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Making Historical Analogies about 1914

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914” moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?

10 Responses to “Making Historical Analogies about 1914”

  1. T Greer Says:

    “Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point,”
    Interesting characterization. If China is the school yard bully then Japan is that neighborhood smart alec who butters up the teacher to escape the kind of wallops his wisecracks would normally get him.  

  2. zen Says:

    Fair point. 
    Fortunately, the prospect of the two joining forces is low 

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    China’s behavior will be a true test of our political/military’s commitment to the region and our Allies. While the PLAN’s fleet is growing, their capabilities to persistently project force is still some time off. The recent encounter with the USS COWPENS may have been but a test of our resolve. During the Cold War, a similar encounter would have resulted in a collision, as COWPENS would have not turned off course. It may well be that our ROE in this theater is a stark reflection on our shrinking fleet and a conservation of increasingly precious resources. The situation will probably get worse before it gets better; meanwhile, we continue to decommission ships…

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    What do I think? That there will be more nonsense about 1914 than can be debunked.

  5. larrydunbar Says:

    “Fortunately, the prospect of the two joining forces is low ”

    Really? Japan has always been in logistics. I mean, can anything get here from there without Japan? And if they can’t get here from there, what happens to the computer industry? It seems to me that the joining of Chinese and Japanese forces is a natural progression of things, unless the center of computer manufacturing changes. Or do you see mega-cities in North America employing 400,000 workers hand-assembling Apple products? 

  6. Dave Schuler Says:

    Mark, how confident are you that the PLA and the CCP are one thing rather than two or many contending factions?  My concern is that there’s too much similarity between today’s PLA and the Japanese Imperial Navy of 1941 for me to be entirely comfortable.

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    Traditionally, the PLA had a much tighter integration with the CCP party leadership than the Red Army did with the CPSU and this came out of the Chinese experience of having a long civil war based heavily on guerrilla tactics culminate in a revolution rather than the reverse Soviet experience. Senior PLA generals were a sizable chunk of the CCP Central Committee and a small minority of the Politburo through the Deng era and into Jiang Zemin’s. Deng and Mao and many of the Long March veterans were considered military as well as party leaders.
    Under Zemin and Hu Jintao, the “modernizations” made the PLA a much more professional and better equipped force but at the same time there is less integration at the top of the Party and more organizational separation between the PLA and the Party. Many senior Party leaders have no influence or insight on military affairs unless they sit on the Military Commission or a very powerful provincial party boss who is expected to work with military district counterparts to deal with potential unrest ( Xinjiang, Tibet etc.)
    That said, that does not mean Party control over the PLA has waned, just changed to a more Soviet model where the PLA’s own political officers ensure that the PLA is thoroughly towing the party line. At the same time, the military specialization has given top officers a voice on military issues because their civ counterparts lack much knowledge and in a way that simply never would have been tolerated under Mao or Deng. There also seem to be chain of command issues within the PLA unrelated to Party discipline over how much authority local commanders have.
    Beyond this we need to consult a real expert on the subject which I cannot claim to be 

  8. larrydunbar Says:

    ” rather than the reverse Soviet experience.”

    You got that right! Just the experience of Genghis khan into the Russian experience changes everything. From what I read, his son could only join the Chinese experience by being more “Chinese” than the Chinese, which was a hard OODA loop to hoe for Mongolia.  

  9. Anon Says:

    “It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”. 

    That’s laughable if only because it is much more obvious that the correct comparison is between Japan and the US in the 1930’s and is apparently too politically incorrect to speak of in public.  

  10. larrydunbar Says:

    “That’s laughable if only because it is much more obvious that the correct comparison is between Japan and the US in the 1930?s and is apparently too politically incorrect to speak of in public.”

    That maybe where the narrative is going, but as for relationships, I am less sure. I am not sure of the timeline, but eventually the U.S. denied Japan of its oil supply, which forced Japan to act.

    Nothing that has happened in Iraq or Afghanistan has come even remotely close to that scenario.  In fact, from what I can guess, the exact opposite is true. All efforts in war, for the U.S and with Muslim countries, has to been to give China the status as first customer of any access to oil that has developed because of any war the U.S. has been involved in.

    If it is true that all wars are about economic considerations, and fought by people with little economic considerations, then there is nothing in the relationships between China and the U.S. that is about war.

    The only thing thing China and the U.S. has in common (in their relationships) are those people, with little economic considerations, who want to fight. 

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