As most people are aware, this year marks exactly 100 years since the onset of the First World War. A devastating conflict in which millions of people lost their lives and in which the political, social and even geographical state of the world was changed forever.
Far from being the “war to end all wars”, the consequences of World War I are very much still relevant, still being felt today, particularly in regard to the Middle East.
A century later, amid what will no doubt be a number of commemorative events, thoughtful and learned analyses of the conflict and inspired articles and books and documentaries on the subject, it troubles me (as I’m sure it troubles many) how many conditions seem to be in place right now that have the potential to set off another global conflict on that scale or even worse; I don’t like to bandy about the term World War III like some over-zealous, sensationalist conspiracy theorist, but the allusion is implied.
The idea of a global conflict on the scale of The Great War but in our modern times is too horrifying to properly even contemplate or comprehend.
But the climate prior to the First World War was not dissimilar to the climate in the world today, certainly in parts of the world anyway. World War I wasn’t caused by the infamous assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand; that was the spark that lit the fuse, but the various causal factors and situations had been building for some time beforehand in various countries and societies. Most historians, though they might differ in their views as to whether the war was ‘necessary’ or even ‘pointless’, do agree that the Great War was inevitable due to the concurrent unfolding of numerous situations and conditions over a period of time.
The situation in the world today seems to be even more suggestive of an inevitable conflict than the situation did in pre-WW1 Europe. I would like to think – and we should all hope – that a century later, we are that much more advanced, that much more intelligent as societies (and as a global village, as the term goes), and our leaders and governments are so much more sophisticated and responsible, that a World War on that kind of scale is something that will be avoided at all costs. And that we will never experience a conflict on that level of devastation and human cost ever again. I would like to think; and we should all hope.
All historians agree that the underlying causes of World War I, which began in the Balkans in late July 1914, were complicated and numerous; political causes, complicated and burdensome webs of alliances, Imperialist agendas, nationalism, territorial and economic conflicts of interests. Sound familiar? The immediate cause of the war, laying in decisions undertaken following the July Crisis of 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, was simply the decisive catalyst, the trigger; in our time the equivalent event could’ve been the shooting down of Flight MH-17, the attack on Gaza by Israel, the War in Syria, or half a dozen other potential triggers.
So far none of these events have escalated into that kind of broader conflict. And there’s a chance that they never will and that major global powers will continue to confront each other only through Proxy Wars and client states as has been the norm since the end of World War II.
A century ago the final crisis came after what had been a long and complicated sequence of diplomatic clashes and conflicts of interest between the then Great Powers – Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey – over colonial, territorial and economic issues. International relations were characterized by a high level of tension; much like today’s delicate global climate.
Important factors in the lead-up to the Great War were the growth of nationalism across Europe, several unresolved territorial disputes, a complicated network of political alliances, a breakdown of the balance of power in Europe, convoluted and fragmented governance (today’s equivalent: Iraq, Libya, Syria), and old Imperial/Colonial rivalries. Also cited as a relevant causal factor were ‘misinterpretations of intent and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications’.
So if we look at some of those commonly stated causes of the First World War, it is unfortunate that we can easily find their equivalents in our current global situation.
The “growth of nationalism across Europe” isn’t happening on the kind of scale of a century ago but it is something that has been growing in several European societies and that has been exacerbated by the financial crisis and in part by a measurable growth in Islamophobia in Europe. But the bigger equivalent is found by looking not at Europe but at the Middle East and the spread of radical Islamism and extremist ideologies over the last decade-plus. If Al-Qaeda itself was essentially a containable threat, the rise of extremist ideologies in the last several years, and in part exacerbated by highly toxic foreign policy by Western Powers, has created a massively unstable, highly dangerous situation in the Middle East.
We still very much live in a world in which major powers are competing for resources, albeit no longer under the banner of imperialism or colonialism. We have breakdowns in communication and understanding, enormous conflicts of interest occurring, as well as highly questionable instances of foreign policy such as the invasion of Iraq, the supporting of foreign terrorists and criminals to overthrow Colonel Gadaffi, the vilification of Assad and support for
extremist rebel factions in Syria, to name highly significant recent examples.
Whether these conflicts represent the ‘clash of ideologies’ or ‘clash of civilizations’ that some prefer to paint them as or whether they were simply a continuation of the ‘Oil Wars’ (our modern equivalent to the Spice Wars), they have all contributed to the destabilization of that part of the world, the collapse of several societies, the spread of terrorism, sectarianism and extremist ideologies and in some instances the creation of lawless countries – specifically Iraq and now Libya in the latter regard, with Syria potentially to follow.
At this point in time, a multi-national terrorist militia called ISIS is carrying out brutal acts in Iraq, claiming cities and towns and expelling populations; they are a threat not only to Iraq, but to Syria (which was where the organization had its violent birth). They have now crossed the Lebanon border and killed several Lebanese soldiers, threatening to draw Lebanon into the situation. And they have threatened to “chop off the head” of the King of Jordan (the only remaining Hashemite King; this too having significance to events in the First World War). At this point in time too, spiraling violence and warfare in Libya has resulted in foreign nationals fleeing the country – a direct consequence of the criminal overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi in 2011 by terrorists, foreign agents and mercenaries militarily aided by the West.
Then there are the ‘unresolved territorial disputes’. The eruption of the Ukraine/Russian Separatist crisis this year comes into that category and is a highly volatile, unpredictable situation that has already resulted in the shooting down of an international passenger plane and the killing of numerous innocent, foreign citizens. Further to that it has placed Russia in a position of antagonism with the other global powers, particularly the US, though this was something that was already starting to happen as a result of the War in Syria. In terms of the World War I analogy, this equates to the “complicated network of political alliances”; Russia stood by its ally Bashar Assad and the Syrian government when the US and other international powers were condemning Assad and imposing ultimatums and warnings, seemingly on the brink of military intervention.
Of course the biggest, most glaring “unresolved territorial dispute” of modern times is Palestine. Israel’s military assault on Gaza amid the centenary of the First World War will have reminded some historical-minded observers to remember that the very creation of Israel has its roots in the era of the Great War and the Balfour Declaration and that we are still very much living in the shadow of World War I and its consequences – not just the creation of Israel, but the creation of Iraq and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and in fact the entire Middle East as we know it has its roots in World War I.
In fact ISIS’s recent reference to the “end of Sykes-Picot” in its manifesto acted as an even more lucid reminder of the continuing influence of World War I on international politics even 100 years later; the Sykes-Picot agreement having been a famous and contentious deal made during the First World War to carve up the Middle East into Colonial “spheres of influence” after the war and fall of the Ottomon Empire.
As for the “breakdown of the balance of power in Europe”, today the breakdown is occurring in the Middle East and in a much more catastrophic way than its European equivalent 100 years ago. The collapse of long-standing regimes across the region – Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria – has created instability, loss of societal cohesion, sectarianism, vast criminality, the spread of terrorism and extremism. Libya has turned into the Wild West, Iraq has been destroyed in every possible sense of the term, and terrorists, militants and criminals are seizing control of cities and societies that once, not long ago, were utterly stable and functioning.
The threat level now is unparalleled; not only are the populations of countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya under threat, but the danger extends to other countries. ISIS is a major threat to Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and obviously Israel.
Of these stated reasons for the outbreak of the First World War, the most fascinating to me in terms of our 21st Century situation is “misinterpretations of intent and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications”. The fact is that the Western Powers, specifically the US, the UK and France, seem to have NO coherent foreign policy or ideology when it comes to its attitude towards these various crises. This surely creates confusion and misunderstanding in international relations, especially when other societies are unable to understand what it is the Western governemnts are doing. It’s no surprise, for example, that many in the Muslim world rightly or wrongly believe “the West” to be an alliance of “Imperialist powers” or a “Zionist Power”, given the history of the creation of Israel and the subsequent long-term US military support for Israel.
Confusion and lack of coherence is compounded by such events as the Western-led invasion of Iraq for no legitimate reason, destabilizing the country and society, installing a Shia-led government in a country with a Sunni majority, creating a violent, terrorist-riddled society and allowing an organisation like ISIS to develop while doing nothing to intervene against it when it is clearly a far bigger threat to World Peace than Saddam Hussein was. Elsewhere it aids criminals, mercenaries and terrorists against Colonel Gadaffi in Libya while claiming to be engaged in “War on Terror” and war against Al-Qaeda. It then comes close to doing the same in Syria and is only prevented from doing so by Russian intervention and surprise cooperation by Bashar Assad.
In the case of Gadaffi and Libya, the Western Powers claim to be intervening for the sake of freedom and democracy and to prevent a “bloodbath”. Curiously, however, there is no Western support for oppressed people in those in countries like Bahrain, for example, who are also trying to protest against their regime but receiving no aid or statement of solidarity.
It is perverse to consider that the protesters in Bahrain are entirely indigenous political activists with legitimate grievances against their regime and they receive no outside aid or encouragement from the Western governments, while those conducting the uprising in Libya against Colonel Gadaffi were heavily made up of known terrorist, foreign agents, Al-Qaeda personnel and armed criminals and yet they received military assistance from Western Powers.
In terms of the aforementioned “misinterpretation of intent”, etc, I always remember the ill-fated Gadaffi’s stated confusion as to why the Western governments were aiding these foreign mercenaries and Al-Qaeda operatives to overthrow him and unleash chaos in what had been a highly stable nation.
Yet the same Western Powers invaded Afghanistan for the stated purpose of restoring order to that lawless country and fighting Al-Qaeda and terrorists. This contradiction in purposes is confusing to the point of being bizarre. This selectivity and lack of continuity in foreign policy and ideologies causes confusion and misinterpretation of intent; it threatens to create an environment in which no one knows what the major governments of the world stand for beyond rhetoric and catchphrases. No wonder so many people turn to sources like Info Wars for their information; they’re in need of someone to present a coherent picture of what’s going on, whether it’s true or not.
Could a conflict as catastrophic as the First World War occur again? I would like to think not. As I said earlier, I would like to think we (in modern, more secular societies) are too sophisticated to be drawn down that road; the history of conflicts between major powers beyond World War II has been a story of proxy wars rather than major confrontations between major nations. That might continue to be the case; but it is by no means guaranteed.
The First World War was, after all, thought of as “the war to end all wars”, but within less than a generation of that apocalyptic conflict came the Second World War, the causes of which were directly traceable to World War I and specifically the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The situation currently occurring in the Middle East is also directly traceable to the events of World War I, albeit via a much longer period of time; the Balfour Declaration, the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the creation of the Saudi Kingdom and its underhanded control of the region, the Colonial carving up of Iraq, Syria and the Middle East, among other causal factors.
It is unsurprising that some, more ‘radical’ schools of thought suggest that the current situation in the Middle East has been deliberately aggravated by conspiratorial parties with a vested interest in engineering exactly that sort of climate: a climate conducive to a global conflagration. Whether this is true or not, it is becoming increasingly difficult to completely dismiss that idea.
One thing is clear; that we live in a very, very dangerous time. And that far from being the “war to end all wars”, the horrific destruction of World War I in fact actually sowed the seeds for further, future conflict and loss of life well beyond the lifetimes of those whose decisions and policies were to blame.