Of all the popular myths about “how the world works,” the most dangerous to us at this moment is the one that goes “peace is normal, war is an aberration.” Truth is, war is normal and peace very unusual. We’ve lived through a happy time, ever since the Second World War. Thanks to American superpower, and the destruction of the totalitarian regimes in Rome, Berlin and Moscow, we’ve had a happy period of relative peace. Very few big wars. Little genocides (China is exceptional, but they changed to accommodate the global pattern). Deterrence (as in “mutual assured destruction”) mostly worked.
That was a rare time. Now we’re getting back to normal. There’s a good reason for that old Roman wisdom “if you want peace, prepare for war.” It’s because “peace” most always happens when somebody wins a war, and then imposes conditions on the losers. That’s what “peace conferences” are all about. Our recent happy time was the result of war, and our adoption of the Roman wisdom. We smashed our enemies, we created military alliances to deter our new enemies (NATO, etcetera), we built and maintained a big arsenal on land, air and sea.
We prepared for war to make peace possible.
It worked so well and lasted so long that we forgot why we were doing it. Over time, the “peace is normal” myth took hold and its attendant policies — “future wars will be economic, not military” and “guns to butter” — came to define our strategic thinking.
Moreover, Americans have always been conflicted over foreign policy. We have always wanted two incompatible things at once: we want to export the American model, and we want to stay out of other countries’ affairs. We have invariably waited until the eleventh hour before fighting. In the last century, we were torpedoed into the First World War by the Germans, bombed into the Second World War by the Japanese, and frightened into the Cold War by Stalin.
Then came 9/11 and we were reminded that there are (always) enemies out there. In time, we forgot that, too, and now, having deceived ourselves into believing that peace is normal, we are trying to talk our way out of the global war. It won’t work. It never has.
So we’re back to normal. War, and the runup to more war, is the order of the day, as it has been for most of human history. Our real options are the same as they have always been: win or lose. Both lead to “peace,” but the one is a happy peace while the other is an extended humiliation.