In 1934, when the world was oblivious, he warned of the unchecked rise of Hitler. By 1940, the Nazi army was perched at the English Channel. In 1946, he concluded that an Iron Curtain was descending across Europe. By 1948, Stalin had consolidated Eastern Europe and the Cold War had begun in earnest. And in 1955, amid the most frigid days of the Cold War, he looked ahead to victory over Stalinism, to a world where future generations “march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell.” By 1989, that day arrived for Europe’s eastern half.
Winston Churchill was not a prophet, but he had an unmatched ability to see around the corner, to discern right from wrong and to inspire with the spoken word. November 30 marks the 140th anniversary of his birth, and his thoughts on strength, deterrence, and the great world powers are as insightful today as they were in his own time. With tyrants and terrorists surging, our troubled world could use a healthy dose of Churchillian courage, confidence, and candor.
The child of a British father and American mother, Churchill had a deep affinity for America. He knew America was a force for good, destined to assume the burden of global leadership. And he had faith that America would do the right thing—even when it seemed America was intent on doing nothing.
After Dunkirk, long before America entered the war, Churchill shared his desperate dream of a day when “the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” Early in that pivot-point year of 1941, he promised Britain that America’s actions would soon be dictated by “a gleaming flash of resolve” and praised Americans “for turning a large part of their industry to making the munitions which we need.”
Then, in August 1941, Churchill and FDR shared their vision for the postwar world. At 368 words, the Atlantic Charter is amazingly succinct and yet packed with profound principles—principles that still serve as pillars (increasingly shaky pillars, to be sure) of global order: no territorial gain by force, the right of people to choose their government, free trade, freedom of the seas, disarmament of aggressive nations, a durable system of security. FDR and Churchill were not so idealistic as to think they could remedy the world’s ills with a piece of paper. But owing partly to the vision they laid out, great-power disagreements haven’t triggered a global war—the kind Churchill waged twice in two decades—for nearly 75 years.
In December 1941, when America was finally drawn into the storm, Churchill—displaying equal parts humility, gratitude, and political savvy—took responsibility for any difficulties caused by the country’s entry into the war: “If the United States have been found at a disadvantage at various points in the Pacific Ocean,” he told Congress days after Pearl Harbor, “we know well that it is to no small extent because of the aid you have been giving us.” At the same time he gave the U.S. full credit for all it did to help win the war. “With her left hand,” he marveled in the months that followed, “America was leading the advance of the conquering Allied armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan.”
He gave a name to the deepening Anglo-American alliance: postwar peace and stability would be impossible without “a special relationship,” Churchill explained, without “common study of potential dangers…similarity of weapons…interchange of officers…mutual security…joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases.”
This alliance would be key to navigating the postwar world. Britain and America ran the Berlin airlift and built NATO; they defended Korea at the beginning of the Cold War, liberated Kuwait at the end, and faced down Moscow in the years between; they stabilized the Balkans, disarmed Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein, and gave Afghanistan a chance to join civilization; and today, they are fighting the long war against jihadism.
Churchill understood his enemies as well as his friends. It’s no surprise that Churchill’s understanding of Moscow is also as apt today as it was in his own time. “There is nothing they admire so much as strength,” Churchill said of the Soviets, “and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” Moreover, he shrewdly observed, “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.”
All of this holds true today of Putin and his generals. Summits, “resets,” sanctions, and diplomatic isolation have little impact on Putin. But strength does, for it is the language Putin speaks. Sequestration’s meat-cleaver defense cuts send such a dangerous message to Moscow precisely because Putin only understands strength, as we are learning in Ukraine and in Putin’s reprise of Cold War brinkmanship.
Churchill also warned against trying to keep the peace by employing “the old doctrine of a balance of power…We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.” Again, Churchill’s warning remains relevant, especially with respect to China. While U.S. defense spending is ebbing to levels not seen since the interwar years (spiraling to 2.3 percent of GDP by 2022–23), China is building a power-projecting military capable of challenging America’s once-unquestioned primacy in the Pacific. Yet Beijing seems ignorant about the responsibility that comes with such a military. The near-misses and mishaps involving China and virtually every nation that has maritime assets moving through the South and East China Sea illustrate this ignorance. Vice Admiral Scott Swift worries such incidents could be a “tactical trigger with strategic implications.”
By definition, sea power is an essential element of America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. But Washington is allowing U.S. sea power to atrophy. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships, but today’s fleet numbers just 285 ships. The “build time” of new aircraft carriers is growing from five to seven years. The Navy recently requested a waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally mandated 11). Vice Adm. Tom Copeman suggests ships in the surface fleet “don’t have enough people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts and don’t have enough time to get ready to deploy.”
Does that sound like a credible deterrent? Only Xi Jinping can answer that. If he doesn’t believe China would pay a high price for upsetting the status quo, then deterrence has failed and we have opened the door to precisely what Churchill cautioned against, “temptations to a trial of strength.”
Churchill was an ardent believer in deterrent strength because of the history he lived. “We have been reduced,” he grimly concluded in 1938, “from a position of security so overwhelming and so unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it.” Thus, after the war, Churchill called on the West to pursue “defense through deterrents” and warned well-intentioned advocates of disarmament that “sentiment must not cloud our vision.” That’s sound advice as America hacks away at its conventional and strategic deterrent.
“Our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them,” Churchill said in 1946. “They will not be removed by mere waiting to see what happens; nor will they be removed by a policy of appeasement.” He was talking about the Soviet Union, but he was remembering the Germany of 1936 and the many missed opportunities to deal with Hitler before he was armed and on the march. “There never was a war in history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe,” Churchill explained. “It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot.”
Initially, to keep the peace, the West only needed “to have insisted on the fulfillment of the disarmament clauses of the treaties which Germany signed after the Great War,” Churchill argued. But the West fumbled that opportunity. Even later, before Hitler seized the military and strategic advantage, Churchill tried to prod Britain into action. “Germany is arming fast, and no one is going to stop her,” he warned as a backbencher, lamenting how, “No one proposes preventive war to stop Germany from breaking the Treaty of Versailles.” These words apply equally as well to the looming threat posed by a nuclear Iran. The window of opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear is closing, and it seems no one is going to stop her.
Even where the West is acting in a Churchillian way, it is doing so belatedly. As Iran marches toward the nuclear goal line, America and its closest allies are building a last line of defense, albeit in fits and starts. From the Middle East to Europe to North America, missile defenses are sprouting up in preparation for the day when Tehran joins the nuclear club. Churchill envisioned the need for such defenses. “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout,” he noted. To foil the plans of rabid regimes and death-wish dictators, Churchill called for a “defensive shield.” Churchill wasn’t talking specifically about missile defense, but there can be no doubt that he would have been an ardent supporter of it. After all, he ordered the RAF to intercept incoming V-1 rockets, and he saw the devastation caused by those rockets that got through.
Finally, Churchill also offers advice relevant today to dealing with ISIS, al-Qaeda and their jihadist brethren—advice U.S. policymakers are not heeding in the war on terror. “One of the ways to bring this war to a speedy conclusion is to convince the enemy not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means, not only to go on indefinitely, but to strike heavy and unexpected blows,” he intoned in 1940.
Washington is doing the very opposite. The shortsighted withdrawals, the empty promises that the “tide of war is receding,” the massive defense cuts, the straitjacket rules of engagement provide every indication that Washington is not fully committed. For instance, between August 8 and November 13, the U.S.-led coalition conducted 863 airstrikes in Iraq or Syria—less than nine per day on average. As Defense News reports, a similar air-only campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 averaged 138 strike sorties per day. During Desert Storm in 1991, the coalition conducted 1,600 strike/attack sorties per day. At the start of Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the coalition carried out 1,700 air sorties/missile launches on a single day. And last month, the mighty Syrian air force conducted 210 airstrikes in the span of 36 hours.
“The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world,” Churchill observed. “Your friends must be supported with every vigor, and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected…. At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.” Somewhere inside CENTCOM, a U.S. general is thinking the same thing.
Putin is not Hitler, nor is Xi or Rouhani. Even those who share Hitler’s barbarity and ruthlessness—like Kim, Baghdadi, and Zawahiri—lack his reach and resources. But as former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim recently observed, “The West is full of Chamberlains.” To extend the historical parallel, the world thirsts for a Churchill, someone to rally the demoralized democracies.
President Obama has the platform and rhetorical skills to play that part, but he’s unwilling. And so, the world waits for someone to “mobilize the English language,” as historian David Cannadine wrote of Churchill. While we wait, the West limps along, in Churchill’s words, “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift.”