So the liberal powers tried to reason with them, to understand and even accept their grievances and seek to assuage them, even if this meant sacrificing others—the Chinese and the Czechs, for instance—to their rule. It seemed a reasonable price, unfortunate though it might be, to avoid another catastrophic war. This was the realism of the 1930s.
Eventually, however, the liberal powers discovered that the grievances of the “have-not” powers went beyond what even the most generous and conflict-averse could satisfy. The most fundamental grievance, it turned out, was that of being forced to live in a world shaped by others—to be German or Japanese in a world dominated by Anglo-Saxons.
To satisfy this grievance would require more than marginal territorial or economic adjustments or even the sacrifice of a small and weak state here or there. It would require allowing the “have-not” powers to reshape the international political and economic order to suit their needs. More than that, it would require letting those powers become strong enough to dictate the terms of international order—for how else could they emerge from their unjust oppression?
Finally, it became clear that more was going on than rational demands for justice, at least as the Enlightenment mind understood the term. It turned out that the aggressors’ policies were the product not only of material grievances but of desires that transcended mere materialism and rationality.
Their leaders, and to a great extent their publics, rejected liberal notions of progress and reason. They were moved instead by romantic yearnings for past glories or past orders and rejected Enlightenment notions of modernity. Their predatory or paranoid rulers either fatalistically accepted (in the case of Japan) or positively welcomed (in the case of Germany) armed conflict as the natural state of human affairs.
By the time all this became unmistakably obvious to the liberal powers, by the time they realized that they were dealing with people who didn’t think as they did, by the time they grasped that nothing short of surrender would avoid conflict and that giving the aggressors even part of what they demanded—Manchuria, Indochina, Czechoslovakia—only strengthened them without satisfying them, it was too late to avoid precisely the world war that Britain, France, the U.S. and others had desperately tried to prevent.
This searing experience—not just World War II but also the failed effort to satisfy those who couldn’t be satisfied—shaped U.S. policy in the postwar era. For the generations that shared this experience, it imposed a new and different sense of realism about the nature of humankind and the international system. Hopes for a new era of peace were tempered.
American leaders and the American public generally if regretfully accepted the inescapable and tragic reality of power. They adopted the posture of armed liberalism. They built unimaginably destructive weapons by the thousands. They deployed hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, in the heart of Europe and along the rim of East Asia, to serve as forward deterrents to aggression. They fought wars in distant and largely unknown lands, sometimes foolishly and sometimes ineffectively but always with the idea—almost certainly correct—that failure to act against aggressors would only invite further aggression.
It is as if, once again, Americans believe their disillusionment with the use of force somehow means that force is no longer a factor in international affairs.
In the 1930s, this illusion was dispelled by Germany and Japan, whose leaders and publics very much believed in the utility of military power. Today, as the U.S. seems to seek its escape from power, others are stepping forward, as if on cue, to demonstrate just how effective raw power really can be.
Once again, they are people who never accepted the liberal world’s definition of progress and modernity and who don’t share its hierarchy of values. They are not driven primarily by economic considerations. They have never put their faith in the power of soft power, never believed that world opinion (no matter how outraged) could prevent successful conquest by a determined military. They are undeterred by their McDonald’s. They still believe in the old-fashioned verities of hard power, at home and abroad. And if they are not met by a sufficient hard-power response, they will prove that, yes, there is such a thing as a military solution.