VE Day was just the end of the beginning
We’ll meet again – although probably only the once in that sense. The World War II generation are now very elderly and while some will survive to the eightieth anniversary in 2025, they’ll be few: the youngest in their late-nineties, most past a hundred. Thereafter, the direct link will be broken.
In terms of the global political leadership, that link was long since severed. The last British PM to have experienced the war, other than as an infant, was Margaret Thatcher, who left office nearly 30 years ago; the last US president was GHW Bush (1993), although the last presidential candidate was as late as John McCain in 2012; the last German Chancellor was Helmut Kohl (1998); the last French president, Jacques Chirac (2007). All these people are now dead.
Today’s leaders are of a very different generation. The United States is unusual, having both candidates for the next election born in the 1940s. At the other extreme, Justin Trudeau was a teenager when the Berlin Wall fell; Emmanuel Macron was only twelve. This is relevant.
The lessons of World War Two were well learned and implemented, even before the war was over. Three stand out above all.
Firstly, peace can be preserved and enhanced by growing wealth and opportunity (and ensuring it is well distributed) – or, if you prefer, peace is often threatened by economic disruption. To that end began on the one hand a decades-long trend of trade liberalisation, the creation of international bodies such as the IMF to help manage countries in difficulty, and – most audaciously – the proto-EU with the explicit intention of making war not only unthinkable but materially impossible, alongside the more prosaic (but critically important) aim of making member states richer; and on the other, the active promotion of the human rights agenda.
Secondly, alongside the incentives of peace must lie the capacity to make war. Thus, NATO and other organisations came into being, backed by both realistic firepower and the clear intent to use it. The change from the 1930s was partly physical (in contrast with the emphasis then on disarmament) but even more so psychological. Threats would be confronted. True, this tipped the risk in the other direction, of triggering a catastrophic war by accident or miscalculation, but the belief was that that was a risk that must be managed; to not take that risk would be the same false economy that appeasement had been. Wishful thinking and good intentions are not sufficient if they’re not shared by your adversary.
And thirdly, these first two rely on the west operating from a position of strength, and no country is powerful enough to undertake these tasks alone. Therefore, co-operation within multilateral systems is vital. In any case, a lack of willingness to co-operate would inevitably alienate potential allies.
Now, it’s true that these overarching lessons were not always entirely consistent either with each other or, at times, internally. In some ways though, that’s the point. What mattered was the pragmatic application and the bigger picture of a vision of freedom and prosperity that was being actively worked towards.
What’s remarkable from today’s viewpoint is just how united the ‘western’ nations were behind this consensus, across countries and across political systems. The buy-in to what were legitimate bounds of national, trade and foreign policy was extensive. The title of Leader of the Free World existed, and sat with the President of the US, because he, his country, other governments and their countries accepted both the necessity and the limits of that leadership; there genuinely was leadership because there genuinely was a shared policy.
That era though is gone and with it, the psychology that underpinned the post-war international framework, both in governments and – even more crucially – among voters; the sacrifices in terms of spending, constraint and sovereignty not seen to be worth it in order to – well, to do what? The Soviet Union is long gone and the need to club together no longer so pressing.
Without that binding force, the need to continually retell the rationale for the western post-war order fell away and with it, the crucial fact was missed that while that order was very well designed for the Cold War, it actually had its roots much deeper than that; NATO apart, it wasn’t a design for the Soviet threat as such but to prevent a recurrence of the conditions that played so big a part in the failures of the 1930s. They were, and are, good principles whatever the inclination of the man in the Kremlin. But without a deep understanding, they are either followed blindly, as an article of faith, or rejected superficially and dangerously.
The price of that lack of communal education and understanding has been a drift away from internationalism and multilateralism. When Trump proclaims “America First”, he echoes the isolationists that sought to keep the US out of WW2. Trump was likely ignorant of the phrase’s history when he first came out with it – he is astonishingly ignorant of history in general. But what’s telling is that had a politician used it in the 1980s, it would have caused far more controversy than it does now, not just because of that history but because so many more members of the public would have recognised that it represents a huge attack on the entire basis of post-1945 US foreign policy, and would have disagreed with that attack.
Nor, of course, is it just the US affected. From Brexit to the rise of populist parties of both left and right, the old assumptions of how governments should act with each other and with their people have been challenged.
One reason for this must be direct experience. As mentioned earlier, World War II has long retreated into history as far as political practitioners are concerned; the Cold War is rapidly following it. The lessons of the 1930s and 40s are being forgotten because their relevance has become unproven.
Except they’re not. Both in general and in the specific application to the current situation, those lessons still apply. The world remains a dangerous place and the price of freedom remains not just eternal vigilance but the willingness to act upon that vigilance with skill, sensitivity, strength and timeliness.
We could go into an analysis of current global threats here but let’s not. Let’s instead note a different threat: lack of moral certainty. One thing which sustained the lessons from WW2 through the Cold War was a confidence that western values of liberalism, democracy and the free market were superior – as indeed they are. An excessive emphasis on avoiding offence has led to a drift into relativism and, in effect, back to appeasement. (But then, without the means or will to act, appeasement becomes the only realistic policy anyway).
For all the recitals of ‘never again’, it’s become an empty phrase. Never Again means taking preventative action, both in setting international and domestic politics to minimise the risks of Again, and in taking early and co-ordinated action should the threats arise nonetheless. We’re doing neither.