The Calendar is Not Omnipotent

Barack Obama and John Kerry have been ceaselessly lecturing Vlad Putin to the effect that: grabbing territory from other countries just isn’t the sort of thing one does in this twenty-first century, old boy.

For example, here’s Obama: “…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.”

And John Kerry:  “It’s really 19th century behavior in the twenty-first century. You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.”

The idea that the mere passage of time has some automatic magical effect on national behavior…on human behavior…is simplistic, and more than a little odd.  I don’t know how much history Obama and Kerry actually studied during their college years, but 100 years early 1914…there were many, many people convinced that a major war could not happen…because we were now in the twentieth century, with international trade and with railroads and steamships and telegraph networks and electric lights and all. And just 25 years after that, quite a few people refused to believe that concentration camps devoted to systematic murder could exist in the advanced mid-20th century, in the heart of Europe.

Especially simplistic is the idea that, because there had been no military territory-grabs by first-rank powers for a long time, that the era of such territory-grabs was over. George Eliot neatly disposed of this idea many years ago, in a passage in her novel Silas Marner:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

Or, as Mark Steyn put it much more recently:

‘Stability’ is a surface illusion, like a frozen river: underneath, the currents are moving, and to the casual observer the ice looks equally ‘stable’ whether there’s a foot of it or just two inches. There is no status quo in world affairs: ‘stability’ is a fancy term to dignify laziness and complacency as sophistication.

Obama also frequently refers to the Cold War, and argues that it is in the past. But the pursuit of force-based territorial gain by nations long predates the Cold War, and it has not always had much to do with economic rationality. The medieval baron with designs on his neighbor’s land didn’t necessarily care about improving his own standard of living, let alone that of his peasants–what he was after, in many cases, was mainly the ego charge of being top dog.

Human nature was not repealed by the existence of steam engines and electricity in 1914…nor even by the broad Western acceptance of Christianity in that year…nor is it repealed in 2014 by computers and the Internet or by sermons about “multiculturalism” and bumper stickers calling for “coexistence.”

American Digest just linked a very interesting analysis of the famous “long telegram” sent by George Kennan in 1947: George Kennan, Vladimir Putin, and the Appetites of Men. In this document, Kennan argued that Soviet behavior must be understood not only through the prism of Communist ideology, but also in terms of the desire of leaders to establish and maintain personal power.

Regarding the current Russian/Crimean situation, the author of the linked article (Tod Worner) says:

In the current crisis, many will quibble about the historical, geopolitical complexities surrounding the relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. They will debate whether Crimea’s former inclusion in the Russian Empire or Crimea’s restive Russian population justifies secession especially with a strong Russian hand involved. Papers will be written. Conferences will be convened. Experts will be consulted. Perhaps these are all prudent and thoughtful notions to consider and actions to undertake. Perhaps.

But perhaps we should, like George Kennan, return to the same questions we have been asking about human nature since the beginning of time. Maybe we are, at times, overthinking things. Perhaps we would do well to step back and consider something more fundamental, something more base, something more reliable than the calculus of geopolitics and ideology…Perhaps we ignore the simple math that is often before our very eyes. May we open our eyes to the appetites of men.

23 thoughts on “The Calendar is Not Omnipotent”

  1. John Kerry sounds an awful lot like the Grandmother (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) played by Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, but not nearly as sharp or as funny.

  2. “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.”

    I think I understand now why C. Hitchens and P. J. O’Rourke are drunks. How can one not laugh at this?

    Do we really pay our diplomats to posture like this? To act the buffoon?

  3. Great post.

    For relatively non-militaristic and open societies such as ours there is something to be said for occasionally erring in favor of overreaction to provocations. Would Putin have pushed things in Crimea if we had intervened more forcefully in support of Georgia? Maybe not.

    Of course it’s difficult for democracies to behave with the degree of calm foresight needed to behave as I’m suggesting.

  4. “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.”

    But the USA reserves the right to invade any another country on phony pretexts in order to assert nobody-in-particular’s interests.

    Odd, very odd.

  5. The Obama/Kerry/Hillary worldview is based on the assumption that the United States and NATO have pushed Russia to aggression based on our insensitive behavior.

    We won the Cold War and then actually acted like victors. Free people threw off the chains of oppression, and we actually tried to help them.

    This was a huge blow to the Left, who were always perplexed about how the US, post-Vietnam, was able to win anything.
    It did feed into their inclination to side with the victims, in this case the vanquished Russians.
    So the last five years of American foreign policy have been designed to undo the past 30 years of the ascendancy of liberty and Western prosperity.

    Meanwhile, Russia never actually stopped thinking of the West as their enemy. They’ve never stopped wanting to possess buffer regions in the European Plains. The American tradition of magnanimity in victory and using victory as a way to improve the world is totally alien to them. The only tradition they have is,
    the strong consumes the weak, and it’s the fault of the weak for being so weak.

    The truth is America promised Russia nothing and gave them everything. We could have expanded NATO all the way to the Himalayas, but didn’t. Instead we allowed them to march home with their banners and arms and pride intact.

    The old thinking used to be that Bush the 1st made a key mistake in the Gulf War by stopping in Southern Iraq and not deposing Saddam.
    I wonder now if that will be revised to stopping in Eastern Europe and not finishing off the Soviets.

  6. “But the USA reserves the right to invade any another country on phony pretexts in order to assert nobody-in-particular’s interests.

    Odd, very odd.”

    When did we “invade another country?” Mexico 1846?

    Having recently attained Independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico was fraught with internal struggles that verged on civil war, however it was relatively united in refusing to recognize the independence of Texas. Mexico threatened war with the United States if it annexed Texas.[7] Meanwhile, President Polk’s spirit of Manifest Destiny was focusing United States interest on westward expansion.

    It sounds like Mexico provoked that war.

    How about the 1914 “punitive expedition ?

    An increasing number of border incidents early in 1916 culminated in an invasion of American territory on 8 March 1916, when Francisco (Pancho) Villa and his band of 500 to 1,000 men raided Columbus, New Mexico, burning army barracks and robbing stores. In the United States, Villa came to represent mindless violence and banditry. Elements of the 13th Cavalry regiment repulsed the attack, but 14 soldiers and ten civilians were killed. Brig.-Gen. John J. Pershing immediately organized a punitive expedition of about 10,000 soldiers to try to capture Villa. They spent 11 months (March 1916 – February 1917) unsuccessfully chasing him, though they did manage to destabilize his forces. A few of Villa’s top commanders were also captured or killed during the expedition.

    Mexico kept poking the lion in the cage.

    Then we come to 1917. I personally think we should have stayed out of World War I. I’ve read a lot about it and am reading Max Hastings book about the first year. I’m not sure Britain should have gone to war. either, but we had better reasons than they did.

    Then there was The Spanish American War of 1898.

    After the mysterious sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor, political pressures from the Democratic Party and certain industrialists pushed the administration of Republican President William McKinley into a war he had wished to avoid.

    That one was probably gratuitous but it was the first of the Democrats’ provocations of war.

    I’m sure you are thinking of Vietnam, which was almost certainly a mistake but that was the Cold War, which you might recall we won.


    The United States invaded Iraq for failing to comply with terms of the first Gulf War.

    Right or wrong, good consequences or bad, there was nothing phony about the legal justification.

    Now the dog and pony show to get the UN on board was a different story. It wasn’t necessary, was counter-productive, and should never have happened. The more we try to accommodate Internationalists, the more we get ourselves into trouble.

  8. >>But the USA reserves the right to invade any another country on phony pretexts in order to assert nobody-in-particular’s interests.

    For example?

  9. Oh, I suppose that is what he meant but the other examples were closer to the concept. The guy who caused the second Iraq war was Schwartzkopf who negotiated a truce with no input from anyone with knowledge of Iraq. Even the State Department would have been better than he was.

  10. “It sounds like Mexico provoked that war.” That’s wonderfully funny.

    “The United States invaded Iraq for failing to comply with terms of the first Gulf War.” Pretty much an exemplar of a phoney pretext. Why she did invade Iraq I have no idea – baffling decision, unless it was due to the general funk and hysteria following 9/11. Quick, there’s some Arabs, let’s kill ’em. It must have occurred to somebody in the State Department that it might strengthen Iran’s position. But wothehell archy.

  11. Alas, poor History – how current fashion mal-treats poor Clio!

    I think there might be some small cause for hope, creeping among the great deadening slabs of political correctness and current intellectual fashion inflicted on us with all the subtlety of a two-ton concrete slab dropped from a construction crane from a forty-foot height by the intellectual-academic establishment. And that would be the local amateur historians, focused like a laser-beam on their particular enthusiasm, and the reenactor set – also similarly focused on the era of their enthusiasm.

    And then there are indy-writers like me. I began to have a … no, it wasn’t a feeling, it was more along the lines of a conviction in about 2006 that hard times were coming, and that we would need to know our history, however the means it took to teach and learn about it. We would need to know that our actual and metaphorical ancestors in these United States were honest, idealistic and hard-working citizens. That they were respectful and honest, looked to do the best for their neighbors and communities, that they were good and well-meaning people, doing the best that they could, in the place and time and circumstances that they had.

    So I took that as my particular mission and chore – to write about the past in a way that would engage and interest readers, to inform and engage them in history – to fight against the stultifying hand of political correctness and the general dumbing-down of the general audience. I have a fan – a local historian, who read the Trilogy in MS at my request – who loves it very much. He is of the opinion that I was divinely-inspired, which is a concept kind of embarrassing to me, since my father raised us as rationalists. But still … there are wonders performed in subtle ways.

  12. I read history almost as an obsession. In college, I was on a thing about Civil War history and read all of Bruce Catton’s books, plus his Grant biography plus Grant’s Memoirs and Sherman’s memoirs plus a bunch of other books.

    Then I read almost everything Churchill read, almost a lifetime’s work, and started on a study of World War II which still continues. I have recently begun on World War I, which is harder to understand.

    Medical history was a project, culminating if not ending with my own book which is now 10 years in print and still selling.

    I’m sure Dearieme, however, has far better qualifications.

  13. Just off the top of my head…I believe the Brits have invaded or militarily occupied Ireland, France, Germany, North Africa, India/Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Singapore, Rhodesia, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, the Virgin islands, the Falklands and the United States. I’m sure I missed a dozen or so.

    That said, I have to be impressed by British and, in a larger sense, European history. These are people who’ve never invaded anyone or gone to war with anyone unless it was for The Greater Good. Never for the what they perceived as their National Interest. Never. You have to admire them for that. Selfless. Completely selfless. Always. That’s European history for you. You have to admire them for that. And you have to admire DearieMe for reminding us of that.

  14. I believe the Brits have invaded or militarily occupied Ireland, France, Germany, North Africa, India/Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Singapore, Rhodesia, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, the Virgin islands, the Falklands and the United States.

    Pathetic. You can’t justify the Iraq invasion – far less justifiable than Russia retaking Crimea – not to mention other military actions against the former Yugoslavia, Libya, and other places (usually including your British lapdogs) in recent years so you drag up the history of previous centuries, and therefore different world orders, for some petty point-scoring. (Though it is interesting that you include Australia, NZ, and the US – does that mean the descendants of British settlers are occupiers who should go “home”?)

    Russia is merely reacting to actions by the US and its accomplices which have included years of bullying. Just look at the recent homosexualist shaming hysteria before Sochi, with Western leaders even boycotting the opening ceremonies (much to the joy of our leftist media). There are very few Russophiles in Europe (for good reason) but most can see that it is being unfairly demonised and in the case of Ukraine that the Russians have a point. For America Ukraine is just a plaything. It is not important to US interests unless you believe America has the right to determine every government on earth.

    This kneejerk reversion to Cold War positions from so-called conservatives is especially ridiculous when you consider that the US government and corporate entertainment complex are the main forces behind the most pernicious forms of leftism today. Russia looks benign next to the US and the EU.

  15. “You can’t justify the Iraq invasion”

    I did. Scroll up and read those links. War with Iraq was enshrined in International and Congressional Law.
    Let’s not forget this was war with someone who maimed, tortured, and killed more Arabs than any Westerner ever dreamed of doing's_Iraq

    The only reason we threw in the bullocks about weapons of mass destruction was to appease the French and, to a lesser extent, the Germans, who possess little respect for legalities.
    It turned out to really backfire on us. As a result, for future UN mandated conflicts like Libya we now take orders from France.
    Payback is hell, I guess.

    As for America pushing Russia around, it was the EU that was flirting around with Yanukovich and his band of robber barons, not the US. It’s the threat of Europe joining with China to encircle Russia that is the root of the problem.

    No one around here cares what the European or Russian position is on homosexuality or Pussy Riot or, outside of the Russian ladies curling team, the Olympics for that matter.

    We had nothing to do with any of it, but, as usual, we are here to clean up the mess so Europe can have its cake and eat it too.

  16. “Russia is merely reacting to actions by the US and its accomplices which have included years of bullying. ”

    Yes, Breshnev was a bullying victim. Then there was Gorbachev and the US inspired attempted coup against him. Those American bullies named the following American heroes. On 11 December 1990, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, made a “call for order” over Central television in Moscow.[7] That day, he asked two KGB officers[8] to prepare a plan of measures that could be taken in case a state of emergency was declared in the USSR. Later, Kryuchkov brought Soviet Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Premier Valentin Pavlov, Vice-President Gennady Yanayev, Soviet Defense Council deputy chief Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev secretariat head Valeriy Boldin, and CPSU Central Committee Secretary Oleg Shenin into the conspiracy.

    Good midwestern names all.

    We’ve been bullying the poor Russians since The Soviet agents in Roosevelt’s administration retired. People like Lauchlin Currie,senior White House aide to FDR, Alger Hiss, chief of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs, Laurence Duggan, head of the State Department’s Division of American Republics, Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury, Harold Glasser, vice-chairman of the War Production Board , Victor Perlo, chief of the Aviation Section of the War Production Board, Judith Coplon, Justice Department analyst , Duncan Lee, descendant of Robert E. Lee and senior aide to OSS chief William J. Donovan, and William Weisband, NSA linguist who informed Moscow that the Venona Project had deciphered its messages.

    All obvious victims of bullying.

    Nicely done, East Anglian. Your name isn’t Phil Jones, by any chance ?

  17. Good Lord, I’d never heard of Lauchlin Currie before.
    This man may have done more damage to the United States than any enemy in recent memory. Even before he spied for the Soviets he

    “drafted the Banking Act of 1935 which reorganized the Federal Reserve and strengthened its powers” and

    “In a four-hour interview with President Roosevelt, he was able to explain that the declared aim of balancing the budget “to restore business confidence” had damaged the economy.”

    I guess that makes sense that the Fed and their Inflationist allies would employ a jackal like that.

    Much of it may have been averted except FDR expanded the Executive Branch through the Reorganization Act to take on imperialist powers. He required less transparency in order to push his agenda forward, and the resulting unwieldy, unaccountable bureaucracy was the perfect opening for infiltration. Not only did he makes us less democratic but less safe at the same time.

  18. Oh yes. Curry was bullied.

    Currie and fellow instructors Harry Dexter White and Paul T. Ellsworth urged large fiscal deficits coupled with open market operations to expand bank reserves, as well as the lifting of tariffs and the relief of interallied debts.[3]

  19. Good Lord, I’d never heard of Lauchlin Currie before.

    The educational establishment has done their damndest to bury all mention of Curry and the other Soviet aggents in FDR’s administration. It just does not fit the narrative that FDR saved America.

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