“History never repeats itself but it rhymes.” – Mark Twain.
This year is the 100th anniversary of The War to End All Wars (that’s World War 1 to you Gen X’ers…I forget that history previous
Bushitler the year 2000 isn’t taught in public schools anymore). As such over the past few months there’s been a bit of pessimistic analysis of the current geopolitical situation we’ve currently got ourselves in. Pick a region, the Mid East, Europe, Russia, East Asia (hell, even here) there seems to be an uneasy sense of foreboding that the world is on edge (and if you’re paying attention and don’t watch TMZ, here’s a hint, IT IS). As the 2013 rolled into 2014 there are quite a few recent columns comparing the current geopolitical situation to that of the pre-WW1 world.
First up, the UK’s Telegraph has an article titled “The West Has Lost Control of the World and Disaster awaits.”
As we look forward to the First World War commemorations, three stark conclusions are hard to refute. First, that in the course of this century we will need a great deal of luck to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. Second, that the Enlightenment has failed. Third, that this can all be traced back to the Great War.
I’m quite surprised that we have yet to see the use of nuclear weapons in anger (I’m sure what we don’t know about prevented attacks in the GWOT would scare the hell out of us). However, I do believe that we will see the use of nuclear weapons in anger within out lifetime.
Next, The National Interest has an piece showing that though our leaders display an astounding and disturbing belief that they can change basic human nature, we’ve already been here:
Events in the year that had just ended convinced Carnegie that 1914 would be the decisive turning point towards peace. Just six months earlier, his decade-long campaign culminated in the inauguration of the Peace Palace at the Hague, which he believed would become the Supreme Court of nations. The Palace was built to house the new International Court of Arbitration that would now arbitrate disputes among nations that had historically been settled by war. As theEconomist noted, “the Palace of Peace embodies the great idea that gradually law will take the place of war.”
Carnegie’s Peace Palace captured the zeitgeist of the era. The most celebrated book of the decade, The Great Illusion, published in 1910, sold over two million copies. In it, Norman Angell exposed the long-held belief that nations could advance their interests by war as an “illusion.” His analysis showed that conquest was “futile” because “the war-like do not inherit the earth.”
However inspiring his hopes, Carnegie’s vision proved the illusion. Six months after his New Year’s greeting, a Serbian terrorist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke. Nine months on, the guns of August began a slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: “World War.” By 1918, Europe lay devastated, and a millennium in which it had been the creative center of the world was over.
Citing Japan’s lost decade, the article discusses the possibility of war between the US/Japan and China. I’m not sure I agree but the article makes for an interesting historical parallel.
The Economist brings us it’s take on the World War historical parallel:
Yet the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power. The parallels are not exact—China lacks the Kaiser’s territorial ambitions and America’s defence budget is far more impressive than imperial Britain’s—but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard.
Which, by and large, it is not. The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago. China’s leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons. India may next year elect Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who refuses to atone for a pogrom against Muslims in the state he runs and who would have his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with his Muslim neighbours in Pakistan. Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart. And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.
Some interesting analysis that sees parallels in the Western Pacific to Europe around 1914.
Brookings has the coup de gras and this is also your weekend reading assignment:
Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order. The young Serbs who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo were inspired by Nietzsche and Bakunin, just as their Russian and French counterparts were. Terrorists from Calcutta to Buffalo imitated each other 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 Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary or U.S. President William McKinley.
Globalization has been around longer than the interwebs and those that believe the interwebs somehow changes everything are arrogantly wrong. Human nature never changes, only the technological means. Then it was steam locomotives and the telegraph.
It is tempting—and sobering—to compare today’s relationship between China and the U.S. with that between Germany and England a century ago. Now, as then, the march of globalization has lulled us into a false sense of safety. Countries that have McDonald’s, we are told, will never fight each other. Or as President George W. Bush put it when he issued his National Security Strategy in 2002, the spread of democracy and free trade across the world is the surest guarantee of international stability and peace.
There are some finer points with which I disagree. I’m not harboring any delusions about who Brookings is, ie pretty far left. The biggest in my mind, is that they blame “a partisan and uncooperative Congress” for the lack of leadership from the White House. Those that pay attention understand Obama has NEVER been a leader.
Is 2014 like 1914? I’m not sure but I think the historical parallels are very interesting considering what’s going both overseas and domestically. I know only that time will tell and we’ll find out as this year marches on. Most of the readership is but if you’re I suggest to start paying attention.
“May you live in interesting times”
Oh yeah and Happy New Year.