January 02, 2014
A CENTURY ago, a simple assassination was enough to topple a tenuous balance between the old and new worlds. The resulting war killed millions and spanned the globe. Is history about to repeat itself?
The year was 1914. The world was experimenting with economic globalisation.
Optimists believed this new world economy would eliminate war.
But the concept proved to be in conflict with old notions of empire and fresh attitudes of expansionism.
There was friction between the industrial and military powers of the “old” world and the ambitions of the revitalised “new” economies.
Add a century to the date and ask yourself: does this scenario sound familiar?
According to Oxford professor of international history Margaret MacMillan, it does. Her essay addressing China’s recent flexing of its economic and military muscles has sent ripples around the world.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” quipped Mark Twain.
Here are some of the verses:
– Fading empires: Fearing the future and grasping at what they have
– A “place in the sun”: With new power comes big ambitions
– Global ‘flashpoints’: Rogue states and disputed regions
– Globalisation: With all its benefits and pressures
– Arms race: New technology negates old might
The rhythm is there. The tone is there. The tense is now.
Here’s how the two “14s” compare:
What had been the world’s sole economic and military superpower for almost a century suddenly found its authority being challenged. This was largely its own fault. The industrial revolution that gave it strength and arrogance led to expensive technological breakthroughs that rendered its own military might largely obsolete seemingly overnight. This exposed it to a new arms race and economic competition it could ill afford.
A century ago, this was the British Empire.
Now, is it the United States?
Its diplomatic and moral credentials are in tatters. Yet it still maintains its stance as the world’s moral compass.
It’s a nation facing as much internal tension as it is international, as Obama seeks to impose universal healthcare on a suspicious population.
It’s a nation that criticises the likes of China for their spying activities while amassing an almost incomprehensible amount of information on millions of individuals worldwide, including its own population.
It’s a nation that raises its voice in outrage at acts of terror as its own drones bomb Arab weddings.
Now, for the first time in more than a decade, its enormous military is not at war. It’s a monolithic institution that must find a new cause through which it can justify continued immunity from looming budget-cuts.
The United States has been living beyond its means for far too long. But can it bring itself to face reality?
With dwindling resources and ballooning debts, the United States appears to feel the need to prove to itself that it is still the world’s benevolent judge, jury and executioner.
Just what it is prepared to do to maintain this illusion has already been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A PLACE IN THE SUN
Back then, the new world power was Germany. It had modernised its economy. It had secured its finances. What it didn’t have was empire or international influence. What it didn’t have was the resources to feed its demanding industry. It also had a long list of grudges relating to historic wars and territorial compromises. As it grew stronger, Germany grew more demanding. A series of provocative diplomatic “incidents” were met with uncertainty and appeasement by the rest of the world. This gave the Kaiser the confidence and arrogance which would lead to war in 1914.
Are there parallels with China?
Its economy is growing like no other. Its industry is world-leading. Its resources are being stretched. Its military might is growing.
It’s new muscle they’re already flexing.