HNS - First World War of the Twenty-First Century? - 7-16-01
History News Service
July 16, 2001
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First World War of the Twenty-First Century?
By Nikolas K. Gvosdev
History News Service
These headlines could be plucked from any newspaper today:
"Multinational peacekeeping force planned for Macedonia."
"International tribunal to meet at The Hague."
"Crisis in Bosnia."
"Refugees flee violence in the Near East."
"Leaders gather at summit to discuss international security."
But nearly identical headlines greeted readers a hundred years
ago. Then, the world was beginning to slide from crisis to crisis (in
China, Morocco and Bosnia) until the most devastating war in human history
-- to that point -- erupted in 1914. Now the question again surfaces: will
the international community be able to avoid the slide toward war?
It remains to be seen whether the United States, the world's "sole
remaining superpower," has the vision and determination to take action to
assure that simmering conflicts and disputes (whether over Taiwan,
Macedonia or the Middle East) do not set the stage for another major global
The world of today is certainly not identical to that of a century
ago. The Information Super-Highway has replaced railways and telegraphs as
the technological force driving economic development. Then, Germany was the
rising power, seeking its place in the sun. Today, China claims for itself
its "rightful" position in the world.
A century ago, statesmen met at the Hague to discuss proposals
for arms control, to codify the rules of war, and to create an
international court to arbitrate disputes. Today, the International
Tribunal attempts to hold leaders accountable for the bloodshed that
decimated Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
It is in attitudes exhibited by pundits and statesmen alike that
the similarities between the world at the turn of the last century and at
the turn of the millennium are most clearly demonstrated. The belief that
the epidemics of local ethnic and religious violence, some occurring in the
same locations (Macedonia and the Caucasus, for example), pose no threat to
the international system is one. The faith that scientific and economic
progress will solve the major social ills of the day and make warfare
obsolete is another.
History never repeats itself, but it teaches us that there are
patterns in human affairs. The lack of vision exhibited by European
statesmen a century ago allowed colonial squabbles and regional conflicts
to plunge the world into conflict. American foreign policy since the end of
the Cold War has similarly seemed to be on autopilot. Those responsible for
international affairs cling to the belief that economic growth and
democratization will somehow create the conditions for global stability
without the need for major investment of American force or treasure.
The United States seems to have no clear idea about how to
exercise its power. Should it act as an international policeman, as a
peacekeeper balancing regional powers (an emerging Europe, a declining
Russia, an ascending China)? Should it stand as the advocate of
international human rights and freedoms? Or should it concentrate on
consolidating its position as leader of the Western Hemisphere? This lack
of consensus results in foreign policies that are confused and unfocused.
World War I began in part because leaders misread each others'
intentions. Germany, for instance, felt that Russia, which had acquiesced
in an Austrian occupation of Bosnia in 1908, would not intervene to defend
Serbia in 1914. Today, the United States is not clearly demarcating its
vital interests, the "line in the sand," which others cannot cross without
risking retaliation -- military, economic or political. Our pronouncements
are vague and often contradictory.
Is the United States willing to risk war with China over Taiwan?
Will sanctions be levied against Germany and France because of their
treatment of religious "sects?" What is the United States prepared to do to
prevent Azerbaijan or Ukraine from falling under Russian hegemony? There
are no definitive answers to these and other questions. Such uncertainty
heightens, rather than diminishes, the potential for conflict.
Many Americans believe that we do not need to worry about these
questions. Multinational corporations and worldwide communications, among
other things, have created a global community that will somehow prevent the
outbreak of a major war. Yet this global community lacks institutions,
lacks codified rules, lacks enforcement power over its constituent parts.
The existence of multinational corporations, international organizations
and global lines of communication prior to 1914 did not prevent a
For good or ill, the United States has been given an awesome power
-- the ability to set what direction the world will take in the decades to
come. It would be a real tragedy if, through neglect or apathy, that power
were to be frittered away by short-sightedness and lack of vision.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of
Church-State Studies at Baylor University and a writer for the History News
[Nikolas K. Gvosdev, J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor
University, Box 93708, Waco, TX 76798-7308. Telephone: (254) 710-1510;
fax:(254) 710-1571; Nikolas_Gvosdev@baylor.edu]
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