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History Strikes Back

MADRID – When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the victors were beyond complacent, for they were certain that their triumph had been inevitable all along. Many in the West assumed that liberal capitalism’s victory over totalitarian socialism would necessarily bring an end to wars and sanguinary revolutions. Today, two powerful leaders – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping – are demonstrating just how farfetched this view was.

The predominant Western view was exemplified in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which presumed that Western liberal democracy was the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. In other words, Christian eschatology was transformed into a secular historical postulate.

That transformation was not new. Hegel and Marx embraced it. In 1842, the historian Thomas Arnold stated, with typical Victorian complacency, that Queen Victoria’s reign contained “clear indications of the fullness of time.” All of these historical prophets – whether heralding the realization of the Absolute Idea or the dictatorship of the proletariat – proved to be miserably wrong.

Not long after the West’s Cold War victory, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the return of national tribalism, even in the heart of “post-historical” Europe, challenged the concept of “the end of history.” The Balkan wars of the 1990’s, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bloody Arab revolts, and the exposure of Western capitalism’s ethical and systemic flaws in the global economic crisis undercut the idea further.

But perhaps the most salient reminders that history is still very much alive come from China and Russia. After all, neither China’s one-party state-capitalist system nor Russia’s plutocratic political economy is particularly liberal, and neither country is especially averse to asserting its (self-identified) rights by military means.

For China, this means “defending” its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas with an increasingly assertive foreign policy, conspicuously backed by growing military muscle. This behavior is amplifying long-festering regional tensions, while fueling competition between China and the United States/Japan alliance – a situation that recalls the pre-World War I struggle for maritime dominance between the United Kingdom and Germany.

For its part, Russia has ruthlessly strived to recover its lost continental empire, be it through the brutal repression of Chechnya, the 2008 war in Georgia, or the current assault on Ukraine. In fact, Russia’s recent actions in Crimea share many disturbing features with Adolf Hitler’s 1938 seizure of Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking Sudetenland – an important catalyst of World War II.

The fact is that Putin’s actions are not just about Crimea, or even about Ukraine. Just as Hitler was driven by the desire to reverse the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, Putin is focused on reversing the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.”

Putin is thus challenging one of America’s greatest foreign-policy achievements: the end of the division of Europe and the establishment of free countries that could be drawn into the Western sphere of influence. And, unlike US President Barack Obama in Syria and Iran, Putin respects his own red lines: the former Soviet republics are not for the West to grab, and NATO will not be allowed to expand eastward.

Moreover, Putin has made ethnic nationalism a defining element of his foreign policy, using Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority to justify his adventure there. Likewise, ethnic nationalism drove Hitler’s assault on the European order: the Sudetenland was mostly German, and the Austrian Anschluss was aimed at merging the two vital parts of the German nation.

In his controversial 1961 study of WWII’s origins, the historian A.J.P. Taylor vindicated Hitler’s decision to take over the small successor states that were created at Versailles to check Germany’s power – a strategy by the victors that Taylor called “an open invitation for German expansionism.” The same could presumably be said today of Russia’s fatal attraction to the former Soviet republics.

Of course, no one wants a new European war. But Putin’s provocations and the legacy of Obama’s foreign-policy failures could spur him to cut his political losses by taking unexpected action. After all, Obama’s entire foreign-policy agenda – a nuclear deal with Iran, an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, reconciliation with estranged allies in the Middle East, and America’s strategic pivot toward Asia – now hinges on his capacity to tame Putin.

China’s role is complicating the situation further. By acquiescing in Russia’s actions in Crimea, Xi is joining Putin in challenging the world order that emerged from America’s Cold War victory. In doing so, China has allowed power calculations to outweigh its own long-held principles, particularly non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs – a change that its leaders would defend by asserting that the US has repeatedly demonstrated that power ultimately determines principles.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose East German upbringing should have given her especially acute insight into Putin’s authoritarian mindset – has described the Russian leader as detached from reality, guided by nineteenth-century Machtpolitik. But it is Europe that has been living in a fantasy: a “post-historical” world where military power does not matter, subsidies can tame nationalist forces, and leaders are law-abiding, well-mannered gentlemen and women.

Europeans truly believed that the Great Game between Russia and the West was settled in 1991. Putin’s message is that the last quarter-century was merely an intermission.

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