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Learning From History

There are very few real surprises in history. Most often the events we consider a surprise or world changing are at best a failure to place happenings in their proper context. At worst, they’re a continuation of trends whose beginnings often stretch further back than the person is willing to understand.

Historian David Graff once said that what gives an event iconic status is “the ability of the victims to be shocked by it.” To that extent, the events of the past few weeks should neither be shocking nor a surprise to anyone. If we knew our history, we all should have seen the current conflict playing out in Europe coming.  After all it’d been predicted as far back as the mid 1940’s.

While politicians and diplomats wring their hands, for more than 75 years experts have warned that an inevitable confrontation was brewing that would have unpredictable consequences for the world. For 75 years, those experts were ignored.  It would help us all to relearn some history.

George Kennan was the No. 2 man in the American embassy in Moscow at the end of World War II. At the time he waged a lonely fight to make the World understand that the aspirations, dreams and motivations of other nations were unique and influenced by their own histories.

Kennan, though a high-ranking insider, was an early critic of postwar policies. He understood that Russia’s sense of security was rooted in a long history of repelling invaders, often at great cost. He predicted accurately that the Soviet Union’s fear of an increasingly unified Europe would necessitate buffer states between it and its competitors. Unfortunately, instead of heeding this advice drawn on immense scholarship and understanding, the West found itself drawn again and again into destructive proxy battles throughout the 20th Century.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union Kennan worried the West was in the process of creating a self-fulling prophecy that would lead to conflict with Russia. In 1997, at the age of 92, he wrote that expanding the West’s sphere of influence “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era.”

The years following the dissolution of Soviet Union, when it appeared the rivalry between the nuclear armed hegemons was at a close, brought promise and high expectations. This era was also very traumatic for ordinary Russians. Not only had they seen their country lose great-power status, but economic and political instability were widespread. The US encouraged leaders to sell off state assets at bargain prices. This not only did little to improve economic recovery, but it weakened the rule of law as well as the country’s fledgling sense national solidarity. Russians were left with the sense that the West wanted nothing more to exploit it. Under this context, the latent fears inherent in Russia’s national psyche began emerging once again.

Conflict could have been avoided by looking at the trends and listening to experts most aware of the historical context. During the Clinton era, Defense Secretary William Perry nearly quit when his advice against rapid eastern expansion went unheeded. Clinton ignored these critics, as did his successor during another round of expansion in 2004.  Instead of helping Russia better reintegrate itself to the world economically, the world took a victory lap.

This does not excuse what is happening now by any means, but nor should the world be surprised by recent events and the difficult days that lay ahead.

Everyone wants the current crisis to come under control and end quickly. We don’t know what the future holds if fire is left burning.  What we do know, is that this is a failure to read and absorb the lessons of history – something everyone should strive to do better.