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World War I

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How 2014 Is Strikingly Similar to 1914

Why you should care

Because the stuff we’ve forgotten since high school history could be exactly what we need in order to understand today’s great dangers.

This week rings a historical bell. On June 28, it will be exactly 100 years since one man in the Balkans changed the world forever — with two shots from a pistol in the dusty provincial town of Sarajevo. Those shots, fired by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, killed Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off the diplomatic donnybrook that led to four years of world war (1914–1918). In many ways, we are still living in the rubble of that war.

There are some obvious parallels, a century later, between 1914 and 2014. Some have speculated about whether we are at one of those times Mark Twain referred to when he famously said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

Which ought to make us all pretty nervous. What looks similar in 2014 and 1914?

  • The Tinderbox: In 1914, one region of the world, the Balkans, was a tinderbox. But how little we learn. Today, that volatile region is the Middle East, where borders date from the casual division of that first war’s spoils. When the Ottoman Empire drew its last gasp during the war, the British and French took out their rulers and drew lines that either created or partially shaped what we today call Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon among others. Over the century, the straight lines they drew in an ethnically convoluted region exacerbated the sectarian and nationalist tensions that today threaten to explode into region-wide war.
  • Geopolitical Punches: In 1914, the world’s dominant player, Great Britain, was feeling the sharp elbows of an aggressive new Germany, united only a few decades earlier but already surpassing Britain in steel production by 1900. Today, the United States feels the heat from a surging China, set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy any year now. And China today, like Germany back then, is not yet constrained by any sort of regional security framework.
  • Globalization: It’s old news: In 1914, nations deceived themselves into believing war was impossible because of the interdependence caused by trade and new technologies such as the telephone, telegraph, steam engine and manned flight. Sound familiar? Today, many argue that the interdependence we call “globalization” — or burgeoning trade, the Internet, social media, international mobility — ensures that nations will resist the folly of major wars.
  • A Technological Boom: In 1914, countries heading to war did not anticipate that some new technologies — such as dramatically more efficient machine guns and aerial observation — would prolong a war in which a thousand Englishmen and a thousand French died every day. Similarly, today we possess new weapons, such as cyber warfare and advanced biological agents, whose potential has yet to be demonstrated. We can only imagine their destruction if and when they are deployed.

Stacks of large steel bins in port

Source: Corbis

Exports in stacks of containers at the Port of Qingdao, China

But there’s some good news, too. The last century saw a few changes that could limit the escalation of potential conflict. Here’s how our world looks markedly different:

  • Wilson Didn’t Completely Fail: We now have international institutions dedicated to conflict prevention or deterrence that were not even imagined in 1914: the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to name just a few. But these international institutions have limited clout in some of the most dangerous trouble spots. As China and Japan circle each other over East China Sea territorial disputes, for example, no organization is standing by. The same can be said for the Middle East, where events are daily deepening the divisions between Sunni and Shia factions — and where no outsider can do much to stop it.
  • Collective Memory: We know the graphic horrors of full-scale war better than our 1914 forebears did. Some of these leaders truly relished the idea of war, even imagining it romantically and entering it confidently, assuming it could only go on so long. History had taught them wrong.
  • Colonialism Is Mostly Over: One of the drivers of war in 1914 was unbridled colonial ambition and rivalry. Old powers and rising ones hoped that defeating adversaries would allow them to seize the losers’ colonial territories in Africa, Asia and Latin America and to carve up the geographic spoils when one of the combatants — the Ottoman Empire — fully collapsed. But colonialism was completely discredited after 1945 and the end of World War II as new powers gained their independence and were recognized by the United Nations — and as the emphasis shifted to an ideological competition between the democratic perspective of the West and the Marxist thrust of the Soviet Union.
  • Casualty Aversion: Citizens, who presumably have less enthusiasm for war than those who send them, have a more powerful voice today through social media and expanded suffrage — only about 40 percent of British males were entitled to vote in 1914. In contrast, public opinion surveys last year highlighted for Washington that only about a third of Americans favored intervention in Syria, for example, even after Assad used chemical weapons. But while social media and the Internet can restrain governments, it can also spur nationalism, as in China, and organize conflict, as in the case of terrorists who rely heavily on these tools for recruitment and training.
  • The Bomb: Warfare today falls under the dark legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which stand as powerful reminders of what ultimately we must avoid in an age when nuclear weapons are abundantly present on three continents. And while nuclear weapons can act as a deterrent to escalation in conflict, they can also be tempting spoils for ambitious regimes. The 70-year-old technology that wreaked destruction on Japan has spread to South Asia and North Korea and is dangerously close to maturing in Iran. The greater the number of nuclear weapons, the greater the chances for miscalculation or accidental launch that could start a war defying all previous experience.

Civilians with weapons walking towards the camera outdoors during the day

Source: Karim Kadim/Corbis

Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters deploy with their weapons while chanting slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

What 1914 teaches us is the power of a small event’s reverberations. Our world is different, but it rhymes — and so do ripple effects. Even today, our geopolitics can reverberate as much as Gavrilo Princip’s shots did back then.

Such an echo, of course, is exactly what happened when a young Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamad Bouazizi set himself and the Arab world on fire, igniting the Arab Spring across North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. And much like the analysts of 1914 we still don’t know how or when that will end.

This OZY encore was originally published June 20, 2014.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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