Victor Davis Hanson

The world seems to be falling apart.

Only lunatics from North Korea or Iran once mumbled about using nuclear weapons against their supposed enemies. Now Vladimir Putin, after gobbling up the Crimea, points to his nuclear arsenal and warns the West not to "mess" with Russia.

The Middle East terrorist group the Islamic State keeps beheading its captives and threatening the West. Meanwhile Obama admits to the world that we "don't have a strategy yet" for dealing with such barbaric terrorists. Not long ago he compared them to "jayvees."

Egypt is bombing Libya, which America once bombed and then left. Vice President Joe Biden once boasted that a quiet Iraq without U.S. troops could be "one of the great achievements" of the administration. Not now.

China and Japan seem stuck in a 1930s time warp as they once again squabble over disputed territory. Why all the sudden wars?

Conflicts rarely break out over needed scarce land -- what Adolf Hitler once called "living space" or even over natural resources. A vast, naturally rich Russia is under-populated and poorly run. It hardly needs more of the Crimea and Ukraine to screw up. The islands that Japan and China haggle over are mostly worthless real estate. Iran has enough oil and natural gas to meets it domestic and export needs without going to war over building a nuclear bomb.

Often states fight about prestigious symbols that their own fears and sense of honor have inflated into existential issues. Hamas could turn its back on Israel and turn Gaza into Singapore -- but not without feeling that it had backed down.

Putin thinks that grabbing more of the old Soviet Republics will bring him the sort of prestige that his hero Stalin once enjoyed. ISIS wants to return to 7th century Islam when the Muslim world had more power and honor.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once summed up the Falklands War between his country and Britain as a fight "between two bald men over a comb." In fact, Britain went to war over distant windswept rocks to uphold the hallowed tradition of the British Navy and the idea that British subjects everywhere were sacrosanct. The unpopular Argentine junta started a war to take down Britain a notch.

But disputes over honor or from fear do not always lead to war. Something else is needed -- an absence of deterrence. Most aggressors take stupid risks in starting wars only when they feel there is little likelihood they will be stopped. Hitler thought no one would care whether he gobbled up Poland, after he easily ingested Czechoslovakia and Austria.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.