Gates on Warfare During the Revolution

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recent speech at Blenheim Palace in England, indirectly addressed the consequences of the “revolution” upon the use of military force by governments. The location was the birthplace of Winston Churchill, long known for opposing appeasement of Hitler. The palace was also named for a battle which Churchill's ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, won in 1704 by leading an alliance of soldiers from Britain, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, and Denmark against the French and Bavarians, undermining the ambitions of a would-be dictator of Europe at the time, Louis XIV. Could Gates have picked a more appropriate setting to address the topic of war and peace?

Gates talk, as with recent others he has made, was poignant against a backdrop of a radically changing world wherein the Untied States, stretched thin by two wars, is increasingly alienated from allies and further weakened by a financial crisis that threatens its economic strength. But these challenges are symptomatic. Weigh the mega trends of globalism, technological advances and demographic shifts around the world, a “revolution”, along with looming unfunded obligations coming due from the U.S. treasury over the next decade; and a fact becomes apparent: we are living in a time of unprecedented global change. Reading between the lines, what Gates truly should say, if indeed he did not, is that the American people and its leadership need to embrace new thinking about our place in a world that cannot be “controlled” predominantly through force. Failing to understand this shift creates a dangerous potential that could delay a faster realization of a harmonious planet for the missteps the U.S. could make by holding on to paradigms which no longer apply.

Gates addressed the issue of war and peace, and asserted the debate historically was framed by two extremes, "a too-eager embrace of the use of military force, and an extreme aversion to it." Gates used the crises of 1914 and 1938 to illustrate his point.

In 1914, nobody really wanted to enter a war in which "miscalculations, hubris, bellicosity, fear of looking weak" led to World War I. Could this possibly describe Bush's war of choice in Iraq? Neville Chamberlains' decision in 1938, on the other hand, allowed Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia because ethnic Germans predominated in one corner, the Sudetenland. That example could be cited by both sides in the Georgia and Kosovo disputes. The horror of World War I was in the minds of appeasers who believed everything must be done to avoid that again. But as Churchill said, Chamberlain had a choice between dishonor and war. "He chose dishonor, he will get war."

Gates was correct that those two opposing examples have overshadowed decision-making ever since. Perhaps the nations of Europe today are too adverse to the use of force with governments unable to commit their armies to anything beyond peacekeeping and America is too quick to resort to force. When he said: "We must try to prevent a situation where we have only two bleak choices: confrontation or capitulation, 1914 or 1938”, Gates was right. But only new thinking as exhibited by Gates will avoid that potential from happening.