Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday — still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread — the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable — at least in Europe.
A 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”
“The powerful bonds of commercial interest between ourselves and Germany, ” the insisted, “have been immensely strengthened in recent years … removing Germany from the list of our possible foes.”
The real “Great Illusion, ” of course, turned out to be the idea that economic self-interest made wars obsolete. Yet a variant of this naïve materialism has returned. It underlies, for example, the Western foreign policy that presents economic sanctions on Russia or Iran as a substitute for political compromise or military intervention.
The truth, as the world discovered in 1914 and is re-discovering today in Ukraine, the Middle East and the China seas, is that economic interests are swept aside once the genie of nationalist or religious militarism is released. As I pointed out in this column, Russia has in past conflicts withstood economic losses unimaginable to politicians and diplomats in the Western world — and the same is true of Iran and China. Thus the U.S. strategy of “escalating economic costs” cannot be expected to achieve major geopolitical objectives, such as preserving Ukraine’s borders or Japan’s uninhabited islands. Either territory must be open to renegotiation or the West must be prepared to fight to protect the “sanctity” of borders, which shows the really unsettling parallels with the world of 1914.
Though historians continue to debate World War One’s proximate causes, two key destabilizing features of early 20th-century geopolitics created the necessary conditions for the sudden spiral into all-consuming conflict: the rise and fall of great powers, and the over-zealous observance of mutual-defense treaties. These features are now returning to destabilize geopolitics a century later.
The great power rotation of 1914 saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire in decline with Germany ascendant. Meanwhile, Britain, with France and Russia as junior partners, sought to maintain dominance in Europe. But their money, military resources and political perseverance were running out.
Today, Russia is a declining power and China is rising, while the United States is trying to maintain the 20th-century balance of power, with Europe and Japan as junior partners. Under these conditions, both rising and declining powers often conflict with nations currently in control.
The rising powers want to extend their territory or correct perceived historic wrongs. They challenge the status quo — as China is doing in its neighboring seas. The declining powers, meanwhile, want to prevent territorial erosion and avoid diplomatic humiliations. Countries like Russia today or Austria-Hungary in 1914 clash with the dominant powers presiding over what seems to them a natural and inevitable decline. The United States and Europe see no reason why Russia should object to the enlargement of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But to Russia this looks like territorial aggression and encirclement by hostile forces.
Rising and declining powers naturally tend to unite against the status quo leaders. In 1914, for example, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire did this against France, Britain and Russia; today it is logical for China and Russia to collaborate against the United States, the European Union and Japan.
This logic has been reinforced recently by the Obama administration’s odd decision to re-emphasize its support for Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their territorial disputes with China, at the same time as it confronts Russia in Ukraine.
Which brings me to the clearest lesson from 1914: the pernicious nexus of treaties and alliances that commit great powers to fight on behalf of other countries. This turned localized conflicts into regional or global wars — and did so with terrifying speed and unpredictability.