Some moderately clever people, reflecting on the confusing morass of current events, knowingly quote George Santayana’s most famous observation: that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Since the past is largely an almanac of unfortunate (not to say horrific) events, the idea that we are “condemned to repeat it” concentrates the mind in approximately the way Dr. Johnson said the prospect of hanging in a fortnight tends to do.
But of course the past never really repeats itself. When it comes to history, Heraclitus rules: you cannot step into the same river twice, mon brave. Moreover, as that sage of Ionia said, “the true nature of things loves to conceal itself.” So the more clever people who sniff that Santayana was naive don’t say that history repeats itself but that it “rhymes.” They are proud of that alliteration and believe that they have delivered themselves of a pearl of wisdom in expressing that sentiment when in fact they have merely emitted another worn and tired cliché.
My own contribution to this dubious contest, which I offer in the context of the Biden administration’s Excellent Ukrainian Adventure, can be expressed as a hope: if history is going down — or near — the road of repetition or rhyming or return, that it do so gingerly and with a wary eye on the precedents.
In 2014, during the consulship of the divine Obama, Vladimir Putin took the measure of his adversary and decided the time was ripe for a little military adventurism. He invaded and took possession of Crimea. Did he hold his breath? I do not know. Maybe. Obama stamped, or tapped, his feet; the “international community” tut-tutted. No one did anything. So Vlad relaxed and got on with his hobbies of hobbling journalists and riding stallions.
Then came Donald Trump’s first term. All beautiful people hated him. He was so infra dig. Those ties. That diction. The fast food. The fondness for proles. The unenlightened attitudes about the gods of Gaia, Gender and ESG. Appalling. But — or perhaps I should say “and” — he started no wars. And people like Putin, the diminutive Michelin Man in North Korea, the mullahs in Iran, and even Pooh-Bear in China sized up the Bad Orange Man and decided to tone down the belligerence and bide their time. Putin, for example, made no move in Ukraine during Trump’s first administration. Coincidence?
Chaps like Bill Kristol and James Comey would doubtless say that was because Trump was “colluding” (remember that once-ubiquitous word?) with Putin. I think it had more to do with Putin’s well-developed instinct for self-preservation. Whatever the reason, soon after Joe Biden arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Putin kicked back and watched Biden’s secretary of defense catechize the US military about the badness of racist attitudes and the wonderfulness of “gender fluidity,” etc. Then he tuned in to the administration’s disastrous rout in Afghanistan, perhaps the biggest military embarrassment for the Untied States since the choppers lifted off the roof of the embassy in Saigon.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” Putin said to himself, “which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, omitted…” Like Brutus, Putin chose his moment. After all, Biden had more or less sanctioned a “minor incursion” in Ukraine. So Putin embarked on his “special military operation.” He was hoping his troops would be in Kyiv within a week. It didn’t work out that way. The Ukrainians were tougher and more resilient than expected, the United States more generous with arms and advice. And the Russian army much clumsier and poorly supplied.
So Biden scrapped the “minor incursion” rhetoric and decided that Ukraine, which had funneled so much money into the Biden coffers these past several years, was worth supporting for “as long as it takes,” as secretary of defense Lloyd Austin put it. The Narrative now was that Putin was the new, at least aspiring, Hitler-Stalin. He wanted not just Ukraine, but everything else that once belonged to the Soviet Union. Time to get the band back together and pretend we’re fighting the commies à la Kennedy or Reagan.
History rhyming? I hope not. As I write, Russia is embarking on a major new military operation. Some reports say that 700,000 troops are massed at Ukraine’s eastern border. And just in is the news that China is preparing to supply “kamikaze drones” and other matériel to Russia, upping the ante for American war planners. Some 150,000 Ukrainians are already dead. Washington seems willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. Another bulletin: the United States is quadrupling its number of troops in Taiwan in response to China’s saber, or missile, rattling about invading the island.
As always, it’s a big chessboard out there. Lots of pieces are being moved around, just as they were in the mid-to-late 1930s in Europe and in the Far East. I am not saying that what is happening now is a repetition of or a “rhyming” with what happened then. I do note, however, that Russia has 6,000 nuclear warheads; that it has just publicly deployed, for the first time in thirty years, ships armed with nukes; and that it just withdrew from the New START nuclear treaty it had with the United States.
Put that together with the truly feckless leadership of the American military, the bellicose rhetoric of the war party in the State Department and in some corners of the punditocracy, and stir in the steely military actions of the PRC in and around the South China Sea, and you have a heady and potentially fatal cocktail.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2023 World edition.