WSJ Future View: The Lessons That Stuck This Year
Updated: Apr 21
Here is the text of my blurb in this week's Future View:
Editor’s note: This week’s Future View discusses books and courses that most affected students this school year.
‘On the Origins of War’
My reading list this year has been rich in military history. Even among Barbara Tuchman’s and John Keegan’s marvelous tomes on World War I, Donald Kagan’s 1994 classic “On the Origins of War” stood out.
The Yale historian and classicist provides timeless insight into conflicts ranging from antiquity to the mid-20th century. Central to Mr. Kagan’s analysis is the empirical observation that human nature is fixed across time and space. Early on, Mr. Kagan channels Thucydides in stressing that all wars stem from “fear, honor, and interest.” More than anything else, Mr. Kagan shows why perception is everything in international politics. Material strength means little without the demonstrated will to use it at critical moments. Goodwill can be read as weakness to be exploited rather than reciprocated.
How can policy makers apply these lessons today? First, assessments of adversarial intent should be based not on sentimentality or political rhetoric, but cold calculations of power. We should focus on identifying other states’ vital interests to avoid needless confrontations while working to preserve the balance of power in critical regional theaters. Second, bold action during international crises is often better at preventing war than half-measures. The former demonstrates resolve and determination; the latter reflects indecision and timidity. As Mr. Kagan observes, had France intervened to defend the Rhineland in 1936—a measure Hitler predicted would’ve thwarted his expansionist designs—the balance of power in Europe could have been preserved. Instead of organizing a defensive military response, French leaders protested in the League of Nations.
Third and last, statesmen must accept that war is a tragic feature of human existence. In the long sweep of history, the peace we enjoy today in the West is a rarity.
—Matthew Mai, Rutgers University, public policy