Hold onto this snippet for later in the essay:
During repeated visits after 1909, the two commandants became fast friends even to the extent of [British General Henry] Wilson being admitted into the French family circle and invited to the wedding of [French General Ferdinand] Foch’s daughter. With his friend “Henri,” Foch spent hours in what an observer called “tremendous gossips.” They used to exchange caps and walk up and down together, the short and the tall, arguing and chaffing. Wilson had been particularly impressed by the rush and dash with which studies were conducted at the War College. Officer-instructors constantly urged on officer-pupils with “Vite, vite!” and “Allez, allez!” Introduced to the classes in the Camberley Staff College, the hurry-up technique was quickly dubbed Wilson’s “allez operations.”
A question that Wilson asked of Foch during his second visit in January 1910, evoked an answer which expressed in one sentence the problem of the alliance with England, as the French saw it.
“What is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?” Wilson asked.
Like a rapier flash came Foch’s reply, “A single British soldier—and we will see to it that he is killed.”
[Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August]
The significance won’t take long to arrive.
The militaries of the Old World aren’t what they were seventy years ago, China excepted. Today’s Europe is lightly armed. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact left few clear lines of demarcation – few places where it could be confidently said that “If war breaks out, it’ll be X against Y.” Yes, there were some regional conflicts, most notably among the former republics of Yugoslavia, but those were of relatively minor significance and have had no lasting effect geopolitically.
The North Atlantic Charter, which created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), arose from Western Europe’s fear that the Stalin regime, having succeeded in subjugating ten Eastern European nations, would next look lustfully at the Western ones. It was a reasonable fear. Not only was Europe getting back onto its feet only slowly and painfully, America’s wartime aid to the U.S.S.R. had made it into a power comparable only to the United States. The millions-strong Red Army remained half-mobilized. Few would forget its role in the conflict in Spain. It was reasonable for the remaining unshackled European powers to seek protection from the sole remaining force that could plausibly provide it.
There were both desirable and undesirable consequences. The former included a rapid economic resurgence of the Western European nations, owing in large measure to the injection of American funds through our military presence there. The latter, which may prove to be more significant, included the military enervation of the nations under our protective umbrella. In other words, with America standing watch, the European members of NATO gradually let their own militaries slip into desuetude. Funds that would otherwise have gone to military procurement and preparedness were diverted to “social programs.” This gave rise to an opulently generous European welfare state.
President Trump’s determination to get the European states to become more serious about their own defense highlighted the matter. The Europeans were unwilling to spend on their militaries at the expense of their social programs. Trump cajoled them as best he could, with a few juicy consequences for nonperformance included, but the effect on European defense postures was limited. Today the best armed, best equipped military of “Europe” is that of the United Kingdom – and that should ring a few alarm bells.
Now we have a war between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is definitely holding the dirty end of the stick. Present trends continuing – in warfare as in all else, a chancy assumption, but one a prognosticator will make nevertheless – Ukraine will be “Finlandized:” turned into a tacit client state of Russia. The one thing that could materially change that forecast would be a massive intervention by outside powers to counter Russia’s military thrust.
But who would commit to such an intervention? Leave aside the Europeans’ distaste for armed conflict. In concert, the militaries of Europe could barely match the Russian forces. Moreover, the consequences of going to war for Ukraine’s sake would be devastating to the economies of the NATO powers. The prospect of losing access to Russian oil and gas is frightening enough to paralyze Germany all by itself – and without Germany’s participation the rest of Europe might as well stay home.
Still, European NATO would really like for someone to step in and halt Vladimir Putin. In his ambition and resolve, he poses more of a threat to Europe than any Russian potentate since Stalin. He’s openly said that in his view, the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. was the greatest geopolitical tragedy in history – and there can be little doubt that he would act to reverse it if he believed he could. So Europe has cast its eyes westward, to the United States.
The fruits of the NATO tree have ripened to full bitterness.
That’s not all, of course. America’s most powerful special interests include its defense establishment: what Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” When the federal budget dedicates nearly $800 billion per year to military spending, the folks to whom that money goes get very determined to keep the valuta flowing. Their determination to influence American foreign policy in directions favorable to their firms cannot be overstated.
A good war every so often is vital to keeping the money pipeline full. Of equal relevance is the military’s need for some action every so often to stay sharp…and to provide command experience for its officer corps, without which promotions can be hard to come by. Trouble is, since the end of World War II there haven’t been a lot of wars that commanded a strong majority of popular sentiment. There was a little skirmish early in the Fifties, over in Korea, that started the downtrend. Our subsequent warring hasn’t produced a lot of victories the American people felt were worth what they cost us. The recent debacle in Afghanistan is representative, not unique. (Can you say “Vietnam?”)
And so here we are, with various influences pressing America to involve itself in the Russia / Ukraine conflict for their various reasons. The drumbeats are intensifying. Will they prevail? Unclear. But even less clear is the question of the American national interest. I, for one, would like to know what conceivable gains could accrue to the U.S. that are worth the possibility of triggering a nuclear exchange.
If you hearken back to the segment from The Guns of August that opens this piece, you will now see the relevance, if you hadn’t already. General Foch wanted Britain fully committed to its alliance with France, such that if France should go to war, Britain would automatically and fully commit its military to France’s assistance, with all that implies. Foch believed that a single British soldier killed in combat would be sufficient. Things were not so clear in London, but that’s merely an illustration of the gulf that divides the military from the diplomats.
What would cause the United States to commit fully to the defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression? Would it require American servicemen on the front lines? Or American warplanes patrolling Ukraine’s skies? Or perhaps merely an injection of weapons and funding for Ukraine’s forces? At what point would America see itself as a principal combatant in this affair?
More to the point, what degree of involvement would get Vladimir Putin to see us that way…and how would that conviction cause him to act?
Putin is, for all intents and purposes, the autarch of Russia. In foreign affairs, at least, he alone makes the decisions. He looks across the Atlantic today and sees Joe Biden, a senile figurehead for a gang of Usurpers actively hostile to American values. Does he fear what he sees? It seems implausible, especially given the destruction the Usurpers have already wreaked on America’s military.
So it seems unlikely that Putin would back down before an American gesture in support of Ukraine. It seems equally unlikely that American participation in the conflict would do more than amuse or anger him. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see anything good for Americans coming out of that scenario.
Especially if our nation commits to war under a half-conscious, reality-challenged Commander-in-Chief whose highest priority is to avoid answering questions from the White House press corps.
War is sometimes forced upon a nation. We were forced into World War II by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. But the majority of wars in this era are “elective:” nations go to war because of Ludwig von Mises’ “axiom of action:” i.e., in the hope of securing favorable conditions or averting unfavorable ones. The decision to enter such a war is therefore economic.
Regardless of the evil of the Putin regime’s aggression against Ukraine, the United States need not commit itself to involvement. Ukraine has no alliance with us. Therefore, the question reduces to whether the consequences of involvement would be better or worse than the consequences of non-involvement.
Few aspects of that calculation are certain. Our men at arms who would die under fire would be worse off. Our economy, already staggering from Usurper policies, would be burdened still further. But the Usurpers themselves could foresee political gains: increased power and increased likelihood of retaining it despite the depredations of the two years behind us. Seldom does a nation at war change horses before the war’s conclusion.
Food for thought.