OPINION | ART HOBSON: Why must we make war?

History shows the frailties of Homo sapiens

Since Russia's immoral and foolish invasion, the world has been all too "interesting." This is my sixth (and hopefully last) consecutive column about Ukraine. I'd rather write about science, global warming, or the frailties of American culture.

On the theory that it's better to recall history rather than condemned to repeat it, let's review warfare during this century and the last.

An excess of weapons and alliances plus one random assassination generated the Great War of 1914-1918. Afterward, lingering hostility toward Germany provoked that nation's rearmament, leading to the second act of what historian Niall Ferguson calls "The War of the World." Like World War I, World War II created a bitter aftermath -- a 45-year "Cold War" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A sword of Damocles hung over the planet as each nation amassed some 30,000 nuclear weapons, each far larger than the two nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1986 the world nearly banished nuclear weapons. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly proposed a plan for abolishing all nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th century and met with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to discuss this. Reagan agreed that nuclear weapons should be banned, but he foolishly wanted to retain his program to provide an impenetrable shield against nuclear weapons. Most scientists thought this was a technological fantasy that would only weaken our only real defense against nuclear war, namely deterrence by the threat of mutual annihilation. This disagreement doomed Gorbachev's proposal -- an historic missed opportunity.

By 1989, civil discontent destabilized many nations of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet-led military alliance of East European states), leading to the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991. "The Button," a history of nuclear weapons diplomacy co-authored by former U.S. Secretary of Defense (under President Bill Clinton) William Perry, is my source for an inside look at what happened next.

The end of the Cold War brought a rare opportunity to transform U.S.-Russia relationships. NATO, established in 1949 to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe, sought a new partnership with Russia. Newly independent Eastern European nations sought NATO membership but NATO, realizing that this could destroy the opportunity to cooperate with Moscow, wisely ignored this. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush's administration assured Russia that NATO would expand "not one inch eastward." Russian President Gorbachev only accepted reunification of East and West Germany because of assurances from western leaders that NATO would not expand after he withdrew Russian forces from Eastern Europe.

U.S.-Russia cooperation was remarkable during this difficult period. America did not go so far as to offer NATO membership to Russia, but Russia did agree to join a new NATO auxiliary called Partnership For Peace (PFP), which former Warsaw Pact states were also invited to join.

Russia cooperated remarkably in joint PFP military exercises in the United States and Ukraine, and hosted exercises that included troops from the USA, other NATO nations and Ukraine. This training turned out to be valuable when NATO deployed troops in Bosnia in 1995. Russia sent its best paratrooper brigade to join that effort, which was led by an American general. Yet Russia still saw NATO as a threat.

In 1996, the Clinton Administration decided, despite Russian misgivings, to expand NATO by offering membership to Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland. In an open letter to Clinton, more than 40 experienced foreign policy experts expressed concern about NATO expansion, especially since there was no Russian threat at that time. The U.S. architect of the Cold War, George Kennan, stated, "I think [NATO expansion] is the beginning of a new Cold War. ... The Russians will gradually react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies. ... It is a tragic mistake."

After that, NATO was standoffish toward Russia and expanded right up to Russia's border. NATO acted as if Moscow's concerns did not matter.

Today, Ukraine is paying the price for these mistakes while the West continues acting as if Moscow's concerns do not matter. Prior to President Putin's invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is leaving "no stone unturned" in the search for a peaceful resolution. Yet Blinken has always rejected as a "nonstarter" the only stone that interests Putin: neutral status for Ukraine.

And so it goes. As World War I poet Wilfred Owen put it, both sides repeat "the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."