The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War

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Essay review:  The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War, by Margeret MacMillan (Brookings Institution, 2013) 

2014 was a great year for historians. Usually (and wrongly) regarded as irrelevant for day-to-day foreign policy debates, many analysts and journalists turned to experts of World War I in an attempt to understand if what happened one hundred years ago could help us understand current affairs. Newspapers, journals and blogs were full of analyses comparing international politics today with the world of 1914.  Margeret MacMillan's entertaining essay "The Rhyme of History" makes an excellent contribution to this debate.

She points out that the parallels between then and now are indeed impressive:

The first and most frequently named is the "Rising Germany / Rising China" parallel. Back in 1914, a rising Germany challenged the United Kingdom, hegemon at the time, destabilizing international order. Today, an economically more dynamic China is the challenger, and it is the United States which provides global order and which considers this order to be legitimate and universal.

There is also a regional version of this parallel. Remarks made in Davos by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about China and Japan being in a "similar situation" to that of Britain and Germany ahead of World War I (and arguing that China's growing investment in military spending led to instability in the region) have led to heated debates among Asia analysts. Recent developments in the region are indeed worrisome. The United States has a mutual self-defence treaty with Japan and in 2012 it confirmed that this covered the Senkaku Islands. In November last year, China set up an "air defense zone of identification" over the islands and a few days later two American B-52 bombers flew over the islands in defiance of Beijing. If circumstances require, the Chinese government could interpret such a move as a US military aggression that could easily get out of hand. Unfortunately, MacMillan writes, neither Japan, nor the United States or China are prepared to look weak by backing off in the East China Sea.

Just like Germany a century ago, China today tends to believe that current order is skewed, providing established powers with more benefits than they deserve. Neither the UK back then nor the United States today are willing to provide emerging powers with the space they feel they deserve - just think of the recent U.S. Congress refusal to accept quota changes in the IMF.

In another - rather curious and less important - parallel, Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany's admiral responsible for the naval arms race, liked Britain so much that he sent his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a famous English private school. Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor from 1909 to 1917, was proud to send his son to Oxford University. In the same way, many of the children of today’s Chinese leaders attend leading US universities. 

But it does not end there. MacMillan argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of the Balkans in 1914: "A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients." And indeed, to some degree today's Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world. Niall Ferguson recently said that the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 would be the murder of the US Vice-President by a Iran-sponsored terrorist group.

Thirdly, both then and now most human beings place a lot of confidence in the pacifying consequences of international trade. Just like in 1914, the consensus is that the global economy is so intertwined that large-scale military conflict is simply impossible. Yet Macmillan writes that "now, as then, the march of globalization has lulled us into a false sense of safety. The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident." Just like in 1914, the elites are the clear winners of globalization, and rather unaware that many lose out. The product, then as now, is a gilded age of inequality.

The debate will seem quaint and of little consequence to most. But discussing the possible parallels between then and now matters because it points to larger questions: What have we learned in the past 100 years? Do we have the institutions necessary to avoid a ghastly event similar to World War I? For despite all the parallels between 1914 and 2014, the international politics today is strongly influenced by global governance, while nothing comparable existed back then. Yet worryingly, it is in East Asia where this web of international institutions that binds nations together is most incipient and thus least capable of tying down nations that are at risk of war. China's rise will be the ultimate test for today's global liberal order.

And yet, while realists tend to expect history will repeat itself and liberals have confidence in the positive role of institutions, it is recognizing that every historical analogy has its limits. As Joe Nye rightly points out, the gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914. The US military budget remains almost as large as that of all other countries combined. The United States may have a bit more time to prepare for China's takeover than Great Britain had a century ago.

Furthermore, in an effort to show war can always be avoided, Nye writes that

One is that nuclear weapons give political leaders the equivalent of a crystal ball that shows what their world would look like after escalation. Perhaps if the Emperor, the Kaiser, and the Czar had had a crystal ball showing their empires destroyed and their thrones lost in 1918, they would have been more prudent in 1914. Certainly, the crystal-ball effect had a strong influence on US and Soviet leaders during the Cuban missile crisis. It would likely have a similar influence on US and Chinese leaders today.

The discussion about the 1914 parallel - led by historians like MacMillan - is intriguing and useful in that it will lead many policy makers, academics and citizens to gain a more sophisticated notion of what was probably the most consequential event in the 20th century - in many ways much more so than World War II. One can only hope the episode will be studied widely in China, Japan and the United States.

Read also:

China vs. India: Will the “contest of the 21st century” lead to war?

Book review: “Samudra Mathan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific” by C. Raja Mohan

Towards democratic internationalism in a post-exceptionalist era?

Picture credit: AP