If the domino theory has taught us anything, it is that conventional wisdom is often wrong. Take NATO, for example 

Pat MurphyIf you live long enough, it’s hard to ignore the way in which conventional wisdom shifts. Particularly what tends to be characterized as “enlightened” or “advanced” opinion.

Take, for instance, the domino theory.

First propounded in the mid-1950s during Dwight Eisenhower’s U.S. administration, the domino theory is often ascribed to John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state. It was, in substantial measure, the product of lessons learned from the years leading up to the Second World War. Aggressive countries or ideological movements should be resisted as early as possible rather than appeased. If you let them succeed, they’d develop momentum and then move on to the next target. Hence the metaphor of falling dominoes.

This belief duly informed American policy in Southeast Asia. Instead of perceiving Vietnam as a primarily localized conflict, the U.S. saw it as potentially the first domino. If it were allowed to fall to a militarily aggressive communist movement, the rest of the region would follow in quick order. Therefore it was the place to draw the line.

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Regardless of theory or motives, the Vietnam War turned out disastrously for American foreign policy. While there would have been major bloodshed and hardship in the absence of American intervention, ultimately, that intervention failed. Rather than preventing the undesirable outcome, it lengthened the conflict and upped the casualty count.

And in the process, the domino theory became completely discredited. Especially when – widespread jitters notwithstanding – the other dominoes didn’t subsequently fall.

Now, however, it’s back again. If Ukraine falls, we’re told, it’ll just be Vladimir Putin’s first target and all of Europe will be in danger. The dominoes will start to topple.

Then there’s NATO.

To paraphrase the alliance’s first secretary general, it was founded in 1949 to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” And given the prostrate condition of much of Western Europe and the fearsome reputation of Josef Stalin’s Red Army, it was hard to argue with that proposition.

Things began to change in the 1960s. Although the shift in progressive opinion wasn’t universal, it wasn’t negligible either. Here in Canada, for instance, the federal NDP came out in favour of withdrawing from NATO, and Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau seriously flirted with the idea. But in the face of internal cabinet opposition, he contented himself with reducing Canada’s presence in the alliance’s European front line.

These days, though, enthusiasm for NATO is unanimous across the political spectrum. Or at least it is rhetorically.

With Putin’s ambitions unmasked, so the argument goes, things have changed. As the estimable John Maynard Keynes famously observed: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

While the Keynes admonition is certainly wise, it’s a justification that doesn’t fit the facts of the case. Things may have changed – they always do. But just not in a way that supports the shift in opinion.

Putin is undoubtedly evil, and there’s no justification for his current assault on Ukraine. However, viewing Ukraine as the inevitable first in a long series of dominoes ignores the particular historical circumstances of the Russia-Ukraine relationship.

More important, however, is the dramatic shift in relative positions. By any reasonable measure, the Soviet Union of the 1960s was a far greater threat than Russia is today. Whatever Putin’s appetite might be, the idea that he could march through Europe is ridiculous. But it was at least conceivable that the old Soviet Union could.

Looking at shrunken Russia’s laboured performance against the much smaller Ukraine, the image of Russia as an awesome military juggernaut is dubious in the extreme. Western Europe has a much bigger population and is vastly richer than Russia. Had it a mind to, it has the resources to create a defence capability that could wipe the floor with any Russian threat.

The change in circumstances isn’t so much that the world has suddenly become a dangerous place. Rather, it’s the realization that the practice of skimping on your defence and relying on the Americans to do whatever heavy lifting is required may no longer be as tenable as previously assumed.

Collective defence is indeed a very good idea. And a NATO where everyone pulls their weight is an inherently valuable entity. But the expectation that egregious free riders should be permanently protected is an entirely different matter.

You could even call it a chancy bet.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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