The Great War (1914-1918): Recollecting or Reliving It?
“History may not repeat itself. But it does rhyme.” — Mark Twain
“By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others’, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great— its moral values.”
This was just one amidst many vehement blows struck by French President Emmanuel Macron in his address at the centenary of the end of World War I, held in France— piercing the unprecedented rise and woefully, the reminiscent presence of unhealthy nationalism in the world today. He decried nationalism to be“betrayal to patriotism” — all while its proud poster child — the US President Donald Trump sat grim-faced, glued to his translator earpiece nearby.
Even though it is widely bellowed that the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the culprit for instantaneously escalating the wildfire for the “Great War”—what caused sparks to start flying in the first place and keep the fire burning for so long are far more intriguing and important to ponder upon.
The figures from the first round of globalisation (1870-1914) recorded trade to grow from 5.9% of global GDP to 8.2%. In Europe, growth was much higher; nearly 15% in the UK and 18% in Belgium. Despite its glamour, this prosperous period witnessed mass migration—and subsequently, that started disconcerting millions, making populist waves manifest through the intolerance to immigrants with a big pinch of burgeoning protectionism in policies — all being just one of the early ramifications of the retreat from globalisation.
And the result of this backlash a century ago is what experts believe, catastrophically aided in tracing the tragedies between 1914-1945. But the question is: are there grounds to believe that similarities do strike between today and a century ago? Or is this just yet another elaborate effort to disillusion the world with dystopia?
While Trump’s “I am absolutely a nationalist and I’m proud of it” statement may have been symphony to many whose spectacles peer at “America first” as patriotic —it’s just one exhibit from a disturbing litany of “identity politics” in play. As Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, stated in his book “Us vs Them” — pitting people against each other is a tactic that presided even before language. It involves cultivating in them a sense of betrayal, deprivation of what they deserve —ranging from their right to employment, education, and mostly, feeling secure—all seen as being curtailed. Plus, calling out a particular community as the culprit, has proved to be quite a triumphant tactic. After all, what else could have so effectively injected deep-rooted venom against the Jews in the 1930s? And frankly, by fueling all that sans-reason rhetoric and feeding off from people’s resentment, the far-right certainly have (started having) a field time experimenting this in the world right now— especially evident if one is following the present political tide settling in Europe (other than Brexit also please).
“Everyone can come into our country and this has cut our salaries and our social protections. This dilutes our cultural identity”, Marine Le Pen, President of the French National Rally political party, addressed the robust crowd at a rally during the 2017 French Presidential election campaign. Even though she didn’t attain the presidency, her performance was noteworthy for any far-right representative until then. According to a Politico report, her poor performance in the second round of polls was apparently because of the debate against Macron going odiously against her favour. And even then, she bagged 33.9% of the vote— equal to 10.6 million absolute votes.
But it is the Alternativ fur Deutschland’s (AfD) — i.e., the Alternative for Germany’s party presence in the Bundestag (German Federal Parliament) that strikes even more scathingly in this regard—being the first ever far-right party to do so since World War II. Experts believe that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy for immigrants during Europe’s refugee crisis is what galvanised this party to even gain momentum—and is currently leading to her downfall (in her fourth term as the Chancellor). According to a Guardian article, “the refugee crisis was simply the moment when 15 years of frustration with German centrism finally crystallised into a party”. And digging deeper into what thrives AfD’s popularity, Florian Hartleb— a political scientist and author of a book on European populism, mentioned, “you have to see that people who vote for the AfD have a specific image of Germany. And this image is that Germany is going down the drain”. With that, their melancholy manipulates their minds, pervading and polluting it with pictures of the alleged “Islamisation of German Society” or as Rainer Erkens, an AfD member asked: “what does climate protection even mean, and how much will that cost us?”
Ergo, it was as no overstatement that Macron ominously voiced his worry: “Old demons are reawakening, ready to sow chaos and death,” with how populist rhetoric, the disregard for truth and a desperation to blame others could all connive to create situations potentially potent enough for the world to make the giant blunder of not learning from history.
Echoes and Exemplars
When Brookings hosted Oxford University Professor Margaret MacMillan for an event to unveil her book “The War that ended Peace: The Road to 1914” — she did not just advertise its compelling context and articulate its “lessons” for today— as banal logic would have it. Rather, she used it as an asset to let everyone reflect and ruminate rather seriously—by making pellucidly provocative comparisons that mirrored the century-old world of her book with the one we we live in today.
MacMillan spoke of the unstable, erratic and dubious nature of the German foreign policy in the post-Bismark era which was “simultaneously or alternatively belligerent and then pacifist, which left people wondering what Germany really wanted, with deep suspicions of Germany.”
And then she posed her striking million dollar conundrum (or comparison): “And I think you can say the same thing today of China in its relationship with the United States. There’s an illusion that Chinese foreign policy is immensely wise, ancient and drawing on the whole tradition of immense subtlety. But when I look, I think it’s often inept, awkward and without clearly defined goals and often reflecting internal divisions.”
Graham Allison, professor of government at Harvard Kennedy School, diagnosed and suggested a more indepth political phenomenon in play for supporting this: The Thucydides Trap. Just as what prompted Germany, a rising power to challenge the hegemony of an established one— the United Kingdom —he found that analogous to China’s rising threat of influence to the United States today. Allison added, “in the past 500 years, the world has seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. Twelve ended in war; only four did not.” Now, even though the world is just bearing witness to the tortuous trade turmoil between both the countries, the possibility of a full-fledged war erupting between both, however, is quite likely to be dismissed by many as too unconvincingly apocalyptic.
But even to just contemplate the arenas or flashpoints of this hypothetical carnage, political scientists mostly concur to worry about the neglected news regarding the “legitimate claim” contest amongst countries surrounding the South China Sea—the passage that transits around $5 trillion of annual global trade;, the escalating Russian influence in Ukraine and tensions in the PRC-ROC (China-Taiwan) dynamic that certainly cannot afford to be sidelined anymore. Besides, threats posed by North Korea and Iran need to be scrutinised more thoroughly; and in case of North Korea, not just be optimistically dismissed with diplomatic requisites (like overhyped summits and its vaguely worded treaties). For instance, DPRK’s alliance with its all-weather friend China is quite funnily enough, paradoxically viewed: as either a relief for helping to improve talks, or doubting China to exert its influence and leverage diabolically against the wishes of its pompous trade war opponent.
And in no scarcity of her scary litany of likely similarities, MacMillan raised her concern with regards to the Middle East and even South Asia being today’s Balkans—owing especially to the similar situation of far too many countries and their interests being actively engaged or entangled in the local conflicts, making the status quo even more dangerous, if possible. When we add the havoc-ridden military alliance system to the mixture too— where there is a clear breakdown of balance of power, with greater powers supporting their less powerful allies — it’s daunting; especially, since we wake up in a world with advancing military— especially nuclear prowess.
Stability and Solidarity
“One of the things I’ve learned as a historian is that one should never listen to anybody who uses the word ‘solution’”—Sir Max Hastings, the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, said in his Bloomberg interview. Crucially, he added, “most difficult problems in the world are not susceptible to solutions. What they are susceptible to is management. The only way to approach them is to think how we can best manage them. How best can we avoid making things worse?” When pressed further, he remarked on how peace must not be the goal— rather “stability is the key”. And that brings in a major objective: smooth(er) functioning of multilateral cooperation and system of negotiations.
In fact, just a few days prior to the centenary, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres regrettably remarked: “it often seems that the more global the threat, the less able we are to cooperate. Referring to the creation of the United Nations in 1945, he added: “it took a second global cataclysm to trigger the multilateral arrangements we know today.”
On a more positive note though, the virtual country labelled “The Good Country” (yes, it’s real and rejuvenating;) co-founded by Simon Anholt— an independent policy advisor to several world leaders and CEOs — needs a noteworthy mention. While complaining of the inherent tendency of countries to crudely compete with each other—he added that challenges like climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and extreme poverty are where a collaborative approach is not just vital— but the way for everyone to start rethinking their view of the world and all its inhabitants.
In his TED talk, Anholt further pointed out how the leaders generally have “minds that microscope; and not telescope” and their complacency in feigning as though their country is an island on its own planet, and with its own solar system. But then, he admitted that it was a direct result of exactly what we citizens voraciously demand and that politicians are merely doing our bidding (or trying/pretending to). This prompted him to devise a “Dual Mandate” for world leaders today, in which they “aren’t just responsible for their own people and their own slice of territory; their responsibility extends to the whole of humanity and the whole of the planet.”
And just for a moment, analogize this scenario from a Game of Thrones setting: climate change, nuclear war and pandemics are quite akin to White Walkers—equally potent and problematic for us all. Ergo, shouldn’t the game of thrones— the competitive race between countries and their leaders to advance their self-interests and appease their voters— take a seat farther from the front at least till the time White Walkers are defeated— or properly confronted? Otherwise, what’s the point of the game even? — Piques a new perspective surely.
Well, ultimately, “humanity is on trial —more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity.” And history will be humiliated to see us making a fool of ourselves (yet again).
Saishreya Sriram is a Research Associate at One Future Collective.
Featured image: Providence (providencemag.com)