On hand throughout the highly disorderly redress of grievances and settling of accounts that dominated the Paris peace talks till his resignation in June 1919, political economist John Maynard Keynes subsequently issued a solemn warning to the Allied and Associated powers that the “Carthaginian” economic and financial terms imposed upon the defeated German Reich were liable to induce eventual systemic chaos. He violently protested in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), “If the European Civil War is to end with France and Italy abusing their momentary victorious power to destroy Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate, they invite their own destruction also, being so deeply and inextricably intertwined with their victims by hidden psychic and economic bonds.” Although the Great War against the German and the Cold War against the Soviet empire differed enormously in their respective forms, contents, and ends of projected power, as well as in their perceived material interests and socially constructed norms to which such projection was dedicated, the terrifying reappearance of hegemonic war in Europe impels confrontation with the plausible hypothesis that the liberal democracies may have somewhat mismanaged the seemingly auspicious interlude of European non-violence. With regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such mismanagement must be said to have its origins in both uncritical and undisciplined subservience to the comprehensive doctrine of the democratic peace.

Although Winston Churchill’s figurative expression of an iron curtain drawn between capitalist and communist Europe was fundamentally sound, two comparative deviations emerged, each deeply informed by both the distribution of international power and the exigencies of internal stability within fledgling democracy. Frequently mischaracterized, the postwar foreign relations of Finland, first, were defined by a series of four treaties (March 12, 1940; Sept. 19, 1944; Feb. 10, 1947; April 6, 1948) with the Soviet Union that together established the basic norm throughout the long Kekkonen presidency (1956–81) of extreme tact, discretion, and delicacy in all dealings with Moscow. The third “Treaty of Peace with Finland” is most decisive, as the Finns committed their nation to de-fascism and to the disarmament of all offensive military capability, together with the restriction of military training to the uniformed forces. Finland also renounced thermo-nuclear and submariner armament and the acquisition of any German military technology.

Encouraged by the Finnish precedent, Chancellor Julius Raab boldly visited Moscow and returned with a “State Treaty for the Re-establishment of an Independent and Democratic Austria” (May 15, 1955), in which the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France formally recognized Austrian sovereignty and independence in exchange for permanent assurances that the new republic shall never again merge with Germany, shall undertake comprehensive de-Nazification, shall renounce naval and thermo-nuclear armament, shall provide free passage along the Danube, and shall permit the Soviet Union, via a complex series of computations, to expropriate much of its oil.

Every nation, like every man must in accordance with its own interpretation of natural law decide for itself before whom it must kneel, and the moral imperatives that prevail in a single instance may thwart extrapolation and generalization. But the weight of historical evidence is that the highly deferential Soviet policies of Finland and Austria during the Cold War effectively served their overarching national interest of the preservation of independence from the adjacent and imperious Communist Bloc.

Such contractual fealty to the Russian hegemon appropriately tailored to comparative circumstances never materialized however in the former Ukrainian and Georgian Soviet Socialist Republics, some of the rabidly pro-Western leaders of which, furthermore, openly taunted Moscow with highly defiant rhetoric, and were in each case punished with eventual invasion. The absence of power is not the absence of agency, as volumes of decolonial commentary make insufficiently clear. The Ukrainian and the Georgian, together with the Byelorussian, Azerbaidjan, Armenian, Turkmen, Uzbek, Tadjik, Kazakh, and Kirghiz minority nations within the former USSR are rational actors endowed with both right and responsibility. But the public theology of the global democratic peace that came to saturate Western capitals, newspapers, and universities since 1989 likely steered some of them toward various forms of strategic indiscretion.

Democratic peace theory asserts that the spread and consolidation of electoral politics, multilateral free trade, and the integration of administrative functions across national borders will eventually result in material and spiritual disarmament. The theory captured Western political thought following the fall of communism through such variations as an approaching “End of History” (Francis Fukuyama), an attainment of “Kantian culture” (Alexander Wendt), or a “Law of Peoples” (John Rawls) soon to enter into force. Traveling alongside President Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism and President George W. Bush’s neoconservatism, the assurances of democratic peace were central to the tone and content of both the Treaty on European Union of 1994 and the respective rounds of NATO enlargement during the same general interval, as well as to the relentless effort to conclude further free trade agreements.

A not unintended result was to entice young and marginal states into the club, community, or family, inducing them to comprehensively Westernize all policy in hopes of future, and perhaps also of extravagant reward. Therefore, amid the acknowledged sincerity of its political leaders and the complexity of its supranational economic policies, a systemic moral failure to furnish sufficient discouragement to the belief that Europeanization could solve all problems and rectify all ills is not undeservedly imputed to the European leadership in Brussels. On this basis one more fully comprehends the outwardly curious Ukrainian demand for accelerated admission into a European Union that has never had any intent to deter or ability to fight. Likewise, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s heartbreaking appeals from the bunker for NATO direct action against the Russians derive not merely from the precariousness of his tactical position, but also from the cumulative influence of the insincere assurances the alliance has long offered to the countries of far Eastern Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 constructs an exclusively defensive security community exclusively among its members, but the ideology of democratic peace materially contributed to the highly problematic reimagination of NATO after the Cold War as a variable instrument of armed diplomacy, and its continual expansion, as George Kennan predicted, eventually provoked a Russian counter-attack.

Only he who sheds blood, by command or by execution of command, has blood on his hands; and dictatorship might at length have attacked democracy regardless of the thoughts, words, or deeds of the latter. But that it should have come as a surprise attack, at the very least, largely derives from the idealistic excess of the democratic peace theory which, in contempt of Augustinian realism and indifferent to Christian evangelicalism, has too long and too extensively distorted international policy.