The world today and the world immediately before the Second World War are strikingly similar. The military and foreign policy of the United States today is comparable to the close-minded introversion of isolationism. European countries are teetering on the brink of economic collapse. The German industrial juggernaut has reignited. The announced rearmament of Russia resembles that of the former Soviet Union, during and immediately after the First World War. Finally, we observe a tedious relationship between the West and those of the Middle East and Africa. The situation could result in the same dire consequences as it did some seventy-five years ago.
The Obama Administration’s mantra of “leading from behind” presents no real net gains for the United States or American interests abroad over the long run. As is being witnessed in Syria and was witnessed with Iran’s Green Movement, the Obama administration seeks not to avoid military action in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), but seeks to avoid dealing with the region at all. The prospects for the United States, economically and politically, are zero sum regarding MENA and the policies of the United States. Economically, the United States is dependent on the oil from the region.
Hostile governments could easily manipulate oil output of several regional petroleum producers or simply refrain from shipping more oil to refineries. This could drive the market prices up in the United States, thereby throwing the American economy into further disarray. Politically, the diplomatic withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East has sent a message to friends and enemies alike. President Obama watched as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally, was toppled by a purely domestic revolution. The Obama administration has on occasion proven to be lukewarm to Israeli requests for support in the preservation of their statehood.
However, despite U.S.-Israeli relations approaching near record lows during the first two years of the Obama presidency, the crises over the Iranian nuclear program has the potential to draw both allies into a conflict with the recalcitrant Iranians.
Southern Europe is on the economic brink. The countries of the Mediterranean coast are lining up for international welfare from the IMF and other bodies. Germany sits as the lone source of fiscal responsibility and capitalist productivity in Europe. Regarding their own interests in spurring economic accountability, Germany has already started dictating internal policy to these countries, mandating that Greece alter its constitution in order to receive the funds its broken economic system needs.
This imposition sparked outcries of concern over national sovereignty by many in Europe and will not stop with Greece. The government’s of Greece, Italy, Spain and others have little choice. The Germans have the money, influence and power. The long-term possibilities of this arrangement are many. Will extremist political factions rise in these smaller countries using an anti-German theme? Ironically, this is exactly what occurred in Germany prior to the Second World War. If the faltering governments choose to collapse, what will become of the European Union? Will it share the fate of the League of Nations? The parallels in the Europe of today and the Europe of the interwar years are amazing.
It is safe to say that perestroika is dead. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has made very clear that he is resolved to reassert Russian dominance in Eastern Europe. Russia has steadfastly opposed missile defenses for Western Europe. They have used their veto power on the United Nations Security Council to continue their Soviet style weapons proliferation to dangerous countries, usually opposed to the West and Israel. Once more, Putin staged a rally for thousands of his supporters and spoke of the “battle for Russia” and warned of United States involvement in their elections. This comes only days after Putin announced a massive Russian military build-up. These two speeches were made after months of anti-government protests and violence in the streets. An authoritarian regime has returned to Russia. The Soviet Union, for all intents and purposes, has returned.
Counterfactually, the nature of Western involvement in the developing world is far less colonialist than it was in the 1930s, but just as economically important. The petroleum reserves in several Middle East and African states are essential to the economies of Western Europe and the United States. This has placed the democracies of Europe and the United States in a difficult situation. U.S. and European states espouse democracy, but essentially need friendly governments to maintain the flow of black gold from the region. The prospect of a hostile Russia and threat of anti-western Islamic fundamentalism (a new twist to the paradigm from the early 20th century) pose diverse threats and competition to anything that the West can offer several emerging states. Several states that are already at odds with much of the West are largely supplied with weapons and much needed cash by the Russians and her allies.
Western democracies would, no doubt, embrace the idea of being able to simply walk away from MENA, but oil is as essential today as other natural resources were in the 1930s and 40s. Some of the players have changed (Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Iraq instead of Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa), but the game is largely the same. The world stage of the 21st century is falling into place, paralleled in many ways to the period between the two World Wars. The United States has retreated in many respects as the international system has become more heterogeneous.
Germany has risen as the dominant country in Europe. This has led to the disenchantment of their continental neighbors. At the same time, their 20th century nemesis, Russia, has begun rearming herself and has sought to extend her influence into several global regions. With so many new and emerging states rising due to their oil reserves and geographic placement, the overriding question is, which one will be the next international usurper?