Friday, September 12, 2008

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

Taking a brief break from the election today, I want to talk about some of the other political news in the world. The Russian invasion of Georgia caught many in the West by surprise. What is even more of a concern, beyond the actual invasion, is the pretext for why it occurred and some of the direct events it caused.   

First, Russia claims that it had to protect ethnic Russians who were living in Georgia. I do not have enough information to know whether or not there is any validity to this claim, although I am personally very skeptical. Second, since the partial Russian withdrawal, there has been a clamoring in many Eastern Europe states for NATO to finally extend membership to Georgia and Ukraine (another state that does not have great relations with Russia and has a sizeable ethnically Russian population).   

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been searching for a reason to exist. Its alliance structure is designed to defend Europe against a communist invasion force from the then USSR and calls for each member nation to commit to the defense of any other member nation that is invaded or attacked. In the interest of full disclosure, I am about as strong a supporter of international institutions as one can find in the United States. I am not against NATO, and in fact, I think NATO has the potential to be the military force that other international organizations, such as the United Nations, need.   

What strikes me as disturbing however, is how similar these current events are to those surrounding the outbreak of World War I. For starters, NATO represents a fixed alliance structure that contains some states with moderate to large ethnic Russian populations.  

There is a good chance that based on latest Russian actions, the membership of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO will be considered very seriously. In both cases (WWI and now), the alliance structures call on their member states to defend any member state that was attacked as if that state was its own homeland.   

Next, in many ways, World War I began because Tzarist Russia felt that it had to protect Slavic populations in Serbia. As a result, when attacks in Serbia began, Russia felt obligated to become involved to protect those populations. In many ways, Russian claims at the outbreak of WWI are very similar to their claims over Georgia today.   

I am not suggesting that we are heading towards another world war centered in Europe, nor am I claiming that the West will be going to war with Russia; however, I don’t think the similarities can be ignored either. The key in WWI was that many believed that any war would be short, and no one had then seen the destructive power of all-out war with the power and horrors of modern weapons. I think these are important lessons that could prevent the outbreak of a new world war.   

Mark Twain is famous for commenting once that history doesn’t repeat itself, but rather it rhymes. I don’t think for any reason that we are in immediate danger of facing another world war, but I do think now is a time to remember the lessons of history to ensure we don’t head any farther down that path that would lead to such a terrible end.  After all, as Albert Einstein once stated, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

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