Doomed to Repeat the Tragic Past?
Considering what was discussed alongside the facts presented throughout this series, a conclusion can be reached: that the pre-conditions that led to the Great War are taking place again in a similar way, if not almost exactly.
A hundred years later, the international political structure is again becoming a multipolar one, with the risk of the world getting entrapped by the same dynamics that prevailed when the world was speared by five great powers prior the War. It is important to remark that a multipolar system tends to be comparatively far more unstable than a bipolar or unipolar system. Multipolar systems are characterized by the distribution of power lying in the hands of more than two nations. The above mentioned very unstable nature of multipolar systems lies on the fact that alliances and counter alliances among the five great powers tends to emerge, while all of them will assert their respective interests at the cost of the other’s interests respectively. This holds true if those interests consist in the defence of an ally that happens to be close an area of interest that is, eventually, contested by another great power.
And as the nations back then attested, the international system might make the current great powers victims of the circumstances. Sooner or later, a new scheme of alliances with a far more aggressive spirit might emerge, and that possibility grows larger day by day. For example, Taiwan could become a source of tension between China and United States, where the former is very keen to challenge the status quo and it is currently acquiring the assets to do so. The same way Serbia did in regards to Russia, the Austrian Empire and Germany. And, quite unsurprisingly, the sea again is the centre of the scenario here. An upcoming naval race is another area where tensions might arise between China and the US, where the United States will aim at keeping its control of the seas while China aims at increasing its global power by strengthening its navy. A similar path taken by the Kaiser in the decades before the Great War. Moreover, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have the sea as main scenario, dragging the United States and – eventually – Russia into the conflict. The same is likely to happen to Japan and the South China Sea, where China is asserting its interests and increasing its maritime territory, prompting the Southeast Asian countries to establish an alliance among themselves and probably implicating the US and Japan. In addition, China is also competing with India for the control of the Indian Ocean, a circumstance that will force India to align with the US, rather than with Russia or another BRIC country. Additionally, the situation would be worsened by the fact that China and Pakistan are close allies and could use that element against India. A conflict between Pakistan and India might bring another nuclear power into the scene or simply make the situation to spiral out of control.
Russia is once and again an important actor in both contexts, and it might end up establishing an alliance with China (and other countries) in order to harm US interests abroad. The worrisome part is that it is already doing so and, like the German Empire and the current China, it is labelling other powers (in the Russian case, the Western Powers) as the main threat and the major obstacle to overcome, while the country must success its historic test to find its place among the great nations. Like China, Russia has been increasing its military pressure in Eastern Europe and the Arctic, as well as the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and West Pacific. In the end, both Chinese and Russian attitudes would force other nations like Japan, India, the European Union and the US to establish a set of alliances among themselves that could lead to an open conflict. A conflict that could be sparked by some power’s compromise to defend countries within contested areas, the same way the invasion of Serbia and Belgium did a hundred years ago.
Moreover, Brazil could possibly take the same path as Russia if it really wants to contest the US hegemony in the Americas and harm its interests abroad while increasing its naval assets, glancing at China and Russia as potential allies. At a certain point it has already did so, by its subtle support of the Venezuelan regime and other rogue regimes in Latin America. And it could do more by supporting Argentina in an eventual second Falkand War. Not to mention an Iran keen to exert its own hegemony in the Middle East, while at the same time threatening the existence of the State of Israel with its nuclear weaponry or aid to other terrorist groups. One must remember that this is one of the main aims of Iran’s foreign policies and nuclear program. Iran, in addition, would end up looking for allies to do so, and such could be China, Russia and even Brazil (the latter, for example, gave support to Iran with regard to the international sanctions five years ago). There again would be an Entente and Central Powers alliances scheme, with the same tragic – in a nuclear era even more dangerous – outcome.
What is more even more shocking is the fact that the same idealism that blinded the British Empire by then is currently doing so to the West. The end of the Cold War made the US and Europe think, erroneously, that the history was over; that there would be no more clashes between Great Powers and, subsequently, that an era of wars was erased by institutions so that interdependence would come as a result. That the adoption of liberal and democratic values was the path to be taken by the former rivals, and competition would disappear. Defence spending and military strength were as a result shrunk, except in the case of the United States until the current administration fixation with sequestration and reduction of its armed services. Of course, the new threats such as terrorism and the need for humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping justifies such shift at a certain degree.
But the problem is that the armies have been moulded upon that strategic approach, making them similar to the armies of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century: efficient enough to deal with low intensity conflicts, but not to face a full scale war. The British Empire paid for this wrong approach very dearly with the lifes of many young men. In a certain way, Europe and the US might face the same situation, since their response to Russian invasion of Ukraine and threats to the Baltic, Poland and Scandinavian nations, has been weak and meaningless. Paradoxically then, the war the West is trying to avoid would take place in the end, since the American and European negligence and weakness is stimulating Russia to go far beyond certain lines and make use of its more prepared armed forces.
Meanwhile, in Europe the mentality after the Cold War has been a one were Russia would not resurge as a strong competitor, but rather as a nation keen to contribute and collaborate with the European integration while embracing democracy. As a result, armies were decreased and overhauled to face low intensity conflicts: humanitarian or peacekeeping operations where the adversary would be irregular forces rather than massive and conventional armies. The problem is that neither history nor politics of competition end, despite the stubborn insistence on the very wishful mentality that entrenched itself following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current European armies might have an impressive performance in places like Mali, Afghanistan or the Central African Republic, but they possibly are in a clear disadvantage when facing a conventional – and a very decided – army like the Russian one, which is clearly ongoing a process of modernization and increasing of assets. The last year’s incident regarding the submarine near Stockholm and the violation of sea and air space of Great Britain and the Netherlands are both a hint of the times to come and a symptom of the Western negligence caused by a mere wishful way of thinking, as well as a certain degree of cynicism, in some cases disguised as criticism.
In other words, Europe and America both deceived themselves at the point of not being able to face a full scale war against another great power. And both seem to be as reluctant as the British Empire back then to intervene more actively and to stabilize the current trends – taking for granted the world transforming into a world they wanted to be. In addition, by decreasing their military assets, Europe and the US are provoking an escalation of the situation because of their weakness, which is manifesting not only in the military but also on the political sense. It is clear that economic interdependence is not enough to deter aggression, since the current economic sanctions against Russia have only provoked smiles in the Kremlin while the military build-up continues. With regards to the faith in institutions it would too be noteworthy to remind the almost inexistent role played by the United Nations after the double invasion of Ukraine by Russia as well as the unilateral maritime expansion by China.
Moreover, the existence of trade and strong economic ties between countries is not enough to prevent wars only because of the argument that it would be irrational. In fact, and as history has shown us, trade was unable to stop a confrontation between two or more nations despite their strong economic ties – as it was the case between Germany and the British Empire whose trade relations were rather strong. Yet they went to war against each other. Other and later examples in history of two states with respectively strong ties that went to war against each other are considerable and should give a hint for the future and prevent excessive reliance on statements that only fit in the world of theories. Besides, an active trade means that each country must secure access to resources needed to create the goods and products to be trades. And such access always needs to be secured through military means, as well as the same trade lines that brings both the resources and the merchandise to the markets and production centres. This will mean that the great powers would use their own naval assets to control maritime areas and prevent another power to do so, thus increasing the chances for clashes.
The spectre of nationalism, that one the West wanted to exorcise, is making a comeback. China, Russia and some European nations are making extensive use of nationalism, forcing other nations’ governments to adopt their own nationalistic agendas – such as Japan and many Southeast Asian nations – thus adding more sticks into the fire. Even worse, in the everlasting nuclear age, a Russian president implementing a weltpolitik of his own, aimed at consolidating his own political image might drive him to be, like Kaiser Wilhelm II, a prisoner of his own political ambition. Such situation might force him to wage a war by simply scaling up the current tensions with the West, this to show that he and his own country are willing to confront and to defeat the so-called enemies of their nation. And, like Russia back then, an insistence on intervening in world affairs or asserting its own interests extensively despite its own social and economic problems signposts a certain will to take a similar path with incommensurable consequences, both home and abroad. If anything, an unstable Russia is as worrisome as an aggressive but united Russia.
The same could take place with China. An increased economic development and political importance might make the Chinese leadership do the same as what the Kaiser did: to feel encouraged by such factors and increase the military build-up and challenging, in a more daring way, the status quo. The final result cannot be different to the same situation faced by the statesmen, common people and soldiers a hundred years ago.
The world again seems to be a prisoner of the international system and, again, might be a victim of the circumstances. Like France and Germany, Austria and the British Empire, the current World Powers might be intentionally contributing (by challenging the status quo and asserting their interest far too aggressively) or naively (like the European Union and the United States) setting a much faster and dangerous road towards another Great War. A war of an unimaginable scale. Back then, an assassination was enough to unleash a crisis waiting 100 years to explode. Today, it might take a single tank, a vessel, an air encounter or an arrogant miscalculation to finally unleash it.
Changing the course of fate
History never ends, but it always has this terrible tendency to repeat itself. We know what happened in the past and which factors caused this very past to happen. It might make someone to judge lightly past events. But, we should use that knowledge to be able to prevent the repetition of another Great War for a third time and advise better measures that would prevent the repetition of such a tragedy. More importantly, it is vital not to deceive ourselves while doing so. Meaning this that a much more firm and compromised action by the powers able to stop or decrease the speed towards another war is urgently needed. Given the current trends, it is important to maintain diplomacy without appeasement and wishful attitudes that might only make a possible event to take place. This means that both Europe and the United States must increase their military presence in other areas of the world to tackle the instability created by China and Russia. Alliances between the US, Europe, Israel, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and local powers in the other regions of the world are a need and a must. NATO in turn is the main tool that may come at hand to stabilize the world and assist any nation victim of any Russian or other challenging power aggressions.
Preparation and compromise are the main tools statesmen – in the West, especially – have to change the fatidic course towards another Great War, and by doing so, to honour the memory of the fallen ones during the Great. Time has come to realize that it is deterrence through power, military power, what will really grant peace and stability in the world, not idealistic and wishful approaches as well as the reliance in the good will of countries that clearly have none. Prudence is needed, but also action and toughness in order to avoid a third global tragedy, where the stake will not be the lives of a thousand of soldiers at Flanders fields, but the lives of billions of people around the globe.
* Cover Image: ‘La tombeau du soldat inconu’, by Author.