A new world war is very unlikely, says Cambridge historian

PETALING JAYA - A hundred years after the First World War (WW1) kicked off in Europe - could it happen all over again in 2014? According to Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge, while there are minor parallels in the Middle East and the Ukraine, a Third World War is very unlikely.

Evans, who delivered a lecture at Sunway University here on Tuesday entitled "1914/2014: A Warning from History" pointed out that attitudes to war had changed drastically between 1914 and 2014 due to the horrors of World War Two (WW2), which ended on a nuclear note with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"In 1914, no one had any idea of the cataclysm that was to descend on them. Admirals thought it would be a great re-run of the great engagements of the past like Trafalgar and the generals thought the wars on land would be like the German wars of unification in the 1860s, made up of decisive encounters after which peace would be concluded after a few weeks or months," said Evans.

Evans added that there were few devastating wars in the 19th Century.

"There were few wars in 19th Century Europe compared to previous eras, and those wars were short in duration and limited in geographical scope and were limited to very few combatants," he said.

Evans contrasted this with the devastation of WW2.

"The destruction caused by WW2 with it's millions of dead and ruined cities, genocides and widespread negation of civilised values and behaviour had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by the WW1 which were, with exceptions largely confined to troops in active service.

"WW2 involved attacks on an enormous scale on civilians in every country,"

He added that the perception of war itself was very different in the run-up to war in 1914.

"People were not afraid of war in 1914 as they are afraid of war now, or have been since 1945. The idea that war was coming had an effect in generating a momentum before 1914 among leading people in Europe. Admiral Jackie Fisher, leader of the Royal Navy after 1902 said; 'We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war and hoped for war' - it was seen as inevitable and positive," said Evans.

He added that poets saw war as a release of the pent-up energies that had plagued European politics and society since the 19th Century, "a chance to do something glorious."

"War was seen by upper-class men as an assertion of masculine honour, a duel on a bigger scale. However, politicians today are almost always aware of the fragility of the international order in the nuclear age. Masculine posturing only earns ridicule the world across," he added.

He also said the global geopolitical landscape had changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War from a two-superpower bipolar world to a multi-polar one, the reverse of what took place in the 20 years leading up to the WW1.

"This, along with an atmosphere where attitudes to war were largely positive, unlike the post-1945 intellectual climate, this was an ominous development without parallel in the 21st Century. The dangers of smaller conflicts leading to larger ones among larger powers have receded," said Evans.

He acknowledged that some parallels to the world of 1914 exist in the world of 2014, such as the Syrian Civil War, "with factions standing proxy to Syiah Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and the danger of Israel with it's nuclear arsenal and Iran with it's persistent attempts to build one."

"China and Russia seem to be lining up behind one side of this conflict with the United States on the other," said Evans.

Evans said that in 1914, similar disputes and conflicts had erupted in the Balkans, where states such as Bulgaria and Serbia stood as proxies for larger powers such as Czarist Russia, Germany or Austro-Hungary, but cautioned that it would be wrong to see the states of the Middle East in 2014 as puppets of America, China or Russia.

"China supplies Iran with weapons and nuclear technology but can do little to control its actions in the Middle East. China's policies are also mediated by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. And not least because of economic ties to the West, Russia has bowed to international pressure for sanctions on Iran and it has curbed its arms supplies to the country," said Evans.