Monday, August 4, 2014

The 100th anniversary of Word War I and how it can't teach us much anymore

One hundred years ago today World War I took off in Germany declaring war on Russia. One hundred years have gone by and the majority of the blogosphere will argue today that nothing has changed. I am confident that, with the conflict in the Middle East looming over our heads on a daily basis, the perception will be that we didn't learn from history and still fight wars that bring nothing but destruction. As a political scientist, realist and security enthusiast I will have to disagree although my opposition speaks quite an idealist language. Everything has changed. We might still be involved in conflicts that make no sense outside of political thinking but I don't see two million German soldiers perishing anytime soon...

To start off this argument I need to look at the declaration of war on Russia first. Nobody even does that anymore. And I don't mean declaring war on Russia. True, nowadays it seems that Russia would have to actually point their WMDs at Obama's face to receive retaliation that exceeds sanctions. However, those declarations of war have ceased to exist as well. With international organizations involved in the peace process, most notably the United Nations, a country deciding to invade another because they feel like that'd be a sweet idea is of the past. Now states still act in their own interest today and do whatever they see fit even with international opposition but they have much more to lose when pissing other states off than it was the case a hundred years ago.

The fact that war still exists has merely shown that states' interests haven't changed. Self-preservation was and is a state's most central ambition. In achieving this the idealist way, namely abiding by the international sets of standards, has proven much more useful for the majority of countries. Hence, the way how to achieve self-preservation has very much changed. Even the United States, one of the only states that has made blatant unilateral decisions in the past few years, has resisted the power trip here and there to appease the international community because they realize they "can't go it (all) alone" (Thanks, Joseph Nye). Soft power is very much alive and plays a part in a system that is not directed so much by power anymore but increasingly by the economy. That was different in 1914.

A 1914 kind of conflict will not happen for many reasons. A whole book can't even give all the reasons why August 4, 1914 is nothing but a bad memory, never mind a blog post. Nobody has forgotten, and events like today with German, British, French and Belgian representatives shaking hands in Liege will make sure we won't. The main reason why 1914 will not repeat itself though is that it can't. A dispute like this with technology and the power household we have in the present day would mean the end for everybody. Invading a neutral country quite obviously doesn't trigger the same reaction as a hundred years ago anymore, or did anyone see the Brits, the Americans or the French declare war on anyone after Georgia or Ukraine? Of course not.

It's important not to forget WWI but eventually it will happen. I would almost go as far as saying that the lessons learnt from WWI can't help us too much anymore. Sure, we should remember to let diplomacy reign and not do whatever we did then but war is very different today. We don't have equal powers in Europe anymore, we have stronger weapons, and we have a whole lot more to lose but soldiers in combat. On a much smaller scale we also have much fewer authoritarian regimes and potential megalomaniacs like Kaiser Wilhelm that make decisions solely on how they're feeling. I am happy to be looking at history and realizing that the world is changing. Yes, there's still war but let's consider this: we have much better weapons today and have managed to kill a lot less people at war. Let that be the saving grace of a reality I don't ever see changing.

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