The centenary of World War I is upon us. That Great War began in August, 1914. We can expect a flood of new books and documentaries on what some then called "the war to end all wars." The rising power of the United States was not fully felt in Europe then. In fact, some German militarists unwisely dismissed the U.S. "They won't land a single soldier in France," one of their admirals vainly told his Kaiser. "Our U-boats will sink their troop ships."
One new book on the sudden outbreak of the war is attracting attention and critical praise. Diplomatic historian Margaret MacMillan's new work, The War that Ended Peace, has been "blurbed" by no less a figure than former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Madame Secretary says this book "tells the story of how intelligent, well-meaning leaders guided their nations into catastrophe."
Do we have such intelligent, well-meaning leaders now? One would hope that a century after the Great War, we would have learned vital lessons. President Obama is certainly intelligent and well-meaning. And he is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
But there is a troubling line in Professor MacMillan's book. She offers it almost matter-of-factly:
Our world is facing similar challenges [to 1914], some revolutionary and ideological, such as the rise of militant religions or social protest movements, others coming from the stress between rising and declining nations such as China and the United States.
Let's read that line again: "Rising and declining nations such as China and the United States." One of the premier diplomatic historians in the world simply assumes that the United States is declining. That's a part -- and apparently an uncontroversial part -- of the furnishings of her mind. What does it say about Barack Obama's leadership of America when even liberal academics simply assume that the United States is in decline?
We see some of the evidence for this decline in the contempt shown for President Obama by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Putin's brazen move to seize control of the Crimea would not have been made if Putin worried about American reaction, or European reaction. He didn't worry. Nor does he have to worry.
In the very week that Putin moved, Mr. Obama's Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, appeared before Congress to announce the latest in a round of military budget cuts. Under President Obama's plan, the U.S. Army will be smaller than at any point since 1940.
This is not to suggest that the U.S. should use military force -- or even threaten to use military force -- to counter Russia's moves in Ukraine. Such military action could not be further from my mind or intent.
Liberals like to taunt conservatives who decry Russia's startling moves. "What would your Reagan do about Crimea?" they say, as if even Mr. Reagan would be stymied when confronted by such a menacing maneuver.
Actually, we did have a crisis not unlike the Ukraine and the Crimea in the Reagan years. It was called Poland. The armed forces of the Communist government of Poland were ordered on high alert and the country was placed under martial law. Soviet tanks were on the border, ready to roll into the streets of Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk in case the situation got out of hand.
Reagan never invaded Poland. He never even threatened the use of military force. He was very careful to give all support to the Polish people -- and especially to the first free trade union in the Soviet bloc, Solidarity.
Unlike today, this crisis occurred at a time when President Reagan was re-building the hollowed-out U.S. military. He daily honored those who serve in our all-volunteer forces. And he never failed to speak to the spiritual aspects of the U.S.-Soviet clash.
Another key factor in the peaceful resolution of the Polish crisis was the role of the first Polish Pope. John Paul II publicly prayed for his countrymen. He raised up their plight to God. And he was widely rumored to be ready to fly to Poland to risk his own life in the event of a Soviet invasion.
Faced with such a united front, the Soviets held back. In short, Reagan never had to rattle the saber because he used every other form of power so effectively.
President Obama has a unique opportunity. He can act to re-vitalize our American military, economic, and spiritual strengths. He can conduct our affairs as if we are not the Austria-Hungary of the Twenty-first Century. He already has his Peace Prize. Now, he can work to earn it.