Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.