Earlier this year, I was on holiday in Corsica and wandered into the church of a tiny hamlet in the hills where I found a memorial to the dead from World War I. Out of a population that can have been no more than 150, eight young men, bearing among them only three last names, had died in that conflict. Such lists can be found all over Europe, in great cities and in small villages. Similar memorials are spread around the globe, for the Great War, as it was known before 1940, also drew soldiers from Asia, Africa and North America.
World War I still haunts us, partly because of the sheer scale of the carnage — 10 million combatants killed and many more wounded. Countless civilians lost their lives, too, whether through military action, starvation or disease. Whole empires were destroyed and societies brutalized.
But there’s another reason the war continues to haunt us: we still cannot agree on why it happened. Was it caused by the overweening ambitions of some of the men in power at the time? Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers, for example, wanted a greater Germany with a global reach, so they challenged the naval supremacy of Britain. Or does the explanation lie in competing ideologies? National rivalries? Or in the sheer and seemingly unstoppable momentum of militarism? As an arms race accelerated, generals and admirals made plans that became ever more aggressive as well as rigid. Did that make an explosion inevitable?
Or would it never have happened had a random event in an Austro-Hungarian backwater not lit the fuse? In the second year of the conflagration that engulfed most of Europe, a bitter joke made the rounds: “Have you seen today’s headline? ‘Archduke Found Alive: War a Mistake.”’ That is the most dispiriting explanation of all — that the war was simply a blunder that could have been avoided.
The search for explanations began almost as soon as the guns opened fire in the summer of 1914 and has never stopped. The approaching centenary should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident. History, in the saying attributed to Mark Twain, never repeats itself but it rhymes. We have good reason to glance over our shoulders even as we look ahead. If we cannot determine how one of the most momentous conflicts in history happened, how can we hope to avoid another such catastrophe in the future?
Though the era just before World War I, with its gas lighting and its horse-drawn carriages, seems very far-off, it is similar to ours — often unsettlingly so — in many ways. Globalization — which we tend to think of as a modern phenomenon, created by the spread of international businesses and investment, the growth of the Internet, and the widespread migration of peoples — was also characteristic of that era. Even remote parts of the world were being linked by new means of transportation, from railways to steamships, and communication, including the telephone, telegraph and wireless.
The decades leading up to 1914 were, as now, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale. New fields of commerce and manufacture were opening up, such as the rapidly expanding chemical and electrical industries. Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity; radical new ideas like psychoanalysis were finding a following; and the roots of the predatory ideologies of fascism and Soviet Communism were taking hold.
Globalization can have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in small like-minded groups. Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary Socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order. The young Serbs who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo were inspired by Nietzsche and Bakunin, just as their Russian and French counterparts were.
Terrorists from Calcutta to Buffalo imitated one another as they hurled bombs onto the floors of stock exchanges, blew up railway lines, and stabbed and shot those they saw as oppressors, whether the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary or the president of the United States, William McKinley. Today, new technologies and social media platforms provide new rallying points for fanatics, enabling them to spread their messages to even wider audiences around the globe.
With our “war on terror,” we run the same risk of overestimating the power of a loose network of extremists, few in number. More dangerous may be our miscalculations about the significance of changes in warfare. A hundred years ago, most military planners and the civilian governments who watched from the sidelines got the nature of the coming war catastrophically wrong.
The great advances of Europe’s science and technology and the increasing output of its factories during its long period of peace had made going on the attack much more costly in casualties. The killing zone — the area that advancing soldiers had to cross in the face of deadly enemy fire — had expanded hugely, from 100 yards in the Napoleonic wars to over 1,000 yards by 1914. The rifles and machine guns they faced were firing faster and more accurately, and the artillery shells contained more devastating explosives. Soldiers attacking, no matter how brave, would suffer horrific losses, while defenders sat in the relative security of their trenches, behind sandbags and barbed wire.
A comparable mistake in our own time is the assumption that because of our advanced technology, we can deliver quick, focused and overpowering military actions — “surgical strikes” with drones and cruise missiles, “shock and awe” by carpet bombing and armored divisions — resulting in conflicts that will be short and limited in their impact, and victories that will be decisive. Increasingly, we are seeing asymmetrical wars between well-armed, organized forces on one side and low-level insurgencies on the other, which can spread across not just a region but a continent, or even the globe. Yet we are not seeing clear outcomes, partly because there is not one enemy but a shifting coalition of local warlords, religious warriors and other interested parties.
Think of Afghanistan or Syria, where local and international players are mingled and what constitutes victory is difficult to define. In such wars, those ordering military action must consider not just the combatants on the ground but the elusive yet critical factor of public opinion. Thanks to social media, every airstrike, artillery shell and cloud of poison gas that hits civilian targets is now filmed and tweeted around the world.
Globalization can heighten rivalries and fears between countries that one might otherwise expect to be friends. On the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners. British children played with toys, including lead soldiers, made in Germany, and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden resounded with the voices of German singers performing German operas. But all that did not translate into friendship.
Quite the contrary. With Germany cutting into Britain’s traditional markets and vying with it for colonies and power, the British felt threatened. As early as 1896, a best-selling British pamphlet, “Made in Germany,” painted an ominous picture: “A gigantic commercial State is arising to menace our prosperity, and contend with us for the trade of the world.” Many Germans held reciprocal views. When Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval secretary Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz built a deepwater navy to challenge British naval supremacy, the unease in Britain about Germany’s growing commercial and military power turned into something close to panic.
It is tempting — and sobering — to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago. Lulling ourselves into a false sense of safety, we say that countries that have McDonald’s will never fight one another. Yet the extraordinary growth in trade and investment between China and the United States since the 1980s has not served to allay mutual suspicions. At a time when the two countries are competing for markets, resources and influence from the Caribbean to Central Asia, China has become increasingly ready to translate its economic strength into military power.
Increased Chinese military spending and the buildup of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the United States as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the countries in that region. The Wall Street Journal has published authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China — just in case.
Before 1914, the great powers talked of their honor. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry refers to America’s credibility or prestige. It amounts to much the same thing.
Once lines are drawn between nations, reaching across them becomes difficult. In the Europe of 1914, the growth of nationalist feeling — encouraged from above but rising from the grass roots where historians, linguists and folklorists were busy creating stories of ancient and eternal enmities — did much to cause ill will among nations who might otherwise have been friends. What Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” can lead to violence and death — a danger amplified if the greater powers choose to intervene as protectors of groups outside their own borders who share a religious or ethnic identity with them. Here, too, we can see ominous parallels between present and past.
Before World War I, Serbia financed and armed Serbs within the Austrian Empire, while both Russia and Austria stirred up the peoples along each other’s borders. In our time, Saudi Arabia backs Sunnis, and Sunni-majority states, around the world, while Iran has made itself the protector of Shiites, funding radical movements such as Hezbollah. The Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then. A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the United States, Turkey, Russia and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients. We must hope that Russia will have more control over the Damascus government to compel it to the negotiating table than it had over Serbia in 1914.
Like our predecessors a century ago, we assume that all-out war is something we no longer do. The French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, a man of great wisdom who tried unsuccessfully to stanch the rise of militarism in the early years of the 20th century, understood this well. “Europe has been afflicted by so many crises for so many years,” he said on the eve of World War I, and “it has been put dangerously to the test so many times without war breaking out, that it has almost ceased to believe in the threat and is watching the further development of the interminable Balkan conflict with decreased attention and reduced disquiet.”
With different leadership, World War I might have been avoided. Europe in 1914 needed a Bismarck or a Churchill with the strength of character to stand up to pressure and the capacity to see the larger strategic picture. Instead, the key powers had weak, divided or distracted leaders. Today, America’s president faces a series of politicians in China who, like those in Germany a century ago, are deeply concerned that their nation be taken seriously. In Vladimir V. Putin, President Obama must deal with a Russian nationalist who is both wilier and stronger than the unfortunate Czar Nicholas II.
Mr. Obama, like Woodrow Wilson, is a great orator, capable of laying out his vision of the world and inspiring Americans. But like Wilson at the end of the 1914-18 war, Mr. Obama is dealing with a partisan and uncooperative Congress. Perhaps even more worrying, he may be in a position similar to that of the British prime minister in 1914, Herbert Asquith — presiding over a country so divided internally that it is unwilling or unable to play an active and constructive role in the world.
The United States on the eve of 2014 is still the world’s strongest power, but it is not as powerful as it once was. It has suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has had difficulty finding allies that will stand by it, as the Syrian crisis demonstrates. Uncomfortably aware that they have few reliable friends and many potential enemies, the Americans are now considering a return to a more isolationist policy. Is America reaching the end of its tether, as Britain did before it?
It may take a moment of real danger to force the major powers of this new world order to come together in coalitions able and willing to act. Instead of muddling along from one crisis to another, now is the time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago — in the hope that our leaders, with our encouragement, will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order.
Margaret MacMillan is warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the author, most recently, of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. This article is adapted from The Brookings Essay, a series published by the Brookings Institution.