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The Guns of August — Hopefully Not Being Revisited

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Keevey

Keevey augustAugust is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The War lasted four years, but according to Michael Howard’s, The First World War: a Very Short Introduction, the die was cast much earlier because of previous actions of the ‘great powers’ of Europe.

Is there any resemblance of how World War I began to the current wars emerging in Europe and the Middle East?

First, a little background. We learned in school the flames of war were ignited when the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Balkan national from Serbia. However, that was not an isolated event.

Instead previous discontent among the ‘great powers’ had been brewing for years, including latent French anger over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War; Russian disagreements with Austria-Hungry over Balkan policy; discussions by German generals to initiate a preventive attack against Russia; British warnings to the Germans if France was attacked and advocacy in Austria-Hungry for more Slavs be brought into its realm.

Sound confusing ? You bet. The underlying dynamics are even more intriguing but would require a tome to dissect, including the emergence of Marxism in Russia, the spread of imperialism and colonialism and perhaps most significant — the existence of a web of complex alliances among  the great powers.

Suffice to say the Archduke’s assignation was the climax of past events. To oversimplify the result:

  • Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia.
  • Germany declared war on Russia.
  • Germany and the Ottoman Empire (aka Turkey) sign a secret alliance.
  • Germany declared war on France.
  • Great Britain declared war on Germany.
  • Austria-Hungry declared war on Russia.

All of these events happened between Jul. 28 and Aug. 6. During this period, attempts were made to forgo war but to no avail. John Keegan writes in The First World War, “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to the outbreak might have been broken at any point…had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”

Likewise, in Barbara Tuchman’s award winning book, The Guns of August, she quotes a German statesman when asked why the war broke out, he replied – “If only one knew.”

The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I ultimately led to the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire and to the establishment of the poorly designed countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine – as well as to World War II (excessive reparations on Germany and the rise of Nazism.)

While history does not repeat itself precisely, recent events in the Ukraine suggest fears of another misstep that could lead to significant conflict beyond the scope of present tensions. After all, “if only one knew” was why war began in 1914 could not such an utterance be again made?

Tensions are building in Europe and there is no ‘rational actor’ in Russia. Remember it was 20 years ago that ‘Balkan Wars” were again fought in Serbia and ended only because of U.S. interdiction. But the world did not have an irrational actor – Putin.

The Middle East, which bears an eerie resemblance to the Balkans of WW I, is in full-scale disarray with Russia providing military-assistance to the Syrians and a whole host of other militant actors creating chaos. Furthermore, the specter of possible irrational decisions by Iran and subsequent actions by others in the region is always a possibility — and could lead to broader engagements.

In the Far East, nervous countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan watch as China spreads its wings to claim vast arrays of oil-rich islands in the South China Sea as their territory when ownership is anything but clear. The U.S pivots to engage more directly in the Far East, but again an irrational actor could unintentionally cause guns to be fired.

To paraphrase Thomas Paine – these are times that try a leader’s patience. What does the United States do? What do other democracies do?

Margaret Mac Millan observes in The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War that the U.S. is still the strongest power. However, the U.S. suffered setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and is unsure of reliable friends in Europe. The U.S. also has strong elements of isolationism, has less than a responsible Congress and perhaps a president who is not sufficiently engaged.

It may take a more immediate disaster to force democracies to come together. Therefore, instead of watching new crises emerge or existing encounters grow worse it may be time to reflect on how World War I emerged and address current issues in a united and thoughtful way.


Author: Richard Keevey is a senior policy fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning and Policy at Rutgers University and a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Previously he held senior appointed positions in the state and federal governments, including NJ State Budget Director and Deputy under Secretary of Defense.

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