June 28 marked 100 years to the day since a young Serb nationalist shot dead the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kick-starting the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War.
History never repeats itself exactly, but wars have repeatedly occurred throughout history, but the aftershocks of that war continue to reverberate today. The bitter fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s and the tensions and bloodshed of the Middle East are rooted in the aftermath of the First World War. There are striking similarities between the era leading to that war and current developments in Asia.
The anniversary of the First World War signifies the danger, not the inevitability, of a new world war to come. The year 1914 is a symbolic representation of the risk that a war among the great powers could erupt although nobody would benefit from it. It is symbolic of the problem that rationality is no guarantee of avoiding self-destruction. As Thomas Hobbes once famously noted, the natural stage of mankind is not peace, but the war of all against all. We should not delude ourselves with the assumption that peace is the natural stage of mankind in our age.
One hundred years on, the world has numerous echoes of the early 20th century with a major shift in global power once again taking place. And as 100 years ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as “revisionist nations” including China and Russia as well as Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and Af-Pak region, challenge key elements of the US-led international order. Whereas Germany, Russia and the US were key “rising nations” in 1914, power is today shifting from the global North to the South.
In the Middle East, the legacies of the First World War period are everywhere. Two of the states that emerged from the legacy of the first large-scale Western military intervention in the Gulf region lie in ruins. Iraq has been shattered by the baleful results of a renewed Western assault nearly a century after a British commander assured Baghdadis in March 1917 that “our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, but as liberators”. Neighbouring Syria has been torn apart by civil strife as part of the post-2011 Arab uprisings that have shaken the post-colonial system of states and regimes to their core.
According to some commentators, the “Arab Spring” represents a second “Arab revolt” after the first that began in 1916. It heralds the final unravelling of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the region into spheres of British, French and Russian influence at the expense of local Arab aspirations.
Other, more recent, forces—such as political Islam, sectarian civil wars, decades of superpower rivalry and Arab-Israeli conflict—have transformed the region and its place in international politics. Yet, the legacy of developments and decisions taken during and after the First World War remains a source of bitterness, contestation and conflicting interpretation to this day. This reflects the fact that the war years represented a transition of the region from a crucible of competing empires to the emergence of the modern state system with all that implied for the realisation—and crushing—of national aspiration, the recasting of loyalties and the birth of grievances that have come to occupy totemic positions in regional narratives.
With Syria and Iraq in the throes of renewed political turmoil and the Middle East having experienced decades of regional and international crises, many attributable to the decisions taken during and after the First World War, the complicated legacies of the war have immediacy and relevance. A parallel may be drawn with the divided Europe up until 1989, where the ramifications of World War II remained highly visible across multiple generations. In this context, it is harder to establish historical distance from the legacies of the events that continue to resonate throughout the region.
While much focus in 2014 has so far been on Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the Syrian conflict, and the rise of Islamic extremist group ISIS in Iraq, it is perhaps Asia where most tension and insecurity lie in terms of potential for a great power war. The rise of militant China reminds historians of the then rising Germany of the First World War period. Although the actors then and today seem quite different, the dynamics generated by the rise of emerging powers are strikingly similar.
Its aggressive postures in handling territorial disputes between China and its neighbours have raised concerns that Europe’s past could become Asia’s future. China’s remarkable rise is unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond. And dangers of miscalculation are growing, in part, because of military build-ups. As The Economist has warned, in East Asia “disputes about clumps of rock could become as significant as the assassination of an archduke”. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has compared current China-Japan tensions with the German-British rivalry before World War I.
It is true that in our times, all great powers use military means to pursue their political and economic interests. But we should not allow ourselves to bet, casino-style, that military conflicts and strategies would not escalate into great power wars. We cannot just sit back and relax and enjoy the ride of the Asian century. Maintaining stability in the multiplex world requires stronger international and regional institutions and shared leadership among old and new powers.
Two common factors behind war in all ages are nationalism and miscalculation. Nationalism is rising not only in China but also among its neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Equally important is the risk of miscalculations. China might think that as a declining power the US will acquiesce in a Chinese military takeover of islands claimed by the Philippines or Japan rather than risk war with a nuclear power. China may also overestimate its international diplomatic clout and underestimate the degree of resistance that its military action might provoke in the region. Hence, Asia urgently needs to develop confidence-building and crisis management mechanisms to ensure that triggers like its maritime disputes do not develop into full-blown war.
The writer is a former professor of sociology, IIT-Kanpur.