When they sat down with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 for
the first Big Three conference of World War II, Britain's Prime
Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin
presented a striking study in contrasts: one a patrician, the other
a peasant; one a democrat, the other an autocrat; one colorful and
expansive, the other secretive and terse.
The British and Russian leaders differed in one other respect as
they joined Roosevelt in Tehran to fine-tune Allied strategy to
defeat Nazi Germany. As a leading Stalin biographer records,
Churchill came to the table with an empire to lose, and Stalin with
an empire to gain - which, in fact, is precisely what happened.
Though noticed at the time by few besides Churchill and Stalin,
the fierce struggle to liberate Europe and Asia from fascism was
setting the stage for changes that were destined to shift the
global balance of power in the postwar era.
The defeat of Germany, predictable by 1943, would help to create
a power vacuum in Central Europe that would be filled by the Red
Army and, after the war, by a collection of Soviet puppet regimes:
the empire Stalin had to gain.
The ideals of liberty and self-determination propagated by the
Allies during the war, meanwhile, would nourish successful
independence movements in England's far-flung colonies after the
war: the empire Britain had to lose.
Such imminent developments were scarcely envisioned in the
euphoria of Aug. 14, 1945, the day millions of jubilant, war-weary
people poured into streets and public squares around the world to
celebrate the surrender of Japan - the final act of World War II.
As it happened, these political shifts were just two of the
extraordinary changes wrought by a war that has proved to be a
sharp dividing line between two worlds, politically, culturally,
socially, and militarily.
Before World War II, Europe was supreme in world politics. After
the war, political and military power gravitated from an exhausted
and decimated Europe westward to the United States and eastward to
the Soviet Union.
Before the war, military force was an acceptable extension of
diplomacy. After the war, nuclear weapons made war unthinkable, if
not entirely unlikely.
Before the war, Asia and Africa were dominated by colonial
powers. After the war, the European empires - the French, Dutch,
and Belgian as well as British - were swept away in a tide of
nationalism and communist ideology.
Before the war, barely 60 nations dotted the globe, only a dozen
of which were politically consequential. Since the war, more than
125 new nations have been added to the map, the smallest of which
wield disproportionate influence in an international system
democratized by the creation of the United Nations - itself a
legacy of six years of global conflict.
Before the war, Eastern Europe was made up of ethnically
heterogeneous states. After the war, it was composed of ethnically
homogeneous states, purged of minorities by the massive ethnic
cleansing that, among other things, eliminated Jews from Poland,
Germans from Czechoslovakia, and Poles from the Soviet Union.
"What is happening in Bosnia today is an extension of what
happened during World War II in places like Poland, Czechoslovakia,
Byelorussia, and Ukraine," notes University of Chicago political
scientist John Mearsheimer.
Together, the forces unleashed by World War II delivered the
final blow to a political order whose foundations had been set
three centuries before, in the Treaty of Westphalia. …