WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Brooding about the cataclysm of 1914 that shattered the long peace produced by the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Henry Kissinger wonders if the protracted stability ''might have contributed to disaster. For in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost.''
America's sense of the tragic, never strong, may have been bleached away by the sunny blink of peace (peace enlivened by the Gulf War) since the end of the Cold War. Or so it would seem from the widespread incomprehension of the conservative Congress' determination to spend more on defense than President Clinton desires.
Liberal critics say this determination reflects the reflexive militarism of the right, or traditional pork-barrel politics with the 22 defense budget. Although undoubtedly some supporters of augmented defense spending are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, it is the right thing.
But it is not actually an increase in defense spending. Rather, the administration's defense cutting is being slowed. The Pentagon may receive about $7 billion more than the president wants, but that will merely hold the fiscal 1996 defense decline to 1.7 percent. And fiscal 1996 will be the 11th consecutive year of real (inflation-adjusted) decline in defense spending.
Conservatives are generally disposed to prune government, but it is hardly a behavioral anomaly for them to favor slowing the erosion of funding for the federal government's foremost responsibility. The contrast between liberal and conservative mentalities is especially sharp regarding defense, which touches core convictions about men and nations.
Liberalism preaches, or at least holds out the hope, that people are infinitely malleable, and hence the present is endlessly manipulable and the future is predictable. From this flows the recurring belief -- it recurs after each time events refute it -- that peace is the natural relation between nations, and that war is an aberration explainable by the bad character of rulers and by benighted traditions and institutions.
For two centuries liberals have been explaining the obsolescence of war -- their explanations have often been hard to hear because of the roar of cannon -- in terms of the spread of democracy. Or the disappearance of religious and ethnic and nationalistic fervor. Or the pacifying power of commerce. Or the increase of travel. Or the communications revolution. Or whatever.
However, as Donald Kagan dryly notes, ''Over the past two centuries the only thing more common than predictions about the end of war has been war itself.'' In his magisterial book ''On the Origins of War,'' Mr. Kagan, a Yale historian, says that ''statistically, war has been more common than peace, and extended periods of peace have been rare in a world divided into multiple states.'' In 1968 Will and Ariel Durant calculated that only 268 of the previous 3,421 years had been free of war. And no year has been since then.
Given what Mr. Kagan calls war's ''ubiquity and perpetuity,'' the first duty of political leadership is to act on the axiom that ''peace does not keep itself,'' and to understand that war or the threat of it has often been a surprise, from Pearl Harbor to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The years between those two surprises contained such surprises as the Berlin Blockade, North Korea's invasion of South Korea, China's intervention in Korea, the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, among others.
This has been a century of bitter surprises for optimists, such as the editors of the renowned 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1910-11. In it the entry on ''torture'' said that ''the whole subject is one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned.''
Realists should be guided by Sir Michael Howard, the British military historian. He writes that military power has three functions, deterrence and coercion and reassurance, and the last may be most important for the preservation of stability because ''it determines the entire environment within which international relations are conducted. . . .
''Reassurance provides a general sense of security that is not specific to any particular threat or scenario. The best analogy I can provide is the role played by the British Royal Navy in the 19th century.''
An American version of Pax Britannica will cost money, but will cost less than the ubiquity of war, which our sense of the tragic should tell us could be the alternative.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.