The likelihood of war depends heavily upon the structure of international relations (i.e. the rules that govern how states relate to each other). Opponents of warfare try to devise systems that reduce the likelihood of military conflict. Opportunities to revise international relations tend to occur at the conclusion of major wars. At these times, both ordinary people and political elites comprehend the horrendous costs of warfare and want to inhibit its recurrence. Unfortunately, many of these precious peacemaking opportunities are utterly botched.

In modern times, there have been three key opportunities to revise the structure of international relations: the conclusion of World War I (1919), the conclusion of World War II (1945), and the end of the Cold War (1989). It is now generally agreed that the Versailles Peace Treaty, at the end of World War I, was a political disaster. The punitive treatment of Germany propelled it toward revenge and the next world war. The exclusion of Soviet Russia rendered European security agreements extremely difficult. The Middle East was subjected to the tender mercies of colonial powers Britain and France and saddled with a lethal Zionist movement.

The peace arrangement following World War II was more successful. A viable international organization (the U.N.) was established. Germany and Japan were soon readmitted into the community of nations as prosperous but (relatively) demilitarized societies. Warfare was banished from Europe for half a century. Nevertheless, this resolution was also deeply flawed. It set in motion a costly and unnecessary Cold War that nullified any genuine peace. The danger of nuclear warfare remained uncontrolled. The United States was cast in the role of global hegemon and quickly embarked upon the military interventions that this mistaken identity entailed.

The system of international relations emerging from the end of the Cold War has also proved profoundly unsatisfactory. The Cold War ended largely due to the initiatives of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. These initiatives were voluntary: The Soviet economy, though deeply troubled, could have endured. Indeed, the Soviet Union had weathered crises of far greater magnitude. Gorbachev (perhaps naively) hoped to dismantle Cold War institutions like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and to inaugurate harmonious egalitarian economic and political organizations. Gorbachev’s ideology had evolved from Khrushchev-style Communism to something like social democracy.

But instead of welcoming constructive partnership, the United States treated Russia as a defeated nation. Russia was lampooned as a third-rate power and prodded to adopt economically (and demographically) disastrous shock therapy. Russia’s political interests were disregarded, and it was denied full membership in the Western community of nations. NATO expanded to the very borders of Russia (revoking promises made to Gorbachev), the U.S. unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty (on spurious grounds), and NATO twice attacked Russia’s ally Serbia. Washington also encouraged so-called “color revolutions” that liquidated Russian alliances with Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova.

Initially, post-Soviet Russian leaders, including Putin, were eager to cooperate with the United States. However, bitter experience eventually convinced Putin that cooperation with the U.S. on the basis of equality and mutual respect was impossible. American political elites want global dominance and regard Russia as a currently weak but potentially dangerous rival to be further debilitated. These beliefs, and the actions they engender, ultimately induced a rebirth of Russian militarism and a far more assertive Russian foreign policy exercised in Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. Today, the danger of military conflict with Russia equals that which existed during the darkest moments of the Cold War.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.