The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Liberalism and the Inevitability of War

For as long as human societies have existed upon this planet they have fought wars against one another.

This is a statement that I believe most people would agree with. The same consensus, however, does not exist with regards to the following statement:

Wars will continue to be fought for as long as human societies continue to exist upon this planet.

This second statement is as true as the first. While specific wars have specific causes, the cause of war in general is to be found in human nature. The only way to eliminate war, therefore, is to eliminate human beings. As long as men live upon this planet they will from time to time go to war against one another.

Consider what the history of the 20th Century has to teach us. Conflicts in the Balkan region in the first decade of that century, broke out into a world-wide conflict between the great powers in the second decade. This conflict was dubbed “the war to end all wars” by those who continued to hold to the progressive optimism of the 19th Century. A little over two decades after it ended, however, it broke out again, this time to be conducted on an even larger, costlier, and more destructive scale. This time, it was brought to end by a technological innovation, the development of which would have, if anything ever could, permanently checked man’s propensity for war. That innovation was the first nuclear weapon, the atomic bomb. The development of nuclear weaponry raised the potential cost of war to what should have been a prohibitive level by making the extinction of the species a real possibility as an outcome of war. This did not, however, prevent the outbreak of future wars. Major, multi-national conflicts were fought in Korea in the 1950’s and Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s and if the large nuclear arsenals of the United States of America and the Soviet Union prevented the superpowers from directly confronting each other in war, it did not prevent them from using smaller allies, all over the globe, like pawns on a giant chessboard. The second half of the century saw conflict after conflict in the Middle East between the Arab nations and Israel and there is no end to those hostilities in sight. In the final decade of the 20th Century, the nations of the Balkans resumed the fighting that had led to the first World War earlier in the century.

That war will be around for as long as human beings inhabit the earth is not universally recognized, however, and liberals in particular are inclined to reject this truth. In fact, liberalism’s primary error concerning war, is the idea that it can be eliminated and a permanently peaceful world order established. This is not the same thing as pacifism. Far too many conservatives make the mistake of associating liberalism with pacifism. Pacifism is the refusal to participate in war on the grounds of a belief that war is always morally wrong. Pacifists are susceptible to the charges of cowardice and free-riding (1) and for this reason accusing one’s opponents of pacifism makes for effective rhetoric. Liberals, however, are not pacifists. Indeed, history would seem to demonstrate that they are more likely than conservatives to involve their country in a war.

Consider the major wars the United States of America was involved in during the 20th Century. It was liberal Democrat Presidents who led the United States into the four largest of these wars. It was a liberal Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into World War I declaring that they needed to “make the world safe for democracy”. It was another liberal Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who brought the United States into the second World War. (2) Liberal Democrat Harry Truman was the president who got the United States into the Korean War and Liberal Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson got the United States into the Vietnam War. In contrast, conservative Republican President ordered the bombing of Libya, the invasion of Grenada, countless covert-ops and the support of anti-communist contras in Latin America, but he did not get his country involved in anything on the scale of World Wars I and II, Korea or Vietnam and, in fact, negotiated an end to the arms race and the 40 year Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Similarly, here in Canada, after the Statute of Westminster declared that our own Parliament would decide from then on whether or not we were at war, it was Liberal Prime Ministers who led our country into World War II (William Lyon Mackenzie King), Korea (Louis St. Laurent), and Afghanistan (Jean Chretien).

Clearly liberals are not pacifists. Liberals and conservatives have different ideas about war but those differences are not the same differences which distinguish doves from hawks. Liberalism’s error is to believe that mankind can build a world that is free of war.

This idea lies behind several significant liberal projects of the last couple of centuries. Liberals began calling for free trade – the elimination of tariffs, quotas, and other protectionist measures so as to merge the economies of all countries into one big market – as far back as the eighteenth century, arguing that the economic interdependence that free trade would bring, would merge the nations of the world into one, bringing about universal brotherhood and peace. Richard Cobden, the 19th Century British “Apostle of Free Trade”, proclaimed that free trade:

[A]rms its votaries by its own pacific nature, in that eternal truth—the more any nation trafficks abroad upon free and honest principles, the less it will be in danger of wars.(3)

In a speech given on January 15, 1846 he declared:

I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.(4)

Similar utopian sentiments can be found in the speeches and writings of many other 18th and 19th century free traders.

When Woodrow Wilson asked the American Congress to declare the United States’ entry into World War I, he told Congress that “The world must be made safe for democracy”. This goal was connected in his mind with that of world peace. He immediately went on to say “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty”. (5)

Wilson’s idea of world peace is very similar to that of free traders such as Richard Cobden. The difference is that Wilson saw elected government as being the means to world peace rather than international commerce.

The idea that democratic governments are more likely to be peaceful government is not borne out by history. The roots of democracy go back to ancient Athens and Athenian democracy is widely regarded as having reached its peak during the years of Pericles, which are often spoken of as Athens’ Golden Age. This was not, however, an era in which Athens lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors, but the era of the Peloponnesian War fought by Athens and her allies against Sparta and her allies. This war, the history of which we know from an account written by Athenian general Thucydides, was not a conflict in which a democratic state, desiring peace, was forced to defend herself against the aggression of her non-democratic neighbors. Athens was as belligerent and ambitious as Sparta. From that day to this, democracies have been no less likely to go to war than any other kind of country. Nor is it true that democracies do not go to war with each other. Historians often refer to the War of Southern Independence (6) as the “first modern war.” Both sides in that conflict, however, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, were democratic republics. Furthermore, this was a particularly bloody war in which more Americans died than in any other war they have ever participated, including both World Wars and Vietnam combined.

At the end of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Karl von Hapsburg I of Austria were both forced off of their thrones and Germany and Austria became democratic republics. By Wilson’s logic, this should have made these countries less likely to want to resume the conflict at a later date. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. In the 1930’s Germany and Austria came under the control of Adolf Hitler who launched a second war that was far worse from the first. Now the point might be made that under Hitler, Germany and Austria ceased to be democratic. However true that might be it is very much the case that had the German Kaiser and the Austrian Emperor kept their thrones, Hitler would never have had the opportunity to rise to power. Hitler was a demagogue and democracy is the ladder a demagogue climbs to achieve power.

The spread of democracy was not the only part of Wilson’s plan for world peace. The last of his famous Fourteen Points was that:

A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike. (7)

This association took the form of the League of Nations. Although it was proposed by the American President, the United States never joined it. The countries that did join need not have bothered because it failed completely in its appointed task.

The failure of the League of Nations did not prevent a second liberal American President from repeating the experiment at the end of the second World War. FDR’s United Nations was conceived of as a forum in which the nations of the world could voice their grievances with each other and resolve those grievances without resorting to war. If the League of Nations was useless, the United Nations was worse than useless. The General Assembly simply became a platform upon which the representatives of every Soviet vassal state, Third World dictatorship, and Islamic theocracy in the world, were invited to stand and espouse their poisonous drivel to the world. The Security Council is powerless to oppose wrongdoing on the part of any of its permanent members, each of which has a veto. Since the Soviet Union was one of those permanent members the Security Council was powerless against Communist aggression in the Cold War, just as it is powerless to stop the sole remaining superpower, the United States of America, from doing whatever she wants. The only thing the United Nations has proven effective at doing has been wasting the money it receives from its member states as it tries, thankfully less effectively, to tell them how to manage their own affairs, usually in the name of some inane left-wing agenda. It has not made the world a more peaceful place.

These examples, I believe, are sufficient to establish the truth of my contention that there is a strong tendency in liberalism to believe that it is possible to construct a peaceful world order in which war is eliminated and that this belief lies behind several of liberalism’s most important projects. They also demonstrate that whatever the scheme the liberal comes up with his goal of world peace continues to elude him. (8) Today the economies of the world have been integrated into a global market, democracy is widespread, and the United Nations has been established for almost seven decades, yet perpetual universal peace is nowhere in sight.

(1) A free rider is someone who benefits from participation in a group without paying his fair share of the dues. A pacifist is susceptible to the charge of free-riding because he enjoys the benefits of living in his country, including the security provided by his country’s military, although he is not willing to serve his country militarily if called upon to do so.

(2) Granted, the Japanese empire attacked the United States first. However, FDR was in favour of the United States entering the second World War long before Pearl Harbor. He and his advisors in the year leading up to Pearl Harbor talked about war with Japan as a “backdoor” into the war with Germany. At the time, public opinion in the United States was strongly against American involvement in the war with Germany. See Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001) and Robert Stinnett Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (New York: The Free Press, 1999).

(3) Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, (London: William Ridgway, 1878) p. 126.



(6) This is usually called the “American Civil War”. Ordinarily, the phrase “civil war” refers to an internal struggle for control of a state. In the English Civil War, the Roundheads fought to turn England into a Puritan republic against the Cavaliers who fought to keep it an Anglican monarchy. In the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans and the Nationalists fought each other for the control of Spain. In American history, however, the North and South did not struggle for control of the United States, but over whether the secession of the Southern states and their independence from Washington D. C. would be allowed.


(8) If permanent world peace is an unattainable goal and it is inevitable that men will from time to time go to war with each other it does not follow from this that any particular conflict is inevitable and that attempts to prevent particular wars are always foolish and doomed to fail.


  1. I agree entirely with your compilation of major historical events, influenced by 'liberal' ideology.

    Liberal is a sibling of Liberty - an existing condition, or one to be achieved.

    The seeds of WW1 & WW2 sprang from weeds which took hold in the lead up to the French Revolution (1787-99).

    The French Revolution was a genocidal conflict which made Regicide a viable option for emerging political idealogues.
    What's sacred if not one's own Regent ?

    The Bolshevik Revolution, which aped the French, set the stage for the same sort of human conflict which flowed from the earlier Regicide.

    When Tzarist Russia was removed from the conflict with Kaiser's Germany, the entry of America compensated for that loss by substituting war material for the lost Russian manpower.

    Between 1917 and 1937, Soviet Russia grew and industrial capacity to wage war on an unprecedented scale, and during WW2 was able to harness the common mindset to that task.

    The Soviet Socialist invasion of Poland and Finland, overlooked by most accounts of WW2, was the first blooding of armies inculcated with complete obedience to the Soviet Socialist state.

    Germany's simultaneous experiment with socialist statehood from 1933-45 looms far larger in historical reconstructions, starving the air of criticism for the equally repugnant Soviet Socialism.

    War can be seen to be the ultimate exercise of socialism.

    Liberal identification with the benefits of socialism ignores the far more likely outcomes.

    The modern-day liberal is an anomaly, following policies touted as 'progressive' which are in fact reactionary.

  2. Excellent comments, Maikeru. I am sorry for taking so long to respond. Your second sentence, about the relationship between Liberalism and Liberty, reminded me again of the difference between the conservative and liberal approaches to liberty. Both conservatives and liberals believe in liberty. Liberals see liberty as a cause to organize a movement behind, conservatives see liberty as social capital, part of the heritage we received from our ancestors and which we have a duty to pass on to our descendents. Conservatives see liberty as one part of the much larger package which is our heritage. Liberals see liberty as the most important thing in the world, to which everything must be sacrificed. Ironically, that often includes liberty itself. Liberty is much safer in the hands of conservatives who may not rank it as high but who are committed to preserving it among other social goods, than in the hands of liberals who treat it as a cause in the service of which, all the forces of the state can be unleashed.