This year, Americans have been preoccupied with several crises. One is their own public debate about history and public memory, especially involving the Civil War and the legacies of slavery and racism. Meanwhile, though, another large historical debate has been going on, in Europe. It is a debate about the origins and lessons of the most terrible cataclysm in world history. Americans should care about that debate too.
On Friday, December 20, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat at a round table in St. Petersburg at a summit meeting. With him around the table were eight other heads of government from the Commonwealth of Independent States, formed from some states that had been part of the Soviet Union. For more than an hour, Putin then delivered an intense, angry lecture about the history of the Second World War.
A few months earlier, in September, the European Parliament had passed a remarkable resolution on this very subject. This document proclaimed that Germany and the Soviet Union were jointly responsible, co-authors, for World War II, the most catastrophic episode of European and global history.
That war, the European Parliament announced, “was caused by the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression of 23 August 1939, also called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols, which allowed two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest to divide Europe into two zones of influence.”
The European Parliament added that Russia was actively trying to cover up this historical responsibility for the war, instead blaming the West and Poland. It was building up this “propaganda base,” so that it can “continue its aggression against Eastern Partnership countries.”
Vladimir Putin’s father had been badly wounded in that war and carried the physical damage for the rest of his life. Putin’s family survived the horrifying siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), but his older brother did not. Putin’s brother, Vitya, was just one of tens of millions of Soviet citizens who lost their lives in the war the European Parliament had just blamed on the Soviet government.
So, Putin became a public historian. He presented a detailed historical analysis, of a kind no other leader of a major power has ever offered, citing and quoting from various documents taken from the archives, using excerpts that he had brought with him to the table. Russian media billed this statement as the most important the President had given since his famous February 2007 denunciation of Western behavior at the Munich security conference.
Putin argued that Western policies had produced Nazi Germany, had appeased the Nazis, and had then abandoned the cause of collective security with their “Munich Betrayal” of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Poland had played an active part in that betrayal, he pointed out. The Poles partnered with Nazi Germany to carve up the Czech state. The Soviet Union, he argued, then did what it could to protect itself from the consequences of this “betrayal.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan urged Putin to make all this public. He would, President Putin assured him. He would do more than that. He said he wanted to “put it all together properly and write an article.”
His 9,000-word article was published on June 19, 2020. It came out just before the national commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the victory that ended what Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” An English version of this article, on the “lessons of the Second World War,” was also published by the American journal, The National Interest.
In this article, Putin restated the main elements of his December statement and added much more. He articulated a wider view about how a peaceful world order was lost, and how he thought it should be regained.
The European Parliament’s proclamation about the cause of World War II is wrong. It offers a fundamentally inaccurate version of the most important episode in modern history.
President Putin’s rebuttal is serious, yet it, too, is deeply misleading. The net result is to deepen Europe’s divides, not overcome them.
Putin concludes with a plea for a different kind of world order than the one of the 1930s, or the one we have today. He implies a warning about what can happen if things go wrong.
Putin is right that this historical quarrel about the Second World War is important. Although we may differ about what those lessons are, Putin is also right that there are lessons for world order today. They are lessons about common security, about the hazards of going it alone, about the challenges of deterrence, and about the value of cooperation among major powers.
The European Parliament’s Revision of History
In 2004, the European Union added ten new countries, including seven that had been part of the former Soviet Union or its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Ever since, representatives from those countries have sought to enlarge the founding narrative of European integration.
The old narrative portrayed European integration as a response to the catastrophe of the Second World War and the horrors of Nazi tyranny, representing nationalism gone mad—above all, the Holocaust. The new narrative would embrace and remember the experience of Communist tyranny too. But the European Parliament’s 2019 resolution did this by trying to rewrite history to turn two wars into one, to merge World War II into the much longer and wider struggle over Communist systems of government.
There was a global war between Communism and anti-Communism between 1917 and 1990. Although this war is often called “the Cold War,” often thought of as beginning after 1945, all the peoples of central and eastern Europe know better. That war had been going on for a generation before 1945. It was frequently very hot indeed, marked by terrible civil and international wars, Red Terrors and White Terrors, revolts, and violent repression.
For example, nothing about the relations between Poland and the Soviet Union in 1939 can be understood without remembering that both those countries were at war with each other practically from the moments of their rebirth. The reborn Poland staved off conquest by the Soviet Union that had replaced the Russian Empire. Poland then extended its eastern borders to those grudgingly agreed to in a treaty, signed in Riga, in 1921. By 1939, there were no democracies left in central and eastern Europe. There was the Communist Soviet Union facing anti-Communist dictatorships.
This long global war between Communism and anti-Communism was not the same conflict as the Second World War. During the 1930s, until September 1939, the Soviet Union was at war. It was at war against its own people. As Putin himself put it, in his June 2020 article, “Stalin and his entourage, indeed, deserve many legitimate accusations. We remember the crimes committed by the regime against its own people and the horror of mass repressions.”
But the USSR was neither invading, nor planning to invade, other independent countries. It was Japan, then Italy, and then Germany that sought large new empires through a program of foreign conquest.
Until September 1939, the only country that offered military opposition to this program was the Soviet Union. For its own safety, the Soviets fought two little wars against the Japanese on their mutual border, in 1938 and 1939. In China, the main focus of Japanese conquest, it was the Soviet Union that was China’s principal source of foreign military assistance and advisors between 1937 and 1941. What Stalin, in March 1939, called the “Second Imperialist War” had begun, from his point of view, in 1937, mainly in China and the Soviet Far East, though also in Spain, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
The extension of this “Second Imperialist War” in Europe was conceived and hatched entirely by Germany. The plan that ended up leading to war, the invasion of Poland, originated exclusively in Berlin in the spring of 1939. That same spring, Germany overran the remnants of Czechoslovakia and the Germans forced Lithuania, at gunpoint, to cede the port of Memel (Klaipėda). That spring, Italy moved across the Adriatic to conquer Albania. Amid enormous bloodshed, Japan was marching further into the heart of China, fighting to conquer Jianxi province and its major city, Nanchang.
It is therefore a profound and worrying revision of history to conflate the Communism versus anti-Communism war with the German, Italian, and Japanese aggressions that caused the Second World War. Why is the European Parliament saying this?
The most benign answer is that the victims of Communism want to share fully in a collective European memory of a struggle against totalitarian tyranny. Western Europe wanted to talk about Nazis and the Holocaust; now Eastern Europe wants to include Communists and the Gulag. That is fair.
But that rebirth of Europe to extend its freedom eastward was not a product of victory in the Second World War. It was a product of the outcome of the other war, the war against Communism. That victory was marked by the November 1990 signature of the Charter of Paris and the subsequent creation of a transformed European Union that would eventually embrace these new members.
There is another, more cynical, explanation for the European Parliament’s resolution. For some on the political right, such a resolution is part of a narrative in which Putin becomes the new Stalin—a narrative in which historical figures whose anti-Communism led them into partnership with Nazism are rehabilitated as heroes. In this narrative, anti-Communism (very broadly defined) is a relevant ideology once again and—with it—perhaps the renewed justification for nationalist anti-Communist dictatorships.
The only historical argument for the European Parliament’s resolution is that, without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, there would have been no invasion of Poland. If Stalin had not made the deal, the argument goes, Germany would have been deterred from invading because of its fear of then having to reckon with a two-front war, with Britain and France in the West and with the Soviet Union in the east. Thus, if there had been no deal, there would have been no war in Europe. That is the argument.
It is not a convincing argument. By August 1939, Hitler had already accepted the risk of war with Britain and France, who had promised back in the spring that they would go to war if Poland was attacked. The minimum he needed from Stalin was for the Soviets to do nothing. Better yet, the Soviets would just continue their mutually beneficial trade bartering Soviet raw materials for German manufactured goods. Had there been no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the likely alternative was that the Soviets would have done just that.
It is possible to make the argument that, had the Soviets formed a serious, credibly threatening military alliance with Britain, France, and Poland, then Hitler might have been deterred. But no serious historian of the events of 1939 finds any realistic prospect that such a functional anti-Hitler military coalition could plausibly have been created. The French were serious. But the British were not. The Soviets were not. And the Poles, with their history, had no intention of allowing the Red Army to enter their country in order to “defend” it, and they made that very clear.
Thus, in the summer of 1939, the British treated the negotiation of such an alliance with the USSR as play-acting. The British and French had no immediate plan to save Poland; their war plan assumed a defensive buildup on the ground and slow strangulation of Germany by blockade. They hoped the threat of war might deter a German attack and persuade Hitler to make a deal (Munich-style) that would avert war at Poland’s expense. The British hoped their play-acting with the Soviets would help induce Hitler to accept their invitation for him to send Hermann Göring on a secret mission to London, to make the deal with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, rather than send Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow.
The Soviets were well-informed about this British disinterest in a real alliance, which only confirmed their utter lack of trust in any such partnership. The Soviets thus conducted even noisier play-acting of their own about negotiation of an alliance with Britain and France. Their play-acting was meant to encourage Hitler to send Ribbentrop to Moscow to make a deal with Stalin instead.
Hitler chose the deal with Stalin. He was certainly pleased with it. He hoped it would persuade the British and French to abandon Poland and, if they did not, he had ensured a steady flow of supplies that would break their planned blockade of German trade. But mere Soviet neutrality would have been sufficient, and this was originally all Hitler had hoped for.
On August 12, 1939, before Hitler knew that the Russians would even talk to Ribbentrop, the Führer met with the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, to emphasize to his ally that he, and Germany, were absolutely determined to invade Poland around the end of the month. Hitler thought Britain and France would stay out; but in any case he was going ahead. Ciano, who was arguing to Mussolini that Italy should not join Hitler in this war, noted to his diary that “there is no longer anything that can be done. He [Hitler] has decided to strike, and strike he will.”
A week later, still before any Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler summoned more than 40 of his top generals for a meeting at his mountain retreat. There he lectured them, on August 22, along the same lines as what he had told Ciano, on his determination to crush Poland. He was preparing them for war. He said he did not expect an immediate war with Britain and France, but that wider war would come soon anyway, one way or another, and the Führer felt he could not wait.
Hitler did pause in the last week of August, but this was when he learned that Britain did indeed seem determined to fight and his ally, Italy, would not. (Italy did not join Hitler in the war until June 1940.) Hitler paused for little more than a day. After the war, a top German foreign ministry official, Ernst von Weizsäcker, remarked that Hitler had become the prisoner of his own actions. The momentum for an invasion of Poland had been building since the spring. The German Army was poised expectantly to do it. Hitler’s own prestige was committed to it. By the end of August, Hitler “could hardly have turned the carriage around without being thrown off himself.”
As for Britain and France, right up to the end they saw “the game,” Donald Cameron Watt explained, “as one of pressure and counter-pressure, as a ‘war of nerves’ in which steadfastness and tenacity would prevail. . . . The Poles shared this view, opposing their own sense of amour-propre and honour to the situation. The notion that Hitler was intent not on winning the diplomatic game so much as on knocking the table over, drawing his gun and shooting it out, was one they understood intellectually but not in their hearts.”
Watt goes on: “Hitler’s bitter complaint that the main aim of British diplomacy was to put the blame for starting the war on him was not altogether invalid. But then he wanted war.” Hitler got what he wanted. As of mid-August 1939, there was no longer a plausible scenario in which a war in Europe could be avoided.
President Putin’s Selective Reading of History
If the European Parliament is wrong in saying the Soviet Union caused the Second World War, along with Germany, is Putin then right to blame the failure of collective security mainly on the West? The centerpiece of his indictment is what he calls the “Munich Betrayal” of September 1938. Much about Putin’s indictment is tragically true. France had pledged to defend Czechoslovakia but then felt it could not honor that pledge unless Britain agreed to back France’s play. The Soviet Union had joined in the promise to defend Czechoslovakia, on condition that France acted first.
Britain, for its part, under the Conservative government of Neville Chamberlain, had never really believed in collective security on the continent of Europe or in the Far East. It did not wish, however, to see France be conquered by Germany. Therefore Britain, which had no alliance with the Czechs, preferred to coerce Prague to appease the Germans by giving up the Sudetenland. This effectively broke Czechoslovakia and left it, one of the last democracies in Europe, helpless. Putin is also right that Poland cooperated in this carve-up, wanting to tear off its own piece of the Czech state, a small but rich coal and iron ore region with many ethnic Poles, the old Duchy of Teschen, what Poles call Zaolzie.
Historians argue about whether Britain’s policy was wise. The defense of Chamberlain is that Britain was not ready for war; Britain, the Empire’s dominions, and France were divided about whether to go to war; and British and French intelligence overestimated Germany military power, especially German air power. The situation was better by 1939, they argue, once Hitler’s intentions became clear to all. They also point out that, due to the geography, it was hard for the Soviet Union to offer much practical assistance in a war, except to invade Poland, if Poland joined the war on the German side.
The better-known indictment of Chamberlain, and of the whole policy of “appeasement,” is practical as well as moral. Not only was it right to stand up to Hitler, it was better to do so with the aid of Czechoslovakia’s capable and motivated army and extraordinary arms industry (which would later be added to the German side of the scale). This happens to be my view.
So Putin is on fair ground in attacking the “Munich Betrayal.” But what Putin undeniably leaves out of his article—and it is a glaring, fundamental omission—is what Poland, Britain, and France did next, in the spring of 1939.
Ever since Hitler came to power, Poland had preferred the path of German-Polish friendship. Poland’s rulers worried much more about Stalin than about Hitler. The pro-German tilt had been led by Marshal Józef Piłsudski and, after his death, by Piłsudki’s acolyte, Foreign Minister Józef Beck. That policy had seemed to work for Poland from 1934 until the end of 1938.
Then Hitler upped his demands. In effect, Poland had to choose: become Germany’s vassal or face invasion and destruction.
Poland, and Beck, chose the path of independence, at risk of destruction. Britain and France then chose, after Hitler took over the remains of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, to draw the line. In March-April 1939 they offered security guarantees to Poland, to Romania, and also to Greece.
Two outstanding conclusions flow from these British, French, and Polish choices. Both run counter to inferences in Putin’s article.
First, suppose Stalin suspected (a suspicion Putin also voices) that, with its “Munich Betrayal,” the West was trying to channel Germany purely into eastward expansion, hoping to rub their hands as the Nazis and Soviet fought each other. By their guarantees, Britain and France had just shown that this suspicion was false. They had done the one thing that could ensure that Germany’s eastward expansion would probably force a war with them, in the West, and not with the Soviet Union. As it did.
Second, suppose Stalin suspected (a suspicion Putin implies) that the Poles were partnering with the Nazis. Which they were, until the end of 1938. Yet then Poland clearly drew a line of how far that could go. Unlike some in eastern Europe, Poland would not become a German satellite. Nor would it be a junior partner in a joint war against the hated Soviet Union. It would rather risk destruction instead. “We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price,” Beck told the Polish parliament. “There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations, and states that is without price—honor.”
Some historians, even including a Russian historian, have argued that Beck should have given in to the German demands. One Polish historian even conjures the fantasy of Beck and Hitler presiding over a victory parade in Moscow’s Red Square.
Beck hoped that, if Poland stood fast, the Germans might not go to war. If they did conquer his country, he also remembered that, after the First World War, conquered Serbia was restored.
But Beck reflected more deeply on what the German “partnership” would have meant for the Polish people. Beck died during the war, interned in Romania. Before his death, Beck mused that in a German-Polish war against the Soviet Union, “We would have defeated Russia, and afterwards we would be taking Hitler’s cows out to pasture in the Urals.” Beck did not regard this as a suitable destiny for the Polish people. That is a judgment President Putin should respect.
Given the inevitability, by mid-August 1939, of a European war, Putin’s argument is that Stalin then made the best of a bad situation. Stalin joined in partitioning Poland to push the Germans further back from Minsk, to gain control of the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, and to buy more time to prepare.
Yet, even if a real military alliance with Britain, France, and Poland was unrealistic, Stalin had other alternatives beside a genuine partnership with Hitler. He could have chosen a more passive neutrality, perhaps even a neutrality in which the Soviet Union did not continue to fuel Hitler’s war machine with vital raw materials. What the Soviets got in return were valuable military designs and manufactured goods, but it was Hitler’s Germany—desperate for resources—that got the better half of this bargain.
Nor is it clear that it was wise when Stalin, in the second German-Soviet agreement of September 28, 1939, agreed to withdraw east nearly 100 miles, from the edge of Warsaw and the Vistula River line, back to the Bug River line, outside of Brest. This was done in exchange for Berlin yielding its sphere of influence over Lithuania to Moscow. Experts can argue whether the overall Soviet military position was improved by this new line.
What is clear is that, after Lithuania had given Memel to Germany, Poland was conquered, and a war had begun, the Baltic republics would not be able to survive as neutral, independent states between Germany and the Soviet Union. Putin’s explanation of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic republics is euphemistic, but the future prospects for these republics would be bleak. Nor can Putin say much about the 1939-40 Soviet war of conquest against Finland.
Putin, of course, has his defense that Stalin was just looking after his country’s safety. But this is just how Poland’s Beck would have defended his partnership with Hitler during the Czech crisis in September 1938.
Stalin used the partnership with Hitler to neutralize the Japanese threat to the Soviet Union. In exchange, he pulled back Soviet assistance to China. From 1941 through the rest of the war, China had to rely for its survival on itself and what it could get, with great difficulty, from the United States of America.
It was the second agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, on September 28, 1939, after the war was underway, that indicated a deepening partnership. This was expressed in such things as the agreement to extinguish any Polish state and in Stalin’s “gift” to Hitler of thousands of Germans who had fled to the Soviet Union, including many Jews and German Communists, whom the Soviets put on trains back to Germany where they would receive special Nazi treatment.
After all, from Stalin’s view, his country and Germany had been among those cast out by the West. Stalin had already explained privately to some of his inner circle (on September 7, 1939) that he saw “nothing wrong” in two groups of capitalist countries “having a good fight and weakening each other. It would be fine if at the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) were shaken.” Hitler was an instrument of history who, “without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system.”
Even after Hitler’s armies marched victoriously through Paris, Stalin bluntly told the British Ambassador (on July 1, 1940) that he had no use for Churchill’s warnings about Hitler’s domination of Europe. “We must change the old balance of power in Europe, for it has acted to the USSR’s disadvantage.”
Stalin was not naive about Hitler. But, as Stalin explained at the time, he was coming to regard the Nazi leader as a strategic partner in a wider effort for the “have-nots” to take down the great European powers, including the British Empire.
In November 1940, Stalin agreed to Germany’s proposal that the Soviet Union should become the fourth major Axis power, if Germany would agree to give the Soviet Union: a free hand in Finland; a deal with Bulgaria to protect Soviet use of the Black Sea; a firm Soviet position in the Dardanelles Straits; a Soviet “center of gravity” south from the trans-Caucasus to the Persian Gulf; and Japanese concessions over north Sakhalin Island. The last two concessions were a good fit for wider German strategy, but Hitler was not willing to make any further concessions to Stalin in Europe.
At this point, Stephen Kotkin concludes, “Stalin was game to a new permanent division of Europe that excluded Britain and a vanquished France, provided it made Germany and the Soviet Union equals.” Like Poland’s Beck in the winter of 1938-39, at the end of 1940 Stalin decided that he was willing to be Hitler’s partner, but he would not become Hitler’s vassal. “He laid out his conditions to Hitler as if from a position of strength,” Kotkin adds. “But this was a different Germany now.”
Hitler did not engage Stalin’s requests. He instead began consolidating his plans to destroy the Soviet Union. That operation began on June 22, 1941. It took the lives of almost 27 million Soviet citizens (Putin’s estimate).
But, as Putin rightly points out, quoting Winston Churchill in 1944, it was “the Russian army that tore the guts out of the German military machine.” He is quite right that Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill deeply appreciated and understood the Soviet role in the victory against Germany.
Putin is entitled to remind people about this. On May 8, 2020, remembering VE Day, the Trump White House, displaying its usual wisdom, tweeted out that this was the anniversary of when “America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis!” The Kremlin’s website answered, “Forgetting someone?”
The Lessons for World Order
In his June 2020 article, Putin draws the lessons of the Second World War into a portrait of alternative systems for world order and collective security. He portrays three kinds of systems:
- A “Versailles world order,” dominated by two powers—Britain and France—that excluded, penalized, and humiliated Germany (and the Soviet Union), accompanied by an ineffective League of Nations. This order rejected a true collective security system, in Putin’s view, and produced the “Munich Betrayal.”
- A world of every country for itself, each taking care of its own safety at whatever cost. Putin conceded that, in this system, “All the leading countries are to a certain extent responsible” for the outbreak of the Second World War. “Each of them,” he wrote, “made fatal mistakes, arrogantly believing that they could outsmart others, secure unilateral advantages for themselves or stay away from the impending global catastrophe, and this short-sightedness, the refusal to create a collective security system, cost millions of lives and tremendous losses.”
- The system produced by the war, a system of genuine great power cooperation, even amid severe differences. Putin praises this system. “The victor powers left us a system that has become the quintessence of the intellectual and political quest of several centuries. A series of conferences—Tehran, Yalta, San Francisco, and Potsdam—laid the foundation of a world that for 75 years had no global war, despite the sharpest contradictions.”
Putin pleads in his article for the restoration of this postwar system. He calls for a summit of the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) to discuss this. All five governments have agreed to such a meeting.
This is part of the context for Putin’s denunciation of the European Parliament’s resolution blaming the Soviet Union for the Second World War and associating Russia with that history. This is a document, he writes, that was “clearly intended to provoke a scandal,” “fraught with dangerous threats.” The document, he adds, “revealed a deliberate policy aimed at destroying the post-war world order whose creation was a matter of honour and responsibility,” and, by sowing this division, to “undermine the foundations of the entire post-war Europe.”
After 1945 and until 1990, the “post-war world order” of which Putin writes blended with another world order, the Cold War order, that divided the world into rival blocs. After 1990, the original promise of the 1945 system seemed brighter than perhaps it had ever been.
That promise has faded; Europe is divided again. Whether or not there is a Cold War with China, as called for by many in the United States, there is certainly a new Cold War with Russia that also involves much of Europe.
In my recent book with Condi Rice, To Build a Better World, we place the decisive break with Russia in the late 2000s, especially during and after 2007-08. This new cold war with Russia got much worse after the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014, in which thousands have already lost their lives.
From Putin’s point of view, this renewed cold war against Russia began because the United States and its allies arrogantly discarded the practice of great power cooperation and a certain mutual restraint. The 1999 war against Serbia; the 2003 war against Iraq; the European Union and NATO advances toward Ukraine and Georgia; and the 2011 intervention in Libya are all among the indictments in Putin’s version of the story. From Putin’s point of view, many of the actions that Russia has conducted, including its covert actions, are understandable counterattacks in this new cold war.
Putin’s article, if taken as sincere, is therefore making an overt plea and an implied warning. He is openly pleading to return to a world order of great power cooperation and some mutual restraint, an order that can provide some collective security “despite the sharpest contradictions.”
It would not be hard to reply with arguments about the evils of Putin’s regime and what Russia has done since 2007. But, at least for the purpose of this essay, it is more constructive to reflect on Putin’s plea. And also, his warning.
The “Lessons of the Second World War” do indeed seem resonant today, both in general and even in detail. Even this essay’s brief review of the substance of some of the historical issues brings back to life a series of vivid questions.
For instance, how does the world prevent another descent like the one that happened in the 1930s? Can the 2020s slide into some new form of violent global disorder? Putin spent so much time recounting this history, citing all those documents, both for the sake of history, but also because he thinks this is quite meaningful and important right now.
A 21st-century version of the “Versailles world order” is probably the way Putin thinks some in the United States and some in the European Union are trying to arrange things. This time Russia is being put in the punishment cell, in Germany’s old position. Such a system would engender, Putin implies, likely reactions and evident dangers.
Reflecting on what happened in the late 1930s does also illustrate what can happen when countries seek protection with promises from powers whose counsels are divided, whose will is uncertain, and whose effective military capabilities to help are modest. Czechoslovakia counted on France, which counted on Britain, but that Britain did not really believe in collective security.
Or there is the alternative model, one that Trumpism exalts, of every country for itself, taking care of its own safety at whatever cost. Britain tried that, up to a point. Poland tried that, up to a point. Stalin tried that. Their experiences remind us how poorly that model of world order can turn out, for democracies or even for dictators who think themselves shrewd.
Which then leads to some model of a broader, more inclusive, world order. The old UN Security Council “Perm Five” is not a sufficient core of such a system in the 21st century.
To be functional, Putin treats this as a model of major power cooperation with some degree of common purpose and mutual restraint. Many Americans and Europeans might naturally compile a list of all the things Russia would have to do in order to be part of such an order. The Russians will have some lists too.
My own observation, as an historian and occasional participant in policymaking, is that it is easier to start wars than to end them. This new cold war with Russia has now long been underway. Given the environment of mistrust, and the fact that each side’s list is bound to have disagreeable items, any degree of understanding seems hard.
One alternative is to put aside hopes of real cooperation with countries like Russia, at least as ruled by Putin. In this theory just let this new struggle run its course. Suitably motivated Americans and Europeans, if there are enough of them, should then just prepare for a generation of indefinite struggle. Each side will denounce the sins of the other, rewrite historical narratives accordingly, and leave the rest to a later generation. They would then hope the 2020s turn out much better than the 1930s did.
A better alternative would at least start defining the terms under which a more promising system of security can be recreated. This is not just a matter of process or institutional reform. It requires envisioning a set of results on the ground, and then figuring out how to get there, point by point.
Such an effort would be an enormous and multifaceted diplomatic task. This is the kind of task that was undertaken, with some success, in the 1940s and early 1950s. It was done again, with even more success, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It would be a big job. But if statesmen do not even try to construct a more viable world order than the one they have now, at the beginning of the 2020s, they will indeed have neglected the lessons of the Second World War.