The recent passing of Sen. John McCain has offered a moment of reflection on American’s role in the world. The senator represented a worldview forged by a generation wary of conflict but strongly internationalist. One bedrock principle of the McCain generation was the value of alliances. Today’s debate over the future path of our country recalls many of the same choices in American history, stemming back to World War I.
One hundred years ago, in 1918, the American Expeditionary Force of more than 1 million Americans joined British and French forces to mount the final hundred-day offensive to defeat Germany in World War I.
This summer, I had the opportunity to join U.S. military leaders in France to mark the centennial of the “Great War.” This conflict to defend shared democratic values against militaristic nationalism claimed more than 116,000 Americans lives; one nation’s sacrifice in a war that claimed more than 17 million.
The experience was meaningful both as a grandson of an Army officer who fought in France 100 hundred years ago, and because Meridian International Center’s campus in Washington, D.C., was the location of the 1917 conference between the U.S. and French governments that planned America’s entry into the war.
In November, world leaders, including the president of the United States, will travel to France to commemorate the formal end of hostilities of World War I. Over the next hundred days, we should reflect on some lessons learned from our experience in that war. As a starting point, I would suggest five:
1. Wars are tragic, deadly and have unintended and unknown consequences — from losing a generation to redrawn borders that ignite and continue to fan the flames of ethnic tension and sectarianism.
2. Technology has become ruthlessly efficient in its destructive power. A century ago, great armies faced horrific weapons. In today’s digital age, those weapons are more precise and more destructive.
3. Great conflicts can only be won when nations work together in the pursuit of a common goal. Alliances based on trust and shared objectives are necessary to defeat determined foes who will inevitably exploit divisions.
4. Peace made in the aftermath of a conflict is often as critical as the conflict itself. We know all too well when, 20 years after World War I, the United States faced even greater adversaries that arose from the seeds of grievance, nurtured by appeasement.
5. Alliances become more critical to achieve diplomatic and military objectives as America remains conflicted over the utility of international organizations as it was at the time of the debate over creating a League of Nations.
In the wake of the war, America sought a “return to normalcy.” We know today such a return is a mirage. Diplomacy, international cooperation and a robust national defense are necessary and enduring elements of U.S. and international security. Alliances such as the ones we share with France and the United Kingdom — a key partner in World War I — underpin and strengthen our ability to defend democracy. This foundation built one hundred years ago through shared sacrifice provides us strength and resilience and should not be taken for granted.
As we move from summer to fall, it is appropriate to pause and look at today’s world through the lens of those who lived through World War I and those who did not come home. They would likely argue for a strong NATO where everyone pays their share; and for fair and open trading relationships that counter a resource-driven or economic basis for war. They would remind us of the importance of a free press and bipartisan cooperation.
Most importantly they would warn us that conflicts are easily triggered and harder to end. Therefore, effective diplomacy and a strong military deterrent are equally important to our national security.
Averting or managing future conflicts will depend on understanding these lessons.
• Stuart Holliday, a former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, is president and CEO of Meridian International Center and serves on the diplomatic advisory board of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.
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