Even a cursory examination of history suggests that what often is first perceived as good news may ultimately prove to be something else altogether. A recent example is the exhilaration over Egypt’s “Arab Spring,” which is now understood to have been a cruel illusion.
The agreement reached last week by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to cooperate on imposing a meaningful resolution to the chemical weapons crisis in Syria has been well-received by many (although not by the Syrian rebels, for obvious reasons, or to certain United States senators who seem bound and determined to see a military strike to impress Bashar al-Assad).
But, as welcome as the agreement may be to most of us, it is complicated, if not clouded, not just by those who oppose it but by several significant events of history.
For example, in 1918, a worried world breathed a collective sigh of relief as “the war to end war” concluded after four awful years. Decades later, the peace treaty signed at Versailles in the aftermath of that war continues, from time to time, to have a negative impact on international relations, especially in the Middle East, where the victors established new national boundaries without regard to local culture and custom.
In fact, it is reasonable to argue that it was Adolf Hitler’s hatred of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty that fueled his passion for rebuilding Germany on his terms (even though Hitler was an Austrian by birth).
In the late 1930s, there was cautious optimism when Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returning to London from a meeting with Hitler, proudly (and famously) proclaimed “peace in our time.” But the German leader didn’t cooperate, and World War II quickly followed.
In 1945, there was a similar sense of relief when Germany, Italy and Japan surrendered to end the war Hitler (and later Japan) had begun. But historians cannot overlook the fact that however justified the victory, it came only after the dropping of two atomic bombs, signaling the advent of the nuclear era.
Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were allied in their shared determination to defeat Hitler. In fact, America shipped tons of weapons in dangerous convoys (85 cargo ships were sunk en route) to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel to give Moscow some badly needed help.
But then the Western democracies found themselves trapped in a Cold War with the Soviet Union that led to dangerously tense confrontations, particularly over the communist nation’s decision to send missiles to Fidel Castro that the Cuban dictator could use to attack the United States. Those living in the Tampa area at that time will clearly recall the pervasive fear that we were at the brink of a nuclear war.
In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War and leading to new dreams of world peace. But the dreams didn’t last long.
So now, while Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other parts of Africa are torn by bitter feuds, many (if not all) of them tribal or religious in nature, and as Iraq implodes, the most attention is being paid to Syria and there has been applause for Russia’s surprise role in seeking to find a seemingly impossible solution to the problem posed by Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, noted that the fact the Geneva agreement calls for a mid-2014 deadline for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons could enable Assad to act quickly to crush the rebels.
“Assad will be a fairly confident guy today, and if he’s sincere about the plan, there’s potentially a lot of political gain for him,” Shaikh said. “He’s certainly likely to feel victorious; there is no credible threat of the use of force on the table anymore, which is the thing he fears the most.”
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting generated optimism and relief, but, as history tells us, we’ve been there before.