I’ve spent the last six years arguing, in essence, that we should be looking at contemporary politics through the lens of the interwar period. As Alexander Cooley and I argued in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs:
Grappling with domestic illiberal threats remains a thorny exercise. Of course, the defense of liberal democracy has produced terrible excesses in the past, including ugly repression and horrific violence. U.S. officials adopted decidedly illiberal policies during the Red Scare that followed World War I, when the specter of Bolshevism loomed large. In trying to stem the rising right-wing extremist tide today, the United States risks returning to those dark times. But the alternative of inaction—Western liberalism’s failure to beat back fascism in the 1930s—remains a dangerous prospect.
History is an imperfect guide. Fascism was defeated—at least for a time—on the battlefields of World War II. Had Hitler been less interested in military conquest, fascist states might be a perfectly normal part of the current global landscape. The Soviet Union, for its part, collapsed because of a combination of the inefficiencies of its command economy, nationalist pressures, and policy choices that turned out very poorly.
The United States cannot really contemplate defeating its current authoritarian challengers in a total war, as that would likely produce a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Its most important authoritarian challenger, China, is a totally different kind of polity than the Soviet Union was. China is wealthy and relatively dynamic, and although it has its share of structural problems, it is not abundantly clear that its shortcomings are any worse than those of the United States.
In short, neither of the historical routes to the ideological victory of liberalism seems likely.
Despite all the times that I’ve invoked the 1920s and 1930s, I’ve been reluctant to follow my line of reasoning to its most straightforward conclusion.
For example, I didn’t advocate placing U.S. brigades in Ukraine to deter an invasion and I haven’t advocated placing them in Taiwan.
Given the last few weeks, I’m starting to think that I haven’t been taking my own arguments seriously enough.
The truth is that I just don’t know.
Updated to clarify that I’m not talking about sending U.S. forces to Ukraine to fight Russia.