Colombo Telegraph

1914 And 2014: Uncomfortable Parallels And Continuing Conflicts

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The hundredth anniversary of the Great War (World War I) has spawned many speculative comparisons between 1914 and 2014. The Economist, as well as the New Statesman, saw “uncomfortable parallels”, while eminent historians in the West have weighed in on either side of the debate as to whether the world’s financial crisis, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, and big power tensions around the South China Sea are similar to the antecedents of World War 1 and can ignite a major conflagration this decade, if not this year. There is optimism, and there was optimism in 1913 and for the first five months of 1914, that the world after World War II (that killed 50 million people and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is so different from the worlds that preceded and soon followed World War I (that took out a mere 10 million in a relatively primitive way), with copious checks and balances, formal and informal, to prevent history from repeating itself hundred years later. Writing in December 2013, The Economist saw the two most troubling parallels between 1914 and 2014 as complacency and nationalism, and recommended two precautionary measures: a set of mechanisms to diffuse potential dangers before they blow up, and an active American foreign policy.

“Complacency is the enemy of study”, wrote Chairman Mao in his little Red Book many decades ago. The China that Mao unified and strove to turn into a communist example is now America’s biggest challenger as a capitalist economic power.  And The Economist that was once the flagship of unbridled capitalism is today a well-rounded journal of sober comment. It rightly sees complacency as the enemy of peace. The differences between the middle and late twentieth century Cold War years, and early twenty first century could not be more dramatic. Yet, those differences do not necessarily negate the similarities between 1914 and 2014. Britain was the imperial superpower and Germany its main challenger in 1914, and the school of similarity sees their replication in the current power tussle between the US and China. Similarities are also seen in the rivalries for domination in the world of finance and in the penchant for information and intelligence gathering – with the US eavesdropping even among friends and China accused of pilfering trade and technology secrets. The geopolitical flashpoints have shifted from the Balkans to the Middle East and more recently to Crimea and northeast Europe, but there are similarities in the practice of economic sanctions, and the intrusion of geopolitics into international banking, as a form of military containment.

At the same time, it is not difficult to see that the competition between the US and China is a world apart from the competition that dogged Britain and Germany and eventually led World War I. The US and China have no interest in declaring war on one another to show ultimate solidarity with any of the parties to ongoing conflicts. The veto power at the UN Security Council is a harmless alternative to pulling the trigger in support of an ally. Here’s the real rub about complacency in our time. Because of the mindset that no conflict is likely to explode on a global scale, there is no real incentive to bring any conflict under control and deal with it sooner than later. The deterrents of nuclear disaster and dual superpower ensured relative peace during the Cold War, and when the superpowers recklessly ventured into wars on their own, to wit – the US in Vietnam and USSR in Afghanistan, they ended up with bloody noses but not before wreaking havoc on Vietnamese and Afghan societies. Vietnam has since risen from the ashes with characteristic Indochinese lightness of being. Afghanistan, with all the heaviness of South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, is still struggling after not one, but two superpower onslaughts.

Old conflicts in new conditions

Almost all of the ongoing twenty first century conflicts had their origins in the twentieth century, some as early as the first World War, if not even earlier.  True, nationalism is a parallel between 1914 and 2014, but if it is troubling now it is for different reasons from what they were a hundred years ago. The First World War triggered the ‘globalization’ of the nation-state model beyond its European origins, and formalized the right of self-determination externally between countries (Woodrow Wilson) and internally within empires (Lenin). By the end of the twentieth century the nation-state had passed its peak of relevance as a territorial socio-political matrix. The 1980s saw a proliferation of self-deterministic claims but hardly any of them reached fruition.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the re-balkanization of Yugoslavia were not a new phase in nationalist revolutions, as the West self-servingly provoked them, but necessary aberrations which could have been managed less bloodily.  The Scottish referendum this coming September is more a charm offensive than a bitter confrontation between the proponents and opponents of Scottish independence.  But nationalist conflicts are not always that pleasant or have a happy ending for all parties. This is not to suggest that nation states have become redundant and are about to disappear tomorrow, or in this century. While nation states have not become redundant, the states are losing their autonomy and power in the face of globalization. Ethnic and transnational sentiments are seeping through state boundaries. Non-state actors have become a major force in every political conflict in the world.

The crisis in Ukraine, which started off as a petty tit for tat between Putin and the West, has now snowballed into something bordering on a new Cold War.  The difference this time is that financial sanctions have replaced nuclear armaments. While the conflict is not likely to escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine, its implications have a far wider reach. In a bold prognosis envisaging “A Grand Bargain with Russia”, Russian academic Vladislav Inazemetsev and Moscow-based commentator Anton Barbashin have suggested the dissolution of NATO and the creation of a new alliance including Russia, a new Marshal Plan for all the countries that were part of the USSR, and cooperation between Russia and the West in developing Siberia, as long term strategies to prevent Russia’s alienation from the West. In such a scenario, Russia will invariably have to return Crimea to Ukraine and respect its independence. Both Putin and the West are equally at fault for the present crisis. Putin’s misdemeanors are well known, but the West also has contributed to the current standoff by picking favourites from within the former USSR, and encircling Russia and Putin for no reason instead of including Russia in a new alliance.

In the Middle East, it will be difficult for anyone to imagine any kind of bargain, grand or humble. Almost all of the current state boundaries in the Middle East were drawn following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. A hundred years later, they remain as contentious as ever.  In fact, the new non-state contender, the Islamic State (the organization now simply calls itself by the first two words, and not ISIS or ISIL), has turned the inviolability of national boundaries on its head. On the other hand, the Kurds, having waited forlornly for so long may end up having a territorial nation state of their own. The Palestinians continue to struggle for a two-state solution without the prospect of even half a state. After scorching Gaza Israel has finally got some comeuppance with charges of war crimes at the UNHRC. Rather than avoiding summons Israel is claiming to be getting ready to mount a legal defense of its asymmetric warfare in Gaza, at the UNHRC inquiry.

What the Economist saw in “active American foreign policy” as a precautionary means to contain conflict situations within limits, was given a more muscular exposition last week by Hillary Clinton in her much publicized interview with The Atlantic magazine. Taking a not at all subtle swipe at President Obama, the former Secretary of State (and upcoming presidential contender) derided Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” approach to foreign policy as not an “organizing principle” befitting a “great nation.” Mrs. Clinton has since clarified that she was not criticizing her former boss and received equal publicity for reportedly hugging it out and making up with the President at a mutual friend’s birthday party.

There is no denying, however, that Hillary Clinton stands for a forthrightly forceful American foreign policy far more in line with Cold War era American Presidents than President Obama. The question is whether the old muscular foreign policy is appropriate to today’s circumstances. Former President Bill Clinton used to say that America must lead “by the power of its example and not the example of its power.” That is as good an organizing principle as any “great nation” could aspire to have.  And President Obama’s approach is closer to this principle than what is suggested by Hillary Clinton.  One can only hope that as a potential next President, Hillary Clinton is not predisposed to espouse as America’s organizing foreign policy principle, President Bush’s “moral clarity” that led him to invade Iraq.

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