Commentary

Bush: 1914, 1938, 2005

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 24, 2005.

As President Bush strives to consolidate European cooperation in the war on terror, he must understand the persistent differences that separate Americans from Europeans. These differences often flow from the different lessons that we take from history.

Many Americans are impatient with the European approach to war. Viewed in isolation, the Europeans seem so attached to negotiations that they are blind to the dangers posed by tyrants and bullies. By comparison, Americans seem to scorn diplomacy, preferring instead to use military power to put rogue regimes in their place.

Americans remember military victories. The greatest of these were achieved in Europe during World War II. And while we mourn our dead, many of whom are buried “over there,” we assume that their losses were necessary to prevent far more horrible losses elsewhere. Faced with a certain evil in Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, there is no ambiguity as to who was fighting on the side of good.

In this vein, many Americans scorn the Munich agreement of 1938, when European leaders opted for another round of negotiation and compromise, rather than immediate war, on the assumption that Hitler’s appetite could be satiated. The Europeans were wrong. Hitler could not be appeased. World War II teaches that war is horrible, but sometimes necessary. The lesson to American hawks is clear: Next time, eschew negotiations and opt instead for war.

While Europeans cannot forget World War II, they are far more likely than Americans to remember World War I. In contrast to the clarity of World War II - a decisive victory for good over evil - World War I teaches that war is always horrible, often inconclusive, and can unleash a host of unintended consequences. A “victory” in war can easily lead to a far more serious conflict later.

Looking back on the tragedy and futility of World War I, many Europeans focus on July 1914, when European leaders chose war rather than another round of diplomatic negotiations. Leaders on both sides assumed that the conflict would be over within a matter of months, that it would result in a decisive victory for one side, and that a war then would prevent a more horrible war later. They were wrong on all counts.

The lesson to many Europeans: whenever possible, make time for diplomacy and negotiations.

Different perceptions of war and peace persisted in the second half of the 20th century. During the Cold War, disagreements between the United States and Europe were overshadowed by the common threat posed by the Soviet Union. Over time, more and more Europeans sought an end to the burdensome and costly confrontation. By the 1980s, some Europeans favored accommodation with the Soviets, even as Ronald Reagan instituted a new wave of military spending. Many Americans believe that the Reagan defense budget brought the Soviets to their knees.

We are now embarked on yet another global war, the war on terrorism. Beyond the war to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, which most Europeans supported, and the Iraq War, which most Europeans opposed, millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic wonder how Bush will deal with an Iranian government that seems intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The lessons of World War I teach that negotiations are preferable to war; the lessons of World War II teach that autocratic rulers respond only to force.

Many Europeans assume that President Bush will take his lessons from 1938, rather than 1914. A recent poll found that 70 percent of Germans expect that the United States is planning a military attack on Iran.

When presented with this evidence, Bush said he had no such intention. But there is one other thing, beyond verbal assurances, that he could do; in his travels in Europe, the President might consider visiting one of the 20 American cemeteries there, particularly one honoring the dead from World War I. This would at least show he is trying to appreciate the lessons of that senseless war. And it would give credibility to his claim that he looks upon war as a last resort.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute