World War I had no good guys and no winners. France rightly sought the return of the provinces Germany had annexed in 1870. Russia rightly feared that German influence would sever its industrial centers and tax base in the Western parts of it its empire; England feared that Germany would encroach on its overseas empire; Germany feared that Russia’s railroad system would overcome its advantage in mobility and firepower. None of them wanted a war, but each of them decided that it was better to fight in 1914 than fight later at a disadvantage.
Historian Christopher Clark in his 2013 book The Sleepwalkers forever buried the black legend of German aggression in 1914, with proof from Russian archives that the Czar’s mobilization – with French incitement – provoked the outbreak of war. There’s no hero to cheer, no villain to boo in the first tragedy of the 20th century, just mediocre and small-minded politicians unable to step back from the brink.
All of them acted rationally in the pursuit of their vital interests, but at the same stupidly as well as wickedly, and the ensuing world wars undid the achievements of a thousand years of Western civilization. We look back to 1914 in horror, and wonder how the leaders of the West could have been so pig-headed. Nonetheless, we are doing it again today.
That should be an object lesson for today’s Ukraine crisis. Vladimir Putin acted wickedly, and illegally, by invading Ukraine, but also rationally: Russia has an existential interest in keeping NATO away from his border. Russia will no more tolerate American missiles in Kyiv than the United States would tolerate Russian missiles in Cuba.
The United States could have averted a crisis by adhering to the Minsk II framework of local rule for the Russophone provinces of Eastern Ukraine within a sovereign Ukrainian state but chose instead to keep open Ukraine’s option to join NATO. That was rational, but also stupid: It backed Putin into a corner.
There is no excuse for Putin’s action, but there is an explanation that’s similar to one that applied to his forbears of 1914: Putin chose to attack before the West had the opportunity to arm Ukraine with sophisticated weapons that would raise the future cost of military action.
China, a far more powerful challenger than Russia, is watching Ukraine with a calculating eye. It expresses sympathy with Putin’s security concerns but chagrin at his military adventurism. It refrains from helping Russia to flout the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia.
China has mechanisms in place to finance trade in its own currency, the RMB, and substitute for the SWIFT system that clears international banking transactions in Western currencies, but it does not want to provoke the West by mounting a direct challenge. It has called for a negotiated solution.
But China also looks at Ukraine through the lens of the Taiwan Strait. China has an existential interest in the One China policy, which states that Taiwan ultimately will be reunited with the mainland. China is not a national state but a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire, which was carved up into warring fiefdoms with the help of foreign intervention as recently as the 1930s. Any so-called rebel province threatens the stability of the Chinese state.
If Taiwan seeks a permanent break with the mainland, China will seize it by force. There is a parallel to Putin’s decision in Ukraine. If the West attempts to make Taiwan impregnable to Chinese invasion – what some call a “strategy of denial” – China likely will use force before it loses the option to do so.
Then we will be on a fast track to nuclear war, as Admiral James Stavridis, the former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, portrays in his thriller 2034. China probably can sink American aircraft carriers with surface-to-ship missiles.
In Chinese official media, there is a grim discussion of the parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan. We misjudged Putin, just as he misjudged us. No sanctions or denunciations will hold back the Russian Army. We should not misjudge China. Sometimes an uncomfortable status quo is infinitely preferable to a roll of the dice on peace or war.
Note: This essay was solicited by the editorial page of a major US newspaper, and then rejected because it did not fit its prevailing narrative.