According to an assortment of recent news stories, this Thursday, June 18, is the make-or-break date by which a compromise has to be reached between Greece and the EU if a Greek default, with the ensuing risk of a potential Greek exit from the Eurozone, is to be avoided. If that’s more than just media hype, there’s a tremendous historical irony in the fact.  June 18 is after all the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, where a previous attempt at European political and economic integration came to grief.

Now of course there are plenty of differences between the two events. In 1815 the preferred instrument of integration was raw military force; in 2015, for a variety of reasons, a variety of less overt forms of political and economic pressure have taken the place of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The events of 1815 were also much further along the curve of defeat than those of 2015.  Waterloo was the end of the road for France’s dream of pan-European empire, while the current struggles over the Greek debt are taking place at a noticeably earlier milepost along the same road. The faceless EU bureaucrats who are filling Napoleon’s role this time around won’t be on their way to Elba for some time yet.

“What discords will drive Europe into that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilization?” William Butler Yeats wrote that in 1936. It was a poignant question but also a highly relevant one, since the discords in question were moving rapidly toward explosion as he penned the last pages of  A Vision, where those words appear.  Like most of those who see history in cyclical terms, Yeats recognized that the patterns that recur from age to age  are trends and motifs rather than exact narratives.  The part played by a conqueror in one era can end up in the hands of a heroic failure in the next, for circumstances can define a historical role but not the irreducibly human strengths and foibles of the person who happens to fill it.

Thus it’s not too hard to look at the rising spiral of stresses in the European Union just now and foresee the eventual descent of the continent into a mix of domestic insurgency and authoritarian nationalism, with the oncoming tide of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East adding further pressure to an already explosive mix. Exactly how that will play out over the next century, though, is a very tough question to answer. A century from now, due to raw demography many countries in Europe will be majority-Muslim nations that look to Mecca for the roots of their faith and culture—but which ones, and how brutal or otherwise will the transition be? That’s impossible to know in advance.

There are plenty of similar examples just now; for the student of historical cycles, 2015 practically defines the phrase “target-rich environment.” Still, I want to focus on something a little different here. Partly, this is because the example I have in mind makes a good opportunity to point out the the way that what philosophers call the contingent nature of events—in less highflown language, the sheer cussedness of things—keeps history’s dice constantly rolling. Partly, though, it’s because this particular example is likely to have a substantial impact on the future of everyone reading this blog.

Last year saw a great deal of talk in the media about possible parallels between the current international situation and that of the world precisely a century ago, in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.  Mind you, since I contributed to that discussion, I’m hardly in a position to reject the parallels out of hand. Still, the more I’ve observed the current situation, the more I’ve come to think that a different date makes a considerably better match to present conditions. To be precise, instead of a replay of 1914, I think we’re about to see an equivalent of 1939—but not quite the 1939 we know.

Two entirely contingent factors, added to all the other pressures driving toward that conflict, made the Second World War what it was. The first, of course, was the personality of Adolf Hitler. It was probably a safe bet that somebody in Weimar Germany would figure out how to build a bridge between the politically active but fragmented nationalist Right and the massive but politically inert German middle classes, restore Germany to great-power status, and gear up for a second attempt to elbow aside the British Empire. That the man who happened to do these things was an eccentric anti-Semite ideologue who combined shrewd political instincts, utter military incompetence, and a frankly psychotic faith in his own supposed infallibility, though, was in no way required by the logic of history.

Had Corporal Hitler taken an extra lungful of gas on the Western Front, someone else would likely have filled the same role in the politics of the time. We don’t even have to consider what might have happened if the nation that birthed Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck had come up with a third statesman of the same caliber. If the German head of state in 1939 had been merely a capable pragmatist with adequate government and military experience, and guided Germany’s actions by a logic less topsy-turvy than Hitler’s, the trajectory of those years would have been far different.

The second contingent factor that defined the outcome of the great wars of the twentieth century is broader in focus than the quirks of a single personality, but it was just as subject to those vagaries that make hash out of attempts at precise historical prediction. As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, it was by no means certain that America would be Britain’s ally when war finally came. From the Revolution onward, Britain was in many Americans’ eyes the national enemy; as late as the 1930s, when the US Army held its summer exercises, the standard scenario involved a British invasion of US territory.

All along, there was an Anglophile party in American cultural life, and its ascendancy in the years after 1900 played a major role in bringing the United States into two world wars on Britain’s side. Still, there was a considerably more important factor in play, which was a systematic British policy of conciliating the United States. From the American Civil War on, Britain allowed the United States liberties it would never have given any other power,  When the United States expanded its influence in Latin America and the Carribbean, Britain allowed itself to be upstaged there; when the United States shook off its  isolationism and built a massive blue-water navy, the British even allowed US naval vessels to refuel at British coaling stations during the global voyage of the “Great White Fleet” in 1907-9.

This was partly a reflection of the common cultural heritage that made many British politicians think of the United States as a sort of boisterous younger brother of theirs, and partly a cold-eyed recognition, in the wake of the Civil War, that war between Britain and the United States would almost certainly lead to a US invasion of Canada that Britain was very poorly positioned to counter. Still, there was another issue of major importance. To an extent few people realized at the time, the architecture of European peace after Waterloo depended on political arrangements that kept the German-speaking lands of the European core splintered into a diffuse cloud of statelets too small to threaten any of the major powers.

The great geopolitical fact of the 1860s was the collapse of that cloud into the nation of Germany, under the leadership of the dour northeastern kingdom of Prussia. In 1866, the Prussians pounded the stuffing out of Austria and brought the rest of the German states into a federation; in 1870-1871, the Prussians and their allies did the same thing to France, which was a considerably tougher proposition—this was the same French nation, remember, which brought Europe to its knees in Napoleon’s day—and the federation became the German Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was widely considered the third great power in Europe until 1866; until 1870, France was the second; everybody knew that sooner or later the Germans were going to take on great power number one.

British policy toward the United States from 1871 onward was thus tempered by the harsh awareness that Britain could not afford to alienate a rising power who might become an ally, or at least a friendly neutral, when the inevitable war with Germany arrived. Above all, an alliance between Germany and the United States would have been Britain’s death warrant, and everyone in the Foreign Office and the Admiralty in London had to know that. The thought of German submarines operating out of US ports, German and American fleets combining to take on the Royal Navy, and American armies surging into Canada and depriving Britain of a critical source of raw materials and recruits while the British Army was pinned down elsewhere, must have given British planners many sleepless nights.

After 1918, that recognition must have been even more sharply pointed, because US loans and munitions shipments played a massive role in saving the western Allies from collapse in the face of the final German offensive in the autumn of 1917, and turned the tide in a war that, until then, had largely gone Germany’s way. During the two decades leading up to 1939, as Germany recovered and rearmed, British governments did everything they could to keep the United States on their side, with results that paid off handsomely when the Second World War finally came.

Let’s imagine, though, an alternative timeline in which the Foreign Office and the Admiralty from 1918 on are staffed by idiots. Let’s further imagine that Parliament is packed with clueless ideologues whose sole conception of foreign policy is that everyone, everywhere, ought to be bludgeoned into compliance with Britain’s edicts, no matter how moronic those happen to be. Let’s say, in particular, that one British government after another conducts its policy toward the United States on the basis of smug self-centered arrogance, and any move the US makes to assert itself on the international stage can count on an angry response from London. The United States launches an aircraft carrier? A threat to world peace, the London Times roars.  The United States exerts diplomatic pressure on Mexico, and builds military bases in Panama? British diplomats head for the Carribbean and Latin America to stir up as much opposition to America’s agenda as possible.

Let’s say, furthermore, that in this alternative timeline, Adolf Hitler did indeed take one too many deep breaths on the Western Front, and lies in a military cemetery, one more forgotten casualty of the Great War. In his absence, the German Workers Party remains a fringe group, and the alliance between the nationalist Right and the middle classes is built instead by the Deutsche Volksfreiheitspartei (DVFP), which seizes power in 1934. Ulrich von Hassenstein, the new Chancellor, is a competent insider who knows how to listen to his diplomats and General Staff, and German foreign and military policy under his leadership pursues the goal of restoring Germany to world-power status using considerably less erratic means than those used by von Hassenstein’s equivalent in our timeline.

Come 1939, finally, as rising tensions between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance over Poland’s status move toward war, Chancellor von Hassenstein welcomes US President Charles Lindbergh to Berlin, where the two heads of state sign a galaxy of treaties and trade agreements and talk earnestly to the media about the need to establish a multipolar world order to replace Britain’s global hegemony. A second world war is in the offing, but the shape of that war will be very different from the one that broke out in our version of 1939, and while the United States almost certainly will be among the victors, Britain almost certainly will not.

Does all this sound absurd? Let’s change the names around and see.

Just as the great rivalry of the first half of the twentieth century was fought out between Britain and Germany, the great rivalry of the century’s second half was between the United States and Russia. If nuclear weapons hadn’t been invented, it’s probably a safe bet that at some point the rivalry would have ended in another global war.  As it was, the threat of mutual assured destruction meant that the struggle for global power had to be fought out less directly, in a flurry of proxy wars, sponsored insurgencies, economic warfare, subversion, sabotage, and bare-knuckle diplomacy. In that war, the United States came out on top, and Soviet Russia went the way of Imperial Germany, plunging into the same sort of political and economic chaos that beset the Weimar Republic in its day.

The supreme strategic imperative of the United States in that war was finding ways to drive as deep a wedge as possible between Russia and China, in order to keep them concerted action against the US. That wasn’t all that difficult a task, since the two nations have very little in common and many conflicting interests. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was arguably the defining moment in the Cold War, the point at which China’s separation from the Soviet bloc became total and Chinese integration with the American economic order began. From that point on, for Russia, it was basically all downhill.

In the aftermath of Russia’s defeat, the same strategic imperative remained, but the conditions of the post-Cold War world made it almost absurdly easy to carry out. All that would have been needed were American policies that gave Russia and China meaningful, concrete reasons to think that their national interests and aspirations would be easier to achieve in cooperation with a US-led global order than in opposition to it. Granting Russia and China the same position of regional influence that the US accords to Germany and Japan as a matter of course probably would have been enough. A little forbearance, a little foreign aid, a little adroit diplomacy, and the United States would have been in the catbird’s seat, with Russia and China glaring suspiciously at each other across their long and problematic mutual border, and bidding against each other for US support in their various disagreements.

But that’s not what happened, of course.

What happened instead was that the US embraced a foreign policy so astonishingly stupid that I’m honestly not sure the English language has adequate resources to describe it. Since 1990, one US administration after another, with the enthusiastic bipartisan support of Congress and the capable assistance of bureaucrats across official Washington from the Pentagon and the State Department on down, has pursued policies guaranteed to force Russia and China to set aside their serious mutual differences and make common cause against us. Every time the US faced a choice between competing policies, it’s consistently chosen the option most likely to convince Russia, China, or both nations at once that they had nothing to gain from further cooperation with American agendas.

What’s more, the US has more recently managed the really quite impressive feat of bringing Iran into rapprochement with the emerging Russo-Chinese alliance. It’s hard to think of another nation on Earth that has fewer grounds for constructive engagement with Russia or China than the Islamic Republic of Iran, but several decades of cluelessly hamfisted American blundering and bullying finally did the job. My American readers can now take pride in the state-of-the-art Russian air defense systems around Tehran, the bustling highways carrying Russian and Iranian products to each other’s markets, and the Russian and Chinese intelligence officers who are doubtless settling into comfortable digs on the north shore of the Persian Gulf, where they can snoop on the daisy chain of US bases along the south shore. After all, a quarter century of US foreign policy made those things happen.

It’s one thing to engage in this kind of serene disregard for reality when you’ve got the political unity, the economic abundance, and the military superiority to back it up. The United States today, like the British Empire in 1939, no longer has those. We’ve got an impressive fleet of aircraft carriers, sure, but Britain had an equally impressive fleet of battleships in 1939, and you’ll notice how much good those did them. Like Britain in 1939, the United States today is perfectly prepared for a kind of war that nobody fights any more, while rival nations less constrained by the psychology of previous investment and less riddled with institutionalized graft are fielding novel weapons systems designed to do end runs around our strengths and focus with surgical precision on our weaknesses.

Meanwhile, inside the baroque carapace of carriers, drones, and all the other high-tech claptrap of an obsolete way of war, the United States is a society in freefall, far worse off than Britain was during its comparatively mild 1930s downturn. Its leaders have forfeited the respect of a growing majority of its citizens; its economy has morphed into a Potemkin-village capitalism in which the manipulation of unpayable IOUs in absurd and rising amounts has all but replaced the actual production of goods and services; its infrastructure is so far fallen into decay that many US counties no longer pave their roads; most Americans these days think of their country’s political institutions as the enemy and its loudly proclaimed ideals as some kind of sick joke—and in both cases, not without reason. The national unity that made victory in two world wars and the Cold War possible went by the boards a long time ago, drowned in a tub by Tea Party conservatives who thought they were getting rid of government and limousine liberals who were going through the motions of sticking it to the Man.

I could go on tracing parallels for some time—in particular, despite a common rhetorical trope of US Russophobes, Vladimir Putin is not an Adolf Hitler but a fair equivalent of the Ulrich von Hassenstein of my alternate-history narrative—but here again, my readers can do the math themselves. The point I want to make is that all the signs suggest we are entering an era of international conflict in which the United States has thrown away nearly all its potential strengths, and handed its enemies advantages they would never have had if our leaders had the brains the gods gave geese. Since nuclear weapons still foreclose the option of major wars between the great powers, the conflict in question will doubtless be fought using the same indirect methods as the Cold War; in fact, it’s already being fought by those means, as the victims of proxy wars in Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen already know. The question in my mind is simply how soon those same methods get applied on American soil.

We thus stand at the beginning of a long, brutal epoch, as unforgiving as the one that dawned in 1939. Those who pin Utopian hopes on the end of American hegemony will get to add disappointment to that already bitter mix, since hegemony remains the same no matter who happens to be perched temporarily in the saddle. (I also wonder how many of the people who think they’ll rejoice at the end of American hegemony have thought through the impact on their hopes of collective betterment, not to mention their own lifestyles, once the 5% of the world’s population who live in the US can no longer claim a quarter or so of the world’s resources and wealth.) If there’s any hope possible at such a time, to my mind, it’s the one W.H. Auden proposed as the conclusion of his bleak and brilliant poem “September 1, 1939”:

            Defenceless under the night,

            Our world in stupor lies;

            Yet, dotted everywhere,

            Ironic points of light

            Flash out wherever the just

            Exchange their messages:

            May I, composed like them

            Of Eros and of dust,

            Beleaguered by the same

            Negation and despair,

            Show an affirming flame.

Photo credit: "German cavalry" by Poland and Poles in the Second World War.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia