Learning the wrong lessons from World War I?
By Gabriel Glickman
via the Washington Post newspaper web site
This week, we celebrate peace, notably, the centennial of the peace treaty that brought an end to the First World War. The average person today may take this for granted: We live during an era in which war and violence are no longer celebrated. But this progress is a double-edged sword because the lack of large-scale war, combined with weariness from almost two decades of continuous American deployment to the Middle East, makes us numb to the roads that can lead to a larger conflagration.
Because we are transitioning toward a more competitive and perilous international order, today should also be an occasion to reflect on the cause of a war that sucked in established and aspiring powers alike during a time of peace. After all, it is much better to learn from war than to live through it.
With more than 30,000 accounts of the war written in the English language, World War I has commanded the attention of scholars and politicians since it ended. They have asked the question: What brought those nations into such a devastating conflict? What lessons can we learn from it to stop future localized crises from spinning out of control?
The most popular description of it is that it was an “accidental war.” This argument posits that political leaders absent-mindedly slid into war without realizing the magnitude of the risk they were taking. New archival evidence has shown a more disturbing truth that historical figures were making decisions with their eyes wide open.
This is the pressing lesson we need to understand now. Great-power rivalry can dangerously affect decision-making during a time of peace. In the words of Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, “National rivalries fueled an arms race which in turn deepened insecurities and so added yet more impetus to the race. Nations looked for allies to make up for their own weaknesses and their decisions help to bring Europe closer to war.”
This happened in four ways. First was the rivalry between Germany and Great Britain. From the turn of the 20th century, the two were locked in an economic competition and an arms race for naval supremacy. By 1913, leaders in both countries announced that the rivalry was at an end, but the dynamic seemed to persist. On the eve of the war, neither appeared willing to tolerate the other’s dominance.
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