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First World War of the Twenty-First Century?

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev on Jul 16, 2001

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

These headlines could be plucked from any newspaper today:

“Multinational peacekeeping force planned for Macedonia.”

“International tribunal to meet at The Hague.”

“Crisis in Bosnia.”

“Refugees flee violence in the Near East.”

“Leaders gather at summit to discuss international security.”

But nearly identical headlines greeted readers a hundred years ago. Then, the world was beginning to slide from crisis to crisis (in China, Morocco and Bosnia) until the most devastating war in human history — to that point — erupted in 1914. Now the question again surfaces: will the international community be able to avoid the slide toward war?

It remains to be seen whether the United States, the world’s “sole remaining superpower,” has the vision and determination to take action to assure that simmering conflicts and disputes (whether over Taiwan, Macedonia or the Middle East) do not set the stage for another major global conflagration.

The world of today is certainly not identical to that of a century ago. The Information Super-Highway has replaced railways and telegraphs as the technological force driving economic development. Then, Germany was the rising power, seeking its place in the sun. Today, China claims for itself its “rightful” position in the world.

A century ago, statesmen met at the Hague to discuss proposals for arms control, to codify the rules of war, and to create an international court to arbitrate disputes. Today, the International Tribunal attempts to hold leaders accountable for the bloodshed that decimated Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

It is in attitudes exhibited by pundits and statesmen alike that the similarities between the world at the turn of the last century and at the turn of the millennium are most clearly demonstrated. The belief that the epidemics of local ethnic and religious violence, some occurring in the same locations (Macedonia and the Caucasus, for example), pose no threat to the international system is one. The faith that scientific and economic progress will solve the major social ills of the day and make warfare obsolete is another.

History never repeats itself, but it teaches us that there are patterns in human affairs. The lack of vision exhibited by European statesmen a century ago allowed colonial squabbles and regional conflicts to plunge the world into conflict. American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has similarly seemed to be on autopilot. Those responsible for international affairs cling to the belief that economic growth and democratization will somehow create the conditions for global stability without the need for major investment of American force or treasure.

The United States seems to have no clear idea about how to exercise its power. Should it act as an international policeman, as a peacekeeper balancing regional powers (an emerging Europe, a declining Russia, an ascending China)? Should it stand as the advocate of international human rights and freedoms? Or should it concentrate on consolidating its position as leader of the Western Hemisphere? This lack of consensus results in foreign policies that are confused and unfocused.

World War I began in part because leaders misread each others’ intentions. Germany, for instance, felt that Russia, which had acquiesced in an Austrian occupation of Bosnia in 1908, would not intervene to defend Serbia in 1914. Today, the United States is not clearly demarcating its vital interests, the “line in the sand,” which others cannot cross without risking retaliation — military, economic or political. Our pronouncements are vague and often contradictory.

Is the United States willing to risk war with China over Taiwan? Will sanctions be levied against Germany and France because of their treatment of religious “sects?” What is the United States prepared to do to prevent Azerbaijan or Ukraine from falling under Russian hegemony? There are no definitive answers to these and other questions. Such uncertainty heightens, rather than diminishes, the potential for conflict.

Many Americans believe that we do not need to worry about these questions. Multinational corporations and worldwide communications, among other things, have created a global community that will somehow prevent the outbreak of a major war. Yet this global community lacks institutions, lacks codified rules, lacks enforcement power over its constituent parts. The existence of multinational corporations, international organizations and global lines of communication prior to 1914 did not prevent a world-wide conflict.

For good or ill, the United States has been given an awesome power — the ability to set what direction the world will take in the decades to come. It would be a real tragedy if, through neglect or apathy, that power were to be frittered away by short-sightedness and lack of vision.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.