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What Hath 90 Years Wrought? November 11, 2008

Posted by SV in History, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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Europe in 1907

Europe in 1907

At 11:00 AM on November 11th, 1918, the guns of August were finally silenced as an armistice brought a cessation to hostilities in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the world’s oceans. Within the following year, the Versailles Treaty would be signed, empires would collapse, others would rise, and events would be set in motion that continue to reverberate through today. The importance of Veterans’ Day is therefore not just honoring all those that have served this country for over 200 years, but also remembering the lessons of history that were shaped from June 28, 1914 until June 28, 1919.

In the immediate political context, alliances between great powers that had difficulty communicating with each other and with their rivals led to deadly consequences. War was triggered over misperceptions, misinterpretations of messages, and ironclad/set-in-stone war plans. After four years of bloodletting and a year of treaty negotiations, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires collapsed. The British and French Empires were fatally weakened, and would collapse entirely within fifty years after the second bloodletting known as WWII. The Great War also witnessed the outbreak and success of the October Revolution that brought Lenin and communism to power in Russia and the emergence of the United States as a great power that could play a role in the European balance of power.

Deeper than this, mass social movements, of the kind not seen since the French Revolution, broke out during the course of the war. Nationalism became a force to be reckoned with that prevented the leaders of Europe, some of them related to one another, from calling a conference to settle their disputes peacefully. Nationalism also served to dissolve the multi-ethnic empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, who famously faced the “revolt in the desert” led by Lawrence of Arabia. Disaffection with the war and dissatisfaction with the czar’s leadership led to the ouster of Nicholas II from Russia, the brief installment of a democratic transitional government, and then the October Revolution that brought Lenin and the Soviets to power. From November 7, 1917 until December 26, 1991, Russia and the Soviet Union would be a constant threat to the order and stability of the Western World.

As far as the context of international relations is concerned, the Great War was also another turning point. Germany was crippled but not divided, leaving it the ability to rise again and threaten regional hegemony with the rise of Hitler to power. Russia/USSR became a rather large and powerful revolutionary state that sought to export its ideology and undermine the rule of Western governments. France and Britain were weakened to the point that they barely held tentative control over their colonial empires. A power vacuum opened up in Eastern Europe as a rush of new (and weak) states (inspired by Wilson’s call for self-determination) emerged. The Japanese Empire got its first taste of significant Pacific expansion as it gobbled up German colonies and sought to increase its position vis-a-vis China. And the United States, in its intervention, indicated that it would not stand for the existence of a European hegemon and set the precedent for a US role in European affairs that is still in effect today.

Looking back 90 years later, what is the significance of the Great War, and what lessons can we draw from it? Other than the historical firsts it brought about (use of chemical weapons, development of the tank, use of the airplane, submarine blockades, etc.), it illustrates that the international system cannot be governed by a world body like the League of Nations or United Nations. States will not give up their sovereignty or power because they do not trust other states to do the same. Other lessons? You must have accurate, direct, and constant communication between friends and foes. Miscommunication can often be the greatest culprit of war. Also, do not have your war plans set in stone, and especially don’t let them be drafted and directed solely by military personnel. As Clemenceau famously quipped, “war is too important to be left to the generals.”

So what does this mean for the world situation today?  For one, there is a constant, predictable, and consistent element to world events: uncertainty.  The fog of war is hazy some of the time, and impenetrable much of the time.  Nations must prepare for the unexpected, and not go to war with high expectations and happy assumptions (WWI: “home by Christmas;” Iraq: “oil will pay for reconstruction”).  If you leave a powerful nation feeling resentful and vengeful, they will rise again and bite as soon as they can (WWI: Germany under Hitler, Soviet Union under Stalin; today: Russia under Putin).  And lastly, America can get dragged into a war that started in a far, heretofore unheard of corner of the world (WWI: Sarajevo, Serbia; today: Georgia, Lithuania?).  Though we persevered, and found out the extent of our strength, unless we continue to maintain a sound economy, a strong military, and a forceful international stance, we are fated to get pulled into a war not of our choosing and, perhaps, one we cannot end acceptably.

So on this Veterans’ Day, remember all the heroic men and women that have served this country in uniform.  Remember the last doughboy, Frank Buckles, who is 107.  And constantly remember the significance and lessons of that “war to end all wars.”  War was thought unthinkable in 1907, all the economies were interconnected and peace abounded, but in just over a decade that map was drastically revised.  It has happened since (WWII, Indochina Wars, decolonization), it can happen again.