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The Great War’s Ominous Echoes
Published: December 13, 2013, New York Times
Terrorists from Calcutta to Buffalo imitated one another as they hurled bombs onto the floors of stock exchanges, blew up railway lines, and stabbed and shot those they saw as oppressors, whether the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary or the president of the United States, William McKinley. Today, new technologies and social media platforms provide new rallying points for fanatics, enabling them to spread their messages to even wider audiences around the globe.
With our “war on terror,” we run the same risk of overestimating the power of a loose network of extremists, few in number. More dangerous may be our miscalculations about the significance of changes in warfare. A hundred years ago, most military planners and the civilian governments who watched from the sidelines got the nature of the coming war catastrophically wrong.
The great advances of Europe’s science and technology and the increasing output of its factories during its long period of peace had made going on the attack much more costly in casualties. The killing zone — the area that advancing soldiers had to cross in the face of deadly enemy fire — had expanded hugely, from 100 yards in the Napoleonic wars to over 1,000 yards by 1914. The rifles and machine guns they faced were firing faster and more accurately, and the artillery shells contained more devastating explosives. Soldiers attacking, no matter how brave, would suffer horrific losses, while defenders sat in the relative security of their trenches, behind sandbags and barbed wire.
A comparable mistake in our own time is the assumption that because of our advanced technology, we can deliver quick, focused and overpowering military actions — “surgical strikes” with drones and cruise missiles, “shock and awe” by carpet bombing and armored divisions — resulting in conflicts that will be short and limited in their impact, and victories that will be decisive. Increasingly, we are seeing asymmetrical wars between well-armed, organized forces on one side and low-level insurgencies on the other, which can spread across not just a region but a continent, or even the globe. Yet we are not seeing clear outcomes, partly because there is not one enemy but a shifting coalition of local warlords, religious warriors and other interested parties.
Think of Afghanistan or Syria, where local and international players are mingled and what constitutes victory is difficult to define. In such wars, those ordering military action must consider not just the combatants on the ground but the elusive yet critical factor of public opinion. Thanks to social media, every airstrike, artillery shell and cloud of poison gas that hits civilian targets is now filmed and tweeted around the world.
Globalization can heighten rivalries and fears between countries that one might otherwise expect to be friends. On the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners. British children played with toys, including lead soldiers, made in Germany, and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden resounded with the voices of German singers performing German operas. But all that did not translate into friendship.
Quite the contrary. With Germany cutting into Britain’s traditional markets and vying with it for colonies and power, the British felt threatened. As early as 1896, a best-selling British pamphlet, “Made in Germany,” painted an ominous picture: “A gigantic commercial State is arising to menace our prosperity, and contend with us for the trade of the world.” Many Germans held reciprocal views. When Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval secretary Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz built a deepwater navy to challenge British naval supremacy, the unease in Britain about Germany’s growing commercial and military power turned into something close to panic.
It is tempting — and sobering — to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago. Lulling ourselves into a false sense of safety, we say that countries that have McDonald’s will never fight one another. Yet the extraordinary growth in trade and investment between China and the United States since the 1980s has not served to allay mutual suspicions. At a time when the two countries are competing for markets, resources and influence from the Caribbean to Central Asia, China has become increasingly ready to translate its economic strength into military power.
The Great War’s Ominous Echoes
Increased Chinese military spending and the buildup of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the United States as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the countries in that region. The Wall Street Journal has published authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China — just in case.
Before 1914, the great powers talked of their honor. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry refers to America’s credibility or prestige. It amounts to much the same thing.
Once lines are drawn between nations, reaching across them becomes difficult. In the Europe of 1914, the growth of nationalist feeling — encouraged from above but rising from the grass roots where historians, linguists and folklorists were busy creating stories of ancient and eternal enmities — did much to cause ill will among nations who might otherwise have been friends. What Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” can lead to violence and death — a danger amplified if the greater powers choose to intervene as protectors of groups outside their own borders who share a religious or ethnic identity with them. Here, too, we can see ominous parallels between present and past.
Before World War I, Serbia financed and armed Serbs within the Austrian Empire, while both Russia and Austria stirred up the peoples along each other’s borders. In our time, Saudi Arabia backs Sunnis, and Sunni-majority states, around the world, while Iran has made itself the protector of Shiites, funding radical movements such as Hezbollah. The Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then. A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the United States, Turkey, Russia and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients. We must hope that Russia will have more control over the Damascus government to compel it to the negotiating table than it had over Serbia in 1914.
Like our predecessors a century ago, we assume that all-out war is something we no longer do. The French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, a man of great wisdom who tried unsuccessfully to stanch the rise of militarism in the early years of the 20th century, understood this well. “Europe has been afflicted by so many crises for so many years,” he said on the eve of World War I, and “it has been put dangerously to the test so many times without war breaking out, that it has almost ceased to believe in the threat and is watching the further development of the interminable Balkan conflict with decreased attention and reduced disquiet.”
With different leadership, World War I might have been avoided. Europe in 1914 needed a Bismarck or a Churchill with the strength of character to stand up to pressure and the capacity to see the larger strategic picture. Instead, the key powers had weak, divided or distracted leaders. Today, America’s president faces a series of politicians in China who, like those in Germany a century ago, are deeply concerned that their nation be taken seriously. In Vladimir V. Putin, President Obama must deal with a Russian nationalist who is both wilier and stronger than the unfortunate Czar Nicholas II.
Mr. Obama, like Woodrow Wilson, is a great orator, capable of laying out his vision of the world and inspiring Americans. But like Wilson at the end of the 1914-18 war, Mr. Obama is dealing with a partisan and uncooperative Congress. Perhaps even more worrying, he may be in a position similar to that of the British prime minister in 1914, Herbert Asquith — presiding over a country so divided internally that it is unwilling or unable to play an active and constructive role in the world.
The United States on the eve of 2014 is still the world’s strongest power, but it is not as powerful as it once was. It has suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has had difficulty finding allies that will stand by it, as the Syrian crisis demonstrates. Uncomfortably aware that they have few reliable friends and many potential enemies, the Americans are now considering a return to a more isolationist policy. Is America reaching the end of its tether, as Britain did before it?
It may take a moment of real danger to force the major powers of this new world order to come together in coalitions able and willing to act. Instead of muddling along from one crisis to another, now is the time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago — in the hope that our leaders, with our encouragement, will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order.
Margaret MacMillan is warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the author, most recently, of “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.” This article is adapted from The Brookings Essay, a series published by the Brookings Institution.
page 3, thanks New York Times, thanks, Pellulo
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