Thankfully there has been no similar large war since World War II ended seventy-four years ago. The existence of nuclear weapons, which increased the cost of big power conflict, undoubtedly is one reason. A stronger will to prevent a bloody recurrence in those nations most affected probably is another reason. Still, conflicts with a million or more casualties ensued: Korea, Vietnam, Nigerian civil war, Bangladesh Liberation War/1971, India-Pakistan, Ethiopian civil war, Afghanistan conflicts, Sudanese civil war, Iran-Iraq, Second Congo War. Major powers—America, Soviet Union, and Washington’s European allies—were involved in several of these conflicts.
Nor have Wilsonians disappeared. They have been reincarnated as both Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. They have enthusiastically urged war, mostly in cases of smaller geopolitical stakes compared to Europe, though some urged military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. Wilson inadvertently created circumstances that resulted in the destruction of huge portions of the globe and slaughter of tens of millions of people. So far, neocons merely engineered the destabilization of the Middle East and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. However, interventionists on both Right and Left remain active, planning new wars likely to have no better consequences.
The best way to mark the anniversary of the beginning of World War II would be to learn from it and other catastrophic conflicts which came before. For instance, alliances can deter war but also risk spreading violence. Military action rarely has humanitarian effects. Good intentions do not prevent awful results. Wars are filled with unintended consequences. International social engineering is a daunting task, confronting different cultures, histories, religions, ethnicities, politics, traditions, and more. Blowback is real, a terrible consequence of ill-considered intervention. Washington’s foreign policy consensus is busted, and its practitioners are incompetent.
The American republic disappeared long ago, leaving a half-hearted, bungling semi-empire which views the entire world as its sphere of interest. The cause was less World War II than Washington’s decision afterwards to put the country on a permanent war footing, even in peacetime. The Cold War left only bad choices, but that justification for an imperial, militaristic policy disappeared three decades ago. Today’s political leadership has chosen to bury the American republic, leaving Americans less secure at home and abroad.
Candidate Donald Trump sounded like he might change the country’s direction. But his policy still is largely formed and administered by the “usual suspects” who populate Washington. Some Democratic presidential candidates appear willing to break with the discredited conventional wisdom, though history offers little confidence in their promises. If not, then eventually America’s disastrous finances will force even the establishment to retrench militarily. Until then, the American people will be stuck with leaders who failed to learn the lessons of the world’s greatest conflict.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.