Afterword for Retreat Hell
There is an unspoken and unchallenged assumption in society – particularly those parts of society content to have their history and current affairs spoon-fed to them – that only crazy or stupid people start wars. Such versions of history demonise people who start wars – not always, I will admit, without good cause. But such versions of history choose to skip over the reasons someone might conclude that war is actually a good idea. The concept of the warmonger actually being a rational actor is too disturbing to contemplate.
In some cases, this is not surprising. Adolf Hitler has been demonised, with very good reason, so badly that anyone who suggests that Hitler was right to go to war is automatically branded a Nazi-sympathiser. This may be understandable, but it is not conductive to good and careful consideration of the background to any given war. We prefer to think of Hitler as crazy. But this forces us to overlook the simple fact that Imperial Germany also went to war in 1914 and modern-day Germany is slowly moving to dominate the EU.
Is there, therefore, something wrong with the state of Germany? Or are there deeper factors at work?
Let us consider the German position. Prior to German Unification (after the Franco-Prussian War) Germany was effectively a battleground, fought over by France, Austria and Russia. None of the German states could muster the military power to keep themselves out of the fighting, or to prevent their destruction by their stronger neighbours. Once the Germans united, they possessed greater power than any of their neighbours – but did they possess greater power than all of their neighbours?
Seen from Berlin, Germany was encircled by hostile powers. While Austria was largely neutralised (and fought on the same side in the Great War), France and Russia were irreconcilable enemies. German planners concluded that they might beat France, only to be stabbed in the back by Russia (or vice versa). In fact, both France and Russia were growing stronger as Germany moved into 1914 – and France and Britain had concluded an alliance that bound them together against Germany. From the German point of view, there would be war – and it was better for Germany that the war came sooner, rather than later.
To us, looking back over eighty years of history, this seems absurd. History records that Germany lost the Great War, after four years of bloody slaughter, and Imperial Germany vanished from Europe. But Germany itself did not die and the Allies failed to splinter it into its component fragments. It was unsurprising that Germany would grow powerful once again and seek to avenge itself on Europe. Hitler was, in this view, nothing more than a tool of history. His decisions were taken within a framework that existed outside of his regime.
The same could be said, to some extent, for Imperial Japan prior to Pearl Harbour. Japan had good reason to feel constrained – and good reason to view the American build-up with alarm. US sanctions on Japan were forcing the Japanese into a corner. They could either seek a decision through war or submit tamely to American demands. In hindsight, the latter seems the better option; in foresight, it was far less clear-cut. If the Japanese conceded to the US, they asked themselves, what guaranteed that the US would not make further demands? One simple rule of life is that giving into blackmail invites more blackmail. Why should the Japanese have conceded anything?
I imagine that a few readers will write angry comments about Imperial Japan being a thoroughly unpleasant state, one deserving of sanctions. The Japanese Army looted, raped and burned its way across China. When unleashed to the south, they carried out a series of atrocities that outdid the Nazis themselves. I am not disputing any of that, but the morality or lack thereof of any specific point in history is immaterial. The point is that Japan was constrained and tried to break out. This should have been predictable to planners in Washington, London and Moscow.
However, the Japanese were quite unable to actually win their war. They could not hope to out-produce the United States, they could not occupy American territory and they could not destroy the American factories that became the arsenal of democracy. Nor, for that matter, could they occupy Britain or Russia. The constraints that forced Japan to choose between war and submission were, in the end, fatal to Imperial Japan. In short, the course of World War Two was largely determined by geopolitics.
Defining geopolitics is a complicated business. It is the interaction between dozens of factors that determine a country’s relative strength compared to other countries. Some of these factors are immutable, while others can change depending on technology, investment and even government and attitudes.
Let us consider, for example, the treacherous maps that show Canada as being largely equal in land surface to the United States. A more careful look would reveal that the vast majority of Canada’s population lives to the south. Furthermore, Canada’s military is in no way comparable to the United States, being outclassed in almost every category. Put bluntly, the United States is vastly more powerful than Canada and this is unlikely to change in the near future.
A second deceptive map would show Russia. Russia is one of the largest countries on Earth, but much of its interior is undeveloped, slowing the country’s economic growth. In some ways, the sheer size of Russia works to its advantage (in absorbing invading armies) but in others it makes it hard for the Russians to mobilise their potential resources. Russia requires massive investment in infrastructure before it can begin to live up to its potential. However, this required a level of investment that neither the Tsars nor the USSR was able to provide.
Russia is actually indicative of geopolitical factors that can change with stunning speed. In 1914, the Russian Army was regarded poorly after the disasters of the Russo-Japanese War; the Germans calculated (wrongly) that the Russians couldn’t mobilise in time to save France from defeat. Russia’s defeat and the rise of the communist regime meant that Russia was largely excluded from post-war settlements. In 1939, the Russian failure to crush Finland turned them into a laughing stock, convincing Hitler that the Russians were a paper tiger and encouraging him to attack the USSR. But, by the end of 1945, the Red Army was feared throughout Europe.
And yet, when the USSR collapsed, the Russian Army collapsed with it. During the Yeltsin years, once again, NATO acted without regard for Russian feelings, let alone their geopolitical priorities. This led directly to Putin’s determination to re-establish Russian predominance in Eastern Europe, a program that has proved highly successful.
Each country has a set of geopolitical priorities that it must maintain to keep itself safe and unconstrained. It was these geopolitical priorities that convinced Imperial Germany (and later Hitler) that war would come – and better it be fought sooner than later. After all, if both France and Russia grew stronger, Germany would be trapped between them. When a country fails to take care of its geopolitical priorities, the country is imperilled.
These patterns exist regardless of the government. Russian history shows the same pattern repeated by Tsars, Communists and Putin’s brand of quasi-fascism. All three of them have moved to keep control of the countries surrounding Russia, knowing that failure to do so causes problems for Russia – and eventual disaster. This seems thoroughly unpleasant of the Russians; their post-WW2 domination of Eastern Europe was neither desired nor gentle. But the Russians, following their geopolitical priories, had no choice. The states that made up the Warsaw Pact were, in effect, colonies that shielded Russian territory from invaders.
It shouldn't surprise anyone, sadly, that the advance of NATO eastwards was viewed with alarm by Russia – and that they would take every opportunity they could find to undermine NATO’s position, reputation and general trustworthiness. NATO meant no harm – but, from the Russian point of view, its advance eastwards was constraining ... and threatening.
The study of national and international geopolitics, thus, is vitally important. If you understand a country’s geopolitics, you can predict, to some extent, just which way that country will jump. The government may be led by a seeming madman, the population might be roused by cries of ‘death to America,’ but they are often more rational than they seem.
Let us consider North Korea. The pattern of each successive nuclear crisis is largely identical. North Korea rattles the sabre, everyone takes them seriously for a while ... and then the whole crisis quietens down. There has been no repeat of the Korean War, at least partly because the North Korean Government understands that such a war might lead to their complete destruction.
Or let us look at Iraq and Iran. Saddam’s government repressed both the Shia and Kurds savagely. This was noted in the West, with appropriate sounds of horror, but the deeper implications were ignored. The Kurds were determined to keep hold of their freedoms after Saddam was removed, while the Shia gravitated towards Iran, giving the Iranians a shot at taking control of Iraq.
Or ... following the end of the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam demanded that the Arab states give Iraq free loans and other support. Kuwait refused. This might have been legally permitted, but Iraq was far more powerful than Kuwait and the refusal was foolhardy. What guarantee did Kuwait have that would ensure the US would intervene? Indeed, if the Iraqis had mounted the invasion of Kuwait a year or two earlier, they would probably have gotten away with it.
There are other examples, of course. During the Cold War, geopolitical priorities demanded that the NATO countries hang together, despite disputes that could easily have turned into catfights without a common threat. Now, without the looming Russian Bear, America and Europe have much less binding them together. Can NATO be a significant power again?
The failure to consider geopolitics is perhaps the greatest weakness of the current crop of governments in the West. Their behaviour, in many ways, shows a complete lack of awareness of geopolitics. When it comes to intervening in the Middle East, playing games with Russia and adjusting positions in the Far East, Western governments frequently seem blind to the underlying costs and consequences of their actions.
There are no shortage of places in the world that could serve as a flashpoint for a general war, no matter how seemingly suicidal. Will Taiwan declare independence, with US backing, forcing China to either accept its permanent separation or start a war? Will Eastern Europe’s treatment of Russian minorities convince Russia to intervene with force? Will Indian involvement in Afghanistan trigger a war with Pakistan? Will Syria turn into a black hole sucking in forces from all over the world? Failing to think two or three steps ahead, as NATO did when it absorbed Eastern Europe, could be lethal.
When it comes to geopolitics, the United States is the most blessed country in the world. The US has a friendly neighbour to the north and a far weaker neighbour to the south, while giant oceans protect the country’s coasts. There is no way that any hostile power could mount a seaborne invasion of the United States. The USN is so staggeringly powerful that it could stand off the entire combined naval power of the rest of the world. In short, the United States does not really need to think about geopolitics. Unlike Russia, which needs to tend to its geopolitical knitting constantly, the US can forget about it.
This tends to cause problems for the US outside North America. When the US has no real awareness of the geopolitical realities of the Middle East, or Europe, or the Far East, the US can and does blunder around like an elephant in a china shop. Worse, perhaps, the US can lose interest very quickly. While states like Pakistan and Iran cannot avoid confronting problems spreading over the border from Afghanistan, the US can always simply withdraw, leaving the locals behind. And then the US has a tendency to complain about local treachery, when the truth is that the locals are trying to stabilize their own positions in anticipation of the inevitable American withdrawal.
Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
Those who do not study geopolitics are condemned to have their fingers mashed in gears they cannot see.
So why don't our politicians study history and geopolitics?
Christopher G. Nuttall