What Comes After Is Usually Worse
The central paradoxical question that has haunted sensible realists and historians is whether a strong satiated rival state or empire is more dangerous than a fragile one. The distinction is important. One shouldn’t desire a too-strong rival, unbalanced and confident of its own predatory skills. But one also must be wary of cornering a fearful, wounded beast. Animals act irrationally with their backs to the wall. States are no different.
There is a reason Lord Castlereagh opposed the execution of Napoleon and further retribution against a defeated France; for the same reason, Lord Lansdowne wanted an amicable end to the First World War instead of attempting further punitive measures against Germany. They are the very same reasons why wise American elder statesmen decided to spare Emperor Hirohito. We were similarly wary of a total Russian collapse in the early ’90s and did everything to ensure that a strong central government continued in Moscow, even when it was not a perfect one.
The question has resurfaced with Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, courtesy of British missiles. If Russia is too weak to defend Crimea, and if Russian air defence is inferior to British and American missiles, surely the Ukrainians must push through?
The question is, needless to say, irrelevant. Russia was always weaker in conventional weaponry. It had mass during the Soviet Union, and relied on nuclear deterrence to offset conventional weakness. The paradox of Russia isn’t that Russia is too strong to embark on European hegemony. It is that Russia is strong enough to not be pushed around in its own neighbourhood, and possesses thousands of nuclear weapons enough to turn us to radioactive ashes, if cornered.
The challenge isn’t Vladimir Putin trying to replicate the Third Reich. The challenge is to ensure that there’s no civilization-ending nuclear exchange over the overlordship of some real estate on the Black Sea.
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According to the State Department, Russia might seek nuclear exchange if it faces regime collapse, catastrophic conventional military loss, or the loss of Crimea. One should aspire not to test that hypothesis, and ensure through back channels to European allies that America won’t be coming to their defense, if their lack of restraint leads to a paranoid Russian retaliation. Putin is already facing challenges from his far more hawkish right wing. What comes after is usually worse.
“I must earnestly protest against this spirit of revenge, which, though it may not animate the Ministers themselves, agitates the colony, and may eventually, unless Imperial influence be exerted, carry all before it,” Winston Churchill once warned against cornering a rival. “Beware of driving men to desperation; even a cornered rat is dangerous…. Those who demand “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” should ask themselves whether such barren spoils are worth five years’ bloody partisan warfare.”
Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike prefer demonstrating their midwittery and Wikipedia-level knowledge about “appeasement”, “isolationism,” and “Munich.” They should perhaps read Churchill more in depth, and pay heed to his warnings and foresight.