1914-2014: Is The World Repeating The Same Mistakes?

In July 1914 few people could have even conceived the extent of the tragedy that was unfolding. The First World War was the biggest carnage humankind had ever seen, a mass slaughter in which millions of soldiers were massacred by the military technology that the industrial revolution had created. What surprises nowadays is the carelessness, the ineptitude of the elites of those days, their inability to grasp the situation and to prevent the war. 

Following the trend of macho-nationalism, a sort of collective juvenile desire to prevail over others, that reigned in those days, the kings and prime ministers of Europe challenged each other for years, bringing the continent to the brink of war repeatedly before backing off and avoiding a conflict at the last minute. People did sense that a tragedy was imminent; yet they did not believe that civilised nations could destroy one another. By playing with the possibility of war for years, the elites of the time paved the way for a situation in which war became inevitable and the only question was: what skirmish, what diplomatic crisis, what incident will ignite a war? 

The expression “balance of power” describes this situation of absurd instability, or of “risk managing” that can get out of control at any time, which the European powers strove to create. In a memorandum of 1907, Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office wrote: 

The only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such grouping forces is technically known as the balance of power (The Origins of the First World War 2013, Chapter 3).

Balance of Power – this is a system akin to the one that is developing now. A system of alliances, not aimed at avoiding war, but at assisting one another in case of war. The danger of such a system lies in its ambiguities and hidden motives. While during the Cold War the two rival blocs were clearly set apart ideologically, politically and economically, today the big powers claim to be allies and friends, and yet they always consider the possibility of a conflict. Balance of power may have been the lesser evil two or three centuries ago. But in the industrial age – let alone in the nuclear age – this strategy can only be disastrous. 

The Cold War scenario was entirely different from the pre-1914 situation. During the Cold War, two distinct blocs were rigidly and uncompromisingly opposed. It would have been inconceivable for countries like, for example, Italy, Japan, or Greece, to move from one bloc to the other according to their political interests. The two blocs were too different, isolated and independent from each other. The ideological chasm made the alliances stable, international, and somewhat more rational.

Before 1914, on the contrary, alliances were a matter of national interest. Every country could switch from one alliance to another, depending on their own current foreign policy. For instance, France, once Britain’s archenemy, became an allied of the latter because of the threat posed by Germany. Russia, which had been a historic ally of Prussia and then Germany, sought a rapprochement with Britain and France for fear of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The case of Italy is even more evident: 

Neither ideals nor irresistible outside pressures compelled Italy to abandon neutrality and become a belligerent … [T]he Government in Rome dallied, waiting to see how the fight would go, then carried the people into war for the spoils (Marshall 1964, p. 169).

Those who experienced the carnage of 1914-1918 were not wise enough to prevent a new one. But, at last, the survivors of the Second World War realised that something had to be done to avert the “scourge of war”, as the UN Charter called it (see Lowe/ Roberts / Welsh / Zaum 2010, p. 3). That generation seems to have been wiser than our own. Instead of fearlessness, they preached prudence; instead of fighting for the sake of honour, they preserved dignity; instead of being led by ideology, they listened to the voice of pragmatism. The Cold War was a time of great danger, during which the possibility of a nuclear conflict loomed on the horizon and yet the general belief prevailed that war should never happen again and that even the deadliest enemies could and had to co-exist peacefully. 

We have lost that spirit. When the Berlin wall fell, the old worldview crumbled with it, and Western triumphalism surged in its stead. The feeling that “History” had given its final verdict, made Western leaders blind to the challenges of the new age. Most especially the Americans, like their British predecessors, overconfident in their feeling of superiority, did not see that the world was changing, and it was not changing in the way they wished.  

The present global situation resembles that of pre-1914 Europe. A hegemonic power is in decline but refuses to face up to this fact; it still wants to play the role of world leader, as though this was a an inalienable title inherited from previous generations, like aristocrats inherit nobility. A new industrial giant is emerging, claiming its rightful place as a global power and challenging the established order. A web of international alliances binds states together. And – most important of all – people do not know how war looks like, and they do not fear it. 

We have become accustomed to thinking of war “as a glorious exercise”, as Winston Churchill put it in a 1934 radio broadcast (see Hitler and Churchill 2010, Section 1). We speak of humanitarian interventions, of righteous wars, of national defence. Not of the scourge of war, the evil to be avoided at all costs. Pacifism is common sense, to which most people pay lip service; but war is common practice, into which too many acquiesce. Sometimes, fear is better than boldness.

The diplomatic crisis that broke out when last month Beijing declared the establishment of a new air defense identification zone that covers disputed territories and overlaps other countries’ airspace, is only the last symptom of a general malaise. We should avoid the mistakes of the past. We should recognise that the blame should not be placed on one side alone. Just like Britain and Germany one hundred years ago, the illicit claim of world leadership of the one collides with the excessive ambitions and yearning for greatness of the other. 

The contradiction inherent in this unequal relationship that circumstances are rendering equal will be the topic of my next post.

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