DeM Banter: The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency…great quote from the article below and something we have been harping on here for the two years the blog has been up…a couple of other great quotes to ponder as we step into the new year…
Anne Applebaum, writing recently in the Washington Post. “We are intellectually, economically and militarily unprepared to contemplate Great Power conflict, let alone engage in the hard work of renewing alliances and sharpening strategy. But History is back, whether we want it to be or not.” As is the possibility that madness may triumph yet again….Complacency reflects a poor grasp of history and a low amount of imagination.
The rhyme of human events is once again cycling from arrogance in overstretch to studied complacency. George Santayana’s famous warning that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is once again being ignored. Advocates of defense budget reductions, including my friend Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center, continue to claim that we live in an “unusually secure” world. Not only does Adams claim that we do not face existential threats, he also mistakenly asserts that the rate of civil and international wars is the lowest in measured history. But such statements lack context and historical perspective. When history does inform such arguments, it does so only in caricature, assuming a linear version of history that marches uninterrupted toward Progress. We can wish it were so, but that does not make it so.
I fear too many of my Beltway colleagues assert as fact what they want as desirable policy goals – namely, a peaceful world – and then reason backwards into an interpretation of benign global security to justify a reduced defense budget. They dismiss all the messy complexities of predicting the future, assuming that history’s march toward Progress mitigates the risk of being dead wrong. Being a true realist makes me wary of being complacent about the future or embracing hope as insurance against a Hobbesian world.
To be sure, we should not be apologists for Pentagon budget levels that are not sustainable. We can agree with those informed critics (including Dr. Adams) who rightly call for more efficiency and less overhead at the Defense Department, including in the areas of compensation and health care reform. The same reforms should be applied to the real drivers of our currently stifling national debt: our projected dramatic growth in entitlements. Critics of Defense spending should spend half as much time uncovering poorly performing non-defense government programs and unchecked medical spending. As a nation, we spend 12 times more on health care than security, but with far less scrutiny or demonstrable evidence of added value.
What concerns me is not that advocates of reform exist, but, rather, that they create confections about the current and projected security environment. This misreading of history and ignoring of potential risk is used to back our way around any reasoned analysis of risks in a rush to shrink the military, especially ground forces. I have posted my take on thisdangerous illusion a while back in these pages.
A solid grasp of history should help us avoid illusions about the nature of the international system. Writing years ago, in The Purpose of the Past, the American historian Gordon Wood observed that “Historical knowledge takes people off a roller coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible.” As we proceed with the restructuring of our defense establishment by sequestration, we should get off the roller coaster. Wood continues that “Americans have had almost no historical sense whatsoever; indeed, such a sense seems almost un-American.” As we approach a new year with a new strategy, we should restore a historical mindset to the center of our worldview and look more deeply into the trends with which we are faced.