Churchill, the Devil, and Hitler: An analogy for our own time

‘If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference of the Devil.’ — Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons.

‘Churchill allied with Stalin,’ notes the Churchill Project in a timely piece. I myself have been confronted with controversy in my call for renewing a strategic alliance with Russia in our own times, to confront our own threat that is equivalent to the turbulent and ultimately violent rise of Germany from 1871 to 1945. This threat is the rise of China, which already has its own concentration camp in which one million people of a certain religion/ethnicity, this time the Muslim ethnicity of the religion of Islam, are forcibly interned against their will. China is the closest any country has come to a totalitarian dictatorship, with CCTV at every corner within its borders and spyware that now has a global reach. And on a geopolitical level, China is expansionary on a level that is unprecedented. It is militarising, for the first time in human history, islets in the South China Sea with naval and anti-aircraft technology, preparing for its long-sought position of hegemony over southeast Asia. It was once favourably compared by Chicago Professor John J. Mearsheimer, in an empathic move, with America’s achievement of hegemony over the western Hemisphere by the end of the nineteenth century. But the comparison now is much more evidently Germany, at least in its Wilhelmine phase, and potentially in its totalitarian epoch, too. Both phases are militant, expansionary, and deleterious to international peace and stability. The failure to contain Germany led to war. The failure to contain China, my reading of history suggests, would lead to the same.

Winston Churchill, 1912, on the eve of the First World War, in which his decision-making was less than prudent, alienating a potential ally (the Ottoman Empire) and thereby needlessly prolonging the war against Imperial Germany.

To contain Nazi Germany, Churchill was willing to ally with Stalinist Russia, which stopped Hitler from reaching Moscow and turned the tides of the war, akin to Churchillian Britain’s resistance of the Nazis during the Blitz over London. Together, Moscow and London stood alone against Berlin while Washington pondered a belated entrance into the war after Tokyo sent Japan’s airforce to attack Pearl Harbor. Capitalism survived, and fascism was defeated, thanks to a temporary alliance with the lesser evil of communism. After the Second World War, containment of the Soviet Union rightly became the priority, as did the containment of the Japanese economy even after the country had demilitarised. Germany’s economy has, alas, been allowed to grow to near-hegemonic proportions in regional terms, threatening the stability of the European plain during the Eurocrisis. China’s economy has ballooned, but so has its military. China’s acceptance into the WTO in 2001 is akin to Germany’s unification in 1871, as both moves laid the foundations for the rising countries’ militarisation and bids for hegemony over their respective continental regions of planet Earth.

Why is this a bad thing? Because order requires, as civil scientist Thomas Hobbes first suggested in the seminal treatise Leviathan, a hegemon to sanction bad behaviour, provide public goods, fight the winds of economic catastrophe, and contain potential hegemonic challengers (an argument recently reinforced by political economist Charles Kindleberger and geopolitical luminary John Mearsheimer). The peace that trade requires itself requires leadership. If the leadership is contested, there can be no peace. That is why the rise of China is so devastating — not merely for the threat that it is, but, more importantly, the threat that it is becoming. This is not merely a concern about present stability. It is a concern about future stability. It is a concern about potentiality, not mere actuality. It is a concern about the very ingredient of peace itself: power.

Power is like water. It flows, and can become an uncontrollable torrent if it is not contained and channelled in the right direction. The rise of China is a symptom of America’s mismanagement of its hegemonic power. Now America, as the presiding hegemon after the eclipse of British industry in the late nineteenth century by the rising powers of America and Germany, must confront the beast it unwittingly created in a moment of deep complacency about its position (analogous to Britain’s conflicts with Germany, arising from British complacency about Germany’s power). For America is not destined to be hegemon. It became hegemon, or leader, of the international system out of a peculiar combination of circumstances. It will lose hegemony much faster than it gained it if it is not careful. And to those who dream of a world without hegemony, remember which country laid the foundations for such dreams with the consecutive defeat of Germany, Russia, and Japan as contenders for hegemony in the twentieth century: the United States of America.

Russia is the first country to whom the formal doctrine of containment was applied, after George Kennan noted Russia’s ‘pathological insecurity’ following the Second World War, in which twenty million Russians died at Hitler’s overextended hands. Russia was contained, and rightly so — it was prevented from integrating into world trade and its military excursions were confronted by the might of the American military. Russia did not always lose, and America did not always win — but the result of this tussle for world dominance was the political disintegration and economic collapse of the Soviet Union, from whose ashes emerged the Russian Federation of today.

But the ghost of the old Russia persisted, and the economic chaos of the 1990s led to the emergence of new political figures who sought to recalibrate democracy to the needs of the new class of oligarchs, profiting over trade in oil and other, sometimes less reputable, resources. The resulting state was economically enfeebled and sought expansion as a means of containing the expansion of NATO, the anti-Soviet Union alliance which paradoxically endured after its decline. Russia temporarily invaded Georgia in 2008, but backed down before it could advance on the capital. Russia invaded Crimea more permanently in 2014, precipitating a crisis of identity in Ukraine, divided between European and Russian identities. Together, Europe and Russia produced the crisis of today, where western Ukrainians armed with western European arms fight eastern Ukrainian and Russian forces over key strategic cities, laid waste by both sides’ artillery and Russia’s airforce. Russia finds itself in the position the West did in Syria: enmeshed in a quagmire conflict from which it cannot easily, without grave consequences for its leadership’s domestic approval, withdraw. Compare the conflict to Vietnam, where the West bombed village after village, in the name of anticommunism. Russia justifies its current conflict in the language of de-Nazification, which must sound plausible to many Russians for whom the lack of buffer states led to the country’s decimation by Nazi forces in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Ukrainians have a deep history of suffering at the hands of the Russian state, as evidenced by the devastating and terrible famine over which Stalin presided in the 1930s industrialisation push. The current conflict is deeply tragic, entirely avoidable, and a stain on the conscience of the world, and the great powers which have allowed this war to erupt under their noses.

The war must end. It must end now. The suffering must end, and there must be justice in peace. But there can be no retribution or revenge. As Gandhi maintained, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Look to the east — look to China, where the real threat to world peace is brewing, as with the fires of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord Of the Rings. Do not led Russia become Isengard, one of two towers of autocracy against western democracy. Break the unholy alliance of dictatorships by allying with one to end the ongoing territorial war in Ukraine and prevent the upcoming oceanic war with China. Say no to war, wherever it is fought. And if it comes to war, know well who you are fighting — or you might just shoot yourself in the foot.

Apply the same sanctions that are applied on Russia now to China, and escalate these sanctions until China demilitarises and forfeits all territorial claims. After the First World War it was considered a possibility to deindustrialise Germany, but neither this nor permanent demilitarisation were effected. Do not make the same mistake this time. Prevent war, by containing the dominant cause of great power wars, by far the most devastating conflicts in human history: the rise of an economic and military great power capable of launching a bid for hegemony that challenges the incumbent hegemonic power of peace. Be Churchill, not Chamberlain. Make peace with Russia, and stop the new threat to world peace, before it is unleashed upon a sleepwalking world. Act now, before it is too late.

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