FULDA, Germany — Are there lessons to be learned from the devastating conduct and outcome of World War I for our times? Is there only one lesson to be learned — that you can learn nothing from history? Or are we doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn anything from it?
These questions are especially important as North Korea continues to escalate a tense standoff in East Asia with provocative nuclear tests and missile launches, the most recent of which flew over northern Japan yesterday.
There are many structural similarities between the pre-1914 period in Europe and the current conflicts in Asia. The main aim of many countries in the non-Western world is to be recognized as equals by the leading Western powers, in order to regain their former status as global powers and civilizations that was lost in the process of European and American colonization or hegemony. The desire for recognition is the driving force behind the economic and political rise of Asia. The same was true in the conflict between established, rising and declining powers before World War I.
We are again living in an age in which a war between the great powers is viewed as unlikely because it seems to be in no one’s interest, as the outcome of such a war would be so devastating that every party would do the utmost to avoid it. That rationality seems to dominate the assumptions and ways of thinking in our times: the eruption of a global conflict like World War I in Asia, which could lead to the destruction of great parts of Asia, Europe and North America, would be in no one’s interest.
Military defeat would have been humiliating. So the empires fought a war for life and death.
But what if conflicts in Asia would not be fought to pursue national interests so much as recognition? What would it mean to be accepted as equal again after the humiliation in the course of European colonization and subsequent American hegemony? Indeed, acknowledgment of past suffering seems to be a trauma in the conscience of many Asian nations. Are those desires irrational or a different kind of rationality that we have to take into account?
World War I resulted in the self-destruction of the European powers. It is an important lesson that when military aims and strategies gain priority above meaningful political purposes, a limited conflict can escalate into a nightmare with millions of deaths and unspeakable suffering for which no rational explanation can be found.
Perhaps the deepest and most hidden reason for that escalation during World War I was that no party could admit defeat or failure. Over the course of the war, the German Empire’s goals got more and more unrealistic and irrational. The pride, honor and identity of the German Reich prohibited the acknowledgment of defeat and failure. The same was true of Russia, France, England and the Habsburg and Turkish Empires. These empires knew that their rule wouldn’t survive if they had to acknowledge military defeat or failure. Military defeat would have been humiliating. So the empires fought a war for life and death.
A limited conflict can escalate into a nightmare of millions of deaths and unspeakable suffering when military aims gain priority above meaningful political purposes.
I do not mean to equate a rising China with the then rising German Empire. But although the actors then and today seem to be quite different, the dynamics generated by the conflict between emerging, rising and declining powers are strikingly comparable.
There are good precautionary warnings from World War I for today. The task today is to take precautionary steps in order to ensure that there will be no world war in Asia. Here, Cold War efforts to avoid military conflict between the superpowers (such as the Moscow-Washington direct communication link) could be applied to the current conflicts in Asia. As it stands, Asia’s lack of multilateral institutions to settle disputes, like those created in Europe after 1945, is dangerous.
The eminent Chinese scholar Zhang Wei Wei has argued that the world is transforming from a hierarchical international system to a more symmetrical one. And the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel made a similar argument: If there is any progress in history in the long run, it is the transformation of hierarchical societal relations to more symmetrical ones, between and within societies. What we need is a floating balance and harmony between the West and the East.
You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies. Yitzhak Rabin
But as Thomas Hobbes once famously noted, the natural state of mankind is not peace, but the war of all against all. We should not delude ourselves with the assumption that peace is the natural state of mankind in our age. As the late Yitzhak Rabin once said: “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” The initial proposition of politics is to differentiate friends and foes; its final aim is to mediate between friends and foes, to find a common ground between antagonistic contrasts without eliminating the competition. This might be the most important lesson we should learn from history.
And we must not forget the role of luck in geopolitics. As Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis, famously noted, it was sheer luck that prevented the escalation of that crisis into a world war: “At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. ... Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”
In current times, all great powers are using military means to pursue their political and economic interests. We should not allow ourselves to wager that military conflicts and strategies will not lead to the escalation of limited conflicts into global wars.