Several years after he was forced into retirement, Otto von Bismarck was asked what could start the next major war.  “Europe today is a powder keg,” he replied, “and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal . . . I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where: some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”

Indeed, the Annexation Crisis of 1908—just ten years after Bismarck’s death—paved the way for the catastrophe of 1914.  Austria-Hungary acted unilaterally in annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina, in open violation of international law and, specifically, of the Treaty of Berlin (1878).  Confident of Germany’s support, the dual monarchy rode roughshod over Serbia, humiliated Russia, and presented other powers with a fait accompli—setting the stage for a series of crises that culminated in the suicide of Europe six years later.

Exactly one century later, U.S. actions in the Balkans bear an uncanny semblance to those of imperial Vienna.  Kosovo’s independence, unilaterally proclaimed on February 17 and recognized by Washington two days later, has been Washington’s project from the outset.  It is supported enthusiastically by a few European countries (Great Britain), only reluctantly by most of them (e.g., Italy), and not at all by some (Spain).  That project also involves a blatant violation of international law, in general, and of the Helsinki Final Act, in particular.  It also entails brutalizing Serbia, challenging Russia, and demanding an uncomplaining acceptance of the preordained outcome from others.  It, too, is a reckless adventure devoid of any rational justification and indefensible on any traditional understanding of the American interest.

Washington’s urge to challenge and confront Russia is equally reminiscent of an unpleasant and occasionally fatal Central European proclivity manifest in the run-up both to 1914 and to 1941.  Beyond Kosovo, it is most obvious in the attempt by the Bush administration to bring Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics on Russia’s southern flank, into NATO.

Before the NATO summit in Bucharest in early April, opposition to such plans came not only from Moscow but from within the alliance.  On this issue, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is following the policy of Alleingang (a go-it-alone rapprochement) with Moscow, openly opposing Georgian and Ukrainian Membership Action Plans (MAPs).  Blocking those MAPs is now Berlin’s bipartisan policy, a reflection of Germany’s awareness that an energy-dependent Europe cannot afford to be a hostage to Washington’s Russophobia.  At a joint briefing following Merkel’s visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he and the chancellor shared a common position on NATO enlargement.  Merkel knows that the latter-day, U.S.-led Drang nach Osten is a poisoned chalice.  From a neoconservative point of view, however, there is no better way to ensure U.S. dominance in perpetuity than subverting the Russo-German rapprochement.

Further NATO expansion would have dire geopolitical consequences.  It would strengthen Washington’s bipartisan commitment to use NATO as a mere tool for the execution of its policies.  It would cement and perpetuate NATO’s new mission as a self-appointed promoter of democracy, protector of human rights, and guardian against instability outside its original core.  It was on those grounds, rather than in response to any supposed threat, that the Clinton administration pushed for the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and President Bush brought in the Baltic republics, Bulgaria, and Rumania.  Bill Clinton’s 1999 air war against the Serbs marked a decisive shift in NATO’s mutation from a defensive alliance into a supranational security force based on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.”  The trusty keeper of the gate had become a roaming vigilante.

The second problem with NATO expansion is that it is part of the neoconservative agenda of promoting an adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow.  Further NATO enlargement means that Russian missiles will remain targeted on American cities.  While this may be of no consequence to the denizens of Lvov or Tbilisi, it should focus minds in New York, Seattle, and Omaha.  By extending her protectorate deep inside Eastern Europe, America would be diminishing, rather than enhancing, her security.  By cementing its cordon sanitaire around Russia, Washington indirectly encourages the belief that the bear is on its last legs, which is certainly no longer the case.

The notion of NATO extension pleases some Eastern Europeans who have their own axes to grind—notably, those in Warsaw—but it can only jeopardize Europe’s chances of long-term peace.  The United States should understand why the elites in some former Soviet republics have a vested geopolitical interest, and an even more acute psychological need, to treat Russia as the enemy, but she should never allow herself to be seduced by their obsessions.  They all proclaim their devotion to the ideological assumptions of the new NATO, but their real agenda is twofold: to have a Western (read: American) security guarantee against Russia, and to strengthen their own position vis-à-vis those neighbors with whom they have an ongoing or potential dispute.  NATO membership may even embolden some to defrost conflicts—notably, in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia—that would have otherwise remained dormant.

The third reason NATO expansion is bad is found in the security guarantee itself.  Article V of the NATO Charter clearly states that an attack on one is an attack on all, which translates into an automatic guarantee of aid to an ally in distress.  The United States will supposedly provide her protective cover to new clients right in Russia’s geopolitical backyard, in an area whose fortunes are not vital to this country’s interests.  Once included, those faraway lands of which we know little will become a permanent fixture of our foreign-policy establishment’s mind-set.  The United States will assume the nominal responsibility for open-ended claims by, say, Tbilisi, over a host of disputed frontiers that were drawn arbitrarily by communists and bear little relation to ethnicity or history.  At no obvious benefit to the United States, we would be asked to underwrite a post-Soviet outcome that is not inherently stable, just, or “democratic.”

Either the United States is serious that she would risk a thermonuclear war for the sake of, say, Georgia’s rights to Abkhazia (which is insane), or she is not (which makes NATO expansion frivolous and dangerous).  This calls to mind previous Western experiments with security guarantees in the region—the carve-up of Czechoslovakia in October 1938, or Poland’s destruction in September 1939.  The lesson of Locarno for the Bush administration is clear: Security guarantees that are not based on the provider’s complete resolve to fight a full-blown war to fulfill them are worse than no guarantees at all.  They are certain to be challenged.

And finally, simultaneous with the Kosovo gambit and the NATO expansion ploy, the Bush administration is pressuring its European partners to revive the project to construct a natural-gas pipeline that would bypass Russia.  The Nabucco pipeline is intended to link up with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline and the proposed Trans-Caspian networks.  The Europeans have been deserting the Nabucco line since the beginning of this year and crossing over to the rival South Stream project run by Russian oil giant Gazprom.  The ten-billion-dollar South Stream pipeline will run from Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, where it will divide into a southern branch through northern Greece and across the Adriatic to Italy, and a northern branch through Serbia and Hungary to Austria.

Kosovo, NATO expansion, and the anti-Russian energy strategy: All three are dangerous policies, at odds with reason and with the American interest.  And all three will likely continue, no matter who comes to the White House next January.

If John McCain is elected in November, there will be no change in the ruling consensus in Washington.  He has been expressing “concern” about Chechnya, the Caucasus, Georgia, and “the oil and gas reserves in the region” since well before his failed bid for the presidency in 2000.  Almost ten years later, in a major foreign-policy speech on March 26, McCain did his utmost to offend Moscow by insisting that Russia is not a democracy and suggesting that she should be excluded from the G8 group.  Russia has changed beyond recognition during that decade, but McCain learns nothing and forgets nothing.

A strong supporter of Georgia “reasserting her sovereignty” over her breakaway provinces, McCain is also an enthusiastic upholder of Kosovo’s independence.  On March 26, he sent his wife, Cindy, to Pristina to meet Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, thereby reiterating his oft-stated support for the Clinton-inspired and Bush-recognized terrorist statelet.  Far from being prepared to wage a serious war against Islamic terrorists worldwide, as he claims, McCain follows the bipartisan Washington line of appeasing jihad in the Balkans in the hope that this can buy a few points for America in the Islamic world.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may differ from McCain, and from each other, in style and emphasis; in substance, however, they are the same.  They are postmodern Democrats and therefore, perforce, Serbophobes, Russophobes, Europhobes, and Christophobes.  Mrs. Clinton differs from Mr. Obama merely in the extent to which she embellishes her rich and varied “experience” with fact-free detail.  She has thus invoked her trip to Bosnia in March 1996 as evidence that her foreign travel involved a perilous mission into a war zone, which included dodging imaginary sniper fire.  Equally absurd was her claim to have “negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo.”  As First Lady, she traveled to Macedonia and visited a refugee camp for Kosovo Albanians; yet her trip to Macedonia took place on May 14, 1999—one day after the borders were opened to refugees.

Mrs. Clinton and her ilk lie—and, therefore, presumably cheat and steal—while at the same time claiming to subscribe to the ideology of universal human values, of an all-embracing culture.  She and her colleagues favor “diversity” while promoting its exact opposite: a mind-numbing, soul-killing global monism supported by misappropriated and misused American power.  It is futile to waste time pondering whether one candidate or another among them would do anything differently.  In Washington’s diplomatic arsenal, the bipartisan consensus will still be Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.