Are we on the brink of war? Academic sparks debate by drawing comparisons between 1914 past and 2014 present
Source: News AU
A CENTURY ago, a simple assassination was enough to topple a tenuous balance between the old and new worlds. The resulting war killed millions and spanned the globe. Is history about to repeat itself?
The year was 1914. The world was experimenting with economic globalisation.
Optimists believed this new world economy would eliminate war.
But the concept proved to be in conflict with old notions of empire and fresh attitudes of expansionism.
There was friction between the industrial and military powers of the “old” world and the ambitions of the revitalised “new” economies.
Add a century to the date and ask yourself: does this scenario sound familiar?
According to Oxford professor of international history Margaret MacMillan, it does.Her essay addressing China’s recent flexing of its economic and military muscles has sent ripples around the world.
And she’s not the only one. Diplomats, academics, authors and journalists across the globe have reached the same conclusion.
And so has China.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” quipped Mark Twain.
Here are some of the verses:
- Fading empires: Fearing the future and grasping at what they have
- A “place in the sun”: With new power comes big ambitions
- Global ‘flashpoints’: Rogue states and disputed regions
- Globalisation: With all its benefits and pressures
- Arms race: New technology negates old might
The rhythm is there. The tone is there. The tense is now.
Here’s how the two “14s” compare:
The rise and fall of the American republic … Close parallels have been drawn between the decline of the British Empire and the waning influence of the United States. Source: Supplied
What had been the world’s sole economic and military superpower for almost a century suddenly found its authority being challenged. This was largely its own fault. The industrial revolution that gave it strength and arrogance led to expensive technological breakthroughs that rendered its own military might largely obsolete seemingly overnight. This exposed it to a new arms race and economic competition it could ill afford.
A century ago, this was the British Empire.
Now, is it the United States?
In 2013 the world’s sole superpower suffered a near mortal blow to its credibility. The leaks of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have exposed the nation’s rampant exceptionalism.
Its diplomatic and moral credentials are in tatters. Yet it still maintains its stance as the world’s moral compass.
It’s a nation facing as much internal tension as it is international, as Obama seeks to impose universal healthcare on a suspicious population.
It’s a nation that criticises the likes of China for their spying activities while amassing an almost incomprehensible amount of information on millions of individualsworldwide, including its own population.
It’s a nation that raises its voice in outrage at acts of terror as its own drones bomb Arab weddings.
Now, for the first time in more than a decade, its enormous military is not at war. It’s a monolithic institution that must find a new cause through which it can justify continued immunity from looming budget-cuts.
The United States has been living beyond its means for far too long. But can it bring itself to face reality?
With dwindling resources and ballooning debts, the United States appears to feel the need to prove to itself that it is still the world’s benevolent judge, jury and executioner.
Just what it is prepared to do to maintain this illusion has already been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bright future … A growing economy. A proud history. An expanding military. Territorial ambitions. Are we talking 1914 Germany or 2014 China? Source: Supplied
A PLACE IN THE SUN
Back then, the new world power was Germany. It had modernised its economy. It had secured its finances. What it didn’t have was empire or international influence. What it didn’t have was the resources to feed its demanding industry. It also had a long list of grudges relating to historic wars and territorial compromises. As it grew stronger, Germany grew more demanding. A series of provocative diplomatic “incidents” were met with uncertainty and appeasement by the rest of the world. This gave the Kaiser the confidence and arrogance which would lead to war in 1914.
Are there parallels with China?
Its economy is growing like no other. Its industry is world-leading. Its resources are being stretched. Its military might is growing.
It’s new muscle they’re already flexing.
Their ambitions towards the South and East China Seas are open knowledge. The aggressive expansion of an “air-defence zone” over islands claimed by Japan and South Korea is just the latest “testing” of international resolve. As was the near-ramming of a US cruiser “observing” China’s new aircraft carrier.
But China has grounds for resentment.
It has been the victim of a string of wars few other nations have cared about. It has been exploited and repressed through a series of treaties taking advantage of its internal turmoils.
Now, it is being forced to “fit” into a world system based on Western European values. This is something that rankles an extreme national pride based on its millennia-old culture.
And it doesn’t have to put up with such treatment any more.
Then there’s India.
It is a nation of a billion people. Its economy is going from strength to strength. Its military is expanding – particularly its navy.
It’s just another “upstart” that US military strategists have to contend with.
Tumultuous times … Global instability and civil unrest are common themes linking us to times a century past. Source:Supplied
Today we call it terrorism. A century ago it had another name: Anarchy
Car bombs. Political assassinations. Random acts of politically-motivated violence. All filled the headlines then as they do today.
All contributed to – and stemmed from – social unrest that surpassed borders, languages and religions.
Then, as now, the “lone wolf” had the power to change the world.
Then, as now, one well-place bullet at the right time in the right environment with a suitable frenzied response could have international implications.
Then, it was the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Bosnian anarchist movement which triggered a cascade of failed diplomacy. This provided the “excuse” needed for war.
And nations still have territorial ambitions.
In 1914 it was Alsace-Lorraine.
It was a lush territory on the border between France and Germany that the nations had been fighting over for centuries.
In 2014, there is Taiwan.
It’s China’s major embarrassment. It’s the last bastion of the “old China” Chairman Mao sought to overthrow in 1949.
It’s still there. China still regards it as its own territory and its own people – and that the whole matter is an “internal” issue the rest of the world should butt-out of.
The United States, of course, refuses. As the world’s policeman, it sees enlightened self-interest in keeping Taiwan’s economic strength out of China’s embrace. Taiwan is also an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” from which the US can exert regional influence.
Japan’s ancient enmity with China also must not be forgot. The brutal occupation of Chinese territories in the 1930s (resulting in the murderous ‘rape of Nanking’) is still an open wound. Japan’s ongoing denial of its past errors has done nothing to help this tension.
And then there are the alienated ambitions scattered around the rest of the world. Russia. South America. North Korea.
All are “rogue states” of increasing power and confidence.
All are capable of starting a conflagration that can encompass the globe.
Power shift … The United States, for so long the world’s economic “safe haven” is now itself deeply in debt. Is China taking its place at the centre of economic influence? Source: AFP
Then, the British Empire was at the centre of the world’s economy. It had been the first to embrace the industrial revolution. Combined with its naval dominance, the little cluster of islands conquered an empire that would cover almost a third of the globe.
It set the standards for a new world; a world of advancing medicine, technology and communications.
It grew complacent in its might.
Other nations began to modernise and reform their economies as the British Empire stagnated.
Sound like the United States?
The industrial strength of the “New World” has propelled us all into the space and information ages.
But the very arms-race which caused the USSR’s economy to implode and propelled the US into sole-superpower status has come back to haunt it.
The US never lost its obsession with more and more expensive weapons. And it’s been prolific in their use, with a string of “little wars” since 1990.
Now there is a new arms race. And its centred of Asia.
The “pivot” by the US to shift most of its existing forces into the region is just that superpower’s first reaction.
But the US faces potentially crippling challenges.
Its invention of the internet has also had unexpected repercussions, propelling the world towards a globalised economy far faster than anticipated.
As a result, the United States is in debt. Deeply.
And its major creditor is China.
It’s an unstable relationship that is causing jitters in the globalised economies of nations the world over.
And China’s economy continues to grow as that of the United States’ contracts.
Such a shift in strength can, and will, send seismic shocks around the globe.
Technological race … The pace of the adoption of new technology is faster than ever before, with new products obsolete even before they enter production. Source: Supplied
Then, England ruled the waves.
Her vast fleet was unmatched in size and strength. It plied the seven seas with confidence and impunity.
Then, the Royal Navy invented the “Dreadnought” — a warship like no other.
Overnight, the investment of decades had been rendered obsolete.
Unintentionally, Britain had levelled the playing field.
A new and incredibly expensive race to build the biggest and best navy began.
All this took place even as such mighty ships were being rendered redundant: The rise of air power was taking place almost unnoticed.
Now, the United States rules the waves.
Her vast fleet is unmatched in size and strength. It plies the seven seas with confidence and impunity.
She has the added reassurance that her jets also rule the skies.
But the world is changing.
The trump-card of nuclear weapons is now part of the arsenal of a growing number of nations.
And is the potential of cheap, automated drones and missiles similar to that of the unrecognised power of the machinegun of 1914?
And what of cyber war? Just how much damage can computer-based attacks inflict on a nation?
Unfortunately, it will probably take a major war for the world to find out.