O'Reilly: Europe's grand illusion

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. (Credit: AP / Yuri Kadobnov)

"The meek may inherit the earth. But how long can they hold it?"-- Anonymous

In 1909 a young British intellectual named Norman Angell published a pamphlet called "Europe's Optical Illusion." It was shortly thereafter republished as "The Great Illusion," which became the basis for the anti-war French film, "La Grande Illusion."

Angell postulated that large-scale war in Europe was no longer tenable. The economic integration that had occurred between the European states in the years since the last major conflagration, The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), made conflicts between the nations too disruptive and too costly to be worthwhile for anyone. Besides, civilized nations didn't go in for that sort of thing anymore.


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Angell's theory was axiomatic among much of Europe's chattering class at the time -- right up until Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914. Sixteen million dead later, by some estimates, Europeans again resolved that war had become a thing of the past. After all, "the war to end all wars" had been fought. Twenty years later, Adolf Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland claiming to be protecting ethnic Germans. Fifty million perished in the next seven years.

Wikipedia -- God bless Wikipedia -- lists 557 European wars, of various sizes and intensities, in recorded history. Not a century is exempt. Yet I wonder how many times between each of those 557 conflicts the prevailing notion was that war had become passé.

It is tempting to think the same today. It's the vanity of the present where we actually believe we have reached that elevated place, in Western history at least, where borders will always remain where they are and where we have outgrown our baser instincts to cross them. President Barack Obama falls into this thinking. One of his favorite clauses is "in the 21st Century," as in: "It is absolutely unacceptable to have Russian boots on the Ukrainian ground in the 21st century . . ."

He made that statement this week, and it was a good one. But it's only true if Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions are, indeed, unacceptable -- that is, if they are met with consequences severe enough to force him to draw back. But just as with the five-day, Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the table is now set for Russia to gobble up Crimea, and perhaps Ukraine itself, without any real price to pay from the European Union.

Meanwhile, Putin is a nationalist hero at home, and it is once again falling on the United States to play the heavy with the Kremlin.

You can bet European neo-illusionists are busy theorizing again that greater conflict with Russia cannot happen. It makes no economic sense to the Russians or the Europeans -- right? And besides, we are beyond that in this day and age.

Let's pray it's true this time.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.