of those speakers. I don't need to give you the lists now.
But what we've tried to do, I think, with success, if I may be so bold, is to have experts from various parts of life come in, but people who have in common the following. They are authorities on some aspect of in particular, US foreign policy, although it's not limited to that, but people who can speak to pressing issues in international affairs. And today's speaker is certainly no exception. I'll be introducing him in a moment.
We're very grateful for the support that we have received for this event from the San Giacomo Charitable Foundation, from Mrs. Judy Biggs, and also from the Bartels family. And again, I draw your attention to the program where you can get a better sense of this series and of some of the people who have come through over the past, I think, seven or eight years.
One event that I want to just draw to your attention, one upcoming event is the annual Bartels World Affairs lecture, very soon indeed. In fact, it is next Monday. It is March 16th. Michael McFaul, who was the Obama administration's ambassador to Russia, until quite recently, 2012 to 2014, I think are the dates for that, and who is currently on the faculty at Stanford, Michael McFaul will be here to lecture to give a lecture called "A New Cold War?" question mark. "A New Cold War?" "A New Cold War?" explaining Russia's confrontation with the West.
Again, that's at 4:30 PM. I think-- is it at the Statler Auditorium? Statler Auditorium, 4:30. Today, however, it's a great pleasure for me to introduce our speaker William Hitchcock, who is Professor of History and also Randolph Compton professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Will and I go back a ways, it's fair to say. I still remember when I first met Will. He will not remember this, I don't think, but it was a seminar at Yale. I think this would have been perhaps 1991. And I whispered to somebody at the seminar, who's was the guy in the back?
And the person whispered back, you don't know who that is? That's Will Hitchcock. Will had just come back from his field research. So maybe this would have been '92, but somewhere in that era. And he had come back from his field research for his dissertation.
And we have been colleagues and friends since then. And I'm delighted that he is here to speak in the series today. Will's work focuses on the international, shall we say, diplomatic, military history of the 20th century, in particular the era of the world wars and the Cold War. He's also written widely on transatlantic relations and also European history and politics. Professor Hitchcock received his degree, his bachelor's degree from Kenyon College in 1986 and his Ph.D. from the aforementioned Yale in 1994.
His first faculty appointment was at Yale and he taught there for six years, also serving as associate director for International Security Studies, ISS, at Yale. He's published widely a number of books. I want to mention just a couple of them. France Restored-- Cold War Diplomacy and the Quest for Leadership in Europe, which was an outgrowth of his Ph.D. Dissertation.
He edited a volume with Paul Kennedy, who was his mentor at Yale also one of my advisors at Yale titled, From War to Peace-- Altered Strategic Landscapes in the 20th Century, a very important book on Europe after 1945, and a book called The Bitter Road to Freedom-- A New History of the Liberation of Europe, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a winner of the George Louis Beer prize from the American Historical Association, and a Financial Times bestseller in the United Kingdom.
He may tell us something about a current book project, but I can tell you myself that he's currently writing what promises to be, I think, a path-breaking book on the Eisenhower years, and in particular with respect to US foreign policy, but more broadly about the era of Eisenhower as president in US and world affairs. I'm absolutely delighted that Will Hitchcock is with us here today. Join me, please, in welcoming him to Cornell. Thank you.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Well, thanks, Fred. We are old friends. Hello, Max. I see you now out there, speaking of old friends. Fred and I met in graduate school 25 years ago, and I just can't figure it out, since we're only 29 years old. It's just that way.
Fred asked me to come and give a talk in this Distinguished Lecture series, and I want to thank him for that kind invitation and to thank the Einaudi Center for making this all happen. When he asked me, I said, well, what topic would you like me to discuss? And he said anything, which wasn't very helpful. I prefer an assignment-- talk about this book or talk about that topic.
And I didn't get an assignment, so I thought I would try something that I haven't tried before, very much inspired by the centennial of the First World War and the outpouring of new books, not all of which have anything new to say, but there have been a lot of new books on the First World War and I've been trying to keep up with them. And it has been-- part of what I'm trying to try out for you today is to try to connect the history of the First World War to our own time and try to hear some echoes between a century ago, events a century ago, and our own crisis in world affairs.
And the more I got into this, the more I began to feel that there was not only some echoes, but some really quite astonishing parallels. And since the First World War was a really bad thing, you can see where I'm going with this. So bear with me. I want to walk you through a couple of these parallels. The title of the talk is "Why the First World War Still Matters," which is an irreverent title.
Of course it still matters. The war killed 10 million young men, left millions more wounded and maimed, left five million women widowed. It set off a series of political upheavals that redrew the map of the world, swept away the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires, elevated the United States to a world power status.
It stimulated the emergence of two new ideologies, communism and fascism, that would blacken the history of the rest of the century. It seriously weakened the prestige of liberal parliamentary democracy. And whenever you look at the news coming out of the Middle East, of course you're reminded of the dramatic political changes that the first World War wrought in that region.
So in short, the First World War matters in every conceivable way, even now in our own time. Having said that, I'll now go off to the bar, my job having been done. But no, I have about 45 minutes in which I want to talk a little bit about something more than just the obvious political consequences of the First World War. I want to make the case that we can illuminate key debates and problems of our own time by going back to World War I.
The war is a century old, but I just keep on seeing these parallels, these echoes, these shadows. And I wanted to flush some of these out in this talk today. And at the risk of doing some violence to the particularity and specificity of the era of the Great War, I want to draw out a few aspects of the First World War era that I hope can illuminate in some certain ways our own times. This lecture series being about foreign policy, I wanted not only to give a historical lecture, but to frame it around issues that we're facing today.
So the topics that I'm going to touch on today are three in number. They are the origins of the First World War, the difficulties of building a stable peace after the First World War, and the impact of the war upon the soldiers who fought it. And I'm going to try to draw out contemporary lessons for each one of those three topics.
Historians are often loath to draw lessons from history, often because we're rather bad at it. But I champion this opportunity in this forum to do just that, because it's my feeling that our policymakers and our leaders have a distinct lack of historical imagination, to say nothing of historical knowledge. And in some ways, it's the role of the historian to say, have you thought about it this way, and to offer some historical reflections. And that's what I'm going to do here today.
So first, origins-- if I ask my students, as I do every year, why did the Second World War start? Who is responsible? They have no trouble answering that question-- Hitler. And then they'll say, then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor-- pretty easy and not altogether wrong. If I ask the same question of my students, what started World War I, I also get a fairly straightforward and not altogether wrong answer-- pretty simple, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Even across the distance of 100 years, the name of this, to many, obscure Austrian noble still rings down the ages. But is that all there is to it? Certainly, the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his lovely wife, Countess Sophie, on June 28 1914, while they were making a state visit to the provincial outpost of Sarajevo did indeed trigger a war between Austria and Serbia.
Serbia, that small, pugnacious monarchy that had harbored the murderer and shielded the conspiracy that led to the death of the Archduke. But how did a war between two southeastern European kingdoms come to engulf the entire world? Historians have been writing about this for almost a century.
And the explanation for the expansion of the Austro-Serb conflict into what became the Great War are numerous. And in fact, they're so numerous that I'm going to give you a very useful way of reducing it to a somewhat-- I hope not simplistic, but memorable framework for those of you who are not experts on the First World War.
So one useful shortcut to make sense of them all is to conjure up a mental map of the causes of war in 1914. I suggest you picture a ring of five concentric circles with the outbreak of the war right at the center-- five concentric circles. I would have done a PowerPoint, but I hate PowerPoint so much that I felt it wasn't necessary. I think we can all remember five concentric circles. That's not too difficult.
At the outer edge of the ring, we might place the broad atmosphere of Europe in the decade before 1914. The broad atmosphere-- that's what Margaret MacMillan did so well in her most recent book, The War that Ended the Peace. Here, we would place those broad structural, economic, and cultural factors that contributed to an atmosphere of hostility, rivalry, and suspicion across Europe in the pre-war years.
Topics such as imperial, economic, naval competition-- these kinds of things-- along with a popular culture that glorified competition and rivalry and war and social Darwinism and aggression and dueling and all of these sorts of topics, which have been studied in significant ways by scholars. All of these factors would combine to create a swirl of tension in the outer ring of our causal scheme, tension across the continent.
In the next ring, moving in toward the center, we might place the shifting balance of power, the shifting balance of power and the evolution of specific alliances that have been crafted in the first decade of the 20th century. So we have atmosphere on the outside. Next in is a balance of power and specific alliances.
The rise of Germany to great power status, the alliance of Austria and Germany into a powerful central European bloc, and the diplomatic response of Britain, France, and Russia to this rise-- these factors pushed Europe into an alliance system, an alliance system that was meant to deter war, but that may actually have helped to bring it about. The alliance system, as we know, turned out to function like a train going over a bridge. The first car went over and pulled all the other ones right behind it.
With Serbia able to call in help from its Russian ally, Austria holding the famous blank check of support from Berlin, Russia able to count on French belligerence, and Britain already committed to defending Belgian neutrality-- all of the railroad cars lined up and off they went over the bridge. The whole thing cascaded into war in very short order. But the alliance system was by itself just an outer expression of a set of internal assumptions among the great powers about who was a friend and who was foe.
And those calculations varied for each nation in Europe in 1914. And they were quite fluid. So in our next inner ring of causation, we might place the role of threat perception. And this is something I'll come back to in the talk-- the role of threat perception. What did each state in Europe see as the principal threat to its security and why?
Here, we have to examine a whole range of national complexes about their neighbors and their perceptions of their neighbors-- Austria's hatred of Serbia, Russia's anxiety about Austria, Germany's scorn toward Russia, France's burning resentment of Germany, and Britain's anxiety about the rise of German power-- all of these perceived threats and the way they were constructed over time can only be explained by studying each nation individually. Once we do that, we perceive how important this process of constructing the threat really was in bringing about war in 1914.
But even so, even if we account for these rings-- I'm starting to sound like Saturn, but you're getting the idea-- the broad atmosphere of the times, and even if we account for the alliance picture, and even if we account for the construction of threats, we're still not quite seeing the picture as a whole. Our next inner ring must deal with domestic politics, a crucial determinant.
For it was the domestic structure of politics in each European state that would guide the response to the perceived threats on the horizon. Would the response to threats on the horizon be perceived and handled with aggression, or with some degree of negotiation? Domestic politics tended to determine that process.
How did the domestic political environment, the relationship of the executive to the Parliament, the place of the military in society, the role of public opinion, the role of ethnicity and identity-- how did all these factors shape the decision-making of each nation? Britain, for example, was a parliamentary democracy, with stable political institutions.
Germany was governed by a militaristic autocrat who deeply distrusted his parliament. Austria-Hungary was a polyglot empire, loosely grouped into a curious thing called a dual monarchy. To understand the crisis of 1914 fully, these domestic political factors must be addressed, as well.
And finally, our last concentric circle must inevitably be the military strategic assumptions that were in place and which weighed so heavily upon decision-makers in 1914. Military plans and the institutional weight of the military and decision-making we know had a crucial and determining effect and impact on the timing and course of events in July 1914.
The most well-known of these was Germany's Schlieffen plan for the swift invasion of France. But France too possessed an offensive attack plan, the famous Plan 17, which called for a swift attack into southern Germany, while Russia moved to attack Austria and so on. Fully understanding how these war plans were settled on and the power they had to determine the outcome of the July crisis is a vital piece of the overall puzzle.
Thus, by the time you get to the center of the circle, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, you already can see in your mental map the extraordinary pressures working from the outside inward, making the momentum toward war almost irresistible. The crisis of July 1914 was a perfect storm, because it triggered all five sources of pressure and pushed the great powers toward war.
Now, our concentric rings do not mean that war was inevitable. Individual leaders made fateful choices for war in July 1914. But this sense of the pressures working upon decision-makers at the center of the crisis, they help us to understand why the decision for war seemed to contemporaries impossible to resist and perhaps even quite desirable.
Now, this sketch I'm proposing of concentric circles has, I don't think, any predictive power. I'm not a political scientist. I certainly don't propose this as an explanation for why all wars start. There may be six concentric circles in the Vietnam War, for example. But I'm just using it here to try to stimulate our imagination.
And I do think these are really very evocative categories that as we look around our contemporary world today and ask ourselves, which of these factors are present in world affairs? Which of these things do we need to understand if we're to understand the fate of our foreign policy and of our international order today? How many of these structural and social and political and military pressures can be found, and does this help us understand why the world is in such turmoil?
I guess I'm suggesting we need some tools. We need some tools to make sense of what seems like an unending array of bad news. Perhaps history can provide a few of those tools. Well, the good news is as we look around the world, I think it's rather difficult to identify any one place where all five of these cascading sets of pressures are at work.
The bad news is, there are plenty of places where a few of them are at work. So the question is, how much will they determine the outcome of future conflicts? So what I want to do is take a couple of examples of recent events and current events and try to map it over this set of ideas about how the war came in 1914 and see what echoes there are. If, for example, we map the events of 1914 over America's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, we find some interesting things.
First, of course, you notice the obvious differences. The United States did not go to war with Iraq because of the shifting balance of power or because of the existence of preexisting alliances that drew the US into war, trains going over the bridge. Nor did the US go to war because American military institutions were begging for war and wanted a war to test their mettle, as was the case in 1914.
On the contrary, the United States military was quite worried and ambivalent about waging war in Iraq in 2003. But one important similarity that does emerge concerns one of those rings I described, threat perception. And let me explain it see if I can get a-- if you can hear the echo that I'm hearing. Maybe it's just an echo in my own ear. But let me explain.
The issue of threat perception-- how the United States constructed a certain threat actually sounds a little bit like something out of the July crisis. At the heart of the crisis of July 1914--- come back with me, back to the July crisis-- lay the ongoing rivalry between Serbia and Austria, a subject that Christopher Clark quite recently has brilliantly analyzed in The Sleepwalkers, his new book. The large Austro-Hungarian monarchy was deeply anxious about Serbia, because Serbia, though small, had an outsized role in the political affairs of the Balkans.
Serbia was a thorn in Austria's side because it was Slavic, nationalistic, militaristic state that was a rival for dominance in the Balkans. If Serbia should win out in this contest for influence in the Balkans, not only would Serbia's patron, Russia, benefit, but other ethnic minorities in the multi-ethnic, polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire might be tempted to rebel against their rulers.
In the years before World War I, Austria had used a combination of tactics-- bluff, annexation, alliance diplomacy, brinksmanship-- to try to contain Serbia. And it keeps Serbia on notice that its efforts to upset the hierarchies of power in the Balkans would not be tolerated. But the policy was not working. Far from being intimidated, Serbia was provocative and even led a regional alliance of Balkan states into conflict with the Ottoman Empire, with the purpose of expanding Serb influence.
And Serbia was successful, much to the dismay of Austria. So the stage was set for radicalization of the Austrian-Serb contest. Once the murder of Franz Ferdinand occurred, this terrible act was seen in Vienna as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Serbia wanted to destroy Austria, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The mask had been torn away by this astonishing act of terror.
Clearly the policy of containment of Serbia had failed. Serbia would have to be destroyed. There was no other alternative. So in July 1914, Austria felt it had every justification in the world to go to war. Indeed, a failure to go to war would be seen as intolerable, a rejection of its very independence as a great power.
Well, in laying out this story, I can't help but hear some echoes of the origins of the Iraq war. Long before 2003, of course, Iraq had been a thorn in America's side. Of course, the US waged war against Iraq in 1990-91, the Gulf War. And that war had been limited in nature. America's goals had been to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to reassure allies in the region of America's power and reliability.
America had not aimed to destroy Iraq at that time. It had not aimed to occupy it or overthrow its leader. Instead, the US opted for containment, a no-fly zone, a policy of protection for Kurds and Shiites, economic sanctions, and so on. But after 9/11, this policy was held up as a failure, a disaster, in fact. True, Saddam had not been the mastermind behind 9/11, so the parallel with the assassination in Sarajevo breaks down there.
But that issue, as you will no doubt recall, was unclear in the minds of American decision-makers at the time. And in any case, it turned out that the alleged and fuzzy connection between Saddam and 9/11 did not matter to US decision-makers. Instead, 9/11 presented an opportunity to settle a long-standing problem with Iraq and to justify a preemptive war on Iraq. The stakes of that threat now had to be raised to extraordinary levels.
In 2002 up through March 2003, Iraq was transformed in the minds of US officials, from what it had been before 9/11, a weak, divided, militarily ineffective state that had been successfully contained for over a decade into the number one existential threat to US security since the end of the Cold War. Every conceivable argument was now trotted out. Saddam was the sponsor of global terror. He was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He would use them against America and its allies.
If America failed to deal with him immediately, America's power would be called into question, and so on. Advocates for war in 2003 made free use of the Hitler and Holocaust parallels in order to silence criticism. Saddam Hussein was said to be just like Hitler and Kim Jung Il, and Stalin, et cetera, et cetera. Add to this demonization of the enemy, one additional ingredient that has strong echoes from 1914. In the run-up to the war with Iraq, all senior US officials publicly asserted the war would be swift and victorious. And if that doesn't bring out 1914, then I'm not conjuring it up adequately.
Taken as a whole, these factors created a powerful cascade of pressures for war. And perhaps most important, they closed off avenues of criticism and dissent. I think we might have a discussion as to whether or not this process of demonization is happening right now as we watch with Iran.
Taking a nation to war is a terrible decision, and leaders who choose that path no doubt want to feel certain in the righteousness of their cause and the imminence of the threat they face. If they also feel confident about a swift and easy victory, then the decision for war comes to be seen as quite desirable. Dissent, opposition, alternatives-- all of those are immediately stigmatized as signs of weakness and doubt and insufficient dedication to the national cause. I think that is what happened both in 1914 and in 2003.
Now, this process of constructing the threat that is elevating a geopolitical problem into the number one existential threat of the moment is hardly the only echo from the Great War era that maps onto our own time. As you may know, some international relations scholars believe that the current US-China rivalry matches up in worrisome ways with the great power configuration in 1914.
I'm not a China scholar or expert on Asia by any means. I do know a new book is out called The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of US-China Conflict, edited by Harvard scholars Richard Rosecrans and Steven Miller. They say the picture in Asia looks dangerous indeed. The US, they argue, is locked into a series of entrapping alliances in Asia and a dispute between China and one of our allies in the region could very well spark war.
And given the many disputes in the region, whether between China and Japan or China and Taiwan or the two Koreas, this does seem to cause a great deal of anxiety. Might we be drawn into war in Asia in the same way that the alliance system helped to trigger war in 1914? Of course, we hope not. There are strong arguments against this. Many of those arguments go to the issue of economic interpenetration.
The United States and China are so closely tied in the global economy that there would be no possible way that they would desire to go to war because they would lose so much out of it. And those of you who know something about the origins of the First World War will hear the echo of poor old Norman Angell, who wrote in his 1910 book, The Great Illusion, that Britain and Germany would never go to war because of their economic interpenetration, that it didn't pay to go to war. So that would be enough of a deterrent.
And poor old Norman Angell gets trotted out in lectures like this to show what a fool he was for not predicting the outcome of the war or for assuming that economic ties would be enough to halt all of these other pressures for war. I merely mention the China case, because it is on the lips of many IR scholars who feel that's really the major concern for American foreign policy. That's where a World War I style sequence of events might kick in to create war.
But ladies and gentlemen, for my money, the issue that seems most worrisome in our current affairs and where reference to World War I might be most evocative relates to Russia and to the actions of President Putin on the world stage. Imagine-- imagine, if you will, a great nation, born in war and revolution, a nation whose political development had been significantly shaped by its warlike origins, perhaps even stunted by them.
Imagine a nation which had a brief experiment with democracy, but whose political freedoms were crushed by a powerful state in a militarist bureaucracy. Imagine a nation whose leader was vainglorious, aggressive, secretive, suspicious, who surrounded himself with military leaders and refused to be restrained by civilian politicians or parliamentary institutions. Imagine a nation facing fears of encirclement by hostile powers and which went on a rearmament binge to supply itself with the latest weapons technology.
Imagine a nation facing internal economic crisis and upheaval, and that responded to these crises not with democratization and reform but with oppression, suppression of dissent, with militarism, with intensified xenophobia, propaganda against its perceived enemies, both at home and abroad. This parlor game-- I could carry this on for a long time. But suffice it to say, ladies and gentlemen, I'm describing both Germany on the eve of the First World War and contemporary Russia.
Reflecting back again on our concentric circles for the outbreak of the war in 1914, you'll recall that domestic politics was one of those critical determinants. Some decades ago, a number of historians most of them German, developed a powerful interpretation about Germany's role in bringing about war in 1914. Germany's decision for war, they argued, was shaped decisively by internal political factors. Germany in 1914 was an ugly hybrid, politically speaking. It was a modern, industrial, military powerhouse.
But it was controlled by a pre-modern, inflexible, archaic, parochial monarchy that didn't understand how to govern this rapidly changing nation. In an age of mass political and social movements, German elites feared internal instability and political challenges to their power and authority. From 1890 to 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to counter domestic instability by creating national solidarity around a cult of the nation, the monarchy, the navy, and the army.
Rather than offer power sharing or political reform or liberalism, the Kaiser Reich offered nationalism and imperialism, dreams of glory, of expansion into the fertile fields of Poland and Ukraine and more, for the German flag was soon waving over remote outposts in Cameroon, Tanganyika, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia. And most important, the flags snapped at the mastheads of new cruisers and battleships that were being built to rival the British navy.
So according to this interpretation of pre-1914 Germany, the Kaiser Reich promoted a narrative of national grievance and co-opted domestic critics by generating a cult of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Thus, when the crisis of July 1914 broke out, Germany's rulers saw war as yet another attractive solution to the internal crises of the moment.
Now, we do not need to accept this interpretation of Wilhelmine Germany in toto to see its contemporary relevance to Putin's Russia. But we might want to use this example to look for clues about what Putin is up to. Does it echo? Is this a tool we can use? Is this a lesson of history? Putin's aim in seizing Crimea and in sustaining war in Ukraine is, I suspect, two-fold.
First, to demonstrate his ability to reassert Russian control over an area of core strategic interest to Russia, an area that historically Russia has had great influence in and over. And second-- I think this is the key point-- second, to sustain an atmosphere of crisis, to be able to generate nationalism at home, and to legitimate internal repression. In this scenario, limited war is far from unwelcome. It is actually rather desirable.
This is not to say that President Putin wants a wider war with NATO. I seriously doubt that he does. And indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm II did not want a global war with France, Britain, and Russia all at once either. But the Kaiser, like Putin, wanted the domestic political benefits that war brings, the praise of military virtues, an intensified cult of nationalism, internal repression, the silencing of dissent. To gain those political benefits, the Kaiser played a very dangerous game that led to his and his nation's ruin. And I fear Putin may be following the same script.
Now, the issue for Western policymakers, it seems to me, is to grasp the power of the narrative of victimization and encirclement that Putin is purveying. It is not unlike the same story the German leadership told about itself in 1914. And that narrative, even if we may say, what's up with that? That doesn't make any sense. It's not true. Even if we may say that, that narrative was powerful enough to sustain four years of terrible war at a cost of over a million German soldiers' lives, as well as severe hardship for the German population.
Perceptions of national grievances, beliefs in national greatness, paranoia about encircling alliances, determination to protect one's immediate geographical periphery-- all of these concepts are very powerful. They've driven people to extreme sacrifice in the past. And it's incumbent on our leaders, I think, today, as we debate our proposal to arm the Ukrainians, possibly to escalate that war, to understand that these forces are in play today.
All right, well, World War I is an endlessly fascinating laboratory to test out theories about the origins of war. What can it tell us about the origins of peace, if anything? Let's shift to the other side of the war for a moment. Peace, you say? You might think the answer to what the First World War can teach us about constructing peace is nothing. After all, it was one of the biggest tragedies of the war.
It was that the great powers were unable to secure the foundations for post-war stability that could in any way justify the extraordinary loss of life in the war. But I think the failure of the postwar settlement after World War I also provides us a few interesting lessons to reflect upon for our own time.
Now this, again, is a debate that's generated countless studies, and there are no shortages of villains in the story of why the Paris Peace Conference failed. Scholars will stress any number of culprits-- France's venality and paranoia, perhaps America's withdrawal from Europe, perhaps Britain's return to imperial interests or Germany's clever manipulation of the peace treaty, or the Russian civil war, or the collapse of the economic system and the rise of new warlike ideologies.
In short, there is no end to the explanations for the failure of peace. These are all crucial pieces of the puzzle. But for the purposes of searching for some applicable lessons that we can take away from this historical case study, we might consider this simple framework. Peace requires two ingredients-- legitimacy and power.
The challenge for would-be peacemakers is to gather, in sufficient quantities, both of these valuable resources, legitimacy and power, and to know how to use them. In the case of the post-World War I settlement, the great powers of the Paris Peace Conference possessed for a fleeting moment the magic combination of legitimacy and power, and they squandered it. The search for a postwar order that was based on legitimacy and power seemed to be off to a rather good start in January 1918 when Woodrow Wilson gave his famous speech about American war aims.
You'll recall that he summarized the American position in 14 distinct points. He called for a postwar settlement based on freedom of trade; open, transparent diplomacy; national self-determination for peoples living under the yoke of empire; mutual disarmament; and the creation of a new, international organization, with legitimacy and authority to settle disputes through collective security.
By the time the peace conference opened, these ideas had widespread legitimacy. And most important, they were sustained by power-- the power that had defeated Germany on the battlefield. Well, goodness, what went wrong? What didn't go wrong?
First, legitimacy-- let me focus on power and legitimacy-- legitimacy was leeched out of the settlement by so many violations of the high principles Wilson had articulated. Instead of transparent diplomacy, the peace conference became a totally rigged tug of war between just three leaders-- Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau. Instead of national self-determination, millions of people, especially millions of Germans, found themselves on the wrong side of new national borders.
That principle was violated. Instead of a fair settlement of colonial questions, the British and French empires emerged even larger than they were after the war. Instead of collective security, France pursued its own national security by insisting on territorial dismemberment of Germany and a network of alliances with Eastern European states.
And instead of seeking a limited reparations bill that would help pay for the actual damages that the war had caused to civilian property, nations asked for a little bit more. Britain insisted on a larger reparations bill in order to pay for soldiers' pensions, for example. So the impossibly high-minded Wilsonian moment collapsed in a matter of months. Whatever settlement emerged out of Paris, it was not going to be able to claim the mantle of legitimacy.
Now, that would not have been a fatal flaw if the great powers had at least possessed the power and the willingness to use that power in defense of the flawed settlement they devised. But they did not. The failure of Wilson to secure approval of the Senate for the Paris Peace treaty meant not only that America would not join the League of Nations, of course, but also that France would now not enjoy an American security guarantee, leaving the entire fabric of the peace treaty very vulnerable.
Britain, having secured what it wanted out of the peace settlement, principally the destruction of the German navy, the German fleet, now turned away from its continental commitment, and reverted to a balance of power policy toward Europe, basically encouraging a Franco-German stalemate. That left France alone to face the possibility of the revival of German power. The French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 to compel Germany to pay its reparations triggered an economic disaster and created a lot of international sympathy for Germany. Allied power to enforce the peace treaty vanished.
So the post-World War I settlement possessed too little legitimacy and it was upheld by too little power. The result was a world order that was subject to constant revision, fascism, communism. And an increasingly sickly and dubious liberal democracy would have to duke it out in yet another world war to see which of those ideologies would be triumphant. The quest for power and legitimacy, ladies and gentlemen, has defined US foreign policy for much of the 20th century.
If the US failed to exert both after World War I, it certainly made up for it after 1945, when the United States imposed a postwar order that mobilized both power and legitimacy in harmony, to create a stable, although very dangerous, Cold War order upon world affairs. America proved able to defend this order using power and legitimacy throughout the Cold War. By contrast, of course, it made a number of terrible mistakes during the Cold War as well, which kept the Cold War so dangerous and brought into question the legitimacy, but usually never the power that America sought to exercise.
Since 1991, the United States has found it difficult to sustain this careful mixture of power and legitimacy that made the Cold War in Europe successful for the United States and for its interests. I think it might not be too extreme to argue that in the 1990s-- I'll I put it this way. In the 1990s, the United States possessed legitimacy, but was unwilling or unable to use the power that it needed to impose that legitimacy where it was desperately needed. The failures of US foreign policy in Africa, in Bosnia, in the Middle East, as well as against burgeoning Islamic terrorist cells, revealed a lack of willingness to use power on behalf of ideals in the '90s.
By contrast, the period after 2003 saw a complete reversal, with the invasion of Iraq and the mishandling of virtually every aspect of the conflict there, especially the egregious violations of the laws of war. The United States lost legitimacy in world opinion, but used its great power in defiance of the considered opinion of millions of people around the world.
The result was a military adventure, that even if it had been successful militarily, would not have been able to claim the mantle of legitimacy. Well, the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the other direction these days. The United States promotes legitimate ideas, but often prefers to limit its expenditure of power nowadays.
We're back in a no boots on the ground, lead from behind moment. The consequences, I think, of this ambiguous world role are very serious. Weather you agree with it or not, I think the consequences are significant and perhaps not altogether desirable.
The United States is by far the world's most important and powerful nation, most effective in stabilizing world affairs when other states know exactly what America's interests are and what it will do to defend those interests. At this moment, there is considerable uncertainty, I would stipulate, about what America's primary interests are and what kind of power will be deployed to protect them. Let me just mention a few place names-- Donetsk, Mosul, Tikrit, Qobani, Tripoli-- these are all in the headlines.
Which is a vital American interest? How do we know? If we don't know, you can be sure that many of our potential rivals are unsure as well. So what I'm suggesting here is-- and this is my second lesson from the First World War-- if the US does not supply world order with legitimacy and power in an appropriate and balanced way, it runs the risk of encouraging regional hegemons to assert themselves.
Now, in the 1930s, the large powers of the world also rejected any common definition of legitimacy. In the '30s, the great powers also were jealous of one another's power, developed conflicting ideologies, divided the world into economic spheres of influence, and they viewed every local contest as a clash of wills. All you have to do is throw in nuclear weapons, and you may be describing the world of 2015.
Well, I've discussed how the study of World War I can stimulate some fresh perspectives on the problems of war and peace in our time. I want to close by discussing briefly a third theme, and that is what can the first World War teach us about the human experience of war.
Fortunately, there is one enormous difference between the First World War and the recent conflicts in which the United States has been involved-- the casualty figures. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,717 Americans have been killed and just over 50,000 wounded. This is a terrible number to contemplate, and the deaths and injuries in these conflicts have had a dramatic impact on our society as a whole, to say nothing of the extraordinary deaths and injuries that have been inflicted upon people in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other countries.
It is very hard to stretch our imaginations to conjure up a war in which more than 6,800 soldiers would die every day, every day for four years straight. Imagine a war in which 20,000 young Englishmen could be cut down dead in a matter of a few hours, as they were on the Somme on July 1, 1916. Imagine a war in which 80,000 French soldiers could be killed in two weeks of fighting, as happened in September 1914 at the Battle of the Marne.
And too, consider the very concept of the missing, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered or identified. If you go, as many, I'm sure, of you have done to the Menin gate in the Belgian town of Ypres, you can see the names of 57,000 British soldiers inscribed there.
They are the men who fought in the Ypres Salient, whose bodies were never identified, because of course their bodies were disintegrated, dismembered, ground into the watery mud of Passendale. And that was just one sector of the front that wound from the English Channel all the way down to Switzerland.
And yet despite the differences in scale and numbers, in reading about the experiences of soldiering then and now, one cannot help draw the conclusion that soldiers share certain experiences whenever and wherever they fight. Although 100 years separate them, soldiers who fought in the Great War have something in common with those who fought in our recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, they all endured extreme physical discomfort, constant exposure, the tension of being in combat, and perhaps even worse, the prolonged periods of boredom between battles.
In France and Belgium, misery was caused mainly by the wetness and the mud, the floods of water that had to be pumped out of the trenches on a constant, daily basis to keep them passable. Misery was also caused by the constant proximity to dead and decaying human beings. In Iraq, it was the heat, the sand, the flies. The water, that according to one trooper, "smelled like dirty ass."
Soldiers in the initial assault waves in Iraq never had time to change their clothes, so their clothing was so salt encrusted, it turned white. Many soldiers endured bouts of vomiting and diarrhea caused by the strain or the food or the water or the flies or all of the above. And for some reason, in World War I as in World War II and in Vietnam, our latest series of misadventures as well, soldiers could not keep their feet dry.
According to one observer who saw the first weeks of the Iraq invasion of 2003, when soldiers removed their boots after days of fighting, their skin would fall off in strips, the result of fungal infections. In France in 1915 too, men who stood in waterlogged trenches suffered the same afflictions. Another point of comparison-- despite all the hatred they had for their predicament, the chief dread of the soldier was not death. It was to be perceived as a failure or to let down their comrades.
The young German, Ernst Junger, who spent all of World War I in the trenches-- and I'm afraid he enjoyed it a little too much-- wrote that his greatest solace came from the feeling of doing his duty. Quote, "At night when I lay down on my plank bed, I always had the pleasant consciousness of having in my sphere fulfilled the expectations those at home had of me. I had given all my energies to the defense of my 200 meters of frontline and cared for the well-being of my 60 men."
In Iraq, a chaplain told this story to a reporter. Many of the Marines have sought my counsel because they feel guilty. When I ask them why, they say they feel bad because they haven't had a chance to fire their weapons. They worry they haven't done their jobs as Marines. I had to counsel them that if you don't have to shoot somebody, that's a good thing.
The zeal these young men have for killing surprises me. So duty, honor, loyalty, and yes, killing the enemy-- these were powerful forces motivating millions of young men then and now. And finally, soldiers brought the war home with them when they returned, in the form of emotional distress and physical wounds.
The effects of constant exposure to battle, to death, artillery rounds, gunfire has been very well-documented among soldiers of the First World War. The general effect, the term that they use to describe this effect, is shell shock. For our wars, it is PTSD. And it is an epidemic among veterans, as is the astonishing rate of military suicide.
And yet for all their terrible pain and suffering, one theme does emerge from many war memoirs, whether written by World War I vets or from more recent conflicts. Most soldiers admit to finding a certain pride and dignity in their work. One Marine Sergeant who came back from Iraq with a broken back and a severe case of PTSD talked about this in an interview available online at the Library of Congress Veterans' Oral History project.
"What did it feel like coming back home?" he was asked. "I didn't want to," he replied. "I knew where I was needed. I knew what I was good at." His comments go on to capture in a very simple and Marine-like language a basic truth, that many of us who have never worn a uniform probably fail to grasp. Young people find something ennobling and purposeful about war.
A long time ago, Vera Brittain, a World War I nurse who lost her brother and her fiance in the war, described this feeling with great eloquence. She said that in England in the interwar years she often heard it said that, quote, "War creates more criminals than heroes." She rejected that idea.
Although Vera Brittain went on to become one of her generation's leading pacifists and anti-war activists, she admitted that something quite extraordinary had emerged from the sacrifice of the war years, a sacrifice she knew a great deal about because she gave so much of her time and effort to being a nurse in France and elsewhere in the war. This is what she wrote.
"Between 1914 and 1919," she said, "young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation were continually rededicating themselves to an end that they believed lofty and ideal. When suspicion and doubt began to creep in, the more ardent and frequent was this periodic rededication. It had concrete results in stupendous patience, in superhuman endurance, in constant reaffirmation of incredible courage," unquote.
Now, this observation about effectively the ennobling impact of war on the young men and women of her generation-- this observation was made by one of the leading pacifists of her time, in the context of saying, pacifism would have a much easier argument to make if young people didn't find war quite so extraordinarily rewarding in some strange and curious way.
And I mention this in closing because I think it's crucial for our political leaders to reflect on how willing every young generation is to prove themselves to be worthy of their parents of their elders, or to prove themselves to be heroes. Our public discourse is heavy with the language of war, ladies and gentlemen. Some voices in our public arena call for a military answer to every problem, every foreign crisis.
And the tragedy of it is that those voices will always be able to find some young people to answer the call. Because young people are optimistic and they're idealistic and they're eager to prove themselves. And so, as in World War I, so in our own time, again, it will be the young who will pay the terrible price of war. Thank you very much for your attention.
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: We have some time for questions. I would just urge you to keep them brief so that we can have more of them. And I think, Will, maybe you'll handle your own. So, floor's open.
SPEAKER 1: I will begin. While people are framing their questions, let me pose one to you, Will and it's a, I guess, philosophical question that I think flows from the talk. Some of the professional historians in your department, maybe some professional historians in the room. And it's a question about the lessons of history, a phrase that you used once or twice in the talk.
Some professional historians, as you know, will say, will insist that history teaches nothing, that it's all about for the historians, for the two of us and for others. It's all about the thrill of singular events, [INAUDIBLE] learning of singular events. I'm skeptical of this. I think to insist on the absolute uniqueness of events is kind of silly.
And so what we have to do, at least in part-- and I think it's what you're doing today, it seems to me-- is to generalize, carefully, but to acknowledge that a certain amount of generalization is not only necessary, but in fact is imperative. And so I guess the question-- I wonder if you could reflect a little bit more on something that I think was implicit in the talk, but on the lessons of history. You and I, I think, both feel that historical knowledge is no guarantee of wisdom in the realm of public affairs. But we might say that you nevertheless need some of it. Can you talk a little bit more?
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Sure. Well, I think you've summarized the dilemma very well. Historians are-- we tend to be drawn further and further into our subject rather than engage as much as we perhaps ought to, not only with other disciplines, but with the public as a whole.
And I think that's a missed opportunity, because I think we have extraordinary knowledge, not just about our particular field, but if we are pressed, we might be able to find interesting patterns that evoke-- amongst the wider public and amongst, especially Americans facing so much crisis and turmoil-- that might evoke some sense of our place in the grand continuity of things.
We as a nation face all kinds of problems around the world. We're not the first generation to do so. And it's sometimes helpful to be reminded how other generations faced similar sets of problems and either succeeded or did poorly in facing those problems. My wife is a Civil War historian. And she always has to remind people that Abraham Lincoln was treated pretty poorly by some of his political rivals in the press, that the 21st century is not the first time there has been partisanship or hatred or recrimination in the public arena.
It's not a question about saying, because things worked this way in the past, they will therefore have to work that way-- not at all. I think we're looking for an opportunity to trigger the creative imagination of our students, our contemporaries, and particularly, if they had an interest in it, in policymakers who have to make decisions. I think they're better capable of making decisions if they can put their choices in some historical context.
There's a very good book called Thinking in Time that some of us who are interested in this problem use that try to get at this problem, I think in a rather in an interesting, not altogether satisfying way. I'm not sure I have the roadmap to do this, but thinking about World War I lately and reading so much about it, it ought to feel further and further away from us in time. But why does it seem closer and closer?
It may be that the Cold War turned out to be a very peculiar set of circumstances, and that international affairs, it turns out, is much like the early 21st century and much like the early 20th century. And what we went through in 1945 to 1989 is very different. If that's the case, the more we know about the First World War era, the better off we'll be in making sense of our times. That's about the best-- that's about the farthest I'm willing to go in making a claim for what history can tell us about the future. Yes, sir?
SPEAKER 2: Hi, Professor Hitchcock. Thank you very much for your talk. I'm interested, really, in I think it was the third concentric circle you talked about, about patterns of alliances and how instrumental they were in creating the chain of events that led to the start of World War I. And when you connected this to the present day, you talked a lot about how unclear it currently is where America's vital interests lie.
You mentioned Mosul, Donetsk, Tikrit, Tripoli. But isn't the other part of that, the other side of the coin, that it's equally unclear why American's historic [INAUDIBLE] for textual interests. You mentioned South Korea, Taiwan, Japan. These are all security commitments that are over 60 years old that were based on a context that you just described just then as possibly a historic aberration, and in any view, most definitely over.
The alliance with Israel is one that greatly complicates America's relationship with every Arab country and significantly less but still so, aggravates its relationship with non-Arab Muslim countries. And there's quite a few of those. So I'm wondering if it's this tendency to confuse the contextual for the perpetual in the existing interest relationships that is equally landing America with a lot of potentially volatile security commitments for unspecified ends and efforts.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Yes, I agree. I think that's very interesting. I didn't develop that point. You're right, that ring didn't get the attention it deserves. I think that's a very thought-provoking concept. The alliances themselves take on a kind of sacrosanct interest. It becomes an interest just to protect the alliance, rather than to protect the original purpose of the alliance-- a particular geostrategic region, a particular access to an important shipping lane or natural resources or whatever.
The alliance itself becomes the thing that has to be protected. That seems to me certainly, in some of the cases you describe, I think that's in play. It may well be the case in describing NATO expansion, a topic that I think many people now look back and say, was that the right move to do immediately at the end of the Cold War?
Was that the sensible move, rather than expanding the European Union itself, which has a wider purpose than simply a military defensive alliance? So now we're up again. We've pushed NATO so far and yet as you say, it's an absolutely sacrosanct alliance. Yet of course, this has had the effect in a volatile domestic politics of making the Russians feel that somehow NATO was creeping eastward.
We say, this is just a defensive military alliance. It's 60 years old. How could it possibly threaten you? Russians look at the map and they say, wait a minute. In 1990, none of these Eastern European countries were part of the alliance. It's moving eastward, et cetera. So I think the perception of how the alliances become concretized over time is very important.
SPEAKER 3: And of course that argument works both ways. If the alliance is 60 years old, why does it need to move eastward? It works exactly the same way. But I think if we also start to think about this framework for talking about [INAUDIBLE] then it actually [INAUDIBLE] into something that Professor Logevall talks about in his Choosing War book when he witheringly dissembles the concept of credibility in the Vietnam War and the idea of making security commitments simply for the point of being seen to uphold those commitments, rather than going through a regular renewal process where we start to think that actually, maybe our interests are much more at risk in Donetsk than they are in Taiwan. Maybe they are much more at risk in Mosul than they are in Japan, a country that can certainly afford to defend itself [INAUDIBLE].
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: No, I hear you. Credibility is a word that we use a lot in the Cold War context, but it very much played a role in the arch of the first World War and may become the issue that we have to confront in Asia or elsewhere. Yes, sir?
SPEAKER 4: I'm curious about the enemy creation threat perception circle, especially how you were describing it in its relationship to containment, where it seems there's this moment where containment is all right if you think of leadership or the state as some kind of rational actor but then the threat perception militates towards war as soon as you're willing to say that that character in the international system is no longer behaving rationally [INAUDIBLE]. Is that correct that [INAUDIBLE]?
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I don't want to go too far in creating a model. I mean, I'm hiding behind my historian's hat, my inability to fundamentally think as a social scientist or a political scientist. In the two cases I provided, I think-- and that was Serbia and Iraq-- there was a period of containment that seemed to be working up to a point, but that was then transformed by a particular dramatic event. And then suddenly seemed to be discredited very quickly.
And in the discrediting, it suddenly appeared that there were all these bad things that had been happening all along that now predicted the outcome, that this arrangement would never work, that containment was a disaster, that you could never deal with the Serbs. You could never deal with the Iraqis. They were always out to get you, et cetera, et cetera. Could that apply to other cases? I don't know. I mean, it's possible.
SPEAKER 4: So you had said there's a contingent that could make that happen, but containment might be more of the expected relationship.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: It's a better alternative to war normally, until something happens that makes it seem as if containment was a fraud, was fraudulent and has opened the way towards an existential threat that is now on the horizon. So I do see a triggering event. Now, that event, I suppose, could, in different contexts, could be-- doesn't have to be a terrorist attack of the kind we've described here, but something significant.
It's worth asking ourselves now. And I don't want to get ahead of where the questions may go. But are we in a moment where we feel as if we are containing Iran and that policy seems to be-- some would say it's not working. Others would say it's better than the alternative.
We're in that moment when you can imagine, a God forbid, a precipitating event of some kind that would suddenly transform the relationship and make Iran appear to be the predicted-- it would be tearing back the mask. Suddenly, you see. We've told you all along.
This was an aggressive, expansionist, militaristic theocracy that wants to take over the whole Middle East, et cetera, et cetera. I could see it going in that direction quite easily. So the threat is constructed by tapping into a whole set of ideas that are lurking already there, but have been somewhat effectively contained. Yes?
SPEAKER 5: I wanted to ask about something that you didn't talk about that strikes me as a big contrast, get your take on it, which is, space for social transformation. It seems that after World War I, there was a period, mostly a failure, in retrospect, in which there seemed to be the idea that the world could be made anew many experiments at various local levels along those lines. And I don't see that sort of optimism or utopianism today emerging out of war or potential wars.
And I'm wondering whether you agree with that, and if so what explains it. I mean, the obvious thing for me is the international socialist movement, the labor movement of that period before Communism was proven to be failure. Why it was that so many ordinary people and world leaders imagined that there could be major social transformations. And of course during the war there were a whole bunch of them.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Yeah, that's an interesting notion. I think the immediate post-war period is characterized not by principally the birth of the international Socialist movement, but rather a global competition to see which of a whole series of ideologies is going to emerge as the dominant one. And there's no telling which is going to come out, which is going to come out on top. Fascism, on the one hand, Communism on the other, empire which is still intact, and maybe even more robust than ever, the idea of-- you're talking about--
SPEAKER 5: [INAUDIBLE].
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Oh, so you were really talking in a microscopic way about a particular moment. Well, I'm talking a value slightly larger swath. And I would just simply say that this is a moment in which we do not know the outcome of which of these many different competing interests will triumph. You would not have bet on liberal parliamentary democracy, most likely, circa 1924.
In that sense, and again, this is against my institutional biases of being a historian. But I do think, could it be seen that perhaps in the last 15 or 20 years, without perhaps being too extreme, are we in a moment in which we're not quite sure which are going to be the dominant ideologies of the 21st century? Are we not at a moment when we are confronting a whole series of potential conflicts over how states should best be organized?
Are we really ready to say, well, China pretends that it's Communist market. Secretly, it's just basically like us. They just have a little veneer at the top. Really? What is going to emerge in the Middle East as an alternative ideological way of organizing people? Is Europe different from the United States?
What is the American ideology at the moment? How would we describe it? Et cetera. I just posed this because I can imagine in 100 years, someone else will be talking about state of affairs the early 21st century and seeing many of the same kind of ideological competition that we may not be perceiving quite so clearly in our own time. Yes, Cat?
SPEAKER 6: You mentioned that for peace, it required legitemacy of power. And the sooner that [INAUDIBLE] power generates military power, [INAUDIBLE] large, in World War I or now. What other kinds of power might come to the fore other than military power?
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I kind of do mean military power. But if the two are mixed and blended together, it becomes legitimating power. The willingness to say, this is important to us and we want you to respect our interests here, matters a great deal to provide stability.
But if you can also say, that happens to be a legitimate interest of ours. And it's recognized internationally through international law, international institutions, then legitimacy and power do the same work. It doesn't just mean-- it ought to include a military dimension. I do believe that.
But of course there are other kinds of power-- the strength of political institutions, cultural belief in the legitimacy of the solution you're proposing. There are various ways in which power can be displayed. But in this context, particularly, I did want to suggest that military power and the willingness to demonstrate that you have military power and you believe these things are important enough to be defended, that's an important absence in 1919.
And if we are in a position where American foreign policy is not sufficiently underpinned by a clear demonstration that power will be used to support given interests which we believe are legitimate, that sends a very curious message to the wider world. I wish it could only be legitimacy. Legitimacy is enough. All we need is a League of Nations. If it had survived, the 20th century would have been just fine. But I do believe it needs a balance between these elements. Yes, sir?
SPEAKER 7: So reading The War That Ended Peace [INAUDIBLE] made the war seem a lot closer to the present than I felt comfortable with. But something that also impressed me was how many incidents occurred where the leaders of the great powers got into potential conflicts in Morocco, southern Sudan, all of those Balkan countries. I don't remember the name of them.
And in some sense, I suppose, my question is, the US just way overcommitted in the world and are we going to be in the situation where some obscure treaty that we have, people living in a bunker in North Dakota are going to put their floppy disk in the drive and send a missile out. I mean, we don't seem to have a plan at the moment that is coherent.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I agree with that last statement, frankly. I am not going to take the bait on whether or not we're overcommitted, yes or no. I think the question is to know how to use American power, its military, but especially its economic and its institutional capabilities, to promote stability. If that means the United States has to be extended to do that, that's not a bad thing.
But unfortunately, we find ourselves extended, maybe overextended if you like, and creating more instability on the periphery. And in that case, if that's the result of our overextension, then yes, we're overextended. But what if our overextension results in order, in balance, in containment, in cooperation, or at least spheres of influence that could be managed? That seems to be worth thinking about.
The United States isn't going to stop being the world's largest and most difficult nation. It just isn't-- that isn't going to happen anytime soon. So as citizens, as teachers, as policymakers, we have to figure out how to guide that power so that it can provide support for a certain kind of international settlement around the world that has legitimacy and that is bought into by many other states.
That's what made the Cold War, as bad as it was, very good for the West-- pretty bad for the rest of the world, but very good for the West. It would be a shame if we can't do better than that, if we can't do better than the Cold War. That's rather what I'm afraid of. It's a downer of a note on such a beautiful summer day, but there you are.
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Is there a final--
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE]. Sorry to ask another question, but since there was one last one. What about the connection between the foreign policy and the domestic? As a foreigner, I'm particularly acute to this. But surely America's [INAUDIBLE] favors a home which most recently had been evidenced by the entire situation around Ferguson and the way that reverberated around minority [INAUDIBLE]. Surely that saps the ability of America on the world stage, on the legitimacy front rather than the power front, on the ideological front to provide a model for the world and say, yes, follow us. We know. We've got the answers. We know where we're going. Would you agree with this, or not so much?
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: It's tempting to agree with you, because I'm alarm, like many citizens, about the failures of the United States to grapple with so many issues, whether you mentioned Ferguson or race or gender inequality or infrastructure. We have a lot of problems that we see glaring, up close.
I'm not sure the wider world has drawn-- I take it you might be from Australia, possibly? Sorry if you're from New Zealand. But I think perhaps the rest of the world doesn't see the domestic crisis quite as acute as we do. And that's simply because we live it every day.
There is still a dramatic, powerfully appealing quality to American democracy, American freedom, American liveliness, et cetera, et cetera, innovation, that is an engine of possibility for the world. Do we have to fix our own bridges and schools and race problem in order to stand as a beacon to the world? We certainly should do it whatever the results are.
But I would think-- surprising, what's surprising is how we manage to function as a beacon at times despite all the extraordinary mistakes and gaffes and shortcomings on the home front. And that is something I think historians have to explain. So there is some kind of quality that we are able to demonstrate throughout all of these difficulties of the past century.
That still works, still has a little bit of magic, still has a little bit of promise. I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna, but I do think there are some qualities there that the world looks to and the world needs. So, I say let's turn inward but not turn away from the wider world. That's the key point.
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Somewhat more hopeful note. [INAUDIBLE]. So I think you have a sense, ladies and gentlemen, why Will Hitchcock is packing them in the lecture halls at UVA. He's a very popular professor. Delighted that he came. He did misspeak on one point, which is that we're not 29. We're 39.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: You're 39.
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: The difference is that Will looks it. I look much older.
WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I don't know about that.
FREDRIK LOGEVALL: So I'm very pleased that you could join us today. I'm grateful to Will for coming. Enjoy the rest of the day. Do join me, however, finally, in thanking our speaker for [INAUDIBLE].
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William Hitchcock, professor of history at the University of Virginia, discussed the relevance of WWI today in a talk given March 9, 2015. The event was part of the Einaudi Center's Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.