Tuesday, March 25, 2014


In every crisis since WW II, those eager for a military response are apt to resurrect their version of history while calling up the old aphorism: ‘Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’

Almost invariably, there is a villain, be it an individual, a country, or both, that is supposed to remind us of Hitler, Nazi Germany, and failed efforts at appeasing the aggressor. Now the designated villain is Putin; there is hand ringing over the ‘weakness” of the West that supposedly has encouraged his aggression. I even heard someone say, ‘this is the Sudetenland (which Hitler annexed early on) all over again.’

The point though is not whether history is “ignored”, but what lessons we learn. Perhaps we should look at the run-up to WWI and the aftermath of that terrible bloodletting, which had much to do with the rise of fascism. Imperialist competition over “spheres of influence” and control of markets underlay the vying scenarios of nationalist propaganda that fueled the outbreak of WWI. Afterward the crushing price and humiliation imposed by the victors begot the conditions that brought on WWII.

Much has changed and history can never really be replicated. But the themes of “spheres of influence” and the hubris of  “winners over losers” echo eerily in what’s going on now. So do the counter claims of strident nationalism.

Since the end of the Cold War, US presidents and their European allies have pushed military (NATO) and economic (European Union) fronts further to the East with no limits in sight. We are committed, as George H. W. Bush announced, to setting up a “new world order.” Its benefits to the people of European countries have been questionable, with austerity aggravating extreme inequality between and within nations. What is without question is the essential “leadership” of the US within the alliance, its expansive military presence, and the dominance of Western banking and monetary institutions over economic policy.

Russia for its part has developed its own oligarchy in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. Not surprisingly, it is unwilling to surrender its own national interests and pride by accepting the “new world order” on our terms.

Given conditions in much of Europe, unrest and popular protest are not unique to the Ukraine. When it occurs in Greece, or Cyprus, or Spain, or Italy, the powers that be in Europe simply say “live with it” and no Congressman demands US intervention. But big powers are not unwilling to play with fire when it serves their ambitions. The fuel for the fire is the appeal to nationalist antagonisms, but the underlying conflict is over “spheres of influence” and control. That, and the ultimate folly of imperialist war (cold or hot), are lessons I see in history.


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