Think Tragically to Avoid Tragedy

Americans need to recall what happens when global order collapses

German troops marching into Prague during invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1939 / Getty

In 2016, I interviewed Robert D. Kaplan, the bestselling author and expert on foreign affairs, about his then-forthcoming book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World. Kaplan explained that America's first experience with empire was not with the Philippines in 1898, when Spain ceded control of the archipelago to the United States. Instead, he argued, it was settling the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains West in the mid-19th century. "For the first time in history, an Anglo-Saxon culture met up with desert, and that changed the American character," Kaplan said. "It taught the pioneers limits, how to be brutal, how to think tragically in order to avoid tragedy."

I thought about Kaplan's phrase this past weekend, during which the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II came and went with little notice. At a time when each day and month seems to honor, remember, or celebrate something—today is Global Talent Acquisition Day—it is striking how few Americans acknowledged, or were even aware of, a noteworthy anniversary concerning the deadliest conflict in human history. World War II matters not just because of its unprecedented scale—in terms of both geography and brutality—but also because of its consequence. Appreciate the unparalleled security and prosperity that much of the world, especially Asia and the West, enjoys today. None of it would be possible without the sacrifices of the millions of people who served the Allies during World War II. The Allied victory was never inevitable, and Western civilization would have died if the Axis powers won. That 19-year-old worker at a refrigerator factory in Kentucky who died storming the beaches of Normandy, and that 25-year-old highway laborer from Pennsylvania who was killed in Iwo Jima, did more for the American people today than anyone currently serving in government could ever hope to do.

It is especially important to remember World War II at a time when most Westerners—especially Americans—have forgotten what real tragedy is. They have forgotten what the world looks like when the global order collapses. Most Americans, certainly younger ones, would probably say 9/11 is the most tragic event of their lives. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were unquestionably horrific, leading to the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people; the destruction of massive, iconic structures; and nearly two decades of war in the broader Middle East. But consider the devastation wreaked by the Second World War: 50-80 million people dead, including 27 million Soviets and perhaps 20 million Chinese; the Holocaust; entire continents buried under rubble; economies ruined. That is tragedy of the most egregious kind, when the international order implodes and the world becomes a lawless battlefield, allowing the monsters of history to pursue their darkest ambitions.

The question is whether there are opposing forces capable of and willing to stop them. When there are no such forces, as was the case leading up to World War II, these monsters bring hell to earth, murdering, stealing, and crushing freedom as they wish. When leaders and their citizens do take a stand, however, peace and prosperity have a chance. But these cruel, expansionist tyrants are always lurking, ready to pounce.

After fighting World War II, the United States and other countries knew they had to prevent another global conflict. So they created a global order defined by an open economic system, international institutions, and liberal values. This order is based on certain norms—promoting democracy, prioritizing human rights, establishing an unprecedented taboo against invading other countries, and preferring mutually beneficial globalization over zero-sum rivalry—that have changed international conduct and behavior for the better. These norms replaced the principle of "might makes right," the idea that larger, more powerful countries can simply coerce weaker states into accepting new geopolitical realities that they imposed. Yet, somewhat ironically, this system relies on the United States, whose military power serves as its foundation, ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters and guaranteeing the security of dozens of allies around the world. Hard power never went away—the most powerful country just uses it toward different ends.

Today this order, which has created unprecedented global peace and prosperity, is under attack. Russia, China, and Iran—all hostile, authoritarian states—never accepted this system and have long sought to dominate their own regions, if not beyond. Now that they are stronger and America's relative economic and military dominance has declined, these revisionist powers—today's would-be monsters of history—are on the offensive. The world has entered what the late Thérèse Delpech, former director of strategic affairs at the French Atomic Energy Commission, described as an era of "strategic piracy," a period defined by global lawlessness in which there is a "growing disrespect for international law and accepted rules of behavior."

The last time the global order collapsed was in 1939. Since then, the order has never been under more strain than it is today. That does not mean another world war is about to erupt, but it does mean Americans should recognize the danger of the situation and the necessity of their country's global leadership. If many of them do not appreciate the importance of World War II, however, then it will be difficult for them to appreciate the threat posed by "strategic pirates" and the tragedy that such threats can bring.

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual speech to the Valdai International Discussion Club, whose theme for that year's meeting was "The World Order: New Rules or a Game Without Rules." Putin made very clear that adhering to the American-led order is not an option. The world either needs to respect Russian interests, giving Putin what he wants, or risk a world without rules that would likely lead to conflict. "Either way, we can do whatever we like, disregarding all rules and regulations." Putin is hardly alone. His counterparts in China, Iran, even North Korea similarly argue that new rules are needed. The pirates are trying to seize the ship.

Defending the American-led order is not some idealistic notion about spreading democracy around the world. Nor is it about promoting American power simply for the sake of promoting American power. The point is to avert catastrophe, to prevent the worst tragedies that, especially with today's technology, risk destroying humanity. That means preventing the collapse of the international order. To do so, Americans would be wise to recall the last time the order imploded, and what unfolded as a result. They need to think tragically to avoid tragedy.