What Would Winston Churchill Do?
Russia's naked grab of Crimea, its continuing intimidation of Kiev and Putin's proffered justification—that he is merely protecting ethnic Russians—parallel a much darker time in European history. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made this point last month: "Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s. All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."
In the Pacific, China has not undertaken military action as dramatic as the Russian invasion of Crimea but it has staked a claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea with its "nine-dash line." In the process, China's Navy and Coast Guard has expelled the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal, a reef just under 150 miles from the Philippines but almost 550 miles from Hainan Island, the nearest Chinese port. Responding to U.S. and regional concerns raised about China's position on the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi proclaimed in July 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact."
China is also actively contesting long-time Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and it unilaterally imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone covering waters and islands administered by both Japan and South Korea. It is widely reported that the West's lack of response to Russia's Crimean adventure has spooked America's Pacific allies, particularly Japan, which believe the lesson China has drawn from the situation is that a military resolution of its territorial claims would be likewise countenanced by the West.
While regional powers have unsuccessfully sought to conquer their neighbors in recent decades—most notably Argentina's invasion and occupation of the Falklands in 1982 and Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1991—the major powers have eschewed such conduct since China's 1951 annexation of Tibet. Given events in Ukraine and the Pacific, that long period of relative stability appears to be at an end, notwithstanding President Obama's comment following Russia's invasion of Crimea, "because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country—that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.“
To the contrary, Putin's and China's actions declare, the new “international norms” look alarmingly like those of eight decades ago.
The authoritarian powers, Russia and China, have the initiative and are on the move. They are, in turn, watched by a regional provocateur, Iran, which has its own visions of Middle Eastern hegemony. The Western European democracies and Japan, after years of slashing defense budgets, are ill prepared to face these challenges. America under the Obama administration joined the disarmament club through sequestration. Even in the face of the Russia's invasion of Crimea, the administration plans to mothball half of the Navy's robust cruiser fleet, and Secretary Hagel has talked of doing something similar to the carrier fleet, while at the same time cutting many thousands of troops from the Army and Marines, respectively. Pollsters claim U.S. voters are exhausted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and show little interest in foreign conflicts. Following, rather than leading, public opinion, Western leaders are wary of intervening in any substantial manner on behalf of small, far-away nations such as Ukraine or the Philippines.
Given the echoes of the 1930s being heard today, it is useful to review the events of 1938. Austria was annexed into the German Third Reich on March 12, 1938. The annexation took place the day after agitation by the Austrian Nazi Party and German demands—swiftly followed by German invasion—ousted the legitimate government in Vienna. A referendum on the union between Austria and Germany—scheduled for the next day—was cancelled. A month later, the Germans held their own referendum; under the watchful eyes of the Wehrmacht and without ballot secrecy, Austrians voted for union. The Anschluss took place a few months before the twentieth anniversary of the German surrender in World War I and violated Germany's post-war treaty obligations. Interestingly, Russia's annexation of Crimea took place just twenty-three years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event Putin has labeled the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."