History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind
– Edward Gibbon
Counterfactual history is generally a waste of time because, in the end, it’s just speculation. But it’s fun and it can sometimes illuminate factual history.
For example, take the aborted Soviet-French-British alliance to stop Hitler. It came to nothing for a number of reasons but, had it happened, history would have been very different. (And – dare I say it? – probably better. And not the least of the benefits would be that we would be freed from the endless appeals to “Munich” to encourage us to stand firm and bomb the “Next Hitler”.) But I am not going to explore that counterfactual history in which the UK, USSR and France got together, Poland was convinced to let a million Soviet soldiers in and the German military, seeing the hopelessness of it all, overthrew Hitler and the future followed a different set of possibilities (Poland probably being occupied each time).
I am going to consider a counter-factual post Cold War history. Not because I believe – cynical as I have now become – that there was much of a chance of triumphalist Washington, in thrall to PNAC fantasies, allowing it to happen; I do it to illuminate some of the mess that we are in today.
After the Second World War, Stalin, either because he was a dedicated expansionist enemy of the West or because he was determined that, the next time, invaders would have to start their attack farther away from Moscow, absorbed most of the countries the Soviet Army captured/liberated. Communists – and each country had plenty – were put into power. (I invite the reader to speculate: they were absorbed but which was his true motive?) After the Washington Treaty, Moscow formed the Warsaw Treaty. But while the former was, more or less, voluntary, the latter was not and, the moment the USSR weakened, everybody wanted out. Mikhail Gorbachev, GenSek in 1985, began glasnost and perestroyka, believing that the USSR as it was had exhausted its possibilities; one thing led to another, the Berlin Wall came down, the Warsaw Treaty organisation collapsed: when the USSR’s “allies” realised the tanks weren’t coming, they jumped. The USSR itself then fell apart and a whole new world was there for the making.
This is what happened, now begins my counterfactual speculation.
The Western (NATO) capitals – none of which had foreseen these events – get together and think about how to profit from the collapse of their enemy and how to build a more secure world. A world that is not just better for themselves but more secure for everybody because the wise people in NATO understand that they cannot be secure if their neighbours are not: they know that security is indivisible.
The wise men and women of NATO ponder – it is their world-historical moment; they will create tomorrow. Alternate futures pass before their eyes, they have the power to choose one and eliminate the others; they will pick, out of all the possibilities, the one road the world will travel. Their challenge, now that a great war has ended, is how to fashion a wise ending to the struggle. Not a triumphant ending but a wise one; not just for us but for our descendants. Not momentary but enduring; not a quick sugar hit but lasting nutrition. Many roads to failure; only a few to success.
They take their place with modesty: while, naturally believing that their “free world” system was and is preferable to Marxism-Leninism, they are wise enough and modest enough to know that reality comes in shades of grey. No triumphalism here: just the pragmatic desire to build stability and peace. No boasting: just an acknowledgement that both sides have won.
They remember other decision points when a few created the future. The French Revolutionary / Napoleonic wars killed and maimed millions and devastated and squandered wealth throughout Europe. The easy end would have been to blame France and try to squash it for all time. But the victors – Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria – were wiser: they included France in the settlement; and their settlement avoided a great European war for a century. They knew that France would always be an important player and therefore had to be invested in the settlement. If it weren’t invested in the settlement it would be invested in breaking the settlement. It’s the essence of The Deal: everybody gets something and everybody has an interest in keeping things the way they are. When no one wants to tip it over, you have stability. The victors of 1919 forgot this principle and their settlement collapsed into an even worse war in twenty years. The victors of that war remembered the 1814 principle (partially) and integrated Germany, Italy and Japan into the winners’ circle.
The wise ones of NATO know this history; they know that the losers have to be made into winners so that the peace can have a chance of lasting; they remember the terrible example of the 1919 failure. There’s no place for boasting or triumphantasising. They bend their powerful minds in the Great Peace Conference of 1991 (counterfactual fantasy event) to calculate how to accommodate everybody’s security concerns. They know that security is indivisible: if one doesn’t feel secure then, sooner or later, no one will.
They start with two realities:
1) Moscow’s former allies – or at least their current leaders – hate and fear Moscow and
2) Moscow doesn’t trust NATO.
The Wise Ones waste no time moralising, they know these are the materials with which they have to work and have to make to fit together.
Expand NATO? No, say the Wise Ones: while it will please people in Warsaw or Prague (at least until they get the bill), it will make Moscow nervous and that violates the principle of indivisible security. If making Warsaw happy makes Moscow unhappy, then, at the end of the day, they will both be unhappy and, if they’re both are unhappy, then we will all be unhappy too. Indivisibility of security is the kernel of wisdom that the Wise Ones hold to. If nobody is unhappy then everybody is happy: it’s the geopolitical version of “happy wife, happy life”.
So, the question is this: how do we make a settlement to the Cold War in which NATO, the former Warsaw Treaty, former-USSR and Moscow all feel secure at the same time? Fortunately, at this unrepeatable moment in world history, the NATO leadership is replete with wise, knowledgeable and thoughtful people, well-informed about past errors, determined to do better, with the vision, modesty and ingenuity to square the circle. (I warned you it was counterfactual). They figure it out:
They tell Warsaw, Prague, Kiev and the rest of them to form an alliance (Central European Treaty Organisation – CETO – or some such name) grounded on NATO’s Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all).
They get a formal, signed, ceremonial declaration from NATO that, should Russia attack any member of the Central European Treaty Organisation, NATO will come to its defence.
They get a formal, signed, ceremonial declaration from Moscow that should NATO attack any member of the CETO, Moscow will come to its defence.
So, between NATO and Russia, there would have been a belt of neither-one-nor-the-other-but-guaranteed-by-both countries. CETO would have lots of weapons and a high degree of interoperability and command structure left over from the Soviet days; therefore they would be able to mount quite effective defences with what they already had. Their weapons, being Soviet and very rugged, would work for years to come so they wouldn’t have to spend much on their defence.
(Note that, we have, as a sort of scale model of something like this, the relationship between Malta and Italy. From 1981 Malta is officially neutral and its neutrality is guaranteed by Italy, a NATO member. The USSR recognised this neutrality soon after.)
If a CETO had been formed, guaranteed by NATO and Russia, wouldn’t everybody be 1) happier and 2) more secure?
But that didn’t happen. We all know what did: the men and women of NATO were not so wise, they missed their world-historical moment and they went for the triumphantasising quick sugar hit.
So I wish you all a happy New Year in which you may reflect upon what might have been but wasn’t.