Richard C. Holbrooke

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once observed that "life must be understood backward. But . . . it must be lived forward." This applies to more than one's own life: what is past is more than prologue; it is essential for anyone wanting to understand how today's world was created. This is especially true of the critical region between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas. Without knowledge of its backstory, no policymaker will get the region right: history is continuous, even if, relatively speaking, Americans just tuned in.

Of the vast array of books on this region, none is more relevant than Fromkin's sweeping epic, A Peace to End All Peace. Fromkin states his theme starkly at the outset:

The European powers at that time [1914-22] believed they could change Moslem Asia in the very fundamentals of its political existence, and in their attempt to do so introduced an artificial state system into the Middle East. . . . The basis of political life in the Middle East -- religion -- was called into question by the Russians, who proposed communism, and by the British, who proposed nationalism or dynastic loyalty, in its place. . . . The French government, which in the Middle East did allow religion to be the basis of politics -- even of its own -- championed one sect against the others.

Today, we live with the consequences of those almost forgotten events.

Other historians have challenged Fromkin on specific details. That is to be encouraged: history is not only continuous; it also needs to be continuously reexamined. And it should never be ignored, as American policymakers have done so often in the past, at their own -- and everyone else's -- peril.

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