One hundred years ago, the Archduke of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian ideologue. Today, the threats are different but, like in 1914, conflicts are multiplying and leaders failing.
PARIS — One hundred years ago, on June 28, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. While clouds are forming on the horizon from Iraq to Ukraine and the East China Sea, what can we learn to understand our present times from an event that was the starting point of Europe’s plunge into darkness?
Does June 28, 1914 belong to a world that has nothing to do with ours anymore; or should we be concerned by the tragic succession of poor decisions that followed the assassination of the Archduke and his wife by a Serbian nationalist from Bosnia?
Today, as we are starting to feel — and rightly so — a loss of control over the course of history, we may start to doubt the quality of the world’s leaders; and so those images of Sarajevo start coming to mind.
Just one year ago, any comparison between the summer of 1914 and the current world would have seemed perfectly artificial. The only conceivable comparison was geographically limited to Asia. Is China not gradually turning into the contemporary equivalent of Wilhelm II’s Germany? Are the tensions in the East China Sea not in part similar to the situation in the Balkans on the eve of the first global conflict?
This fundamentally reassuring analogy for the Western world — “now it’s Asia’s turn and not Europe’s" — is, admittedly, still present. But during these last few months, disaster scenarios, in their diversity and simultaneity, seem to have come closer to us, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. And so this troubling scenario does not seem so absurd anymore: What if it was the whole world of 2014 that looked like Europe of 1914, and not only Asia?
There are of course considerable differences between then and now. The world of 1914, unlike ours, did not live in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse. It was still intellectually possible to consider that war was “a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
Humanity had not yet invented the instruments of its collective suicide, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre. But the balance of terror that largely functioned well during the Cold War — despite the near disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 — has become more and more abstract. It's as if atomic weapons have been put aside, almost a detail of the past.
A different center
Is Tehran not currently trying to convince Washington that the threat of a jihadist caliphate from Aleppo to Baghdad is more serious for the United States than a nuclear Iran? Japan, in its tough policies towards China, seems to overlook the fact that Beijing, unlike Tokyo, does have the ultimate weapon. Kiev, likewise, in its contentious relation with Moscow, seems more impressed by the risk of an energy embargo than of Russian would-be nuclear intimidation.
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Sailors of the People's Liberation Army Navy — Photo: Jiang
The nuclear option, of course, has only been applied twice, in the context of ending a world war. And so, the atomic weapon has become abstract. It does not seem to form the ultimate protection that it once represented in the Cold War. Back then, the balance of terror relied on rules, accepted and understood by countries that despite the irreconcilable nature of their ideologies belonged to the same Western culture.
Beyond the atomic weapon, there is a major difference between 2014 and 1914: Europe is not the center of the world anymore. In that regard, Kiev of 2014 cannot be compared to Sarajevo of 1914. A conflict that would start in Europe could not automatically degenerate, as it was the case yesterday, into a world war. And most European countries are not tied by mutual alliance treaties against each other, but by a Union that, despite its current unpopularity, makes war between its members unimaginable.
The concern that has been growing these last few months is however reasonable. While we are celebrating, at the start of this summer of 2014, the great secular and universal mass that the World Cup represents, are we not acting like the “sleepwalkers” that the historian Christopher Clark describes in his eponymous book on the origins of World War I?
Thinking that we confined the most passionate expression of patriotism to the field of sport, are we not in denial? Look at the jihadist state forming in the heart of the Middle East, the artificial islands popping up in the contested waters of the East China Sea, the imperial anachronism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: Are there not enough warning signals of a world ready to tip over into the unknown?
In 1914, for lack of finding other solutions, the European leaders seemed to have resigned themselves to the ineluctability of war, some with less reluctance than others.
Of course, it is not healthy to be overly worried, but it would be dangerous not to see the inherent risks to the situation in which we can find ourselves today. The year 2014 has nothing to do with 1914, except maybe for the main point: The risk of leaders who are not exceptional losing control of a situation that is becoming ever more exceptional.