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Glory and the New World Order

by Daniel Szechi on Mar 18, 1998

Daniel Szechi

Slobodan Milosevic is one of the demon princes of the modern American imagination. Like Saddam Hussein and Muamar Quaddafi, he runs a regime that routinely tortures and persecutes his own people and cold-bloodedly promotes terrorism and mayhem among his neighbors. Now once again he is busy defying the United States and affronting American moral values.

But the United States does not know how to deal with him and those like him. They confront us, then back down, then do it again and again. Because most U.S. statesmen and politicians work on a predictable basis, driven by pocketbook economic politics, Milosevic and the others seem like crazy men. What could they possibly gain from provoking the United States? In military terms it makes as much sense as poking a 500-pound gorilla with a cocktail stick.

The problem lies in our own understanding, because in their own terms they are behaving perfectly rationally. They rarely want to provoke the United States. When they do it is incidental to their main purpose. What they are really aiming at is nothing less than everlasting glory.

For hundreds of years the kings of Europe sought glory through a combination of military victories like Lepanto, the great European naval victory over the Turks in 1571, awesome extravagance such as the palace of Versailles and vast public building projects such as the city of St. Petersburg. They believed that by pursuing glory they were fulfilling their God-given destiny. In practical terms, to be a real king one had to crush one's enemies and flaunt one's wealth and power.

The best known exponent of this kind of egomaniacal monarchy was Louis XIV of France. For five decades in the late 17th and early 18th centuries he made and broke treaties at will, attacked his neighbors and stole their territory, stamped out Protestantism in his own country and tried to undermine it elsewhere, and left France with a huge legacy of elegant, beautiful architecture built on the backs of a population impoverished by war and grinding taxation. He was both "the great bully of Europe" and the role model for such other European princes as Peter the Great of Russia and Philip V of Spain.

Milosevic and Saddam Hussein claim to be democratic politicians, chosen by the will of the people. As every observer of life in Serbia and Iraq well knows, however, they are all in fact dictators, or pseudo-kings, maintained in power by secret police, torture, propaganda and rigged elections. But most dictators now, like the kings of ages past, want to feel that they are heroes fulfilling a destiny beyond that of ordinary men, not just gangsters with soldiers and money. And so just like those European kings they build huge palaces, make war on their neighbors, and bloodily crush their opponents at home.

Their final objective never varies. Milosevic makes war on his neighbors and his Albanian minority, all supposedly in the cause of "Greater Serbia," but like all the rest what he really seeks is a permanent, glorious place in his nation's history.

So how should a constitutional democracy like the United States deal with these modern dictator-kings? Louis XIV was finally stopped by bitter, ceaseless war. Most of the other states of Europe united in the Grand Alliance and for eleven years pounded away at the French. By the end, Louis XIV's kingdom was no longer in any condition to support further pursuit of glory, and for the next fifty years his successors sought renown in a more subdued fashion, for fear of provoking a similar backlash.

Fortunately, Milosevic and his friends have nowhere near the relative military might of Louis XIV's France. The United States would not have to batter at any of them for a decade to dispel their leaders' dreams of glory. Even so, the American people would have to accept the need for sustained involvement in brutal local wars in which some U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen, and many enemy civilians, would certainly be killed and maimed.

Vietnam gave us a deep aversion to getting into such conflicts. It is an open question whether we have the will, and the steely inhumanity, to see us through vicious small wars again even 25 years later. Many people are legitimately concerned as to what another interventionist war might do to U.S. democracy. What is certain is that as long as we do not intervene, the dictator-kings of the new world order will continue to seek glory by all the means at their disposal.

Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.