“Can we learn lessons from history?” In time for the 100th anniversary of World War One, this question is being asked on thousands of websites. It is a question as pointless as asking “Does breathing makes sense?” Because every human action is a result of experience and therefore a result of the past, regardless of whether this past took place 100 seconds or 100 years ago. We do not have a choice – we must learn from history.
Since the initial question can only be answered with a resounding “yes”, let’s look at a competition that has taken hold: Who can find the most parallels between 1914 and 2014? These days, every columnist takes his or her favorite crisis, outlines similarities to the crisis of July 1914, and proceeds to preach a solution. The logic goes: If we fail to do what the columnist asks, the result will be just like 1914.
Of course, in reality all we can extract from such warnings is that crises can escalate. This is as true as it is petty and misleading; it is misleading because almost no escalated crisis of the past has led to cataclysmic disruptions of the international system.
Glancing towards Asia
What seems to make the most sense is a comparison of the European states in 1914 and the current situation in Southeast Asia. The conditions of China’s rise are quite similar to what enabled Germany to advance back then. Since Paul Kennedy’s book “The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers” we have known that emerging superpowers’ potential to engage in conflicts hinges on their political actors.
It should therefore raise some eyebrows when a columnist of Germany’s “Spiegel Online” claims that we are “experiencing a re-enactment of the European crisis in the East and South China Sea”. The author argues that “China’s goals in the Pacific are led by the same blindness that once destroyed the Germans” and that this “is how history repeats itself.” Both arguments are outrageous since the actions of the World War powers and China’s leading politicians are based on entirely different strategic premises.
In 1914, Europe had a tradition that solved strategic issues with a decisive, heroic battle. In contrast, Chinese statecraft relies on indirect, patient, actions that last one year. Enemies are surrounded and enclosed in order to gain advantages without destroying the opponent. What is happening in the seas of China is hence no repetition of history.
Of course, there is a possibility of military escalation. Iain Johnston, an expert on China, reminds us that in addition to the influences of Confucius and Mengzi, China’s strategies are also influenced by its history of warfare. Even so, the country is unlikely to steer towards escalation and destruction.
“Spiegel Online” is nevertheless right to speak of a “daunting topicality of World War One”. The world after the Cold War resembles the “multipolar” world that existed before 1914. A crisis like that of July 1914 is possible – but quite unlikely.
New complexity, new solutions
The dream of the 1990s – that we would see an era with functioning international institutions, shared values and morals – turned out to be an illusion. In fact, the problems of the 21st century require more than old realist dreams. Our time has that in common with the eve of World War One.
This insight also enables us to handle the strategic challenges of our days: balance idealism with realism and craft policies that preserve peace and stability while enabling international politics based on shared values. What form this might take is currently being discussed; no definite solution has yet been found. The United States cannot currently offer a working “grand strategy”, and the Europeans don’t have one at all. Just look at Syria: even with Samantha Powers (an icon of “humanitarian interventionism”) as Obama’s UN envoy, the red lines governments draw are constantly being crossed there.
It is high time we take the consequences of 1914 seriously without becoming blinded by games of power. Interestingly, the stalemate in Ukraine was only broken once Radosław Sikorski and Frank-Walter Steinmeier became involved. These two foreign ministers probably understand best that value-oriented foreign policy needs to be balanced with realpolitik. No coincidence that it was only Steinmeier’s return to the German Federal Foreign Office that made the federal government take the anniversary of World War One seriously.
Translation from German.