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Three Reasons to Fear Another ‘Great War’ Today

Three Reasons to Fear Another ‘Great War’ Today

Friday, 23 November, 2018 - 06:45
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Last month, I traveled to Vienna, the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a fitting place to contemplate the approaching 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I.

That conflict began with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia in July 1914, following the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand. It ultimately led to more than 15 million deaths, the collapse of four empires, the rise of communism and fascism in some of Europe’s leading states, the emergence and subsequent retreat of America as a global power, and other developments that profoundly altered the course of the 20th century.

World War I was “the deluge ... a convulsion of nature,” remarked Britain’s Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George, “an earthquake which is upheaving the very rocks of European life.” Although that conflict ended a century ago, it still offers three crucial lessons that are relevant to our increasingly disordered world today.

First, peace is always more fragile than it seems. In 1914, Europe had not experienced an all-out, continental conflict since the end of the Napoleonic wars a century earlier. Some observers believed that a return to such catastrophic bloodletting had become almost impossible. The British author Norman Angell would immortalize himself by suggesting, just a few years before World War I, that what we would now call globalization had rendered great-power conflict obsolete. War, he argued, had become futile because peace and the growing economic and financial linkages between the major European states were producing so much prosperity.

Angell had good company in the multitude of thinkers who believed that improved communications were knitting humanity ever more tightly together, that international arbitration was making war unnecessary, and that nationalism was being suppressed by newer, more enlightened ideologies and improved forms of international cooperation.

The eruption of World War I showed that these trends were no guarantee of peace at all, because they were so easily overtaken by the darker forces of conflict and rivalry. Destabilizing shifts in the balance of power, the geopolitical rigidities created by hair-trigger military plans, the rise of social Darwinist and militarist ideas that exalted the role of war in human and national development, and the tensions surrounding a rising Germany’s bid for European preeminence and world power had created a great mass of combustible material that was set alight by the seemingly minor spark provided by an archduke’s assassination.

If we assume today that war between the great powers cannot happen — that economic interdependence will automatically hold rising tensions between the US and China in check, that advances in human enlightenment will consign nationalism and aggression to the pages of history — then we, too, risk discovering that our own peace is far more precarious than we think.

Second, World War I reminds us that when peace gives way and international order collapses, the consequences can be far worse than almost anyone imagines. Even after World War I erupted, many observers believed that its duration would be brief and its effects limited. In September 1914, the Economist assured its readers of “the economic and financial impossibility of carrying out hostilities many more months on the present scale.” Yet this prediction, like so many others, was badly wrong, because the very sources of progress that had created so much optimism in the years before the war now made its impact all the more cataclysmic.

So is a third lesson: that when the US pulls back from the world, it may well end up reengaging later at a much higher cost. America played a key role in the economic rehabilitation of postwar Europe during the 1920s. Yet it rejected the sort of long-term strategic and military commitments it would eventually make after World War II.

Americans did so for reasons that seemed quite understandable at the time. There was widespread reluctance to abrogate the tradition of non-entanglement in Europe, as well as fear that membership in the League of Nations would undermine US sovereignty and usurp Congress’s constitutional prerogatives with respect to declaring war. Most of all, there was strategic complacency brought on because the defeat of Germany and its allies seemed to have banished significant geopolitical dangers far over the horizon.

This is why the US chose to stay so deeply engaged in the affairs of Europe, the Asia-Pacific and other key regions after 1945: because American officials had learned that in geopolitics as in medicine, prevention is often cheaper than cure.

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