Lessons from the past - when fear drove nations to war

WITH the 100th anniversary of World War I this year in mind, the overarching task of policy in a globalised, multipolar world is to manage the rise of the Global South by avoiding great wars and the cancer of mass violence.

During her last visit to Beijing in September 2012, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton held a press conference in which she stated that the world would soon see, for the first time in history, that a rising power and an established power would not engage in a war. Of course her statement was related to China and the US.

Although I don't think war between these nations is inevitable, I do think Mrs Clinton described the problem well.

No one wanted World War I to happen. Or, at least, no one wanted the kind of war that actually took place. The general assumption was that the conflict would be very limited. The Europeans who went to war assumed they would be home by Christmas 1914. We know now, of course, that World War I not only happened, but that it also resulted in the self-destruction of the European powers in two world wars.

For a long time Germany was blamed for the outbreak of World War I. The assumption was that the war was the result of the German desire to become a world power.

Without rejecting this approach completely, I think that the more disturbing interpretation has been given by Australian historian Christopher Clark in his characterisation of the European powers and their politicians before and during the war as "sleepwalkers".

According to him, no one had any idea of the degree to which the violence would escalate.

World War II was different in that it was more deliberate - the result of the activities of Nazis in Germany. The outbreak of World War I, on the other hand, was the outcome of a traditional power struggle.

It included the rise of new great powers, an arms race, a pre-emptive strike by the Germans, perhaps even out of fear, and a policy of sleepwalking by the leading figures in Europe.

Above all, it showed how a failure to understand the seriousness of the chaotic, near-genocidal fighting in the Balkans would drag Europe into catastrophe.

Some theoreticians have implied that we are witnessing a return to the Middle Ages with respect to international security. But in fact we are returning to a development that is structurally much more comparable to the pre-World War I period, especially in Asia.

Mrs Clinton has already compared the competition between China and the US with that of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens - authoritarian Sparta against democratic Athens. Athens, the strongest city- state in Greece before the war, was reduced to a state of near- complete subjection, while Sparta became established as the leading power.

World War II is not a good comparison because there is no totalitarian ideology in sight which could be compared with that of the Nazis. The Cold War does not provide an illuminating model for comparison either. There are not just two superpowers.

In Asia we have several actors to take into account apart from the US and China. These include India, Russia and Japan.

Following Mr Clark, it could be said, that at the heart of the causes of World War I was a lack of understanding about the real situation. European leaders failed to understand the turmoil in the Balkans, or comprehend the implications of the conflict between established and rising powers. They also failed to comprehend the capabilities of the military forces that would be unleashed.

Thucydides, the chronicler of the Peloponnesian War and one of the ancient world's most important historians, sees the initial cause of this war in the growth of Athenian power: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."

Unlike Plato, though, Thucydides argues that it was not the striving for power in itself, but rather fear of loss of power and, in the long term, fear of being oppressed, robbed of one's freedom, and enslaved that caused the escalation leading to war.

In Thucydides' account, fear was the cause of war on both sides. Sparta was afraid of the growth of Athenian power, and Athens was afraid of what might happen if it gave in to an escalating series of demands and threats, the end result of which could not be foreseen.

There are many structural similarities here between the pre-1914 period in Europe as well as the current conflicts in Asia. I don't think that history is repeating itself entirely. But the resemblance is striking.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a lecturer at the faculty of social and cultural studies at the Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany.


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