The return of "might makes right"
By Scott Sumner
The recent rise of nationalism in many parts of the world has been associated with a return of the doctrine “might makes right”, a view that dominated international affairs throughout most of human history. After the two world wars, however, this doctrine began to go out of favor. The Kellogg-Briand Pact, the League of Nations, the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, etc., were all signs of an increasing perception that big countries should not invade and annex small countries. While wars continued to be fairly common, most were civil wars. With a few exceptions such as Argentina’s attack on the Falklands and Iraq’s attacks on Iran and Kuwait, wars of conquest became much rarer than prior to 1945.
Even today, wars of conquest are rare, but “might makes right” seems to be making a comeback. Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed part of its territory. Even if you believe the Crimea never should have been part of the Ukraine, these sorts of disputes were not supposed to be settled with the use of force. Elsewhere, leaders in China, India and Turkey have pursued an increasingly muscular and nationalistic foreign policy, albeit not as aggressively as Russia.
What about the US?
1. The official policy of the US is still to oppose might makes right (we still have sanctions on Russia), but our current president seems increasingly sympathetic to the doctrine. Thus while US policy opposes Russian actions in the Ukraine, President Trump is known to be more sympathetic to the Russian position. Trump remarked to aides that Ukraine is not a real country. (Actually, it is.) In his public statements, Trump’s comments about foreign dictators are much more complimentary than his statements about democratically elected leaders of our allies.
2. The Trump administration recently reversed a long-standing US policy of opposing Israeli policies that involve forcibly taking land from Arabs on the West Bank. I don’t mean to suggest that Israel is the only villain here; perhaps the Arabs are even more to blame. Nonetheless, this policy change is revealing as an indication that might makes right is how the Trump administration views the world. It represents a dangerous precedent, no matter how just the Israeli position:
By declaring earlier this week that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal—and thereby recognizing some form of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory—President Donald Trump’s administration not only undercut over 50 years of U.S. foreign policy, it also undermined the basis for the United States’ objection to Russia’s land grab in Crimea, China’s absorption of Tibet in the 1950s and current designs on the South China Sea, and any future move by either to extend their borders to places where they can assert—even a flimsy—historic or ethnic rationale.
That the entire episode contradicts the United Nations Charter, of which the United States was a co-author, is hardly surprising at this point: For Trump, the U.N. may well be merely another skyscraper in Manhattan that would look better with his name on top. To the rest of the world, however, the decision will mark the final collapse of Pax Americana, the overly simplistic but still valid idea that U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic power has helped the world avoid a third world war through a combination of deterring revanchism, selective intervention, and global economic and diplomatic institution-building.
3. After WWII, there was a widely shared conviction that war crimes were unacceptable. The US punished a number of soldiers who committed war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. Now President Trump is preventing the military from punishing war criminals. This is an indication that Trump believes that powerful countries such as the US are “above the law”. I.e., war crimes only apply to our enemies, who are always weaker than us and thus unable to prosecute American soldiers.
One way to think about recent history is that we are now far enough away from WWII that we’ve forgotten its lessons. The style of today’s nationalists is very similar to those of the 1930s. (I emphasize “style”, as the actual policies are obviously nowhere near as bad.) There is the repeated use of the “big lie”, the demonization of “fake news”, the demonization of foreigners and minorities, dark theories of a “deep state” controlled by international cosmopolitan elements, a masculine-oriented view of society where women are encouraged to return to more traditional roles, frequent “jokes” about violence against the media or one’s political opponents, conflating policy disagreements with treason. I encourage people to read a political history of the 1930s; you’ll be shocked at the number of similarities to today. Indeed some of these might also make the left uncomfortable, such as the abuses of power by FDR.
Henry Kissinger is of the WWII generation, and he is concerned that we are repeating the mistakes of the past:
“China is a major economic country, and so are we. And so we are bound to step on each other’s toes all over the world, in the sense of being conscious of the purposes of the other,” Kissinger said. “Therefore, if conflict is permitted to develop unconstrained, the outcome could be even worse than it was in Europe,” he said, referring to World War I.
Today, the great powers have nuclear weapons, and hence a repeat of the two world wars is unlikely. Nonetheless, there is a risk of accidents or miscalculation leading to catastrophe. A world of “might makes right” makes that risk somewhat greater. More likely, the great powers will flex their power over weaker nations and/or unpopular minorities within their country. We may look back on the 1990s as a Golden Age.