Lessons from the Great War still apply

On June 18, 1914, the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph and heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The assassination was the flash point that triggered a global conflict.

The Great War had a kaleidoscope of causes, including mutual defense alliances, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism. Its origins have eerie parallels to the present and hold important lessons for the future, especially for China and the United States. The emergence of China as a major power trying to assert itself has echoes of Germany’s rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was viewed as a threat by Britain, so the theory goes.

The two bullets fired in Sarajevo precipitated an international crisis, as various military alliances were activated, dragging everybody into a devastating global war. At the time of the royal murders, nobody believed it to be the “shot heard round the world,” but Europe went from peace to war in five weeks. As British Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Germany backed Austria after it declared war on Serbia, which was supported by Russia. When Germany then declared war on Russia, France was committed to Russia, and Germany attacked France through Belgium, pulling Britain into the war. Later Japan and the United States entered on the side of Britain, France and Russia, along with Italy, which switched sides in 1915. As Henry Kissinger explained, “the Great Powers managed to construct a diplomatic doomsday machine …” The war to end all wars (until it didn’t), later known as World War I, broke out in the summer of 1914 and was expected to be over by Christmas. Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

But it lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was to be swift, easy and victorious. Those who plan on fighting short wars often end up losing long ones.

By the time World War I ended, nine million had been killed, including over 100,000 American soldiers. Eight million were prisoners or simply missing. Twenty-one million had been wounded and who knows how many were damaged psychologically.

When the guns went silent, the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian empires had collapsed, a new German empire was foiled and France and Great Britain were greatly weakened. The war sowed the seeds of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and communism and World War II. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East and laid the foundation for the chaotic conflicts that continue to plague the region. The Great War was also the catalyst for the coming American century.

China is an economic superpower and is translating economic might into military capabilities roughly in the same league as the United States. It is making a run at dominating northeast Asia through various territorial disputes with Asian neighbors over claims in the contested East and South China seas. By themselves, these neighbors are not powerful enough to check China.

The historical lesson for leaders in both China and regional rivals like Japan is to recognize that growing political and military tensions are a potential flash point.

Given the network of bilateral and collective defense agreements the United States has in the region, supporting its allies could draw the U.S. into disputes with China.

A clash between China and the United States is hardly remote. As recently as 2014, President Obama reaffirmed America’s bilateral defense agreements with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. A lesson from World War I that seems so relevant today is that local conflicts can escalate into a great war.

Originally Published: June 16, 2018

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