Historical Reflections: The Interwar Era & Today – Russia, China, & The US (Part 1)


The geopolitical situation today is in flux, as we begin to see the balance of power shift from – a unipolar world with the United States at the imperial centre of the international system as the worlds undisputed hegemon – to the birth of a truly multipolar world with the rise of China and the continued effort by Russia to resist America’s attempts at containment and reassert its geopolitical interests. As this state of affairs play’s out over the following years and decades the potential for conflict increases, as the interests between the established dominant power (US), and the ascendant powers (Russia and China) will inevitably clash. In order to avoid the escalation of conflict to a global, and therefore apocalyptic, scale – due to the sheer material power of modern technology – it will be important to not only carefully analyze contemporary politics, but to also study history and look to the past.

Indeed, when analyzing current events it can be helpful to find and examine historical parallels – a tool of study that I am admittedly fond of – despite the limits of this approach, of which I’ve been informed a number of times. The most common criticism is the accusation of a deterministic view of history. As someone who analyzes history from a decidedly cyclical perspective, this criticism is not without at least a little merit. However, I don’t think anyone who studies history, be it as a hobbyist or professional, can credibly dispute the fact that we can see clear historical patterns emerge, for instance, the pattern displayed between the rise and fall of civilizations, or the heightened potential for conflict when the world order sees a shift of relative power between the dominant state or hegemon, and an up and coming challenger – the so called “Thucydides Trap”. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get into the intellectual trap of either trying to find patterns where none exist, or into forcing events into a predetermined paradigm, which simply does not sufficiently contextualize reality. 

Regarding the idea of historical determinism, all I will say here is that while on the surface it certainly seems possible that history could have played out differently on a countless number of fronts due to simple contingency, the fact is that it didn’t. Therefore, part of the study of history should explore why it took one trajectory instead of another, and from where I’m sitting, the question to what degree the long chain of historical events could have potentially shifted one way instead of the other remains an open one.

However, if used with such limits and potential traps in mind, I believe this approach can be revealing. If we look, I believe we can see a historical parallel in the relationships between America and Russia, in regards to an ascendant China today, and that of Fascist Italy and the British Empire, in regards to an ascendant National Socialist Germany. Now of course, any discussion comparing one state or another to “the Nazi’s” is usually not only polemically charged, but also, will inevitably be met with a strong emotional reaction. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to have  such a discussion dispassionately, but I will attempt to do so here. I for one, reject the contemporary notion that the German state of this period represents a uniquely evil historical phenomenon – unique in its scope and absolutely contemptible – regardless of it’s recorded atrocities. One could examine the history of all great powers and see atrocities committed by them. The colonial projects of the British Empire, as well as the other great powers give the Germans a run for their money, the manner in which the Americans conquered their territory is likewise brutal. The story of power politics is the story of men violently exercising power. Humanitarian concerns about the downtrodden are out of place in an objective analysis of geopolitics. Far too often are these concerns used by the dominant powers to obscure the simple assertion of their own interests, or they serve as ideological blinders that similarly cloud events through a sentimental or ideological bias, thus preventing a clear and more objective view. No, geopolitics is at it’s best and, in my opinion, most interesting, when it focuses its attention on the interplay of relations between great powers, and not on the mistreatment of the huddled masses.

No doubt, many readers may find these words shocking and offensive, just as likewise, many Chinese will find the comparison made in the following chapters of this series deeply offensive. Readers are, of course, welcome to feel any way they want in response to the words, arguments, or comparisons written here. However, such emotional reactions are of little interest to the topic at hand, or to the scope of the present work, which examines the correlation of historical precedence of a great land power on the rise, a floundering seapower, and the alienation of a former ally. There is also the interesting correlation between both contemporary China, and the Third Reich being ruled by one-party states, each declaring themselves not only socialist, but nationalist. However, as I will repeat none of this is done with any recrimination, as I find it deeply unfortunate that terms like “Fascist” or “Nazi” have simply become pejoratives one slings at people, organizations, or policies one dislikes. The terms “socialist” and “communist” are likewise abused, albeit to a much lesser extent. The relativization of these terms has resulted in a degradation of dialogue and as a result we can no longer discuss these terms, or their history, in anything resembling an intelligent or objective fashion. Because of this, I resolutely refuse to engage in what has become the obligatory moral condemnation of the Axis regimes. It is not necessary and only emotionally charges analysis that is both much more interesting, and much more useful, without it. Do historians and other intellectuals feel the need to engage in a ritual condemnation of the moral depravity of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great or any of the other military conquerors of history? Of course not. Well then, how much longer before we can forgo what has become a ceremonial display?

I am sure some will accuse me of being a secret “Nazi” sympathizer or of being a “Neo-Nazi”, but my grandparents were Slavs who immigrated from Czechoslovakia two days before the Germans invaded (Slavs didn’t rank much above Jews in the Third Reich’s racial hierarchy). I just don’t see the need to bring up the spectre of a defeated regime and it’s dated racial theories – which today is universally despised – like some universal boogeyman. However, I’m not in power, no doubt it’s useful to have such a symbol with which to refer when introducing or opposing this or that policy, or when scapegoating a political rival. However, for our current purposes such polemical uses of these terms is counter-productive.

So, with all that out of the way, we can focus on the actual subject of this series of articles. 

In late 1935, the British alienated an ally in Fascist Italy after Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. The British condemned the Italian territorial acquisition loudly in the halls of the League of Nations, and as a result, sanctions were imposed against the Fascist state. That’s the short story, the cliff notes if you will, but when analyzing the lead up to WWII, we have to recognized that the alliance between Fascist Italy and the Third Reich was far from inevitable, in fact, despite the appearance of ideological compatibility there were real reasons why this alliance may have been unlikely.

First of all, simple geography. Germany and Italy are separated by Austria, meaning the Anschluss brought Germany to Italy’s backdoor. Mussolini was, of course, well aware of this, and thus wanted to keep an independent Austria as a buffer state between him and the aggressive Third Reich, as he had reason to fear that the Germans might come for the South Tyrol territory with it’s German speaking population, which Italy received as compensation for entering the First World War on the side of the Allies. This is likely why Mussolini supported the regime of Engelbert Dollfuss, and why he was willing to go to war with Germany after Dollfuss’ assassination at the hands of the Austrian National Socialists in July 1934. Enraged by the assassination of Dollfuss, Mussolini ordered four divisions to the Italian Austrian border. With Germany still weak, Hitler backed down. [1]

In 1935, Mussolini helped organize the Stresa Front, as he sought help from the Western democracies, England and France, in containing Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Mussolini is quoted as saying:

“Hitler will arm the Germans and make war—perhaps even in two or three years. I cannot stand up to him alone. . . . I cannot always be the one to march to the Brenner. Others must show some interest in Austria and the Danube basin. . . . We must do something, we must do something quickly”  [2]

One has to keep in mind that it was Fascist Italy, not the democracies that mobilized troops against what Mussolini saw as a precursor to German expansion in 1934. This alone should shatter the myth of ideological solidarity between Germany and Italy. In fact, as we’ll see, it wasn’t until geopolitical necessities changed, that the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini warmed. In fact during the Stresa Conference, it was Mussolini who was the most vehemently anti-German of the delegates [3] from the represented nations, with one of the British delegates, being the most pro-German. As we see from Mussolini’s initial instinct and his eventual shift, ideology isn’t – nor should it – be the determining factor in power politics, but geography and national interests should always be the governing instinct. However as we shall soon see, the American elite of today – like the British elite of yesterday – are either forgetting this fact or are so blinded by their own sense of moral superiority and historical momentum that they fail to see the forest for the trees.  

The Stresa Front was dealt a blow by Britain when, the British made a deal with Hitler that authorized the Germans to build a naval fleet 35% of the Royal Navy, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Locarno, which the Stresa Front was created to enforce. This lead the Italians to doubt British fortitude to stand up to the Germans.

However, the fatal blow to both the Stresa Front and Anglo-Italian relations happened when Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia, or what’s today known as Ethiopia, taking it as an African colony, one of the last portions of Africa in that era left uncolonized by a European power. On December 4th 1934, the Abyssinians attacked an Italian outpost in Somalia. While the Italians successfully fought off the Abyssinians, this incident gave Mussolini a pretext to attack the African nation in a war of conquest, and thereby undo what he viewed as a national humiliation when Abyssinia successfully repelled an attempted Italian invasion in 1896.

On October 3, 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia with all the weapons of modern warfare against a state whose cavalry was on horseback. The English and the American’s cried crocodile tears for the African nation, and scolded the Italians in the press for their so called “barbarism”, conveniently forgetting their own treatment of subject peoples, and which for the British represented a particularly peculiar form of selective memory, as they were still in the possession of colonies – some of which were acquired in the most brutal fashion. Yet, the British, who’s moral hypocrisy is seemingly boundless, found it appropriate to condemn the Italians and alienate a nation that, up to that point, had been an ally.

After the invasion, an attempt was made to resolve the situation, the Hoare-Laval plan, which would’ve seen only half of Abyssinia ceded to Italy (instead of the whole thing, which is what actually ended up happening). Mussolini was almost ready to accept the plan when it leaked to the European press, and was met with outrage and indignation.

Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary held a personal grudge against Mussolini after il Duce had treated the sensitive Englishman in an abrasive manner, which was somewhat typical of the bombastic dictator, and thus Britain lead the charge in the League of Nations in levelling sanctions against Italy. Despite this, the war in Abyssinia continued with the Italians eventually emerging victorious. In the end, Mussolini claimed his Italian Empire.

The end result of British efforts to (arrogantly and hypocritically, in my opinion) impose sanctions on Italy for taking actions not dissimilar to those that the British had taken not long ago to achieve their own empire, was to transform Italy from an ally into an enemy. It’s not as if the appeal to morals was even a cover for national ambition, Britain had no vital interests in the region. In fact, if the British were so opposed to Italy taking action in Ethiopia, the Stresa conference was the perfect opportunity to voice them, as the crisis had already started and an Italian invasion was expected. No, this was sheer histrionic pearl clutching and moralism, unfortunately so common in Protestant nations. It was decadence by a nation that had forgotten their own history of conquest, driven by an emotional man with a wounded ego.

The economic sanctions from the League of Nations, while not completely crippling were bad enough to force Italy to find other economic partners, namely the other pariah state at the time, Germany. This was the end of the Stresa Front. The fact that Britain caved to Germany on the stated goal of Stresa, ie to keep the Germans from any further violations of Versailles and Locarno, topped off with Britains alienation of Italy from the rest of the international community. While, in the beginning of 1935 Mussolini had been the most anti-German member of Stresa, Britain’s betrayal of Stresa and seeming capitulation to Germany likely convinced il Duce that the British lacked the will to stand up to Hitler, an opinion that he probably found justified during the era of appeasement.

If the British had not split with Italy during the crisis of Abyssinia, or had they followed through with the Hoare-Laval plan, Italy wouldn’t have found it necessary to find a friend in Germany. If the British would have maintained solidarity with their partners in the Stresa Front, the Germans likely would have been much more careful in their attempts at territorial acquisitions, and if Hitler insisted on being reckless, he would have received a sharp rebuke – long before Germany was prepared for another war. During Germany’s ascent to military power leading up to WWII, Hitler’s leadership made a number of bold and brazen moves, most of which amounted to a bluff during a poker game, such as when he marched troops back into the Rhineland.

Had England maintained good relations with Fascist Italy, the history of Europe would be drastically different.

Most readers are probably already familiar with all of this, so why the history lesson?

Well, it strikes me that we are in a very similar situation today, with America taking the place of England, Russia taking the place of Italy, and China taking the place of Germany.

Is a war between the US and China on the horizon today? Are America and the Middle Kingdom falling into what political scientist and Professor of Government at Harvard University Graham Allison has called the “Thucydides Trap” in his book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?? As mentioned above, the “Thucydides Trap” is when the dominant world power and a rising world power risk falling into a war due to an inevitable clash of interests. I use the word “fall” because, according to Allison, it can happen despite the best efforts on both sides to avoid it. In fact, new fields such as cyber warfare, which could be used as a means to assert one parties interests in a manner that’s not directly violent could create the focal point for escalating a potential conflict, Graham argues. While the possibility of an escalation to nuclear exchange seems to put a pointed emphasis on the need to avoid war at all costs, and indeed this logic did prevail during the Cold War, there is no guarantee that the devastation of nuclear war will prove to be as effective of a deterrent today as it did then, especially since as Christopher Layne has pointed out in his article titled, Coming Storms: The Return of Great-Power War, published by Foreign Affairs – the official magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The combination of miniaturized, low-yield nuclear warheads and highly accurate delivery systems has made thinkable what once was unthinkable: a “limited” nuclear war, which would not result in apocalyptic destruction…”  [4]

In his piece, Layne links to an article published by National Interest which states that according to a simulation done by researchers at Princeton University, a “limited” nuclear war would kill around ninety million people. Later, the National Interest piece states that former US President Donald Trump had purchased low yield nuclear warheads and had created policy for their use, including in situations where the US military is faced with a “non-nuclear threat”. [5] Its unclear at the time of writing whether or not these policies have been changed under the new administration.

We’ll delve deeper into the concept of the Thucydides Trap in a future post, for now suffice it to say there is enough of a historical precedence to acknowledge the trend; that when a dominant world power sees it’s position and relative power threatened or diminished by an ascending power, war often breaks out. This is a trend going back to antiquity and is named after Thucydides, who believed this to be the source of the Peloponnesian War. The current situation is exasperated by the fact that the US, as the heir and steward of the world order fashioned by the British Empire, is at its heart, a seapower commercial empire, and thus tends towards cosmopolitan values. Like the English elite before them, the American elite has shown they view any deviation (except their own) from “universal humanitarian values”, as unacceptable. They view any political system that deviates from liberal democracy and capitalism as, not only backwards, but immoral. All one has to do is briefly peruse the literature of geopolitics in the West to see that many theorists simply view liberal democracy as the end point of any advanced society, the concept that a society could be developed, prosperous, and socially harmonious, without being a liberal democracy, is completely foreign to them.

This creates a situation similar to that which preceded the First World War, as I briefly described in my article Heartland Theory and the Duality of Landpower vs Seapower, where the British viewed the Germans as unredeemably bad actors. This creates a dangerous situation due to the evangelical tendencies embedded deep in the American psyche, in my opinion, due to the strong influence of America’s Protestant background. This background permeates both the British and the American elite – as intertwined as they are. Each has their background in the Protestant and liberal traditions and are thus predisposed to an aggressively evangelical disposition, leading to the kind of hypocritical moralizing as displayed by the British towards Mussolini, and which has been on frequent display in America. While on the other hand China is a land power empire that has a much different civilizational ethos, one which puts importance upon much older traditional values such as hierarchy, and order. This cultural difference exasperates the potential for conflict. One can never underestimate the human element in politics, perhaps if Anthony Eden had thicker skin or if the British Empire had a Foreign Secretary that was friendlier to the Italians, the Stresa Front could possibly have been saved, or at least Anglo-Italian relations might have been salvaged.

Whether or not war will break out between China and the United States remains to be seen but regardless, it strikes me that America’s current situation with Russia resembles the situation with Italy described above. It wasn’t that long ago that relations between Washington and the Kremlin were much more conciliatory. After 9/11 the Russians supported America’s war on international terrorism. While Russian President Vladimir Putin is demonized by Western elites and their media today, in the early 2000’s the Russian President gave America’s international efforts his support both diplomatically – in the United Nations thereby helping to legitimize America’s war in Afghanistan – as well as through collaboration with Russia’s intelligence services during the invasion of Afghanistan. [6]

The next part of this series will take a much deeper exploration of the Russian Italian comparison…


[1] Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, p. 137-138 (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), Pat Buchanan.

[2] Ibid. Citing, Adolf Hitler, p. 355 (Garden City: N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), John Toland. Mussolini: A Study in Power, p. 288(London: Discus, 1964), Ivone Kirkpatrick. Duce!: A Biography of Benito Mussolini, p.124 (New York: Viking Press, 1971), Richard Collier.

[3] Buchanan, p. 143.

[4] Coming Storms: The Return of Great-Power War, Christopher Layne, Foreign Affairs, October 13th 2020

[5] A ‘Limited’ Nuclear War Quickly Could Kill 90 Million People, David Axe, October 3, 2019

[6] Last War for the World Island, p. 108-109 (London: Arktos Media, 2015,) Alexander Dugin