I have enjoyed Ken Follet’s writing in his series the Fall of the Giants about 5 families journies from the start of World War I through the Cold War. I just happened to start this book a few weeks before the tensions in Ukraine really picked up, but I think it might be one of the most important books for the American public to read during this time.
He said that the reason that he wrote this book, Never, was due to his studying World War I and how countries somewhat fell into the war. This was of course through a series of mishaps, provocations, and alliance systems gone awry. This book looks at how this could happen again but with even more deadly consequences as the Great Powers now have nuclear weapons. In the text, it is not the U.S. and Russia that head to war but the U.S. and China, and the ally that is the source of the conflict is not Ukraine but North and South Korea.
It is interesting in the book that neither the U.S. president nor the Chinese leader are irrational actors. They do not have Kim Jun-un or even Donald Trump esque qualities. They are fairly level-headed, but they do have hardliners in their ranks that pressure them to take more aggressive action. It shows how even with fairly rational leaders can fall into war (much less with gambling on unstable leaders like the U.S. seems to have flirted with).
The idea since World War II is that mutually assured destruction would keep the Great Powers from war. In some ways, this bet has paid dividends so far. Though there have been proxy wars, there have not been any direct wars between the Great Powers since World War II. However, we should not take that history to mean it could never happen, and of course, the results would be beyond tragic.
This brings us to the U.S. and Russia. I do not think that the current situation in Ukraine will lead to direct conflict between the two nuclear powers, but we should not be naive enough to believe it could never happen if we do not take the necessary steps to ensure peace. Of course, Putin is a bully and a menace to the global order. However, the U.S. also needs to realize there are legitimate reasons Putin does not want Ukraine to join NATO and is angered that the Baltic states already have. As many have pointed out, we would be furious if Russia made a military alliance with Canada or Mexico at our border.
I get that we do not want to appear weak, and at times appearing weak can actually open up the door to greater danger. However, there is another danger in that is in the attempt to boost our pride or “not give in to a dictator” we escalate a conflict to a place of no return. What good is our national pride going to be if it leads to nuclear engagement? At that point, there are no winners.
It is an interesting read, and though the parallels between the current conflict and those in the text are not identical, they do have many similarities. Let’s make sure we don’t just slide into a conflict without a real examination of what the consequences would be.