Hearing Patterns in History’s Static

german war deadIn an essay written last month for the Brookings Institute (“The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War”, published December 14), Margaret MacMillan, a Cambridge University history professor and one of the world’s acknowledged authorities on World War I, makes the intriguing argument that world conditions now are disturbingly similar to those that led to the outbreak of “The Great War” a century ago. Quoting Mark Twain, she observes, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” While MacMillan is certainly not predicting a new global conflict or necessarily suggesting the world is on a path to one, she believes we could easily stumble into another “great war” if we are not alert.

The seductive thing about history is that if you look at it long enough, you can see any pattern you expect to see, and at first pass, MacMillan’s evidence seems compelling. The century following the end of Napoleonic Wars in 1815 was characterized by the world’s first period of globalization, an extraordinary period of (relative) peace, and a move towards greater reliance on international law. This began to break down in the years leading up to the beginning of World War I, and the biggest factors were the increase in ethnic-based tensions in the Balkans and colonial competition, all of which became proxy conflicts among the Great Powers to varying degrees, and a contradictory rise in nationalism (contradictory, because it happened despite deep international trade links), mostly driven by the desire of a newly-united Germany to be “taken seriously” as a major power. The war itself, the causes of which MacMillan explores (but does not define with a great deal of confidence) in her recent book, The War That Ended the Peace, essentially boiled down to the leadership in each of the warring countries not wanting to appear weak.

Compare that to the three-quarters of a century since the end of World War II, a conflict that MacMillan largely ignores in her essay, only vaguely implying that it was the Great War’s unfinished business – a point of view that has some merit, it must be said. The world has gone through another period of relative peace, globalization, and reliance on international law and arbitration. And there are corollaries to the century-old warning signs as well. The fractious Middle East takes the place of the fractious Balkans as a potential flash point. Localism and nationalism, natural reactions to increasing global integration as states and societies feel their identities eroding, are on the rise. The US – just like the British Empire of the early 20th century – is still the world’s policeman by reputation, but is struggling against the loss of quantifiable influence, in part because of the economic burden of being a superpower, and in part because its own people are becoming more divided and disaffected. And instead of an obstreperous Germany seeking validity as a first-rate power, we now have an obstreperous China.

While there is a thread of validity through MacMillan’s thesis that cannot be completely dismissed, its glib Western-centric bias raises a number of red flags. The ‘relatively peaceful’ period since the end of the last global conflict has been anything but peaceful, and that should be a strong clue that the conventional notion of “multi-party general war” is probably outdated. The Southeast Asian conflict, for example – a protracted struggle that began immediately after the end of World War II and lasted for more than four decades (and which continues in vestigial form even today in places like the Philippines and Thailand) – cost upwards of five million lives. There have been other decades-long and costly conflicts in other parts of the world as well – East and Central Africa, Communist and then narco-insurgencies in Central and South America, the apparently insoluble enmity between India and Pakistan (including serious rebellions in both India and Sri Lanka, and a Bangladeshi war that may have killed as many as three million people), and a diffuse, globe-spanning sectarian war of terror between Islamic extremists and, well, just about anyone who isn’t an Islamic extremist.

Indeed, there is some conventional behavior among the traditional major powers; the US is a world policeman of visibly diminishing power, and countries like Russia and China do conduct their diplomacy with more than a little concern for their national prestige. But since the end of the Viet Nam conflict and in particular since the collapse of the Soviet Union, confrontation between the major powers, whether directly or through proxies, has been minimal. What is different in this age than in the pre-World War I era, and what ultimately invalidates MacMillan’s warning, is that the nature of the shared threats is much different.

Prior to World War I, the biggest threat countries like England, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had in common was social upheaval – it was a class-based threat to the established (and in every case except France, and to some extent recently-unified Italy, dynastic) order that was similar in every country, but was essentially domestic in scope; there was little tangible common cause across national borders – if there were, then the leaders of the nations would not, as a means of maintaining stability within their own frontiers, have been able to drag their countries into a global conflict with jingoistic appeals, which is what most of them did.

By contrast, the common threats in our modern, intimately-connected world are more ideological; class-based to a large degree, yes, but more complex and far broader in scope. No country can really count on its people “rallying around the flag” anymore, because all flags are viewed with a deep-seated suspicion; from the governments’ point of view, the risk of economic and social instability is too great. Even a scenario which, to biased Western eyes, would appear to validate MacMillan’s thesis – a belligerent China provoking a war with the US and its allies through aggression towards Japan in disputed seas – is unlikely, because a Chinese middle class growing in size, affluence, and (despite the Chinese government’s formidable efforts to control it) interaction with the rest of the world will probably not support a potential threat to its new-found way of life; the Chinese government would, probably, decide it needs to keep that part of its population content, supportive, and continuing to spend its money more than it needs the Senkaku Islands.

Probably. If there is a strong take-away in MacMillan’s essay, it is that the risk of not recognizing warning signs and acting too late or not at all to prevent calamity should not be ignored. In another sense, though, that is also a kind of indictment of comparative analyses like MacMillan’s; when we look for familiar patterns in history, we often miss the significance of trends and events in their own context, and form preconceived notions that we may very well regret. Preparing for the wrong thing to happen, after all, works out just the same as not preparing at all.