Still think globalization will bring peace? They thought that in 1914, too.
Last month, I traveled to Vienna, the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a fitting place to contemplate the approaching 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I.
That conflict began with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia in July 1914, following the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand. It ultimately led to more than 15 million deaths, the collapse of four empires, the rise of communism and fascism in some of Europe’s leading states, the emergence and subsequent retreat of America as a global power, and other developments that profoundly altered the course of the 20th century.
World War I was “the deluge … a convulsion of nature,” remarked Britain’s Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George, “an earthquake which is upheaving the very rocks of European life.” Although that conflict ended a century ago, it still offers three crucial lessons that are relevant to our increasingly disordered world today.
First, peace is always more fragile than it seems. In 1914, Europe had not experienced an all-out, continental conflict since the end of the Napoleonic wars a century earlier. Some observers believed that a return to such catastrophic bloodletting had become almost impossible. The British author Norman Angell would immortalize himself by suggesting, just a few years before World War I, that what we would now call globalization had rendered great-power conflict obsolete. War, he argued, had become futile because peace and the growing economic and financial linkages between the major European states were producing so much prosperity.
Angell had good company in the multitude of thinkers who believed that improved communications were knitting humanity ever more tightly together, that international arbitration was making war unnecessary, and that nationalism was being suppressed by newer, more enlightened ideologies and improved forms of international cooperation.
The eruption of World War I showed that these trends were no guarantee of peace at all, because they were so easily overtaken by the darker forces of conflict and rivalry. Destabilizing shifts in the balance of power, the geopolitical rigidities created by hair-trigger military plans, the rise of social Darwinist and militarist ideas that exalted the role of war in human and national development, and the tensions surrounding a rising Germany’s bid for European preeminence and world power had created a great mass of combustible material that was set alight by the seemingly minor spark provided by an archduke’s assassination…