A hundred years since the beginning of World War I, the guns of August 1914 are still echoing. Right now it's useful sport among strategic analysts and historians to pick the similarities and differences between the world today and on the eve of the First World War. The worrying state of global geopolitics is leading many to ponder: could it happen again? Is devastating war between powerful states really a thing of the past?
Here are a few thoughts from my own checklist of what to watch for when we consider the possibility of interstate war in today's world. It's hard to improve on this thoughtful recent piece by Graham Allison, but my assessment differs in a few places, notably on the roles of technology, alliances, diplomacy and sheer folly. On balance, though, I tend to reach the same conclusion: 'just because war is irrational, does not make it unthinkable'.
Interdependence versus mistrust
This issue has been done rather to death, and this essay by Oriana Mastro reminds us why economic and financial enmeshment across today's Indo-Pacific Asia need not mean automatic peace, just as the mutually reinforcing aspects of Anglo-German prosperity failed to stop catastrophe in 1914. The markets did not see that one coming, so why (as Niall Ferguson reminds us) should they be any more enlightened now?
Unintended and unexpected consequences
In 1914, a few supremely unlucky gunshots by a troubled Serbian youth began the cascade to catastrophic war. The much greater interdependence and complexity of today's joined-up world means that a disruptive event – such as an assassination or annexation — could have consequences even harder to predict and manage, no matter how good our real-time information.
Improvements in the methods of interstate relations have not kept pace with the speed or complexity of today's international environment. Sure, as Graham Allison suggests, things are better now because 'intelligence systems provide near real-time information' to help make decisions in a crisis. Moreover, leaders 'can talk directly to one another' by phone or videoconference. In 1914, on the other hand, he notes that governments 'sent cables to ambassadors who transmitted messages to foreign offices, increasing the chances of miscommunication'.
The sad secret of 21st century diplomacy, however, is that a lot of the time it still works likes that, even during crises. Consider the lack of operational hotlines between, say, China and Japan or even China and the US; or the potential for mischief or miscommunication. A telephone call can only help avert crisis if both sides are willing at least to talk. And while crisis and disaster can strike suddenly, even the most urgent and accomplished multilateral diplomacy – like the recent UN Security Council resolution on flight MH17 – takes precious days.
Alliances are easy to blame for the 'chain-gang' effect that drew so many countries into what began as a Balkan war. But a focus on the entangling potential of alliances in 1914 can overlook their stabilising value in 2014. It's hard to see how a Japan allied to the US would be a more volatile actor in the Asian strategic order than one anxiously alone.
Plenty has been made of the role of propaganda in fanning misinformation, hate and nationalism before and during World War I. But it is worth pausing before we assume that rapid access to information is somehow breaking down barriers by raising awareness of how much we all have to lose from conflict. Social media is proving a prime vehicle for dangerous forms of nationalism and confrontation-mongering in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. And if you've seen Moscow's glitzy RT channel lately, you will (hopefully) know that state-sponsored propaganda is proliferating in shameless new forms.
Technology and speed
While diplomacy still often moves at a 20th or even 19th century pace, military technology has streaked ahead, dramatically compressing the time for sensible decision-making during a crisis. An incident at sea or in the air over contested Asian waters would be over in minutes, perhaps seconds. Frontline commanders and political leaders would have scant time to weigh the risks of striking first against those of restraint. By today's measures, the fateful month following the assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was a leisurely slide to disaster. In a present-day contingency, the first hours would be crucial, not least for shaping the clash of narratives.
1914 or 1941
A centenary is a neat frame of reference, but an artificial one: there is no intrinsic reason why 1914 should be a better guide to the future of conflict-management than, say, 1939, 1962, or even 1814. In an Asian context, where China's strategic decision-making remains difficult for outsiders to comprehend, perhaps 1941 rather than 1914 may be the historical analogy most worth studying. That was the year that the deeply dysfunctional decision-making of the Japanese military and cabinet led to Japan's attack on the US and the madness of a war that key Japanese players privately believed they could not win.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.