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1914 and today

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Dec. 2, 2013 at 12:04 AM   |   Comments

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LONDON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- The latest flurry of claims, counterclaims and saber-rattling over the disputed islands between China, Japan and South Korea has been made more serious by the decision of the U.S. government to challenge China's assertion of control with a flight of B-52 bombers.

It has been for some years a commonplace for historically minded commentators to suggest that the rise of China is reminiscent of the rise of the Kaiser's Germany in the years before 1914.

In its different times, each country enjoyed dramatic economic growth, equally dramatic increases in military budgets, an assertive foreign policy and a deep resentment that other countries had and continued to conspire to keep them down.

The sudden crisis that has loomed over the islands that Japan calls the Senkakus and that China calls the Diaoyus (not forgetting the reef Koreans call Ieodo) thus triggers memories of the various diplomatic spats that erupted in the Balkans, Morocco and elsewhere in the years before 1914.

This parallel is the more charged because next year sees the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war, an unqualified human catastrophe that destroyed the German, Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, produced the Russian revolution of 1917 and laid the seeds of the current instabilities across the Middle East.

The war, which saw the Japanese taking German islands and outposts in the Pacific, British and German troops fighting in East and Southwest Africa and the deployment of U.S., Brazilian, Indian and Senegalese troops on the Western front, resulted in the deaths of at least 9 million combatants.

A number of recent books on the outbreak of the war have drawn special attention to the way that the world of 1914 is uncomfortably close to our own. With an eye on the potent consequences of 9/11, the military historian Max Hastings reminds that the war was triggered by a terrorist assassination at Sarajevo.

Christopher Clark, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, points out that with the end of the Cold War "a system of global bipolar stability had made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers."

The parallel with our own day is uncomfortably close. The rise of China, the setbacks to U.S. power in Iraq and Afghanistan and the long economic stagnation of Japan suggest tectonic shifts are under way in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States' long naval dominance is being challenged by China's new aircraft carrier and submarines and by its evident interest in space weaponry.

Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished Canadian academic now at Oxford, suggests "our world is facing similar challenges, some revolutionary and ideological such as the rise of militant religions or social protest movements, others coming from the stress between rising and declining nations such as China and the U.S."

And like our world, simultaneously thrilling and reeling to the pace of technological, social and economic change, the people of 1914 felt they were living through revolutionary times. In the years since 1890, average real wages in Britain, France and Germany had almost doubled and in that earlier phase of globalization world trade had grown even faster.

Everything seemed both full of promise and in flux, from the new art movements of cubism and expressionism and the new music of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which provoked riots at its 1913 premiere in Paris, to the waves of strikes and public protests launched by the newly powerful labor unions and suffragettes. From the new mass media and the cinema to the coming of the automobile and airplane, the era was pregnant with change.

Our own world seems to be changing and exciting and alarming in much the same way and now we have a regional crisis and alarm that recall those of the years before 1914. China, under new leadership that makes a point of nationalist rhetoric about "the Chinese dream," appears determined to assert its dominance in its region and offshore waters.

The United States, aware that its prestige had been diminished by its wretchedly unsuccessful operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems equally determined to challenge China's aspirations and to support its Japanese ally.

One voice hasn't yet been heard from in this shuffling of the Asian chessboard -- India. And just as the Helmuth von Moltke, the German army's chief of staff, argued in 1914 that Germany should crush the rising power of Russia while it had the chance and the military superiority, so many Chinese strategists now argue that their real rival isn't the waning United States but a rising India.

How worried should we be? Not very, at least in the short run, is the immediate answer. We aren't trapped by the complex skein of alliances that locked the 1914 European powers into obligations of mutual military support and the implacable timetables of the railway trains to mobilize and take millions of troops to the frontiers.

But human folly and geopolitical rivalry, military calculations and political prestige remain very much a part of today's world. And when B-52s start flying to assert U.S. power in the face of Chinese ambition, it is worth recalling what 1914 meant, what it lost and what it launched.

--

("The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914" by Margaret MacMillan, Random House, 683 pages, $35.)

("Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" by Max Hastings, Knopf, 640 pages, $35.)

("The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" by Christopher Clark, HarperCollins, 697 pages, $29.99.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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