World Wars and Lessons for Empire
The Great War began 95 years ago this month, with the guns of August ending what has been described as Europe’s last summer. And 64 years ago this week, two nuclear weapons used against Japanese cities signaled the end of the Second World War. The first conflict broke the back of European global hegemony, and the second ushered in the age of "superpowers" – the United States and the Soviet Union.
Both of these superpowers drew authority from the war. For the Soviets it was the Great Patriotic War, in which the brave workers and peasants, led by the supreme genius of the wise Comrade Stalin, defeated the dark forces of fascism almost single-handedly, while the evil plutocrats in the West sent machines but relied on the Soviet blood to get the job done.
In America, it was the Normandy landings that decided the war; the Soviets could not have succeeded without the Lend-Lease military aid. They repaid America’s generosity by occupying and enslaving half of Europe. Thus the new battle lines were drawn and the Cold War began.
Then, in 1990, Communism collapsed, and there was only one superpower left. Determined to usher in the "end of history," the U.S. reinvented itself as the American Empire. This new hyperpower was firmly anchored in the mythic authority of the "good war," when "Americans sacrificed selflessly to save and redeem all humanity."
Enter the Retcon
Seeking to establish a "benevolent global hegemony," the American Empire gradually asserted the right to interfere and intervene anywhere in the world. During the Clinton era, the justification for intervention was "protecting human rights" – a doctrine that evolved from the Balkans interventions (Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo).
To bolster this reasoning, a retcon was made to the story of World War Two. In reality, the horrors of Hitler’s "Final Solution" did not become widely known until the very end of the war, and the Nazi persecution of Jews never figured into any contemporary justifications of the conflict. The U.S. refused to accept Jewish refugees from Europe, while the British created their own camps for Holocaust survivors trying to emigrate into the Palestine Mandate. Simply put, the Allies did not fight to save the Jews from extinction.
The new imperialists told a different story. In 1993 the U.S. government established the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and encouraged the perception that the Allied war effort and the Holocaust were connected. Meanwhile, a massive propaganda campaign was underway to describe the Serbs as Nazis and the civil wars in Bosnia and Croatia as "aggression" and "genocide." NATO justified starting the 1999 Kosovo war and occupying that Serbian province by claiming the government in Belgrade was engaging in genocide against the ethnic Albanians.
Genocides were everywhere! In 2002, Harvard scholar Samantha Power argued in her Pulitzer-winning book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide that intervention to prevent or stop genocide should be the priority of U.S. foreign policy. Power’s book was the pinnacle of a decade of "humanitarian interventionism," or as one critic termed it, "the weaponization of human rights."
In reality, reports of Balkans genocides were greatly exaggerated. And while Power rightly condemned the indifference to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, neither she nor anyone else in the policy establishment so much as mentioned the August 1995 operation by Croatian troops that finished the job that a pro-Nazi regime started in 1941 and wiped out the Serb population. They did so with the direction, blessing, and assistance of the U.S. government.
World Empire Lost?
Emperor George W. Bush and his associates took to heart Madeleine Albright’s description of America as the "indispensable nation." Though he used slightly different rhetoric, outside observers had no problem spotting the continuity of his policy with that of Clinton. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush compared them to Pearl Harbor and started a new, never ending war to rival WWII. To underscore the comparison, a huge new WWII memorial was erected on the National Mall in 2004.
There was no appreciable difference between the imperial delusions of the Clinton cabinet and those of Bush – except that of scale. What Clinton did in the Balkans, Bush planned to do to the world. So mighty, so unique, so indispensable was the country they ruled, they could impose a new reality upon the world, by sheer will power and force of arms.
Big dreams often become big failures. Bush’s colossal failure became apparent within a year of his invasion of Iraq. American troops were not greeted with flowers as liberators, but with a bloody and brutal insurgency. The Middle East did not reshape itself. What was to be a short, victorious war became a quagmire instead.
By mid-2004, humanitarian interventionists were complaining that Bush had squandered the ideological capital of Empire, making future overseas adventures much more difficult. In early 2007, one commentator asserted, "we have squandered the World War II canon. We have lost its mythic authority. We are at the historical end of its protective embrace. We are on our own now."
While the election of Barack Obama was seen as the repudiation of Bush, it quickly became obvious that it was merely a return to Clintonism. Even as Obama tried to untangle himself from Iraq, he got even more entangled in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the overstretched financial foundation of the Empire finally crumbled in late 2008, creating an economic meltdown not seen since the 1930s. Obama is clinging to an idea whose time had passed.
Lessons of Augusts Past
In the summer of 1914, Austria-Hungary’s paranoia about Serbia and Germany’s obsession with Russia drove them into a war they thought they could win. The consequences were catastrophic, not just for Austria-Hungary and Germany, but for the victors as well. A generation later, another great war finished off Europe as a center of world power and unleashed the specter of nuclear holocaust upon humanity.
The week after American nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese emperor addressed his people in a radio broadcast:
"Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."
Within days, Japan sued for peace, officially ending World War Two. The fount of legitimacy that war provided to the victors, both the Soviet and the American empires, has since run dry. The USSR has been gone for almost 20 years now. If America means to survive, it may have to scrap its empire as well.
But if history teaches us anything, it is that for those who aim to rule the world there is nothing harder than a graceful defeat.