The Corrosive Legacy of the ‘Good War’ Standard

April 28, 2015 at 12:22 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

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The Second World War is still held by many intellectuals as the best example of ‘the good war’. Hollywood often pays it tribute by devising heroic epics that depict Allied courage in the face of Nazi barbarism – the same honour is not bestowed to Vietnam War films… Pundits in the West spend their days portraying contemporary conflicts in the light of WWII teachings: analogies with Munich or Pearl Harbor are invoked ad nauseam, Churchillian anecdotes and quotes abound.

For Liberals, WWII represents a true victory of good Vs evil and no other conflict comes close to such a clear moral crusade. In fact, it is probably the worst possible conflict to admire. Yes, Liberals won, and yes, a very destructive force was defeated but it is not a coincidence that it was a ‘moral war’ that caused the greatest conflict the world has ever seen. While technology played an important part in the scope of the war, it was conventional means that caused the most causalities; gas chambers , atomic bombs and planned starvations being responsible for roughly only 15% of total casualties. The key factor was in fact the totalitarian nature of the conflict. If states had not been fighting wars of absolute survival/annihilation, the methods employed would not have been equally absolute. Also relevant are the exceptions: liberal Finland was an enemy of the Allies and an ally of the III Reich, the totalitarian USSR was an ally and did most of the leg work of the ground war – not to mention co-presiding over the Nuremberg Tribunal… – and then of course it was the Allies that burned Dresden, used atomic weapons and equally starved indigenous populations.

Yet, it is crucial to realise that the current narrative is highly pernicious in this regard: a student of International Relations or History will learn that the Bismarckian balance of power system was very flawed and that WWII’s outcome – however horrific – was in fact a blessing in disguise because it set the world on the righteous path of progressive ethics. Then there are those who believe that the result of WWII was not even a matter of chance but that Liberal values would have always triumphed, given their natural superiority.  In truth, as Azar Gat demonstrated very lucidly, WWII was won largely because of “contingent factors”, not because of any practical superiority of Liberal ideals. If the Axis powers had enjoyed the large imperial holdings of the British Empire, the USA or the USSR, they too would have won what it ultimately became a war of attrition.  

The Second Great War should instead be regarded as  the worst possible conflict because it consisted in a complete erosion of the Westphalian system in Europe. Whereas Münster and Osnabrück had established a structure averse to moral/ideological interventionism and reliant on geostrategic alignments to ensure a balance of power – and, in turn, limited war – the outcome of WWII was precisely the destruction of Westphalia by allowing as victors two out of three universalist powers. If in the east of the old continent the Brezhnev doctrine was to rule until 1989, in the west the Washington Consensus would, in its triumphalist moment of the post Cold War, seek to intervene to punish dissenters on a regular basis and even promote gratuitous evangelizing interventions.

The direct result of the victory of one of the ideological empires was a predictable hegemony of the values of said empire in the predominant political narrative; it helped that the United States also functions as the main source of Western soft power and lingua franca. The American revolutionary enlightenment and liberal exceptionalist narrative has in time contaminated states that used to be particularist by their very nature, namely in Europe. The commonality stems from the replacement of utopian internationalist and universalist ideologies of the past such as communism or Christianism, with democratic liberalism. The idealists of the past have either left politics/political philosophy behind or converted to the doctrine of the temporal winners of WWII – and only consequently, spiritual winners.298822-alexfas01 - Cópia

Problems arise when the very structure of polities around the world is incompatible with a specific ideology which is why universal doctrines are usually a bad idea. In Europe, those facing such a reality eventually turned to the European Union and NATO as the natural bridge between their admiration for their new Church/International – carrying the mantle of ‘leadership of the free world’ – and the millenia of antecedents sustaining political power as a measure of local ethnic identity. In the case of such nations as Britain or the Netherlands, it is actually easier because much of their historical experience has been based around liberal values such as Grotius’s Mare Liberum or England’s parliamentary system. In more homogeneous and unitary nations such as Poland or France, more perverse forms of populism come to the fore as a consequence.

The most serious problem of American/Liberal exceptionalism is not however related to the domestic dysfunctions that it causes in nation-states – and not, as in the case of America , idea-states – but rather in the overall conduct it incites in Western states’ foreign policy. Every conflict that pits a Western democracy against a non Western or non liberal-democratic regime is automatically viewed as a Manichean moral contest whose outcome must be an absolute victory of the ‘good’ against ‘evil’. Apart from a complete absence of consideration for the national (not ideological) interest, there is also an inherent and fundamental strategic incompetence of not considering means when advocating for ends. In other words, the moral cause is the casus belli, not whichever specific political grievance motivates it. This implies that a limited political settlement involving territorial or economic concessions is not the desired end but rather an unconditional surrender of the morally inferior opponent.

WWII has been reified by its own ultra-normative admirers because they mythologize it. Had they been in power then, they would have never allied with the USSR and probably would have gone to war with it over its invasion of Finland by the time Berlin arose as a threat. Finally, there is enormous danger in looking at the least ‘normal war’ the world has ever seen and viewing it as an example to follow and emulate.

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