Geography Matters

Hellmut joins us, a German political scientist at the University of Maryland.

Walter Russell Meade attributes the aphorism “A special providence protects fools, drunkards, little children, and the United States of America,” to Otto Prince Bismarck. Likewise Nate Oman, who will no doubt be pleased to be cited in the same breath as Prince Bismarck, advances an argument of American exceptionalism. According to Oman, Americans are less squeamish about war than Europeans because the United States has been able to meet its needs by going to war.

That’s a thought provoking argument. However, it can probably not withstand empirical scrutiny. For one thing, the United States has not universally benefited from war during the twentieth century. True, World War II created a power vacuum that the United States filled energetically in Europe and less competently in Asia. But she was party to the messy settlement of World War I. Korea was a draw, Vietnam a loss. The Bay of Pigs was a debacle. Grenada and Panama were glorious but small interventions. The second Gulf War was a triumph. Somalia did not advance American interests.

Though this list is not complete, clearly, the United States’ record of pursuing her interests violently is a mixed bag. Lots can be said about the whys and hows, which I will leave for future posts. It is clear, however, that the United States does not have a consistent track record of obtaining her interests by war.

That begs the question, what does explain different attitudes about war in the United States and western Europe?

It’s about geography. Compared to European powers, the United States suffered modest casualties in her wars, which should not distract us from individual heroism and suffering of particular Americans. From a European perspective it is remarkable, but not surprising, that the United States has suffered so few civilian casualties in both World Wars. In spite of Sputnik, to date, enemy forces have unable to devastate the American mainland. While the oceans can no longer avert the specter of war at home, the American and European experiences of war remains qualitatively different.

In the absence of the draft, casualties in Iraq do not affect most Americans. If their mothers and grandmothers would be talking about nights in the bomb shelter, rape, murder, and hunger then war might be much more relevant in many people’s life. Because the United States is in the fortunate position of developing a liberal tradition in a location without strong neighbors, during our life time Americans have been spared the experience of war at home. That’s the difference that shapes attitudes across the Atlantic.

But that’s history. With respect to the Iraq War, the gap between American and western European attitudes has already narrowed. With thousands of casualties and no end in sight, many Americans appreciate the realties of war well enough and have come to share the views of their European cousins.

In that sense, it’s Vietnam or Korea all over again: lessons learned, lessons forgotten. Once the suffering is about mothers and grandmothers, nations tend to remember the nature of war a lot longer.

The challenge for my hypothesis is, of course, the central and eastern European experience. Their civilians suffered even more than British, French, and German women and children during World War II and the Cold War. Yet their leaders and populations supported the invasion of Iraq. There is an answer but I will leave it for another post.