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Eve of Disaster

Foreign Policy   BY CHARLES EMMERSON | JANUARY 4, 2013


The leading power of the age is in relative decline, beset by political crisis at home and by steadily eroding economic prowess. Rising powers are jostling for position in the four corners of the world, some seeking a new place for themselves within the current global order, others questioning its very legitimacy. Democracy and despotism are locked in uneasy competition. A world economy is interconnected as never before by flows of money, trade, and people, and by the unprecedented spread of new, distance-destroying technologies. A global society, perhaps even a global moral consciousness, is emerging as a result. Small-town America rails at the excessive power of Wall Street. Asia is rising once again. And, yes, there’s trouble in the Middle East.

Sound familiar?

In many ways, the world of 1913, the last year before the Great War, seems not so much the world of 100 years ago as the world of today, curiously refracted through time. It is impossible to look at it without an uncanny feeling of recognition, telescoping a century into the blink of an eye. But can peering back into the world of our great-grandparents really help us understand the world we live in today?

Let’s get the caveats out of the way upfront. History does not repeat itself — at least not exactly. Analogies from one period to another are never perfect. However tempting it may be to view China in 2013 as an exact parallel to Germany in 1913 (the disruptive rising power of its age) or to view the contemporary United States as going through the exact same experience as Britain a century ago (a “weary titan staggering under the too vast orb of its fate,” as Joseph Chamberlain put it), things are never quite that straightforward. Whereas Germany in 1913 explicitly sought a foreign empire, China in 2013 publicly eschews the idea that it is an expansionist power (though it is perfectly clear about protecting its interests around the world). Whereas the German empire in 1913 had barely 40 years of history as a unified state behind it and was only slightly more populous that Britain or France, China in 2013 can look back on centuries of continuous history as a player in world affairs, and it now boasts one-fifth of the world’s population. Whereas Germany’s rise was a genuinely new geopolitical phenomenon in 1913, the rise of China today is more of a return to historical normality. These differences matter.

Similarly, the strengths and weaknesses of the United States in 2013 are not quite the same as those of Britain 100 years ago. Then, Britain benefited politically from being the world’s banker and from being the linchpin of the gold standard. Today the United States, though benefiting politically and economically from being the issuer of the world’s principal reserve currency, is hardly in the same position: The country is laden with debt. (One can argue about whether it should really be such a big issue that so much of that debt is owned by Chinese state entities — after all, Beijing can’t just dump Treasury bonds if it doesn’t get what it wants from Washington. But Chinese ownership of U.S. debt feeds a perception of American decline, and perceptions of the relative powers of states matter a lot to how other countries treat them.) There are other differences between Britain in 1913 and the United States in 2013. Britain was never a military superpower on the order of the United States today. There was never a unipolar British moment. Britain in 1913 had slipped behind Germany industrially decades before, living more and more off the proceeds of the past; the United States in 2013 is still the world’s largest economy and in many respects the most dynamic and most innovative.

Moreover, the global context in which powers rise and fall in the 21st century is not quite the same as the one of the early 20th. In 1913, a handful of empires, mostly European, ruled over most of the world. Only two countries in Africa — Ethiopia and Liberia — could claim to be truly independent. In 2013, the United Nations counts over 190 independent states among its membership. Fifty-two of these are African. In 1913, one in four of the world’s people lived in Europe; now it’s less than one in 10. And the web of international laws and institutions that bind the world together is much thicker now than it was 100 years ago, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Hague conventions on the laws of war date from before World War I, while the forerunner of the International Court of Justice opened its doors to the world in — you guessed it — 1913.

But the fact that historical analogies are imperfect — and the analogy between 1913 and 2013 is far from being seamless — does not make them useless. It simply means that they need to be interpreted with care. As Mark Twain put it: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The task is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.

In the end, the utility of history to the decision-maker or to the policy analyst is not as a stock of neatly packaged lessons for the contemporary world, to be pulled off the shelf and applied formulaically to every situation. Rather, it is to hone a way of thinking about change and continuity, contingency and chance. Thinking historically can remind us of the surprises that can knock states and societies off course and, at the same time, can check our enthusiasm for believing that this time is different. The world of 1913, on the threshold of the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century yet by and large not expecting it, is a case in point. Sure, there is such a sin as misusing history — abusing history, even. But there is a much worse mistake: imagining that we have escaped it.

Technology is a common culprit here. It is often remarked that we live in an era of superfast, hypertransformative technological innovation, when history, as Henry Ford put it, is bunk. When innovation comes packaged in the form of a shiny new iPhone — the subatomic functioning of which seems pretty close to magic — it is easy to succumb to the technofantasy that we live in an entirely new age, a new era, quite unlike anything that has come before. Yet radical technological change is hardly new. The world of 1913 had its own revolutionary technologies. Radio telegraphy was being introduced, with the promise of improving the safety of shipping at sea and allowing market and strategic information to be pinged around the globe without the need for wires. Automobiles were coming off the world’s first production line — Ford’s Highland Park plant in Detroit — and being shipped around the world, including, in 1913, to the Buddhist monks of Mongolia. Oil was replacing coal to fuel the British Royal Navy — the world’s largest — pushing the Admiralty to go into the oil business in southern Iran and inaugurating modern petroleum diplomacy in the Middle East. The first feature-length Hollywood movie began shooting at the end of the year, and the first Indian film reached cinemas in Bombay. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson even used a campaign film in the presidential election of the previous year. (Its theme would be well suited to 2013: Tax the rich.)

In the end, technological advances, remarkable in themselves, change things much more than we can ever expect — the speed of adoption of new technologies is hard to predict, and the second- or third-order impacts of adoption even less so — but also much less. However new the technology, it is ultimately being grafted onto the rather old technology of the individual human, or the community, or the state. And even the newest of technologies can be manipulated for the oldest of ends. It took less than 10 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight, a truly revolutionary and liberating event in the history of humanity, to the first use of aircraft to conduct aerial bombing: over the cities of Libya in 1911 and over the Balkans in 1912 and 1913. Similarly, while the Internet was hailed 20 years ago as a force for the liberation of oppressed people around the world — and indeed many people still see it that way — authoritarian states have begun to wise up too. At the end of 2012, a rogues’ gallery of authoritarian states tried to use a U.N. conference to advance an agenda of much tighter state control of the Internet internationally. Domestically, such states are already using aspects of the Internet to contain or watch their people. The world’s second-oldest profession — espionage — has rapidly adapted itself to operations in the open, online world. Technology may be a driver of historical change, but it is subject to historical context too.

To the historically minded, the recurrence of particular themes, or particular rhymes, through history — human greed, the manipulation of technology, the importance of geography in determining military outcomes, the power of belief in shaping politics, a solid conviction that this time is different — is no surprise. You thought that the debt-fueled boom of the 2000s was different from all those other booms throughout history? Wrong. The ancient Greeks, with their understanding of greed, self-deception, hubris, and nemesis, would have been quite able to interpret the 2008 financial crisis without the need for an advanced degree in financial astrophysics from Harvard Business School. You thought pacifying Afghanistan would be a piece of cake because we have laser-guided munitions and drones these days? Not so much. You think that globalization is destined to continue forever, that interstate war is impossible, and that the onward march of democracy is ineluctable? Hang on a second; isn’t that what people thought in 1913?

The crucial point about the world 100 years ago, then, is not that it is identical to the world today — it isn’t — but that there was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when a globalized world, not entirely dissimilar to our own, fell apart. And it wasn’t because human societies were in the grip of the uncontrollable forces of destiny or that they were particularly dumb. Most just didn’t expect things to pan out the way they did. People actually living through the year 1913 did not experience those 12 months as the moody prelude to catastrophe. In retrospect, there were storm clouds on the horizon. But at the time, many people found themselves living through the best of times — or simply had other things to think about.

The world in 1913 was dynamic, modern, interconnected, smart — just like ours. 1913 was the year that the modern European art of the Armory Show conquered New York. It was the year the United States established the Federal Reserve, the essential precondition for the global financial power that it would later become, in much the same way that the emergence of the Chinese renminbi as a globally traded currency today is laying the groundwork for a Chinese challenge to American financial supremacy tomorrow. 1913 was the year Gandhi made a name for himself as a political agitator in South Africa, the year Australians laid the foundation for their new capital city, the year Russian Ballets Russes took the capitals of Europe by storm — and then did the same in Buenos Aires, then one of the richest and fastest-growing cities on Earth. In 1913, China assembled its first democratically assembled parliament, weeks after the leader of its largest party, Song Jiaoren, had been assassinated — a murder that perhaps changed the course of global history as much as the far more famous killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo a year later. In 1913, Lenin was living in exile in the mountains of Galicia; Russia was in the middle of an industrial boom, with many believing that the moment of maximum revolutionary danger had passed and that the Tsarist Empire was on its way to becoming the dominant Eurasian power. In 1913, Japan — a country that in 60 years had gone from being a hermit empire to an expansive, industrializing Asian nation, recognized as a peer by the other great powers — was dealing with the uncertainties of a new emperor on the throne and mourning the death of the last shogun. In the last year before the Great War, Germany was Britain’s second-largest trading partner, leading many in the City of London — and across Europe — to conclude that, despite the rise of Anglo-German antagonism over naval armaments, a war between the two was unlikely. If the international solidarity of the workers did not stop a war, the self-interest of global finance would, it was argued.

Of course, there were prognosticators of gloom and doom in 1913 — just as there are in any era. But there were plenty of seasoned observers of the world then who saw the processes of internationalization all around them — of everything from the measurement of time to the laws of war — as the natural unfolding of history’s grand plan. “No country, no continent any longer lives an independent life,” wrote G.P. Gooch, a British historian, in 1913. “As the world contracts the human race grows more conscious of its unity. Ideas, ideals, and experiments make the tour of the globe. Civilisation has become international.” Many noted that economic globalization made war unprofitable; some thought it made it impossible. In 1913, as in previous years, an international exhibition was held to commemorate the advances of the world toward greater integration — held in Belgium this time, in a city that would quake with the sound of artillery shells within a year. In 1913, German Kaiser Wilhelm II was viewed by some as a peacemaker. A few years earlier, president of the University of California/Berkeley had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

What does any of this say about the world in 2013?

Not that we are on the cusp of a new Great War and that, on reading this, you should head for the hills and hope for the best. There is nothing inevitable about future conflict between the great powers and there is nothing foretold about the collapse of global trade — though I would argue that both are substantially more likely now than 10 years ago. But looking at the world of 1913 reminds us that there is nothing immutable about the continuity of globalization either, and certainly nothing immutable about the Western-oriented globalization of the last few decades.

There are plenty of distinct and plausible shocks to the system that could knock our expectations of the future wildly off course — and plenty of surprises that we can neither predict nor anticipate, but that we can indirectly prepare for by attuning ourselves to the possibility of their occurrence. To take an example of one of the more plausible shocks we now face, a miscalculation in the South China Sea could easily set off a chain of events not entirely dissimilar to a shot in Sarajevo in 1914, with alliance structures, questions of prestige, escalation, credibility, and military capability turning what should be marginal to global affairs into a central question of war and peace.

In a general sense, while the United States in 2013 may not be a perfect analogue for Britain in 1913 (nor China in 2013 a perfect analogue for Germany in 1913), it is certainly the case that the world we are now entering is more similar to that of 100 years ago — a world of competitive multipolarity — than that of a quarter-century ago. Just as in 1913, technology, trade, and finance bind the world together now — and rational self-interest would suggest that the integration that these forces have brought about is irreversible. Yet, over the last few years, the world has witnessed a rise in trade protection, a breakdown in global trade negotiations, totally inadequate progress on global climate discussions, and moves to fragment the Internet. There is a corrosive and self-fulfilling sense that the dominance of the West — as the world’s rule-maker and pace-setter — is over.

Humanity is forever condemned to live with uncertainty about the future. But thinking historically equips us to better gauge that uncertainty, to temper biases, question assumptions, and stretch our imagination. By understanding the history of other countries — particularly those that are re-emerging to global eminence now — we might better understand their mindsets, hopes, and fears. And when we’ve done that, we might find we need to think again about how to build a future of our own making, rather than one decided for us by events.

The world of 1913 — brilliant, dynamic, interdependent — offers a warning. The operating system of the world in that year was taken by many for granted. In 2013, at a time of similar global flux, the biggest mistake we could possibly make is to assume that the operating system of our own world will continue indefinitely, that all we need to do is stroll into the future, and that the future will inevitably be what we want it to be. Those comforting times are over. We need to prepare ourselves for a much rougher ride ahead.

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