Another Century of War?

Editors Note: GABRIEL KOLKO is one of our favorite writers and the foremost historian of modern warfare. Here at CounterPunch we are honored to publish this excerpt from his vitally important new book Another Century of War?.


A foreign policy that is both immoral and unsuccessful is not simply stupid, it is increasingly dangerous to those who practice or favor it. That is the predicament that the United States now confronts.

Communism no longer exists, American military power has never been greater, but the U.S. has never been so insecure and its people more vulnerable. After fifty years of interventions in the affairs of dozens of nations on every continent, interventions that varied from training police and armies to supplying them with lethal equipment and advisers to teach them how to use it, after two major wars involving its own manpower for years, America’s sustained, intense, and costly efforts have only culminated in greater risks to itself. There is more instability and violence in the world than ever, and now it has finally reached its own shores–and its political leaders have declared it will continue. By any criterion, above all the security of its own citizens, the U.S.’ international policies, whether military or political, have produced consummate failures. It is neither realistic nor ethical. It is a shambles of confusions and contradictions, pious, superficial morality combined with cynical adventurism, all of which has undermined, not strengthened, the safety of the American people and left a world more dangerous than ever.

It is not accurate, nor is it consolation, to argue as many do that without an activist foreign policy and military policy the present world situation could have been worse or that communism would have triumphed in many more places. Many of the CIA’s analysts always perceived the Soviet Union’s actions as essentially defensive, and that it was ready to grasp opportunities that posed no obvious dangers to it but unwilling to take great risks. As Marxists they believed that history was predestined to favor them, and that adventurism was unnecessary–“infantile,” to use Lenin’s description. But communism was a reflection rather than the cause of the severe disorder in international affairs that produced two incredibly destructive world wars, a result of deeper and older problems, and those who led the USSR gradually ceased to have the conviction essential to perpetuate the original Leninist beliefs and systemic legacies. As a ruling system, it has disappeared in Europe and virtually disintegrated in Asia, peacefully and by its own leaders’ volition–and not by force of American arms.

The fear of communism which justified vast military expenses and mobilized NATO and America’s allies is now gone, but the qualitative importance of this fundamental transformation has not led to any equivalent or appropriate changes in Washington’s perceptions, much less spending. It can no longer define its enemies clearly, where they live or how they will behave, and it is unwilling to confront the analytic problems that the immense changes in world affairs since 1989 have created. The U.S.’ most symbolic sites–Wall Street and the Pentagon–have been devastatingly attacked, and it is now plain, as the government itself has predicted for several years, that the country itself is highly vulnerable. Bin Laden’s network replaced “rogue states” for a time, but essentially American strategy continues to flounder: it prepared for nuclear and mechanized war in Europe but fought only in Asia, where it was stalemated and lost two major conflicts. It encouraged and funded wars by Iraq against Iran and against the Soviets in Afghanistan only to have to fight the very people it once believed were merely its proxies. It has confronted innumerable surprises in Latin America and Africa–to mention but a few of its policy failures–and it has precious little control in both those continents. The U.S.’ ambitions in the century that is just beginning far exceed its military, political, and moral resources for attaining them, and if it does not acknowledge the limits of its power–which it should have done much earlier–it will continue to embark on quixotic adventures in every corner of the worldand experience more terrorism on its own shores.

The U.S. has more military equipment than ever, and since 1950 Pentagon spending has become one of the traditional and indispensable foundations of American prosperity. There is no indication whatsoever that it will decline. But there are no technological quick-fixes to political problems. Solutions are political, which requires another mentality and a great deal more wisdom, including a readiness to make compromises and, above all, stay out of the affairs of nations, or they will not succeed. Worse yet, its reliance on weapons and force has exacerbated or created far more problems for the U.S. than it has solved. After September 11 there can be no doubt that arms have not brought security to America. It is not only to the world’s interest that the America adapt to the realities of the twenty-first century. What is new is that it is now, more than ever, to the interest of the American people themselves. It is imperative that the U.S. also acknowledge the very limits of its power–limits that are inherent in its own military illusions and in the very nature of a world that is far too big and complex for any country to even dream of managing.

Mankind cannot endure another century of war, because future wars will be far more destructive, to civilians as well as soldiers.

The Dangers of Mindless Action

Nations have differing interests and ways of perceiving them. The U.S. itself was belligerently unilateralist in the period before the September 11 and changed briefly only to meet the grave emergency that event imposed upon it. It has created “coalitions” which are ephemeral and transient marriages of convenience, essentially discarded NATO as the pillar of its European policy, and managed only to show that the United States is a fickle, unreliable partner. It is obviously quixotic if not dangerous to talk of coalitions when nations are unstable and perhaps even their rulers are in flux. It has already probably destabilized Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the brief process of making war in Afghanistan, and in years to come it will confront the consequences of having done so in these far more important countries.

But the world is more violent and wracked by war and insecure than ever, and many American officials now nostalgically admit that the international system was far more predictable and safer when the USSR existed, precisely because, in the last analysis, it acted prudently. This assurance is largely misplaced, since many of the greatest problems that the world confronted after 1945 were quite independent of communism and they persist even today, but it is also true that Moscow discouraged potentially dangerous confrontations to the extent that it could do so. The CIA told the government to expect the Soviets to behave cautiously in the last analysis, but its estimates were often ignored or disputed by military services–especially the Air Force–that wanted to justify more spending.

Indeed, the CIA and other official agencies gave successive presidents ample and accurate warnings of the risks they faced in Vietnam and elsewhere, and they ignored much of them. Whatever rationality is built into the foreign affairs apparatus simply has had little or no impact in guiding policy makers since 1950. There was far less clarity among those who guided American foreign policy than there could have been, and those in charge were oblivious of either the consequences or even the goals of their actions. For them action itself was the name of the game, and the world has paid for it. This essentially paranoid mentality failed to anticipate the collapse of the USSR and is still operational because high budgets cannot be justified without dismal political prognostications, fear, and mysteries. Such thinking is unable to go beyond simplistic explanations or to comprehend causes or understand historical processes and social dynamics of countless nations. Now there is a paranoid view of Islam; the focus is off China temporarily but it is the same vision.

There is, in a word, far less understanding at the top than successive leaders have claimed, and domestic politics and short-term factors play a much greater role than they will ever admit. The world and now the American people cannot afford U.S. foreign policy’s opportunistic and ad hoc character, its wavering between the immoral and amoral in practice but which official speech writers portray as rational and principled. In reality, it has neither coherence nor useful principles but often responds to one failure and crisis after another–and these are usually of its own making. Even given its unrealistic ambitions, it has lost control of its priorities, which all nations must have. We can never forget that the two men who the U.S. has most demonized over the past two decades, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, both collaborated for years with the U.S.; Washington believed their causes were identical and put vast sums at their disposal. There is no greater proof of confusion and ineptness on America’s part, and rather than leading the world in a better direction it has usually inflicted incalculable harm wherever it has intervened. Its leaders have been addicted to intervening for its own sake, to save the nation’s “credibility,” preventing an alleged vacuum of power, or its self-appointed role as the enforcer of regional or global order (which it usually equates with the freedom of American businessmen to make money). The U.S. has refused to accept a much more modest and far less ambitious definition of its national interests, one that is also realistic.

All of its policies in the Middle East have been contradictory and counterproductive. The U.S.’ support for Israel is the single most important but scarcely the only cause of the September 11 trauma and the potentially fundamental political destabilization, ranging from the Persian Gulf to South Asia, that its intervention in Afghanistan has triggered. But it has repeatedly seen its most ambitious diplomatic and military efforts produce disasters instead. Its strategy of “triangulating” China and the Soviet Union, essentially to achieve a victory in Vietnam, backfired and accelerated its calamitous loss there. Then there is Guatemala in 1953, Chile in 1973, Angola in 1975, and countless other places where its habitual penchant for activism and intervention produced acute disorders, deaths, and only perpetuated and usually aggravated many nations’ difficulties.

There are many serious questions in the world that must be solved if there is to be much greater stability and peace: poverty, illiteracy, human rights, and the like. It was a convenient simplification for the Bush Administration to blame al-Qaeda and “terrorism” for the world’s insecurities and to pretend that resolving this challenge would lay to rest many, if not all the others, everywhere. It will not. Moreover, America’s military power is irrelevant for meeting virtually all of these issues, much less terrorism, and it was sheer opportunism for Washington to convey the impression that this was the major issue the U.S. now confronts. It is not. There are still countless unresolved problems in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that it is incapable of answering because it is wedded to approaches and institutions that have failed until now and will continue to do so in the future. There is no substitute for political and economic strategies that solve these real challenges rather than worry about what American businessmen and bankers think is to their interest. But since 1946 no administration has thought and acted this way, and instead they have relied on military power to intervene countless times in various places to preserve status quos that perpetuate those economic and social conditions that lead to violence and terrorism.

Whatever its original intention, America’s commitment of time and effort is essentially open-ended wherever it intervenes. It may last a short time, and often does, but complications can cause it to spend far more resources and time than it originally anticipated, causing it in the name of its “credibility” or some other doctrines the government’s publicists concoct, to get into situations which are disastrous and which in the end produce defeats for which the U.S. is much worse off. Vietnam is the leading example of this. Should it confront the forty or even more nations that now have terrorist networks then it will in one manner or another intervene everywhere, but especially Africa and the Middle East, and such commitments will be open-ended and unpredictable in terms of the time and effort each requires.

This lack of control leads America’s leaders to a lack of coherence and a loss of priorities, because when wars begin their eventual consequences and outcome can never be predicted. This was true long before the U.S. became the preeminent global power and it is still the case. Events over the past year have confirmed that destabilization and friends becoming enemies–and via versa–are the rule in warfare and grand geopolitics, and to be expected. America’s interventions since 1947 have usually not succeeded by the criteria it originally defined, and its security at the beginning of the twenty-first century is much more imperiled than it was fifty years ago.

The U.S. has more determined and probably more numerous enemies today than ever, and many of those who hate it are ready and able to inflict death and destruction on its shores. Its interventions often triumphed in the purely military sense, which is all the Pentagon worries about, but they have been political failures in all too many cases and led to yet more interventions. Its virtually instinctive activist mentality has led it to leap into situations where it often had no interests, much less durable solutions, and where it has repeatedly created disasters and enduring enmities. America has power without wisdom, and cannot recognize the limits of arms despite its repeated experiences. The result has been folly, and hatred, which is a recipe for disasters. September 11 confirmed that. The war has come home.

The United States can no longer afford procrastination or to commit more errors, much less pursue the ad hoc, immoral opportunism, confusion, and loss of priorities that has guided Washington for a half-century. It cannot throw money at the Pentagon as if more weapons solve rather than aggravate political problems. It has been adrift for decades and refused to admit that its interventions have failed to resolve–and usually exacerbated– most, if not all, of the challenges Washington justified for almost fifty years to send men, machines, or money and equipment to every corner of the world. Its readiness to pursue activist military and foreign policies has, if anything, intensified most of the world’s problems by encouraging–and giving the essential material means–to tyrants and officers who satisfy America’s definitions of its own interests. They comprise those who resist essential social and economic changes and those whose adventurism had much better be discouraged. We see today in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan how such ambitions have failed, probably catastrophically, but on a smaller scale there are countless other places where U.S. intervention has left festering problems that are returning to haunt and endanger it.

But by purely non-ideological, rational criteria U.S. foreign policies have failed even if they have made the world more prosperous for its own businessmen and investors and their local cronies. The American people now paying the price in lives lost and permanent insecurity–and they will have to accept the turbulent existence that the president after September 11 promised.

At the present juncture of history, wars are at least as likely as any time over the past century. The end of Soviet hegemony in East Europe and Moscow’s restraining influence elsewhere is only one factor, albeit of great importance. The proliferation of nuclear technology and other means of mass destruction have made large parts of the world much more dangerous, but highly destructive local wars with conventional weapons in Africa, the Balkans, Middle East, and elsewhere have only multiplied since the 1960s. Europe, especially Germany, and Japan are far stronger and more independent than at any time since 1945, and China’s burgeoning economy has given it a vastly more important role in Asia.

The world is more complex and dangerous than during the Cold War, and the decentralization of military and political power, and the obduracy of the United States’ ambitions to guide the destinies of a virtually unlimited number of nations is a highly inflammable mixture of factors. The U.S. has become what Establishment pillar Samuel P. Huntington aptly calls the only “rogue superpower,” full of dual standards and hypocrisy in its pretensions to be “the indispensable nation,” as he quotes Madeleine K. Albright, committed to advancing “universal values”–as another State Department official he cites put it. 1 America repeatedly has sought to impose those values and policies that conform to its definitions and interests on nations and international organizations. This has led it, on the one hand, to lofty proclamations and, on the other, to protecting American corporate interests, buttressing tyrants, selling or giving arms to nations that have rebellious populations or grievances against neighboring states, and unilaterally bullying its allies as well as weaker enemies. September 11 proves it is no longer immune to the destructive consequences of these designs. It must change fundamentally or pay a frightful, ever-mounting price. That price is a function both of its foreign policies and the spread and intensity of weapons of mass destruction. There are a sufficient number of people, quite independent of states, who are ready to use the latter.

All factors considered–the breakup of Yugoslavia, events in Africa and the Middle East, to name but a few–wars, both civil or between states, remain the principal (but scarcely the only) challenge facing much of humanity in the twenty-first century. The numerous ecological disasters affecting all dimensions of the environment are equally insidious, because of their relentless but gradual development and the unwillingness of the crucial nations–above all the United States–to adopt measures essential for reversing its damage. In many vital regards, the challenges facing humanity have never been so complex and threatening, and there is not the slightest reason for complacency or optimism as a result of the end of the Cold War.

It is an essential precondition of stemming, much less reversing, the accumulated deterioration of world affairs that the U.S. end its self-appointed global mission of regulating all problems, wherever, whenever, or however it wishes to do so. There are countless ethical and other reasons to cease meddling everywhere. It has no more right or capacity to do so than any state over the past century, whatever they called themselves. But September 11 confirmed, if any was needed, that it has failed abysmally to bring peace and security to the world but instead has managed to be increasingly hated, placing itself in profound and mortal danger. But an additional reason for ending its role as a rogue superpower and promiscuous, cynical interventionism is pragmatic: it has been spectacularly unsuccessful even on its own terms, it is squandering vast economic resources, and it now places the physical security of Americans on their own soil in danger. Paramount are the obligations that politicians have to their own citizens, and to cease the damage the U.S. causes abroad is also to fulfill their responsibilities to their own people. Neither the American population nor its political leaders are likely to agree to such far-reaching changes in foreign policy, and there is not the slightest sign at this point that voters will call them to account, but more events of the order of the September 11 calamity or the anthrax scare may produce a learning process–and eventual changes.

Communism and fascism were products of the grave errors in the international order and affairs of states that the First World War created, and the Soviet system disintegrated after sixty years because it was the aberrant consequence of a destructive and abnormal war. But radicalized, suicidal Islamists are, to a great extent, the outcome of a half-century of America’s interference in the Middle East and Muslim world, and its repeated grave errors, however different the context or times, have produced their own abnormal, negative reactions. It is under these conditions and with these threats that our century has begun. There are yet other crises incubating. Above all, the destructive potential of weaponry has increased exponentially and many more people and nations have access to it, and even what would once have been considered small foreign policy problems now have potentially far greater consequences. It all augers very badly.

There will be serious problems throughout much of the world even if the U.S. abstains from interference and tailors its actions to fit this troubled reality. Internecine civil conflicts will continue, as well as wars between states armed with a growing variety of much more destructive weapons supplied by outside powers, of which the U.S. remains, by far, the leader. Many of them have independent roots, but the arguments for America staying out of them should be dictated by both principles and experiences.

But the way America’s leaders are running the nation’s foreign policy is not creating peace or security at home or stability abroad. The reverse is the case: its interventions have been counterproductive. Everyone–Americans and those people who are the objects of their efforts–would be far better off if the U.S. did nothing, closed its bases overseas and withdrew its fleets everywhere, and allowed the rest of world to find its own way without American weapons and troops. Communism is dead, and Europe and Japan are powerful and can take care of their own affairs as they think best. There is every reason for the U.S. to adapt to these facts, but to continue as it has over the past half-century is to admit it has the vainglorious but irrational ambition to run the world.

It cannot. It has failed in the past and it will fail in this century, and attempting to do so will inflict wars and turmoil on many nations as well as on its own people.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?.


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience