Mueller’s other passion, dating back roughly to the 9/11 attacks, has been to trumpet his core belief that, since the end of World War II, despite booming evidence to the contrary, an “ardent quest for international peace” has supplanted war as the fundamental condition of global relations. Not that “perfect harmony or justice has been achieved,” he stresses. Conflicts may persist, but war as a key instrument of state policy has “substantially been abandoned” and ought no longer to be considered “inevitable or necessary.” He seems to be saying we’ve entered a new age of stability and nobility.
What, you ask? You hadn’t noticed?
Mueller, also an adjunct professor of political science at Ohio State University, wisely anticipates your skepticism. Defending himself as a cool analyst of global affairs — no “grinning cherub” or “cooing dove,” he insists — Mueller provides heavily footnoted proof in his latest book, eye-catchingly called “The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency.” It is a powerfully argued, clearly written but ultimately unpersuasive update of his conviction that since war has now become a thing of the past, a policy of “complacency,” even “appeasement,” would be a far more sensible substitute. Either would save lives, fortune and face. Besides, he contends, endless wars, nuclear stockpiles and fat Pentagon budgets have so far produced only misery, failure and national humiliation. (Earlier Mueller books, such as “Atomic Obsession” and “Chasing Ghosts,” made essentially the same points.)
In one chapter after another, whether the challenge be Korea or Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, Bosnia or Gaza, Mueller bolsters his argument by using his own definitions of reality and by assuming, somewhat arrogantly, that he knows the mind and strategy of every democrat or dictator, past and present, perhaps better than the democrat or dictator himself.
● Mueller is certain, for example, that Stalin never had ambitions to communize Western Europe! Really?
● A diplomacy more open to compromise and concession, rather than an overpowering show of military force, would have persuaded Saddam Hussein to abandon Kuwait! Really?
● Hitler was the only person responsible for igniting World War II; the only person. If there had been no Hitler, there would have been no war!
Mueller’s only good example for his theory about the ascendancy of peace over war is post-WWII Europe. People there (and elsewhere) have come to believe, he writes, that war, like dueling in the old days, has passed into a dim corner of history. Quoting scores of scholars who support his view, Mueller maintains that “war has come to seem not only futile, destructive, and barbaric, but profoundly stupid.” (“Stupid” is a word he often uses, as if its repetition validates its accuracy.)
Since the end of WWII, an amazing tranquility has indeed settled over the once bloody battlefields of France and Germany, but the reason has less to do with a rising chorus of antiwar sentiment there than with a sudden, dramatic change in American foreign policy in the late 1940s, caused by a deep concern in Washington about the spread of communism around the world. Overnight, the United States swung from disarmament to rearmament. In Washington’s view, communism was suddenly threatening Greece and Turkey and, as menacing, it was cutting access into West Berlin. Russia exploded a nuclear bomb two years ahead of CIA projections, and China went communist.
What followed was a dazzling succession of anti-communist actions — the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO, among them — giving Western Europe the time to build the political, military and economic foundations for this recent period of relative calm, which unfortunately now seems to be undercut by the emergence of a new right-wing populism. (Mueller might want to read Scott Anderson’s “The Quiet Americans” for another perspective on the fears, mistakes and confusion of the early days of the Cold War.)
Even if one agreed with Mueller’s take on the dawning of peace (and in a hazy, lazy way many people probably do; after all, who wants war?), there are still many questions he has left unanswered. Since the book was likely written during the Trump era, why does Mueller spend so little time analyzing the former president’s “America First” approach to global responsibilities? Is he an adherent, an opponent?
During WWII, would Mueller have fought Hitler’s Wehrmacht, or appeased the Führer, compromising America’s interests and allies to avoid war? And, on reflection, how could a succession of American presidents, from Truman to Bush, have been so pathetically wrong about the proper direction of American policy?
Having now read “The Stupidity of War” twice, I’m certain Mueller would have an answer to these questions and many more. His scholarly mind is chock-full of quotes, anecdotes, history, even facts. He has focused in this book on his problematic belief that peace has replaced war as a signature feature of global relations. I hope that in his next book he’ll devote his considerable talents to explaining why this has not yet happened.
The Stupidity of War
American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency
Cambridge. 332 pp. $27.95