Remember, Remember November 11

Poppies in war memorial

Thursday marks the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Originally Called Armistice Day, it’s now Veteran’s Day in the United States. In Britain the end of the Great War is Remembrance Day celebrated with the wearing of red crepe paper poppies inspired by Canadian John McCrae’s solemn poem of that war “Flanders Field” where “poppies blow between the crosses row on row.”

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, all became silent on the Western Front as the armistice signaled the surrender of the Central Powers and the allied triumph in the “war to end all wars.”

But that didn’t happen. The Carthaginian peace exacted on Germany ultimately brought Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to power, laying the foundation for World War II.

Fortunately, with the failure of the Versailles peace process fully in mind, the allies didn’t repeat the catastrophic folly of World War I and two of the greatest success stories of the last century were the rebuilding and democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II.

Now, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the strategic environment may be closer to the post November 1918 world than after the end of World War II.

The institutions that were put in place to prevent a third world war — Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations and NATO, joined by the Group of Eight now the Group of 20, the European Union and other international forums — are largely unchanged and are less relevant.

Clearly, these institutions were neither structured for nor designed to deal with the profoundly different realities of national and international security today in which the main threat isn’t against the sovereignty of nations but directed against people and doesn’t require standing armies, navies and air forces and indeed sovereign territory to achieve its purposes.

Further, geo-economics are also different. Linked by instantaneous financial and trading systems along with the flow of information and data, the terms interdependence and globalization are insufficient to define international commerce or the risks and rewards arising from this interconnected universe. And new dangers from climate change and environmental catastrophe that include scarcity of water and other crucial resources are exerting primal pressures on the global system.

In a rational world, political leaders would be both fully cognizant of the gaps between institutions for reconciling these challenges, dangers and threats as well as exploiting the opportunities and new mechanisms for promoting peace, stability and prosperity.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick suggested one possibility in last Monday’s Financial Times calling for a Bretton Woods III construct to deal with international currencies. And at the heads of state summit NATO will have this month in Portugal, the opportunity to rework that alliance for the 21st century seems self-evident. But the fact is that the alliance is unlikely to reshape itself for the 21st century and the reality that the military threat that caused its creation has been gone for two decades.

Whether or not all politics is local, most leaders are consumed with domestic issues in general and economic ones in particular. On his 10-day trip to Asia, President Barack Obama had the opportunity to use the visit to India as a strategic moment regarding not only future relations with the world’s largest democracy but also in the region vis-a-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan and with China. That nearly a 150 American business chief executive officers accompanied him suggested the main objective was economic not strategic.

What went on behind closed doors isn’t in the public record. However, it is unlikely that any major inroads were made in these broader strategic matters. And upon his return to Washington, the president will be preoccupied with how to deal with the new Congress and Republican control of the House of Representatives.

In that regard, healthcare and GOP intent to delay and derail the president’s plans will dominate the White House calendar. And instead of considering a strategic plan to deal with these new realities, the December Afghan review will become a shallow surrogate.

Hence, Thursday raises the specter of future neglect because of an understandable but unacceptable fixation on individual not broader issues particularly domestic and not merely in the United States but among its key allies.

Meanwhile, China appears more focused on the longer term with fuller appreciation for needing a comprehensive strategic concept. If the White House and the strengthened Republican opposition cannot find the time to re-evaluate how the United States will respond and react, let alone anticipate, the changing strategic environment and realities, who will?

In essence, are we creating a future Flanders Field for the 21st century without realizing it? And, ironically, will poppies become the unintended image for what follows?

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo Credit: Flickr.

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