In a recent Brookings Institution essay entitled “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War,” historian Margaret Macmillan argues that there are strong and haunting parallels between today’s geopolitical landscape and Europe of 1914. Pivoting off the well-know Mark Twain adage that history does not repeat itself, but does rhyme, Macmillan suggests that the one-hundredth anniversary of World War I encourages us to reflect on the “valuable warnings” of the past. The actual and potential conflicts in the year ahead are many, and some of the same structural forces that lead to the Great War a century ago will be prevalent in 2014.
Macmillan is an eminent historian (her book, Paris 1919 is a must-read), but analogies between 1914 Europe and the world today should not be drawn hastily. World War I continues to preoccupy scholars and pundits alike, in part because it was so destructive, and in part because there is still no consensus on why exactly it occurred. With the centennial of the conflict approaching, we can expect to see 1914 references made a great deal — particularly with respect to the power transition that is currently in progress in the Pacific — but we should remain duly skeptical of this tempting parallel. Many of the conditions that were present in antebellum Europe do indeed prevail today. Whether these forces actually raise the risk of war is far from established, however, and the expectation that they do may itself increase the chance of conflict.
In her Brookings essay, Macmillan identifies several conditions that were present in Europe before the Great War that, she argues, also raise the risk of conflict today. The first of these conditions is globalization and its unintended consequences. In both 1914 and at present, there existed the common assumption that the world was becoming too interconnected to resort to war — conflict would be prohibitively costly. But, Macmillan points out, a hundred years ago as now, those who preached interdependence often ignored the fact that globalization can lead to job loss, foster intense localism and nativism, and provide a breeding ground for radical ideologies and movements (including those that employ terrorism). Globalization, Macmillan warns us, can also heighten interstate rivalries.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Related to this is a second trend — rising nationalism and sectarianism. Once trapped in interstate rivalries, leaders may seize upon nationalism and bitter historical enmity to appeal to their publics. In 1914, the predominant antagonisms were the Anglo-German and Russo-German rivalries; today they include Sino-American and Sino-Japanese competition. Third, Macmillan reminds us that tightly-knit defensive alliances may encourage conflict or cause it to spread. In 1914, Germany saw itself as inextricably bound to Austria, as France did to Russia. Today, she warns, the United States could easily be drawn into war in either the Middle East or East Asia by its alliance ties.
Finally, Macmillan warns that “World Policemen” may be forced into retirement, leaving a vacuum of instability and uncertainty. By the early 20th century, the British clearly could not sustain the demands and costs of their empire. Likewise, Macmillan avers, the United States will not be able to preserve hegemony indefinitely. Even if it its reach is primarily confined to Asia, the most obvious challenge to U.S. influence will come from a rising China, and crises or conflicts may break out unless the dominant powers can establish a stable international order.
Macmillan is hardly the first to point to these conditions as potential precursors to conflict. With respect to China’s rise, analysts have argued frequently that Washington and Beijing’s national security interests put the two countries on a collision course. Some have gone so far as to insist that this clash is inevitable. But in her comparison of the international conditions that preceded the Great War and those that prevail today, Macmillan fails to address one truly crucial question: Why did the forces of globalization, nationalism, interlocking alliances, and power transition combine to produce war in 1914 specifically?
The prevailing patterns that Macmillan identifies as historical rhymes may all be thought of as permissive conditions to conflict: these forces may have helped to pave the way to the Great War’s onset, but none alone was the immediate cause of war in 1914. Moreover, these forces were almost certainly present in Europe prior to that fateful year. Why, then, did they not combine to produce a major war when Austria annexed Bosnia in 1908? Why did they not stoke the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and produce global conflagration then? If we are to accept that any specific set of conditions caused the First World War in 1914, we must also be able to explain why those forces did not produce war earlier or later, or why conflict could not have been avoided altogether despite their prevalence.
Indeed, in the copious literature on World War I, scholars have attempted to dissect these important counterfactuals. Some argue that the structural conditions that Macmillan identifies really did make a European conflict inevitable — interlocking alliances, the Anglo-German power transition, nationalism, and other factors meant that war would have occurred in 1915 or 1916 if it did not in 1914. But other analysts insist that the Great War was the immediate result of assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. If he had not been killed in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 — or if he had been shot and lived — the great powers might have avoided war, not just in that year, but in perpetuity. If an idiosyncratic event like the Archduke’s assassination is the key to explaining the war, however, it is not clear how much credence we should give to other underlying factors. Macmillan’s background conditions for conflict may be insufficient to bring about a war, and indeed, may not even be necessary. And if this is true, then the parallels that can be drawn between the onset of the First World War and geopolitics today may be impoverished at best.
So is this a simple warning that decision makers should approach historical analogies with caution? It is that, but also more. Among the many causes of the First World War that international relations scholars have identified was the widespread belief in European capitals that a great power conflict was highly likely. Combined with prevailing military technologies and strategies of the time, this assumption led statesmen to think that they would be advantaged if they struck first, rather than waiting for an adversary attack that was sure to come in due course. By overemphasizing historical parallels, we risk convincing ourselves that conflict is imminent, when in fact it remains eminently avoidable. If we were to combine Macmillan’s warnings about economic interdependence, nationalism, alliances, and power transitions, for example, it would be tempting to flag the next fracas over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, where all of these forces are clearly present, as the new Sarajevo. Combined with great power military strategies that may be escalatory, conflict anticipation via analogy could produce disastrous results indeed.
With the one-hundredth anniversary of the First World War fast upon us, and a power transition manifestly under way, Macmillan’s essay will certainly not be the last analysis to draw connections between 1914 and present-day geopolitics. Indeed, there is surely value in paying heed to the similarities and differences between the two eras. By listening anxiously for historical rhymes that portend major conflict, however, we risk deafness to the multitude of factors that make the challenges of the present day unique, and soluble far short of war. A rhyme, after all, is a correspondence of sound, but not of meaning.
Here’s to wishing the world a 2014 that is considerably more peaceful than the centennial it will mark.