The belief that wars can be fought to defend democracy or to make the world safe from tyranny retains its potency and still has political mileage. It is indeed a large part of the rationale for the neoconservative worldview. Nonetheless, it is worthy of serious consideration.
The tragedy of war is that it is self-perpetuating, each conflagration sowing the seeds of future conflict. This grim and gruesome fact flies in the face of the trite claim that there can ever be “a war to end war.”
Originally coined by H.G. Wells with respect to World War One, the phrase “the war to end war” is indicative of the naiveté of Wells’ optimistic progressivism and the belief that mankind is somehow progressing beyond war towards a golden age of peace and prosperity, ushered in by technology and the triumph of science. It was ironic, therefore, that the First World War was probably the most horrific in human history as a direct consequence of the deadly innovations ushered in by the very science and technology that Wells idolized.
Wells’ aphorism became something of a propagandistic catchphrase during the early years of the War and was parroted by US President Woodrow Wilson. Not to be outdone by Wells, President Wilson showed a rare gift for aphorism in his own right when he stated that US entry into World War One would “make the world safe for democracy.” Unlike Wells’ discredited phrase, the belief that wars can be fought to defend democracy or to make the world safe from tyranny retains its potency and still has political mileage. It is indeed a large part of the rationale for the neoconservative worldview. Since such a belief is not as obviously absurd as the claim that war can end war, it is worthy of serious consideration.
Let’s begin with President Wilson’s original claim that the entry of the USA into World War One would make the world safe for democracy.
Although the entry of the United States into the war was decisive in ensuring the victory of the Allies and the defeat (temporarily) of Prussian militarism, thereby putting a merciful end (temporarily) to a conflict that was bogged down in an entrenched quagmire, it could hardly be said to have made the world safe for democracy. By the war’s end, Russia had succumbed to a bloody revolution, from which would emerge the secularist tyranny of the Soviet Union, and the peace treaty imposed on Germany by the allies sowed the seeds of resentment, which would lead a few years later to the rise of Hitler. If anything, World War One had made the world unsafe for democracy and had paved the way for totalitarianism.
Let’s turn our attention to the second of the world wars that ripped the twentieth century apart. Did the victory of the Allies in World War Two make the world safe for democracy?
There is no doubt that the reincarnation of Prussian militarism under the Führer, the new Kaiser who saw himself as a new (and superior) Napoleon, needed to be resisted and contained. There is also no doubt that Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland, was justified, even if the debacle which ended at Dunkirk proved that the British military was ill-prepared to fight a land war in Europe. Holding on heroically through the strength of its navy and air force, Britain was nonetheless powerless to make inroads into Hitler’s neo-Napoleonic empire in Europe. Hitler would not have met his Waterloo had the United States not entered the war. In this case, at least, could we not say that the victory of the Allies over the Axis powers had made the world safe for democracy?
Although the destruction of Hitler’s well-oiled Nazi machine constituted a triumph over one form of tyranny, it was replaced immediately by the new Soviet tyranny which would hold eastern and much of central Europe in its iron fist for almost half a century. Those who found themselves enslaved by communism would hardly look kindly on the suggestion that the war had made the world safe for democracy. Even in western Europe, post-war politics moved seemingly inexorably towards a European Union, dominated by the irrepressible Germans, which became less democratic as it became larger, proving Lord Acton’s claim that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.
And what of President Wilson’s adage with respect to those wars that have erupted in the “post-war” period? Did the war in Vietnam make the world safe for democracy? Have the various and interminable wars in the middle east made the world safer? Would radical Islam be the threat it has become if such wars had not ripped the middle east apart, sowing seeds of hatred? Would we see the anti-Christian pogroms in Iraq and Syria if such wars had not stirred the hornets’ nest?
Questions such as these should cause us to pause and ponder whether war should be pursued as a means of bringing peace or freedom to the world. It is clear that war does not end war, and it would seem to be equally clear that it does not make the world safe for democracy. This is not to say that wars or the taking up of arms are always to be avoided. We do need to fight to defend freedom, and we do need to resist tyranny, and perhaps, as a last resort, we might need to take up arms in order to do so. But these principles do not mean that we should pursue war as a means to an end, not least because it often means an end to the freedoms we cherish.
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The featured image is “French Infantry Recapturing Fort Douaumont on the 24 October 1916” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.