Allied success in the Cold War has brought us to this day with Russia

It feels like May 1940 all over again – and that’s a good thing in a way. During that distant spring, the German army crossed the Franco-German border to help quench dictator Adolf Hitler’s thirst for conquest. France capitulated after only six weeks of fighting. The speed of the German offensive stunned the world. After all, informed opinion considered France to be the leading military power in Europe. If the French army gave way so quickly, what force could oppose the Axis?

The meteoric triumph of German arms prompted an America with lingering isolationist tendencies to begin preparing for war 18 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Being one step ahead meant that the armed forces were much better equipped than they otherwise would have been when the nation entered the war. This enhanced the chances of victory while hastening the end of the war.

More strikingly, after dithering on naval readiness for most of the 1930s, Congress passed the Two Oceans Navy Act of 1940, increasing the combined tonnage of the United States Navy by more than 70%. Indeed, the legislators set in motion the construction of a brand new second navy. Once the new warships put to sea, the navy would have enough hulls to operate a self-sufficient combat fleet in the Atlantic and Pacific. Naval commanders would no longer be forced to redeploy ships from coast to coast to build a superior fleet when unrest loomed along the opposite coast.

Hitler did America a service by galvanizing public opinion in favor of military readiness. Thank you Adolf.

Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Biden’s State of the Union: A call for unity in unusual times Watch: Key moments from Biden’s first State of the Union address Reynolds’ response hammers Biden for his ‘weakness on stage’ World » MORE maybe just did the same thing. It often takes trauma to reorient a society. Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine could provide political momentum strong enough to spur Washington and allied governments to start taking military preparedness seriously again. Congress could fund the National Defense Authorization Act enacted last year, rather than have the Pentagon drag on ongoing resolutions that set budget levels and stifle innovation.

And then lawmakers could take the rebuilding and expansion of America’s armed forces seriously. The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, recently said that the United States needs a navy of 500 ships, against less than 300 hulls today. It is an expansion of the proportions of the Two Oceans Navy Act. Successive presidential administrations on both sides have come out in favor of a larger fleet, and yet progress has been glacial at best.

Why? Partly because America and its allies are victims of their own Cold War success. Winning big has its risks, the main one being blindness to new geopolitical perils. Historian Andrew Gordon calls this phenomenon the “long calm wind” of victory. He observes that the astonishing conquest by the Royal Navy of a Franco-Spanish fleet in Battle of Trafalgar (1805) left British sailors without a peer opponent until Imperial Germany began to build a major combat fleet before World War I. Unrivaled to keep it sharp, the Royal Navy has indulged in all sorts of bad habits, from detail choreography to obsessing over immaculate paperwork to demanding unquestioning obedience to orders.

In other words, the high command stifled the spirit of enterprise, leaving the navy ill-prepared to face a dynamic and well-armed new challenger, the German High Seas Fleet.

Hence Gordon’s metaphor of the long calm wind. By this he means a false calm that encourages dangerous illusions. The lee side of a ship, landmass, or other large object is its lee side. The mass of the object blocks the wind, sheltering anyone lucky enough to be on the lee side of the elements. Now the winds are changing and the ships are maneuvering, which means that any wind is temporary. But if, by chance, an individual, institution, or society inhabited a long quiet region, the natural human tendency would be to regard quiet time as the normal – and permanent – ​​state of things.

And if times are eternally calm, why prepare for heavy weather?

The Long Calm Wind is neither a specifically British disease nor a specifically Royal Navy disease. The victors of the Cold War have been trapped in their own illusory calm for 30 years, from the fall of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, the mainstream wisdom held that military power was no longer relevant; the economy would rule in the post-Cold War era. Many have argued that geography no longer matters, due to economic globalization. The US Navy and Marine Corps proclaimed the end of naval history, restructuring itself into what leaders called a “fundamentally different naval force” that faced no threat to their dominance of the oceans and seas. Services stopped preparing for a major battle.

Times were still calm. Until they are no longer.

If anyone doubted that geopolitical competition and war were back, Putin brutally crushed his illusions last week. It remains to be seen whether the invasion of Ukraine applies as electric a jolt to American attitudes as the invasion of France did in 1940. After all, Ukraine lies deep in the recesses of Eurasia. , while France faces the Atlantic and poses immediate and direct problems. threats to navigation and air transit once German forces moved into French seaports and airfields. The knockdown isn’t quite what it was back then, either. Ukraine is not a first-class military power, as France was in 1940. Russia clearly outclasses it.

Thus, it could be that the long calm of the Cold War continues to cloud attitudes towards military readiness despite Russian aggression. We hope not. But even after the situation calms down in Europe, political and military leaders in Washington and Allied capitals must cultivate within themselves an unstable view of martial affairs.

All false calm ends.

James R. Holmes is the JC Wylie Professor of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Scholar at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Comments are closed.