This year marks one hundred years anniversary of the end of the First World War and from official ceremony in Paris, where the Peace Treaty was signed in 1918. to many conferences and scholar panels across Europe in 2018. common underlining narrative was the same: any lessons learned?
Indeed, on the eve oft he First World War Europe was taken over by the deepest political and military crisis and open conflict that broke the entire existing stability order and one hundred years later Europe, and this time the entire world, is in the state of… repeating, avoiding?
Historia might be magistra vitae, but it would be strange to see Ciceron approving parallels between epochs that are so dramatically different – but, maybe radical comparison can help: it is 1918, First World War ends, Paris Conference, from across the Atlantic comes President Wilson and, one hundred years later, anniversary ceremony, in Paris again, and from across the Atlantic comes President Trump. Of course, it is not about personalities, but it certainly is about the radically changed world.
One hundred years ago, world was as dangerous place as at any point in history. Fears and uncertainties flew over the European continent and beyond just as they are casting dark shadow of unknown future today. But, at that time, politics was not a reality show, it was not a media attraction, it was not about the First Lady’s shoes, but rather about the future of nations.
There has always been hooligans in human history, but there has never been so many harlequins.
That is a difference and that difference should cause deep concern: we might learn the lessons from 1918. onward, but what waits beyond 2018. remains unknown territory, as there are no firm parameters and paradigms for any solid prediction.
One hundred years ago, fears and concerns of people and nations were translated into responsible and meaningful political deeds – not, of course, that all of them were successful! – in contrast to today’s general public oblivion, alienation and disregard. About twenty million people died during the WW1, in a deadliest conflict in human history… in reality, that would mean that almost no European family at the time was spared suffering from some form of consequences, meaning that, in general, people were caring and compassionate, whilst in today’s reality, radically speaking, no family across the continent cares about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of victims or dead in Syria, Yemen, Central African Republic or at any of the fifty something currently ongoing wars and conflicts across the world!
These thoughts on phenomenological and socio-cultural changes in one hundred year aside, there are certain lessons to be learned looking back at 1918. and trying to see beyond 2018. Parallels in politics may be tricky, but may also serve as indications.
In terms of lessons for the World Order, the 1918/2018 comparison is brutally blunt: collapse of an entire World Order. That is what happened in 1918. And this is what might await after 2018.
Never, even if one includes the Roman Empire erosion and fall, have there been such an immense and thorough fall of an existing international order as on the eve, during and in the aftermath of the WW1. The lesson? Are we not, from a broader historical viewpoint, witnessing similar process of complete breakdown of the post WW2 World Order, marked by almost a quarter of century of oscillating search for a New Order and, at this point, actually going through a current Multipolar Competitive Disorder? And, mark the time-line from 1918 until 1938. – almost a quarter a century. Almost the same time-line from the Fall of the Wall until today! In sum, within one century, almost half of a century lost in search of new orders!
There is yet another indicating comparison: the Order until 1918. has been based on the balance of power among the great European powers and collapse of that balance – regardless of politico-military miscalculations, inner weaknesses of Habsburg Monarchy by that time or various calculations and planned goals of Central Powers – caused the deadliest conflict in human history. But, out of it, emerged the new concept of regulating international security and stability: multilateralism. System of balance of forces, flavoured by the intrigues among the European courts, has been directed into a system of multipolar share of responsibility for peace and security on the continent, even beyond. League of Nation has been a firstborn entity of this unique, if not historical change of the very concept and doctrine of international security. In the end, it failed – politics of revanchism won over the rules based and rules shared system. Comparison with 2018? Deep crisis if not collapse of multilateralism, instability of multilateral institutions (think of League of Nations), rise of politics of revenge and revanchism, breakdown of rules based international security and stability system… plus, almost total unpredictability given the mode of policy shaping and decisions making among top world leaders. Obviously, lessons not learned.
In addition, quite like one hundred years ago, the fracture of the old order created deep reshaping of the entire structure of European relations, driven by a sequence of unprecedented and accelerated escalation of uncontrollable crisis. It took only 30 days from Sarajevo assassination of Prince Ferdinand to an all embracing continental war! Today, with over fifty wars and conflicts going on in the world, and against the background of renewed competitive and confrontational mode of relations among biggest powers and actors, there are no guarantees that similar uncontrollable escalation may not happen.
Furthermore, previous world order, based on bipolarism of the US and USSR, enabling „control“ of the international developments, is now replaced by a number of new global actors with their political agendas and goals, often mutually conflicting! Thus, the crisis potential grows, thus risks also grow. Will Kosovo – Serbia relations be a spark of a broader conflict? Crimea? Gaza? Chad? Venezuela? South Chinese Sea? Iran Deal? Azov Sea? Missile deployments in Romania or Kalinigrad? American war ship suddenly entering Black Sea? Number of frozen conflicts in various corners of Europe and in the world? Probably not, but there are no guarantees that whatever next crisis would not escalate into uncontrolable development, as there is practically no binding mechanisms and joint pre-emptive instruments in this world of Multipolar Unilateralism, with no firm alliances (think of two alliances scheme in 1918) and even with shifting partnerships over different emerging issues.
For the European Union to learn from the experience of Habsburg Monarchy, as on many occasions the Monarchy is presented as some sort of „first sample“ of multinational entity in Europe, in this chaotic world of multiple competitive disorder, where even some basic narratives are shaken (think of Transatlantic partnership) – the most important challenge would be… shortly and directly, to avoid the faith of Monarchy. In the world of dying multilateralism, in the world of renewed politics of use of force or threats of use of force, in the world of growing militarisation, in the world of gradual erosion of multilateral agreements in areas like security and trade… European Union might be in greatest danger.
Currently, the world is absolutely and completely opposite to what the European project has been founded on and aims for!
In the world of hooligans and harlequins, it is precisely the European Union that remains a shelter of reason, rules and values. Notwithstanding number of political, structural and institutional problems the Union is facing – and would need to overcome precisely during 2018! – it would seem that this doctrinal, „ideological“ challenge is historically the most important one.
On the „one hundred years later“ comparison note, today it is only the European Union that can indicate will the world after 2019. head towards the renewal of 1938. or towards some form of renewed cooperative world order and peace.
* Text is based on the HB’s lecture at the Austrian MFA’s Diplomatic Academy conference „1918 – 2018: Lessons of Habsburg Monarchy for the EU and the Lessons of 1918. For the World“, November 2018