America entered into a post-Cold War rendition of the Weimar era when Trump$4EVA incited his “minute men” militants to siege the US Capitol in January 2020 in a failed effort to overturn the constitutionally mandated Electoral College vote.
Trump has continued to claim that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” against him. Forgotten by his supporters, he had made similar claims that the Democrats would rig the election against him before the 2016 presidential election, but he still won the Presidency anyway by a slim margin of roughly 80,000 votes in three states, thereby winning the Electoral College—even though he had lost the popular vote by close to 3 million ballots to Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, he became a supporter of the Electoral College.
Yet in 2020, Trump literarily attacked the entire American democratic system after he had clearly lost the election by both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Reminiscent of the Black Shirts of the Oswald Mosley in the UK, or those of Benito Mussolini in Italy, who included a number of individuals who fought in World War I, Trump’s “minute men” militants, who included a number of veterans of the American “forever wars,” sieged the US Capitol in support of Trump$4EVA’s false claims.
Despite the continuing threat of authoritarian movements wreaking havoc, if not trying to seize power, in a highly polarized USA, the Weimar analogy to the contemporary USA is nevertheless misleading. This is because the USA is not a fully collapsed global empire as was the case for Weimar Germany following Imperial German defeat and collapse after World War I.
Instead, it is the Russian Federation, after the collapse of the Soviet empire at the end of the Cold War, that more closely plays the role of Weimar Germany—even though it possesses both Tsarist and Soviet domestic characteristics. In this respect, the fledgling Weimar Russian “democracy” under Boris Yeltsin has already transformed into Putin’s hybrid version of neo-Tsarist and neo-Stalinist authoritarianism—as opposed to Hitler’s version of fascism.
The USA as Great Britain
On a systemic level, the contemporary post-Cold War global system represents a hybrid of both the pre-World War I and pre-World War II eras.
In this perspective, the contemporary USA plays a role as an insular hegemonic and overseas interventionist state that is closer to that of Great Britain before World War I than the minimally-interventionist role that London played in the global system in the interwar period until the outbreak of World War II.
Here, for example, the ill-advised and poorly conceived US-led military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 best parallel British military interventions in Afghanistan (1878–80; 1919) and in Egypt from 1882 to 1956. Unlike the USA today, Great Britain was largely able to cut its occupation short in Afghanistan, but London remained a long time in Egypt despite its repeated promise to withdraw.
At the same time, much as pre-World War I Great Britain feared the loss of its global hegemony to either Imperial Germany, or else to the Franco-Russian Dual Alliance, before London fully aligned with Paris and St. Petersburg against Berlin by 1908-14, the USA primarily fears the break-up of its alliances and its loss of global hegemony to a more assertive China, aligned with a militant Russia, plus Iran, North Korea, among other states.
A Sino-Russian “Rapallo Pact”
After Soviet collapse, a truncated Russian Federation now finds itself confronted with NATO and EU expansion into the former Soviet spheres of influence and security toward Russian borders—an expansion that has led Moscow to secure itself in the east by means of a rapprochement with China—in what can be called a “neo-Rapallo pact”.
From a comparative geostrategic perspective, the contemporary Sino-Russian rapprochement parallels interwar Weimar German efforts to forge the 1922-23 Rapallo Pact with the Soviet Union after Tsarist and Imperial German imperial collapse. And much as contemporary Russia has opposed both NATO and EU expansion, an unstable Weimar Germany had opposed the Versailles Treaty and the French military build-up symbolized by the Maginot line, plus French efforts to establish Locarno alliances with eastern European states as well as the Soviet Union.
The Weimar-Soviet Rapallo Treaty had been intended, at least in part, to prevent Great Britain and France from re-aligning with (Soviet) Russia against Weimar Germany, while the Pact concurrently sought to check the possibility that Britain might align with Imperial Germany against the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Weimar German-Soviet rapprochement became a short-lived alliance between Hitler and Stalin in the period from 1939 to 1941 just at the beginning of World War II.
In the contemporary situation, the Sino-Russian version of the “Rapallo Pact” is intended, at least in part, to prevent US and NATO from re-aligning with China against Russia, as the US did in the period 1978-1989. Chinese-Russian cooperation is also intended to check the US and NATO from possibly aligning with the Russian Federation against China, as was at least considered by the George Bush Sr. and the first term Clinton administrations.
For its part, by (thus far) aligning as closely with Moscow as possible, Beijing seeks to revenge itself for more than 100 years of humiliation after the Opium Wars in opposition to strong US political-military ties to Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, not to overlook growing US and European ties to India as well. China’s global geo-economic strategy is now reaching beyond Eurasia. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), and its Comprehensive Investment Plan with Europe, plus trade and investment plans with Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, among other countries, are seen as competing with American economic and national security interests.
The historical parallel between the Weimar German-Soviet and Sino-Russian “Rapallo Pacts” raises the question: Could the contemporary Sino-Russian “Rapallo Pact” become a full-fledged alliance against the US and its allies that can challenge American hegemony across the globe, possibly resulting in war? Or could this Axis break apart as did the Hitler and Stalin pact, but resulting in war between Russia and China over Eurasia? Or can the US, plus its Allies and partners, find ways to reach viable accommodations with their Russian and Chinese rivals in the effort to achieve peace, social and political reforms, and human development?
“Make America great again” vs “America is back”
The major dilemma for Trump, and now for Biden, is the fear that the US will soon lose its position of global hegemony to China—as Beijing and Moscow attempt, either separately or in collaboration, to forge a Eurasian Axis with as many states as possible. Despite Trump’s complaints, America has not entirely lost its position of global hegemony—although it could lose its regional hegemony in areas such as the Black Sea, the Arctic, and the East and South China seas—if it does not soon engage in full-fledged peace-oriented diplomacy.
In terms of global strategy, the main difference between Trump and Biden is that Trump’s “America First” doctrine was intended to assert US hegemony by engaging in protectionist measures versus both Allies and Rivals—in an effort to press US Allies to build up their own military capabilities and force them into compliance with American global strategy.
By contrast, Biden’s “America is Back” doctrine seeks to revive the post-Cold War neo-liberal, the neo-conservative consensus that seeks counter authoritarian states—in the effort to bring about “democratic” reforms, if not regime change. President Biden intends to engage in a more co-optive multilateral approach that draws like-minded US Allies and partners into more willingly backing US global strategy by renewing America’s advantages “to revitalize democracy the world over.”
Yet what was called by Trump “Make America Great Again” or by Biden “America is Back” really represents two sides of the same coin. This is because US global strategy has morphed under the Trump administration from the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) to “Great Power Competition”—or what can be called “Preparation for Major Power Warfare.”
Yet by focusing on great power rivalry, and particularly by undermining the State Department over the past four years, Trump has set a dangerous trap for Biden by making it even more difficult to seek diplomatic solutions to American disputes with both Allies and Rivals. Once again, Biden must rebuild America’s capacity for truly engaged peace-oriented diplomacy—with the use of force as a truly last resort.
Polarization of alliances
The contemporary danger is that the US-NATO alliance with Japan and other states will continue to tighten against the Russia-China Axis—thereby polarizing the world into two rival alliances.
In a mix of the pre-World War I and pre-World War II eras, the US-led alliance of essentially democratic insular states—that includes NATO, the EU, plus Japan, South Korea, Australia, and ASEAN, plus partners such as Ukraine and Taiwan, and possibly India—is perceived as trying to “encircle” a Russia-China-Iran-North Korea-Venezuela axis of essentially authoritarian continental and amphibious states.
In this new geopolitical Game of Go, Russia and China are accordingly playing their own version of the Rapallo Pact, plus gaining leverage against the US and its Allies by means of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) so as to counter-encircle US allies, as previously argued.
In addition to attempting to tighten controls over its own allies, so as to prevent Belarus, for example, from shifting away from the CSTO and toward the European Union, Russia has hoped to splinter NATO and the EU if possible. Here, for example, the Russian military build-up in discontiguous Kaliningrad seeks to pressure NATO-members Poland, the Baltic States, Norway and EU-member Sweden. Recurrent geopolitical conflicts have led present Kaliningrad’s geopolitical position to parallel East Prussia’s separation from Weimar/ Nazi Germany in the interwar period.
And much as the early 20th century Berlin-Baghdad railway was key to Imperial German efforts to influence, and then eventually align with, the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Russia has attempted to use energy pipelines as strategic leverage to influence Turkey away from NATO—in addition to the sale of S-400 missile defenses to Ankara.
Moscow has concurrently hoped to counter NATO and EU backing for Ukraine by annexing Crimea and by engaging in political-military interference in the Donbas region, in addition to building up its military capabilities in Crimea. In terms of the pre-World War I analogy, contemporary conflict over Ukraine can be compared and contrasted with Bismarck’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, or even Lenin’s actions in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1917-21)—in a historically recurring conflict that is presently distorted by memories of the horrific eastern European bloodlands of the interwar period that will make a peaceful settlement even more difficult to achieve.
To mix historical metaphors even further, the conflict over Crimea appears reminiscent of the mid-19th century Crimean War that came very close to sparking an all-European war against Tsarist Russia—as was advocated in the New York Tribune by Karl Marx at the time. And given Karl Marx’s bitter animosity toward pan-Slavism and Tsarist Russia, it is easy to understand why many German Socialists were later co-opted into supporting Imperial German war plans against Russia (and France) in 1914.
Somewhat similarly, there is a danger that American and European opposition to Vladimir Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s authoritarian leaderships in both Russia and China could be manipulated by militarists of any political party into a possible war in the not-so-distant future—if sane, peace-oriented leadership does not prevail in both the US and Europe.
Risk of major power war
The risk is that the US, more like Great Britain in the immediate pre-World War I period than like Britain before World War II, could continue to press NATO and the US-Japan alliance against the Eurasian Russia-China axis in order to prevent the latter from linking even closer to Iran and Turkey, among other states, and to prevent Russia and China from attempting to draw Japan, and some of the European states into “neutrality” —thus splintering NATO and the US-Japanese alliance.
In many ways, US global strategy parallels the strategy of pre-World War I Great Britain that had opposed Imperial German threats to align with either Russia or France or even pursue the less likely possibility of French-German-Russian entente. Instead, Great Britain reluctantly backed the Franco-Russian Dual Alliance against Imperial Germany. And although London did not initiate war in 1914, its 1904-07 ententes with the tight Franco-Russian Dual Alliance led Imperial Germany to cry “encirclement” and explode in a two-front war in 1914.
In contemporary circumstances, as it becomes more difficult for the dueling US-led alliances and the Sino- Russia axis to break out of their games of encirclement and counter-encirclement, any spark in the wider Middle East shatter belt, or between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea, or between China and the US/Japan over Taiwan, or else North vs. South Korea could set these two alliances against each other—given the ongoing US-NATO-Russian-China military build-up and Butter Battle arms race.
From the Beer Hall Putsch and Reichstag fire to the siege of the US Capitol
Even though the siege of the US Capitol by Trump’s “minute men” in January 2020 was not as momentous an event as Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 or the later burning of the Reichstag in 1933—that was then blamed on the Communists and a Dutch anarchist but possibly set aflame by Nazis themselves—the siege on the US Capitol could still foreshadow much worse to come…
As indicated in his speech at the so-called “Conservative” Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump will continue to repeat the Big Lie that the dysfunctional US electoral system was rigged against him and that it was not his Trump$4EVA supporters who engaged in violence, but the amorphous leftwing anarchist group, Antifa…
As I have previously argued, to reduce the possibility that any authoritarian leader from the Far Right or the Far Left could come to power in the new “Weimar era,” the US president should be limited to a single 6-year term in office—in the process of strengthening Congress relative to the presidency. If term limitations for both presidents and prime ministers, among other reforms, can be implemented, these reforms could possibly help to heal the apparently deepening socio-political polarization within American and other democratic societies...
Like Trump, Biden had campaigned on promises to put to an end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Yet in following Trump’s footsteps, Biden’s policies toward Russia and China, among other states, are risking major power war given his strong support for an alliance of “democracies” vs. “authoritarian” regimes. Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson (who had unfortunately reneged on implementing Democratic Party demands for a single term presidency) and Franklin D. Roosevelt had both promised to keep the US out of World War I and World War II respectively—yet both leaders were sucked into the maelstrom of global conflicts.
Without fully engaged US and European diplomacy that seeks to reach an accommodation with both Russia and China, as well as with countries such as Iran and North Korea, there is a growing risk of major power war—whether one puts more emphasis on analogies to pre-World War I, pre-World War II, or even the pre-Crimean War, eras.
The dilemma is that historical conflicts tend to recur in ever-changing and generally unexpected variations, so that predictions and warnings of possible future wars are often ignored or repressed, if not misinterpreted…while peace initiatives and proposals for substantial reforms that can bring about significant qualitative change are not implemented…
Gardner H., IR Theory, Historical Analogy, and Major Power War, New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2019.
Gardner H., Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History, New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015.
Gardner H., The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon, London: Ashgate, 2015.
Gardner H., The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention, London: Ashgate, February 2012.