Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:10 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:10 | SYDNEY

Fateful choices, then and now


Andrew Shearer

16 March 2011 10:58

I've just finished reading Ian Kershaw's Fateful Choices. It's a compelling analysis of ten decisions by war leaders in Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and Japan during 1940 and 1941 (a comprehensive review here). It should be compulsory reading for statesmen, diplomats and generals in 21st century Asia.

This is not to draw clumsy parallels between the most devastating war in human history and the contemporary Asian security outlook. In particular, the extent of economic integration (reinforced by the absence so far of any serious lapse into protectionism following the global financial crisis) and the absence of serious ideological conflict distinguish 2011 from 1941. Nonetheless, Kershaw offers much food for thought.

Against the backdrop of today's forecasts of China's inexorable rise and of US decline, Kershaw does us the invaluable service of reminding us that history is fluid, messy and, crucially, shaped by the choices states make. He drills down to examine the other options available to each leader, the reasons they made the decision they did and the way their future options were shaped by previous choices — and also by the choices of other leaders.

By the time it is written, history looks like it was always going to turn out that way. But as my colleagues and I pointed out in Power and Choice, there is nothing preordained about Asia's security future, good or bad.

Here are a few of the other insights I took away from Fateful Choices:

  • It not international institutions but the interactions between great powers that shape the international order. Their choices define and circumscribe the choices available to lesser powers. Australia is experiencing this now, as we seek to balance our economic interests in a more assertive China with our security interests in the US alliance system.
  • The importance of human agency — and in particular leadership — in accelerating, channeling or resisting historical forces and sometimes changing the course of events. There are many examples, but Churchill's crucial rallying of British resolve in the early days of May 1940 is one stand-out (and the subject of another great book, John Lukacs' Five Days in London). 
  • Democracies may not always act as decisively as authoritarian states. But they are less likely to make catastrophic strategic blunders and are better able to recover from errors. Much to Churchill's frustration, isolationist sentiment constrained Roosevelt from bringing the US formally into the war against Germany until Hitler unwisely declared war on America after Pearl Harbor. By contrast, once Hitler and Japan's elite resolved on expansion only total and disastrous defeat could turn their nations from that path.
  • A tendency not to understand others' choices and their implications for one's own strategy. Hitler made his fatal decision to invade Russia in almost complete ignorance of the strategic intentions of Japan. Nor did he have any idea that the other member of the Tripartite Pact, Italy, was planning its ham-fisted attack on Greece, complicating Operation Barbarossa.
  • Intelligence and good process can make a difference. Stalin had enough information to have known that Hitler was about to attack Russia and to take defensive measures. But his absolute power meant he was blinded to impending reality by overconfidence in his own judgment, which he bullied Soviet intelligence and military officers into sharing. By contrast, US code-breakers gave Roosevelt a good handle on Japan's strategic intentions (albeit insufficient to avert Pearl Harbor).
  • The choices a state makes today can radically constrain its future options. Stalin's brutal purge of the Soviet officer corps in 1937 virtually decapitated the army when national survival would depend on it just four years later.

Worryingly, Kershaw's book also reminds us that energy insecurity, mercantilism and competition for great power prestige lay at the heart of the war in the Pacific. On that occasion, the interaction of the great powers' decisions produced a cataclysm.

Let's hope the region's statesmen make better choices this time round. An open international trading system, a healthy balance of power and freedom of navigation have to remain the foundations. More on that in due course from the Lowy Asia security team.