One Hundred Years After World War I, Are We Heading Back to the Abyss?

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Yves here. While the author of this article focuses on the rise of authoritarian leader as a cause for concern, that is arguably too personal a focus. Economic shocks like the financial crisis and the aftermath of the fall of the USSR typically move the political center of gravity to the right. The runup to World War I was also a period of globalization but the piece does not consider why the old political and economic order came under so much stress.

By Saladdin Ahmed, the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura, published by SUNY Press in March 2019. He is a visiting assistant professor at Union College in New York. He specializes in Critical Theory and political philosophy. Follow him on Twitter @SaladdinAhme. Originally published at openDemocracy

Cloth Hall, Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. Flickr/National Library of Scotland. No copyright restrictions.

Today we live in a world that is not dissimilar to the pre-WWI world, when a few emperors and their families controlled the fate of the vast majority of the world’s population. In 1914, all it took to trigger the Great War was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a nationalist Serb. The assassination took place on June 19. Five years later, on June 28, 1919 – almost exactly 100 years ago – the Great War came to an end, but at the cost of approximately 40 million lives.

There are no empires in the old sense now, but there are self-centered leaders who are just as powerful as any emperor in history. Some of these leaders are the kind of bullies who would not think twice before making potentially catastrophic decisions, merely to keep up the appearance of ‘strong men.’ Consider this list: Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro. What do they all have in common? They have too much power and display autocratic tendencies when exercising it.

Whether you are a genius scientist in the United States, a peace-loving poet in Brazil, or a great philosopher in Iran, the truth is that your fate is, to some degree, in the hands of a man who, in a more rational world, would not even be allowed to care for a pet. Whatever we tell ourselves about the elite who control politics nationally, regionally, and globally, there is one embarrassing fact we need to face: we have surrendered our destiny, and the well-being of the planet, to a bunch of bullies. This should be disturbing for everyone.

What happened on June 20, 2019, when the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps of Iran shot down an expensive American surveillance drone, could have triggered the start of a war. In a tweet on June 21, Donald Trump declared to the world that there was an imminent retaliation attack against Iran underway, but “ten minutes before the strike I stopped it.” Later the same day, he explained that “I thought about it for a second,” and called off the strike to avoid 150 human casualties. It is indeed fortunate that the president “thought about it for a second,” or else we could have been in the midst of another open-ended war.

Currently, we are not living in a state of war, but we are not living in a state of peace either. This situation is far from sustainable. Any miscalculation, mishap, or miscommunication could lead to the kind of attack from one side that would draw an act of retaliation from the other in order to save face, which would, in turn, result in a counter act—again, to save face—and before we know it, there will be a war.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a serious threat of a nuclear war breaking out at any moment, so anti-war protests were extremely popular. Films like Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe tried to depict both the absurdity and fragility of this situation. The Cold War concluded at the end of the 1980s, but perhaps because a nuclear war did not take place between the two superpowers, we obtained a false sense of perpetual peace. It’s as if the nuclear threat is something historically left behind us.

What we tend to forget is the fact that nuclear bombs still exist, and there are enough of them to obliterate the entire human population several times over. Today’s political leaders who have the authority to start a nuclear war are not necessarily more rational than the leaders of the Cold War era. That is to say, the probability of a nuclear war, with catastrophic global consequences, is by no means negligible, especially as the nuclear club seems to be growing. We have every reason to believe the new members of this club will be among the most irrational; not to mention that there is always the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists, whose words and deeds make their intentions unambiguous.

Under the hegemony of culturalism – the dominant ideology that attributes essentialist and homogeneous identities to the Other – it is easy to brush aside all forms of extremism and totalitarianism, as opposed to seeing them as products of the existing global order. Nonetheless, those of us who are lucky enough to live in liberal democracies seem to be heading the same way despite the choices we still have available. Something is fundamentally wrong with a system that empowers populists like Bolsonaro and Trump. They are not abnormal outcomes of the existing political environment. Thanks to their political incorrectness, however, such populist leaders are easy targets, and as such, they may give us the illusion that things will be fine once they are replaced in the next election.

But unless we comprehend the scope of the social, political, and ecological crises we face – and bring about the drastic changes required to address them – things will not be fine. Leaving politics to the elite who control governmental institutions will continue to make us responsible for the creation of a history that is barbarian, despite our rapid technological advancements. What we need is a more enlightened and internationalist consciousness – a stronger collective will to bring about real change towards a safer, fairer, and more inclusive world. The gradual realization of such a world takes place in the course of negating bureaucracies that misrepresent people’s interests for the sake of protecting the institutional apparatuses of ruling elites. Such an emancipation would entail multilayered processes of unlearning submission to discriminatory regimes, de-normalizing all forms of violence, and delegitimizing exploitation.

In 2014, 100 years after the Armenian genocide, the Yezidi genocidetook place. Yet, the international community was arguably more indifferent this time around. Perhaps the relative indifference in the West is due to the fact that the Yezidi genocide took place in the Middle East. However, the dualist view of the world as the West vs. the rest is just as problematic as it was in the 20th century, when the Holocaust mirrored the barbarism of the Armenian genocide on a larger scale. What is already happening in the world’s most robust democracy is a manifestation, not only of the global system’s brutality at home but also of the public indifference required for the normalization of such brutality.

In 1914, the world was entering a stage of barbarism, and nobody had any idea how bloody it would turn out to be. While the breakout of the war was sudden, the conditions that led to the war were gradual. However, imagining, and struggling for an alternative world was not merely the vocation of a few isolated groups. For the 80 years after 1914, international solidarity and cosmopolitan ideas of emancipation had enough presence that speaking of, and organizing for, a different world was not uncommon.

But this promise was left unfulfilled. During the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, for example, the anarcho-syndicalist and International Brigades represented a desperate attempt by revolutionary leftists to stop the rise of fascism in Europe. Despite its relative popularity, the internationalist anti-fascist front did not receive enough outside support to be victorious, and we all know the catastrophic consequences that followed.

Today, internationalism as a popular movement is even weaker. Political apathy and despair dominate the public mood, leaving the world at the mercy of a bunch of populist bullies. Surrendering to the idea of the ‘end of history’ per Francis Fukuyama’s doctrine – the belief that we simply cannot do any better – has never been so widely internalized as now. Precisely because of this fact, however, the emergence of an international public consciousness that can resolutely take on the responsibility of saving the world is more urgent than ever.

One does not need to abide by any universalist utopia to realize that every individual and community are organic parts of the same world, politically, historically, and ecologically. Unless a new internationalist consciousness and will emerge, we will continue to head toward the abyss of barbarism, and nobody can predict the scope of its violence. If nothing else, the ongoing ecological crises will be sufficient to escalate unrest, wars, and mass immigration to levels unseen in history.

One hundred years ago, the Treaty of Versailles brought the Great War to an end, but everything that gives birth to modern wars continued on to 1939, 1989, and 2019. Unless the conditions of unfreedom are uprooted, only the abyss will return our gaze into the future.

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  1. SaveUsFromStansPower

    The only difference between the leaders of today and the leaders of ten years ago is how well hidden their authoritarian actions are.

  2. rd

    My primary hope for peace is that Russia and the US were largely unsuccessful in Chechnya, Afghanistan (both Russia and US), and Iraq. I think Putin is focused on relatively easy things likes Crimea. My big concern is actually the US as people like John Bolton are still around and they still don’t understand that invading countries is likely to be a failure despite having pushed for two failed wars already.

    1. digi_owl

      Never mind that both Crimea and Libya has had valid military objectives for Russia rather than “nation building”.

      Crimea was to maintain control over the Black Sea Fleet base, and Libya was to prop up an ally along the Mediterranean that provided a naval port.

      1. Uwe Ohse

        You mean Syria.

        And whether that “valid military objectives” will by a political disaster in the long term is still an open question.

  3. Carolinian

    Consider this list: Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro.

    Consider this list: Macron, Sarkozy, Blair, Cameron, Clinton (both of them), Bush (both of them), Merkel, Netanyahu…one could go on. Isn’t the world now a lot more under threat from internationalists? Indeed our WW1moment was arguably more during the “we’re an empire now” George W. Bush administration. Some of those people are still around and they have Trump’s ear but perhaps only up to a point. Meanwhile it seems to be Congress and the media who are clamoring for Trump to start a war somewhere.

    1. polecat

      “Meanwhile it seems to be Congress and the media who are clamoring for Trump to start a war somewhere.”

      Well of course they are ! They want to get their war on so it can, by virtue of eyeballs to screens, TV, magazines, papers, stink-tanks, and House & Senate peacockery, ‘Rain Gold all over the Place !’ .. as in filling those recently failing profit coffers, as well as regaining their much coveted phony cred. .. in full plainview ! Their moto, for all intents and purposes should be ‘There WILL be Blood, just not Our’s ….’

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Indeed. It’s a pretty narrow reading of politics to put Trump and Kim in the same basket of “authoritarians”. Trump will be gone 1.5 – 6 years from now unless the US government collapses while the opposite is true of the Kim family – they aren’t going anywhere unless there is a total revolution.

      But even if Trump goes, the US empire, which the author claims doesn’t really exist, will still be there, and Congress, at the behest of the empire’s owners, will still be clamoring for more war no matter which rubber stamp figurehead is selected as president.

      1. Tomonthebeach

        1.5 to 6 years? Perhaps you have not read Trump’s periodic tweets arguing that he deserves an extra term in office due to the Mueller investigation disrupting his reign, and most recently that an uprising may occur (armed) to extend his reign another 8 (or 20) years.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          Why would anyone believe a bullshitter? I continue to be amazed at how many people take what comes out of his steakhole seriously.

          The establishment screwed up bigly, touting his campaign because they thought he would be easier for Clinton to beat. They may tolerate him for a few years as a particularly moronic figurehead, if only so they don’t have to show their fascist hand just yet, but they are definitely not going to allow him to take over. Nor are they going to impeach him. So it’s a year and a half if we get Bernie as the opponent, six if we get Biden.

          1. Aron Blue

            Oh yeah if Bernie’s the democratic nominee for president I’m gonna hitch a pig and fly to his inauguration.

        2. ChrisPacific

          That’s just Trump being Trump. It would require either a Constitutional amendment (which he won’t get) or a full on military dictatorship and suspension of the Constitution (which I doubt he wants, and I doubt he could accomplish even if he did).

    3. IdahoSpud

      I agree with this. I think the focus on “personalities” is the epitome of lazy, sloppy, tabloid journalism.

      War historically has most often come about over resources, although more recently it’s been due to poor policy.

      The societal parallels to pre-WW1 Europe are almost non-existent. Nobody today thinks of “war as summer camp” to turn your young boy into a man. And despite cable media’s non-stop demonization of certain other country’s leaders “personalities”, most people either aren’t buying it, or don’t really care.

    4. Everydayjoe

      Well said. Bush took us to War which Obama continued. Trump for all his bluster is yet to bomb any country…
      But what is troublesome about Trump is that he is exiting all international treaties and institutions…we need a robust UN ( it was formed by US after ww2 for this very reason) to keep some semblance of world peace through ongoing dialogue between Nations.

    5. sierra7

      My thoughts also. Have we not been under “National Emergency” since 9/11?

    6. Lou Mannheim

      “Meanwhile it seems to be Congress and the media who are clamoring for Trump to start a war somewhere.”

      Really? All of the reporting I’ve read has been fact based, with editorials concerned about escalation and why this is happening now so close to 2020. Who in Congress is clamoring for war?

  4. rc

    This commentary completely misses the mark. Xi Jinping (the CCP) is the most dangerous ruler on the planet. Once the CCP believes China has eclipsed the U.S. as the superpower it will effect all domain action to subjugate the United States, the West and their allies. Xi’s China Dream and PLA writings provide a roadmap. The CCP believe they have the mandate of heaven. The U.S. has been strengthening China for 50 years. If we fail to recognize China’s ambition, we risk everything.

    This does not let the plutocrats in the United States off, but rather should spur them to make the country live up to its ideals. The formula for success includes reindustrialization, universal healthcare, publicly funded increases in educational attainment, massive infrastructure, research and development investment.

      1. Synoia

        As long as the plutocrats can invest in China, or receive their profits from wherever they want, why should they be Nationalist?

        Their love of money seems to trump any nationalist thoughts.

        1. Charles 2

          “Investing” in China by non residents is a an illusion, as the closed capital account only permits them to repatriate a little part of the income made there, and none of the principal.
          This illusion is maintained because plutocrats can borrow dollars and euros against their Chinese assets, once this mechanism is broken, all bets will be off (and lost really…). It can happen very quickly.

    1. a different chris

      >Once the CCP believes China has eclipsed the U.S. as the superpower it will effect all domain action to subjugate the United States, the West and their allies.

      Why? Seriously, why? Oh, because China has acted like that well, never. Walmart isn’t interested in subjugating it’s customers, China is not interested in subjugating Walmart. Being a parasite on a parasite makes them both happy, don’t kill the host!

      I do agree this commentary is a bit off. Somebody named “Saladdin Ahmed” has somehow fully embraced “White Man’s Burden”.

      And Mother Nature is coming up to bat so we will find that they are all pipsqueaks.

      1. F.Korning

        You’re naive if you think China has never acted like that.
        Chinese culture is ancient, and they have over the millenia
        subjugated all their neighbours into vassalage many a time.
        Hence he doctrine being of the PRC: benevolent paternalism.

    2. Anarcissie

      In recent history, the Chinese and Russian leadership have not been very aggressive; one might say they have been playing black against the imperial bender the US still seems to be on. If they are observing the poor results of American adventurism with any intelligence, they will be all the more discouraged from attempts to rule the world. Indeed, every state that has engaged in broad imperialism in the modern world has come to ruin, often not only financial ruin but social, physical, and moral ruin. The most dangerous ruler on the planet at the moment is whoever is the president of the United States. ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ It’s time to retire.

      1. amfortas the hippie

        aye. sadly, of this dudes list…and the one in the comment above…i think putin might be the only sane one.
        of the numerous speeches and such ive read over the years, he doesn’t feel anything like the silly caricature we’re usually force fed.
        and the author….may have imbibed a bit too much cecil rhodes

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        Have you been attention to what China has been doing in the South China Sea? It appears not. China’s aggressive claims have accomplished the difficult task of making the neighbors more predisposed towards the US as the less awful hegemon.

        1. Acacia

          Also worth considering that two of China’s neighbors — Japan and South Korea — continue to host a sizable US military presence, and serve as vassals in the East Asian branch of the American Empire, because the US is perceived to be “the less-awful hegemon”.

        2. Anarcissie

          I am not really conversant with the details, but as I recall the US has been trying to control events in China and construct a hostile encirclement of its Communist component since at least World War 2. Taking up strategic space on its periphery seems fairly defensive to me. One must expect them to do something.

    3. workingclasshero

      Hey rc,Still worried about the chinesse and the ccp are you?maybe if the council on foreign relations and about ten other national securuity state front group/think tanks would quit targeting the Chinese and about 5 other countries for running their own economies outside of wall street and washington consensus dictates then those nations might stop their legitimate defense build up or whatever your going on about.

      1. John

        China attained essentially its present borders in the late 18th century during the reign of Qian Long. Mongolia became independent in the 20th century during the long period of weakness, disorder, war, and civil war. China will try to bring Taiwan back into the fold; it was lost to Japan in 1895, regained in 1945, and became estranged in 1949 when Jiang Jieshi removed his government and 2,000,000 followers there as the Communists were winning the civil war.

        China will seek to extend its influence across Eurasia economically for sure and politically if possible. If this succeeds, American influence will diminish in those regions. China was the leading power on earth for much of the last 2,000 years. It is becoming a leading power again. That does not mean ipso facto conquest, however you wish to define conquest.

        China is a rival as is Russia, but I should think the lessons of the Cold War as well as the examples of earlier empires that overreached would be a cautionary tale and if the Chinese are anything, it is a people who know their history.

  5. Susan the other`

    This fear is out of step with what is happening. Not that war is impossible, it is, however, not all that probable. Xi and Putin, even Modi, maybe even the odious Bolsonaro, and certainly Trump are all avoiding war like the plague that it is. We in the US are in better hands now than if Hillary had won. She and her militarist cohort of democrat neoliberals were far more dangerous to world peace. However, just a few years can make a big difference politically and already we are seeing interesting things happen. This one is coming straight from the old-neoliberal-guard: George Soros and the Koch brothers. They are forming the Quincy (?) think tank in order to address the problems of and alternatives to “perpetual war”. It sounds like strange bedfellows but it could be a sea change. The thought makes me smile: “Billionaires save the planet.”

    1. anon in so cal

      Agree with all that, except for the Soros / Koch think-tank. @caitoz’s take on that seems accurate. Can’t you just see them issuing a statement along the lines of, “Because international peace is our goal, it is with great reluctance that we regrettably recommend the US initiate a nuclear first strike against….”

      Otherwise, re: the OP, it might be advisable to substitute Netanyahu for Putin, then add a few more names to the list of autocrats.

      Putin increasingly seems wise and reasoned. Have yet to finish reading his interview:

  6. Synoia

    The formula for success includes reindustrialization, universal healthcare, publicly funded increases in educational attainment, massive infrastructure, research and development investment.

    I wish that were true. But in the middle of that billions die because of climate change.

    The only path forward I can imagine requires a reversion to local goods and services for 95% of living, back to the pre-railroad age in the US.

    Unless we discover some non-carbon dioxide producing form of energy.

    1. Math is Your Friend

      “Unless we discover some non-carbon dioxide producing form of energy.”


  7. False Solace

    In the lead up to the Great War, Europe seethed with nationalism, imperialism, and right-wing authoritarianism. The young men of the time marched joyfully to the fields of slaughter. They were eager for a scrap.

    Today we have a similar level of global interconnectedness and economic precarity, with rising nationalism and imperialism. Our right-wingers love guns. They swagger around eagerly anticipating the next apocalypse that will let them prove their superiority over their countrymen. And they won’t let us improve material conditions for them or anyone else, which is the only thing that actually might lessen their craziness. Maybe the only way to get rid of them is to send them to war, like they say they want.

    I’m being facetious. War is a terrible thing etc. So how do you excise this malignance when it actively fights you? Because if you don’t, it will continue until it really does end in war.

  8. Tyronius

    This article confirms and supports all of my fears about the coming decade. I see no way to stop it.

    Perhaps humanity is doomed by its own greed.

    1. divadab

      humanity is not doomed – merely our energy feast civilization. Humans will survive, even on a planet where they have to live underground because of 300 mph winds. But many will die in horrible ways and that is just an unavoidable prediction.

      SO cheer up – you won;t see the worst of it.

  9. Alex Cox

    This is just more Putler-bashing.
    The disaster that impends is far worse than WW1, and we have not autocrats but a succession of “liberal” scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, and media buffoons to thank for it.

    1. pretzelattack

      ok i’ll bite. what “liberal” scientists? and how did they effect a disaster?

        1. pretzelattack

          i guess they also invented “putler”. or maybe the poster is implying putin is hitler, who knows.

  10. Schmoe

    World War I was preceded by Germany’s attempt to build an Empire, presumably mostly for resources, and Britain’s fear that it could succeed. Our attempt to control the flow of oil, or more specifically say who can and cannot get oil, sounds eerily similar. Why China is not taking a tougher stance against Iran sanctions (do they trust putting the fate of their country in the hands of the Saudis?) is baffling.

    Another factor was of course the rise of nationalism. China and Russia seem to be going through nationalism, although probably as a response against US hegemony. The US has always suffered from nationalism (although it is called patriotism in our case). The European press pre-WWI could be quite belligerent and nationalist (the Serbian press in particular really stoked the flames and the Carnegie Commission placed considerable blame there for the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913). Currently I am stunned by the US MSM’s attempt to gin up a war and I can’t see any reason why the press is so unanimous for a war and no dissent is permitted. A comment on a NYT article that I would track down if I had the time thanked the NYT for publishing a balanced article on Russia, and noted how the Times has strayed from offering differing views in its Editorial pages in the 1980s to almost becoming a Deep State Pravda or Tass. Perhaps I am sensing propaganda better as I age, but things really do seem worse now.

    The parallels between the Balkans and Syria currently are patently obvious to anyone who is familiar with both.

  11. divadab

    “In 1914, all it took to trigger the Great War was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a nationalist Serb”

    This was the official causus belli – Austria chose to invade Serbia based on a wink from Germany, primarily for internal political reasons as they had a restive Slavic population which actually outnumbered both German and Hungarian populations in the dual empire.

    Four empires destroyed themselves in that disgraceful war – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and, despite “winning” the war, the British empire also was destroyed.

    Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was used to justify an imperial invasion – it was no more the cause of the war than Saddam’s “WMD’s” were of the Iraq invasion. Also an imperial invasion that started the process of imperial destruction.

    1. Wukchumni

      Also mortally wounded on account of WW1 was the gold standard. Everybody was quite broke and of the countries involved in the conflict, only a few stayed on using it as money. Countries such as Belgium, France & Germany, which had issued gold coins for circulation in a myriad of denominations before the war, issued none in between the wars.

    2. voislav

      A few more historical details. Serbia and Austria were closely aligned until 1903, when a coup displaced Austria friendly Obrenovic dynasty with French-aligned Karadjordjevics. When Serbia started to diversify its trade away from Austria, Austria retaliated leading to a trade war between 1906-1908 (so called Pig War). Russian support for Serbia almost led a war which was averted when Russia gave in to a German ultimatum. So the Great War could have had as easily begun in 1909 as in 1914 or at a few more points between 1905 and 1914.

    3. Anonymous2

      Well, that is one point of view. Read Lieven and Sleepwalkers by Clarke and you get a very different take. Serbian government officials (Apis in particular) wanted a major war as they wanted to unite the Slavs in the Balkans in one state. This could only be achieved by the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which needed a major war to bring about. A campaign of attacks on Austrian officials culminated in the assassination of the Archduke. Austria rose to the bait, Russia decided it could not stand back and watch the Austrians roll over the Serbs and hey presto you have a major war. Apis got what he wanted though he did get executed for his pains.

    4. Gramsci

      and then–of course there was oil–and the fear that Germany would control both Romanian oil and the geologically suspected mother lode of the Middle East. Why else Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia?

      1. sierra7

        “…of course there was oil…”
        Yes, of course. Remember that it was a time that the world’s greatest maritime fleet, Britain’s was beginning to make the transition from coal burning fuel to oil. It was a tremendous change. It meant also a geo-political change for Britain. From coal refueling stations for their large Navy to seeking ways to corral the then “discovered” sources in the Middle East. US was still “sleeping” as far as the oil sourced in ME. The major leaders, Kaiser of Germany, King of Britain, and Russia’s Czar were all cousins. Kaiser deeply jealous of Britain’s fleet and determined to also have one of parity. “Family disputes” rarely end well. See: “The Cousins’ War”
        It didn’t take Russia long to figure out they were going to be big losers and many fled the battlefield……eventually leading to the first great political revolt of the 20th century.

  12. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    ” Thanks to their political incorrectness………

    As far as I can tell for the deplorable left behinds it is one of their attractions & in case no-one noticed they tend to be in the majority when it comes to potential votes. At least Right wingers have the sense to only define minorities as the unter-menschen & as Susan points out all that would likely change is the name like say Bolton to Kagan, or perhaps the return of his delightful wife.

    Weimar austerity measures most probably made the difference in getting Hitler’s Jackboot through the Reichstag door, & besides Israel, the only Lebensraum is desired by corporations & those who sell their souls to them.

  13. fdr-fan

    The problem in 1918 was WEAK leaders, not STRONG leaders. This article is just silly.

    1. JBird4049

      The problem in 1918 was WEAK leaders, not STRONG leaders. This article is just silly.

      Weak leaders? What, why? Neither weakness, nor strength, means competent.

      I would say, much like today’s leadership, it was the fact that almost the entire ruling class was asleep and, or incompetent, as well it was Summer then, so a lot of people were on vacation like Kaiser Wilhelm II who was at sea. Then there were the various ministers and under secretaries who were running things why all the senior leadership were, or trying to get going, on their vacations. Some of the lower staff especially in the Russian and German foreign ministries were just a little too war mongery, even when they were really trying to get advice from the senior staff.

      Then there were all those detailed war plans that ran on precise timetables using all the railway systems. Any country that went go! on their plans would very likely win the war as half the manpower in all those militaries were reservists. Reservists who had to be called up, sent to the supply depots, given their equipment and matched with their designated units, and then sent by train to the border with the other half of the army.

      So, Serbian hotheads assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which tried to use the incident to crush Serbian proper with bogus negotiations and invasion. Summertime comes and all the leaders decamp, because it’s the Balkans and there is always something happening there! Russia does its usual hurrumphing in support of its Slavic brothers, the various ministers left in charge, including a couple of Russian and Austrian chuckleheads do the usual histrionics. The Austrian chucklehead botches the Serbian situation. Some panics and buttons are pushed. The Russian chucklehead refused to back down despite last minute pleading from a French diplomat of a very, very last minute deal that might have worked.

      Note, had the Archduke Ferdinand’s car not gotten stuck, or if Gavrilo Princip had been a bad shot or not gotten hungry, or if even one of the rulers not gone on vacation or had a working radio, or one of the two chuckleheads not been working, or…

    2. Tomonthebeach

      I agree about the weak leaders, but I am not so confident that this article is silly. Ignoring the underlying economics of the era, most pre WW-1 leaders appeared to be inbred incompetents fearful of losing their autocratic power as monarchs – esp in light of Russia. Put differently, and based upon my read of revisionist history, Europe was full of stupid, narcissistic bullies who thought war would keep them in power. It did not.

      Post WW-1, peace seemed to hinge on colonial expansion while Europe transitioned from monarchism to nationalist fascism with new narcissistic bullies in charge – whammo WW-2. Bullies fell out of favor after the war, and there were decades during which civil leadership and capitalist democracy replaced fascism. Now, it seems that we are fine with bullies in charge – they may be bullies, but they are OUR bullies. Deja vu all over again.

  14. Alfred

    The image of the Cloth Hall (formerly one of the world’s chief examples of secular medieval architecture) reminded me instantly of the discussions here over the last couple of days of the coming destruction of the Washington High School Mural (one of America’s leading examples of monumental art). In both cases, we witness striking indifference to the value of cultural achievements to humanity. We find striking examples of ends (however admirable) justifying means (however horrific). Ieper (Ypres) is a very sad place to go, largely because one has to pass through its Menin Gate (aka The Memorial to the Missing) to reach its center, after already passing through lands over-generously supplied with military cemeteries, themselves both over-sized and over-full. Then already disheartened, one arrives at the site of the Cloth Hall, whose ‘restoration’ impresses itself upon the psyche chiefly as a reminder of what has been lost — or gone, irretrievably, missing. The world’s current leaders, along with those tempted to write cavalierly about them, would do well to make the journey to Ieper. It could change their perspectives, and possibly save the world’s future from its past. From Ieper one might then (though only if one has nerves of steel, which I cannot claim to possess) cross into French territory to appreciate the Ossuaire de Douaumont), arguably the most terrifying piece of architecture ever produced in the 20th century. There “the abyss” was literally reproduced, over and over again, in great stone pits filled with human fragments (or, if one prefers a politer term, “skeletal remains”). So “the abyss” is not a mere metaphor, as the title of this post might allow a naive reader to suppose; it is now a present reality.

    1. Janie

      The ossuary at Fort Douaumont has the remains of ar least 130,000 unidentified soldiers of both sides. There are cemeteries all over northeastern France, with graves marked only as “soldier of the fourth regiment” or “sergeant”. Vimy Ridge has a monument commemorating Canadian deaths; it is surrounded by preserved trenches, cemeteries and craters. Sheep graze, but signs warn humans away from shelling sites. Certainly the most sobering places I’ve been.

      1. FKorning

        and ordnance still blows up on spring tillage, hot summer days, and autumnal harvests.

  15. Aj

    How myopic. The technology of today severely limits the threat of all out world war. In 1917 machine guns were still a newish technology. Now we have weaponized space. Yes, today’s leaders are just as flawed as those of 100 years ago. But, the power of nearly all enemies is overwhelming. An entire nation can be destroyed in a matter of minutes without depositing one soldier on the enemy’s soil- a massive deterrent.

    Also, RC is correct. If you haven’t read Chinese propaganda, seen the rise of nationalism, or recognized the tremendous social issues they’re dealing with, then you should brush up on what will come down the pipe when they feel can’t be stopped. They won’t move until then, but when they do, it’s game over.

    1. James

      Are you serious? The current WW was declared unilaterally (“You’re either with us or you’re against us”) immediately in the aftermath of 9-11 by the US. Just because it’s relatively “low intensity” – at least by quaint 20th century standards – most of the time, make no mistake it’s going on as we speak the world over. Given all that, one could hardly be blamed for giving the Chinese a pass for whatever future transgressions they might inflict, as the current global hegemon has been shining an exemplary beacon in that regard from atop that mythical “shining city on the hill” we’ve proclaimed ourselves to be these past many decades since we first learned to hate peace and embrace the many comforts of perpetual war. One can only hope that their version of “game over” will be at least slightly less noxious than the current one. It could hardly be any worse.

      1. Aj

        Pretty sure you don’t really think that the current WW is stating that if you’re not for us then we’re going to invade your land with soldiers and force you to be with us. That was WW 1/2. And pretty sure you realize that neither the current nor the past WWs had any intention of invading a major world power. You fear mongers don’t like to admit it, but war on a global scale is a scant possibility. Future wars will be fought over the scraps like Iraq and Iran and Africa. Additionally, they will be fought in the land of the scraps. How you can miss this is beyond me. Take Iran, for example. Do you really think Russia or China is going to send nukes to NYC if we start bombing them? What did the US do when Russia started advancing on Nato nations? How did Russia respond when the USA went for regime in Ukraine? Large scale war isn’t going to happen because technology dictates that if it does, then the first strike nation will be wiped out within minutes.

        1. barrisj

          What did the US do when Russia started advancing on Nato nations?”

          Lol! You’ve got it backwards, mate…US/Nato brought former Warsaw Pact nations right up to Russia’s borders, in completely transgressive moves that violated Reagan/Gorbachev understanding about a non-Nato status for newly independent countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
          Do get real here.

          1. Aj

            Sorry. I shouldn’t have written “on”. I Should have written “towards”. But either way, you’re furthering my point. Let’s just go with your theory for a minute- Russia got scared/pissed that NATO was too close. What did they do? They went at Crimea and continued to develop their air defenses. Neither Russia nor the NATO nations were willing to go full scale war for it. Fear monger all you want. The defense industry loves it. I’ll say it again since you blokes can’t grasp it: Nuclear deterrence works. Large scale war isn’t going to happen. Pissing matches will continue here and there in smaller nations where natural resources are important, but large scale war isn’t going to happen. The author, and apparently some of his readers, are at best out of touch with recent history.

            1. Math is Your Friend

              More accurately, a central war between Russia and the US is unlikely, in part because both have reliable second strike capabilities. No one wants to have their country blown back into the early 20th century, and I am sure political leaders realize that the best bunker is no guarantee of safety when the other side has hundreds of accurate ICBMs and SLBMs.

              As long as some countries have large, unkillable nuclear forces, a large uncontrolled nuclear war is exceedingly improbable. Such a war is only likely in the event of nuclear disarmament.

              Nuclear war is far more likely among lesser powers like India and Pakistan, where very short warning times provide a ‘use it or lose it’ threat.

              I could also see a possible war between India and China going nuclear, if one or the other was losing but thought they could win with acceptable casualties. Losing 100 million people is a lot less daunting if you will still have over a billion left. You do have to make sure you distribute your industrial and military resources widely, but both those countries are estimated to have between about 100 and 200 warheads – enough to hurt the other, but not enough to crush them utterly.

              For comparison, the mid 20th century US (about an order of magnitude smaller than India or China today in terms of population) was estimated to be able to recover a productive capacity equal to about 1945 (full WW2 output) within a decade after the destruction of the 250 largest cities and towns in the country. I believe the study was quoted in Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War, but I don’t know exactly where my copy is at the moment.

              Modern industrial societies are surprisingly resiliant, given the rich store of techniques and the sheer productive power of developed industries.

              While China could absorb the Indian nuclear strike capability, especially if divided between military and industrial targets, it could not absorb either the Russian or the American strike capabilities, as they are enourmously greater.

              They might be inclined toward a limited war over Taiwan or the South China Sea, similar to the Korean war, where nuclear weapons were not used by those who had them. It all depends on what they thought they could do without triggering a nuclear war.

              If they do undertake either of those projects, the critical question then becomes ‘how would the Americans react to losing two or three aircraft carriers or carrier groups?’. Certainly the post 2001 history does not encourage an expection of a proportionate and measured response.

        2. RMO

          “What did the US do when Russia started advancing on Nato nations?”

          You know how when you’re at a level crossing watching a train rush by, filling your field of view it can start to feel like you’re the one moving? I think you’re under a similar misinterpretation here.

        3. anon

          I’ve really had it with well-meaning apologists for the PRC however benighted with optimism and good faith liberalism.

          China does not act with good faith. The yellow peril is real.

          The cultural revolution and Great Leap Forward, Tien An Men, the constant political crackdowns, the engineered industrial espionage on an industrial scale, the surveillance chimera, and the sabre rattling are all too real manifestations of the nature of the beast that is this sleeping dragon.

          Bar the USA and Russia, no nation has been as unabashedly steadily bellicose and belligerent.

          My own paternal family was executed by the regime (save one), and I have from personal experience seen many a chinese mainland software colleague steal trade secrets.

          I’m not saying they are the only bad actors, but it would be myopic not to see the ambiton and menace that is present.

    2. Uwe Ohse

      The technology of today severely limits the threat of all out world war.

      There is no way to prove that assumption.

      In 1917 machine guns were still a newish technology.

      Not really. The implications of rapid fire weapons were still not completely understood, but the weapon type as such wasn’t new anymore. Machine guns in entrenched positions were heavily used in the russian-japanese war.
      Why none of the great powers had understood that lesson at that start of the first world war is still a mystery to me.

      Yes, today’s leaders are just as flawed as those of 100 years ago.

      and you think that their flaws (including, but not limited to, stupidity, recklessness and total disregard for the live of others) don’t matter?
      Why? Because we have checks and balances? Do we really?

      But, the power of nearly all enemies is overwhelming.

      And this is enough to stop a local war from escalating? Are you sure that our “leaders” are wise enough to keep conflicts “local”? What if this wasn’t wisdom, but luck? Luck has a habit of running out.

      btw, wisdom may end, too.

  16. Wukchumni

    Countries were tied to one another through mutual alliances before WW1, and now the only mutual alliance is parimutuel, via wagers on companies, and countries bonds.

    …the Funds of August

  17. Tom Stone

    A few things I try to keep in mind when trying to predict the future…

    1) Someone IS that stupid, always.

    2) Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, usually at the worst possible moment.

    3) Change is not linear.

  18. JimC

    Tony Benn was on target with his valedictory speech in Parliament -2005 repeated at Oxford
    “Ask the powerful 5 questions
    1. What power have you got?
    2. Where did you get it from?
    3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
    4. To whom are you accountable?
    5. How can we get rid of you?
    Only DEMOCRACY gives us that right
    that is why no-one with power likes democracy
    and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it
    – INCLUDING you and me and here and now.”

    (signed) Tony Benn – Oxford blackboard 2005

  19. John Merryman

    While it might seem overly philosophic, part of the problem is that we confuse the ideal with the absolute. This traces back to monotheism, but the essential monist idealism goes to the root of western culture. That there is some more perfect state, toward which we must move. Be it morals, wealth or just happiness.
    The reality is more a polarity and dualism between energies rising up, as forms coalesce in.
    As individuals, we have the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems processing the energy driving us on, along with a central nervous system to sort through the forms precipitating out, as well as referee the emotions and impulses bubbling up.
    So is society that tension between social energies bubbling up, as the factions and interests they adhere to, along with civil and cultural forms coalescing in and trying to mediate these diverse interests, often having to chose sides.
    These two sides could be reasonably equated with a global liberalism, versus a cultural and national conservatism.
    Then when we mix in that idealistic monism, each aspect assumes they are the ones on the path to nirvana, while the other are misbegotten fools. Neither realizing the forces driving both are far larger and more elemental than any human emotion, or institution. Heck, galaxies are energy radiating out, as form coalesces in.
    So rather than seeing both sides of the coin and fluctuating between them, we have these total melt downs.

    1. kristiina

      I like this! Hitting the nail in the head concerning the attitude of taking personally the roiling energies that form this complicated system. Everyone has some only god working specially on their side. Biologically it is difficult to overcome the us-them thinking. The survival set-up of monotheist religion/philosophy matches so well the inbuilt survival system of the human being that it takes a lot to see beyond it.

  20. Jon Snow

    Not really sure where you / the author get your dates, but Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28th June 1914 in Belgrade (not 19th as the article says …).
    That’s why the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28th of June 1919 (for some reason, that date was correct).

    Also arguably WW1 came to an end on November 11th 1918, but I think I complained about confusing historical dates enough ….

  21. VietnamVet

    There were many similarities between 1914 and 2014. Up to and including Barrack Obama’s restart of the Cold War with Russia and a mini-world war in Syria. The big difference in a century is the nuclear weapons that deterred a full-blown war. Then and now, the real rulers are robber baron oligarchs. Politicians like to think they are in charge; but really, especially for today’s corporate Democrats, they are the best that money can buy. Donald Trump is a nationalist oligarch serving his family and ego as President. Kamala Harris is the heir apparent for globalist oligarchs. Both will give a green light to continued corporate exploitation.

    The current problem is separating the Commander and Chief from his history as a Corporate Head and his love of economic warfare. With only 10 minutes to spare, he decided not to blow up the global economy by attacking Iran.

    1. John Wright

      Per a link posted in NC, Trump asked the Iranians for a safe, face saving (for the USA) target to bomb in Iran.

      But the Iranians said that ANY USA action would have them shut down oil transportation.

      It was the Iranians who were playing hardball against the reality show star.

      The “10 minutes to spare” may be East Coast Hollywood (Wash D.C) hype.

  22. California Bob

    re: “Today’s political leaders who have the authority to start a nuclear war are not necessarily more rational than the leaders of the Cold War era.”

    Actually, the ‘leaders of the Cold War era’–esp. the Soviets–were veterans of WWII and knew first-hand how devastating a world war would be, and weren’t interested in starting nuclear Armageddon (even if both sides played a dangerous game of ‘chicken’).

    Many years ago, ’60 Minutes’ interviewed the head of the Soviet strategic missile command, i.e. the man with his ‘finger on the button,’ and asked him how that felt. He replied: “It is more depressing than you can possibly imagine,” and he meant it.

    1. Ignacio

      Yes we no longer have the vivid horror of WW1 and WW2 at hand and yet the nukes are still here. Too many are too confident that nuclear = safety. Nuclear safety is the most dangerous and illusory concept born during the cold war.

      1. RMO

        Just reflect on how many times during Cold War the First we brushed right up against global Armageddon by accident and avoided it only by luck. Then consider whether you think the stewards of those weapons are more or less competent today than they were then. The first thought can cause retroactive insomnia back to your birth, the second, insomnia well into the future.

        The leaders of Russia, China, Iran and Korea (South and North) concern me far less than our own leaders here in the west. Regardless of all the valid criticisms that can be made of the former they at least don’t seem to live in the same delusional fantasy world and presumption of complete lack of personal consequences that Bush, Obama, Trump, Blair and their like seem to.

  23. Acacia

    The runup to World War I was also a period of globalization but the piece does not consider why the old political and economic order came under so much stress.

    W.r.t. the old order coming under stress, I rather like Polanyi’s analysis in The Great Transformation. He also makes a compelling case for why the gold standard failed.

  24. Sound of the Suburbs

    We stepped onto an old path that still leads to the same place.

    1920s/2000s – neoclassical economics, high inequality, high banker pay, low regulation, low taxes for the wealthy, robber barons (CEOs), reckless bankers, globalisation phase

    1929/2008 – Wall Street crash

    1930s/2010s – Global recession, currency wars, trade wars, rising nationalism and extremism

    1940s – World war.

    The final destination is becoming only too apparent as nation turns on nation and political extremism flourishes.

    1929 and 2008 look so similar because they are.

    It’s the same economics and thinking.

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