A headline in the New York Times 100 years ago this week said peace in Europe was “now in Kaiser’s hands” after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia.
While the exact role of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm in the events that followed remains a debate among historians, there is no debating the carnage that soon engulfed Europe and eventually became known as World War I.
Because of a set of alliances among Europe’s powers, the start of that war may have been unavoidable, as former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger said at a recent panel discussion on the topic, hosted by Reuters. What unfolded ended up changing the world forever. Nine million soldiers died. Europe’s map was redrawn, and many of its cities were left in ruins. The United States rose to power. And the treaty that ended it all punished Germany so badly that many people believe it led to the events that launched World War II.
The unavoidable war and its consequences may not have seemed so clear-cut a century ago. Hindsight always is the clearest. The question today is whether current world events are leading to a similarly inevitable end.
NATO traditionally has been a strong defender of Europe in the world order that emerged following World War II. The United States has been the one nation willing to rally its allies to use force in countering aggression.
And yet both today seem war-weary, unsure of themselves and somewhat divided over how to respond to problems. The recent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine, a Boeing 777 that appears to have been shot by a Russian SA-11 missile, has put Russian aggression in a greater spotlight. Russian separatists in the region have denied access to the crash scene.
As Roger Cohen wrote recently in the New York Times, this constitutes an act of war, and the way in which victims of the disaster — Dutch citizens, primarily — have been allowed to rot in the sun is insulting, disrespectful and indefensible.
And yet Europe’s reaction has been to take care not to upset Russia needlessly. There are economic alliances — France and England still sell arms to Russia and private markets, particularly in the European Union, enjoy the benefits of trade, as well — that come into play. Few people want to trigger the kind of military conflict that would repeat the sorrows and disruptions of a century ago. The United States seems fatigued from fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO appears divided and helpless.
Europe seems much more reluctant to go to war than it was a century ago, for good reason. Once it begins, war’s unpredictable nature can change everything. Prosperity ends, lives are destroyed and disrupted, and grudges develop that can lead to further conflicts.
Washington, with the strong support of Germany, whose economy now dominates Europe, imposed some new sanctions against Russia this week. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unfazed.
The Ukrainian crisis, conflicts in the Middle East (whose boundaries were greatly impacted by both world wars), North Korean provocations and other trouble spots demonstrate that the “war to end all wars,” as the conflict that began a century ago was called, did no such thing.
What remains to be seen is whether peaceful democracies have what it takes to steer the world clear of repeating the mistakes of the 20th century.