WWI, The Cold War, and Today

The world is more stable now than ever before, and we have the two world wars to thank, argues Steve Saideman.
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July 28, 2014

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I with the declaration of war by Austria against Serbia. Much has been made of the centennial of this horrific conflict. A year full of international tension in which we are just more than halfway through have had many pondering if the world is now more dangerous since the Cold War (John McCain’s latest bit of hyper-hyperness). The answer is not so clear.v

Yes, people who were calling for the end of conflict worldwide were over-reaching, but the reality is that there still remain fewer international wars than there used to be and less violence within states than there once was. There is also less violence in the world now than during the first decade of the post-Cold War Era. It may not seem that way given recent news coverage, but Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine have their matches and then some in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Armenia-Azerbaijan, the First and Second Congo War, Eritrea, and so on. Recency bias means that we pay far more attention to the latest events, but violence after the Cold War is hardly new.

The more obvious reality is that the world is more stable than before. That is, whatever conflicts there are will still be less likely to do what World War I did: start from a minor dispute between two middle (or lesser) powers to become a major conflagration among the most powerful countries in the world. Yes, the United States and Russia are squabbling over Ukraine, but there is no rush to war this time. Why?

Most importantly, this is because World War I (and World War II) happened. A century later, it still provides the lessons for conflict management and for wariness about being sucked into an ally’s war. In truth, World War I did not resolve much, but several trends starting then have slowly made an impact on the likelihood of war. In the years since WWI, self-determination has been both a peaceful and violent process, but it is now a widely accepted cornerstone of international relations that conquest is almost unthinkable (excepting the recent case of Crimea). We will never get to a point where the lines on the maps perfectly reflect the distribution of ethnic groups (nor should we), but colonization and wars over colonization are very much in the past.

Even with some back-sliding (Hungary), there are far more democracies now than there were in 1992. Even as some are symbolic, most of the new democracies are fairly functional. While the democracy and peace debate still goes on—whether democracies are less likely to fight other democracies and why—we do know that democracies have less civil war. Why? Because political change can occur within the system at a far lower cost than going outside the system. Yes, there is still some violence in some democracies, but Churchill’s line suggesting, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” applies here most strongly.

Interestingly, one of the hidden requirements of democracy works far better now both in older democracies and newer ones—civilian control of the military. There are still coups today, but we no longer leave war to the generals and admirals. We learned from World War I not only that civilian leaders must question their militaries about their plans and capabilities, but also that we need expertise on the military outside of the military so that we can intelligently question their tactics and strategy. This has led to think tanks, research centres at universities, non-government organizations, bigger staffs on the civilian side of government, and more.

While the League of Nations proved quickly to be a bust, the lesson from World War I that we need to cooperate to manage the shocks and conflicts in international relations is an enduring one. There is no one way to do this. We have seen the creation of a veritable cornucopia of multilateral organizations to manage various elements of international relations from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the International Monetary Fund to the African Union to the European Union to the International Civil Aviation Office to the World Health Organization and on and on. There are also less formal organizations like the G-7/8 and others.

And there are nuclear weapons. It may not be pleasant that mutual hostage-taking may deter escalation, but it has been the reality for some time between the big powers of the world. World War III is far harder to imagine today than World War I was a hundred years ago precisely because we have gotten so much better at killing each other. War is very much something to be avoided. The attitudes before World War I were far different—that war was inevitable and perhaps noble, that social Darwinism meant that those who survived the fires would be stronger and better off.

As much as confirmation bias, ideology and politics often means that learning can be slow and that mistakes can be repeated, we have learned many of the lessons of World War I. It may have taken a second World War to really learn them, but the world is a better place now than before. There is actually less poverty. The big financial crisis did spread throughout the world, but the system worked in limiting how bad it got, so that we did not repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression.

To be sure, the problems we face today seem very, very hard to solve. Indeed, I am skeptical about our ability to fix most of them, but I do think that most can be managed. We need to have more humility about what we can accomplish in the short term, but we have accomplished a great deal over the past one hundred years. History’s progress is hardly smooth but it has been actually quite… progressive. We can look, for instance, at Russia’s behaviour and worry about its assertiveness (and we should). However, we should also note that Russia has used proxies and has not actually chosen to conquer Ukraine. That might be small comfort, but it is a big contrast from the international relations of 1914. So, on this anniversary of the start of the World to End All Wars (talk about hubris), I will take my solace where I can find it.

The Bill Graham Centre and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, with support from the Canadian Armed Forces, will hold a conference “1914-1918: The Making of the Modern World” on July 30 and a concert “1914-1918: In Memoriam” on July 31 to commemorate the centennial.