Consider the situation as the 14th year opens in the new century.
The US economy is still recovering from a financial disaster in the previous decade. It is also experimenting with new institutions that expand government control over the economy.
International terrorism struck hard at the United States early in the new century and also hit multiple European states.
The world's power structure has shifted powerfully in a short period of time. Just a few years prior, a hegemonic power benevolently monitored the world. It interfered imperfectly at times, but worked hard to maintain a balance between promoting world stability and self-interest. It faced strong competition from rising powers across the globe, both economically and militarily. Despite this, it has reoriented its military to confront low intensity conflicts on the periphery, rather than a mass war of nations.
Germany, poised to assume a much more powerful position on the European continent. Russian expansion into Eastern Europe raises questions about the nature of its imperialism. Terrorists, however, threaten to destabilize the country despite its attempts to grow into a respected nation militarily and economically.
Japan is once again restive and finds itself in confrontation with Far Eastern neighbors.
Technological advances have revolutionized ways of life and raised standards of living at an astonishing pace over the previous generation.
Although tensions abound throughout the world, few see any danger of a major war in the near future.
The year? 1914. Seven months into the year came the most destructive war in history in terms of immediate and future impact. It not only killed millions and consumed untallyable resources, it also served as the midwife of Soviet Communism and National Socialism. These movements massacred tens of millions of innocents in their own right.
Czars, Kaisers (technically they are the same word), kings, presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors could not fathom the impact of the summer spiral that sucked in all the worlds' Great Powers eventually. Only the United States and Japan came through relatively unscathed. America expanded its economy and decided in 1920 to abandon internationalism and "return to normalcy." Japan added German colonies to its slowly growing empire. Meanwhile:
Russia descended into a horrific civil war that brought the murderous Bolsheviks to power. They eventually murdered over 30 million of their own people under Lenin and Stalin.
Germany lost its ruling family, tried a democracy, and tumbled into Nazi totalitarianism.
France withstood the hell of a war of attrition on its own territory, killing millions of young men and destroying the northern part of the country.
Britain suffered more casualties per capita than any nation. Its shell shock kept it from rising in time to meet the challenge from Hitler.
Italian chaos invited Mussolini's fascists.
Austria-Hungary disintegrated entirely.
It was not just Russia, Germany, and other countries that revolutionized in a span of five years, it was the world. World War I brought the United States to the forefront, but also unleashed great evils.
Be prepared for an onslaught of World War I reflection and revision. Niall Fergusson about a decade ago argued that Britain fought on the wrong side, that it should have stood beside the Germans to maintain the traditional balance of power in Europe. This comes from the benefit of hindsight that tells us Russian population and resources wedded to ideology produced a powerful and long lasting threat to the continent. Britain rarely exercised great judgment in its reactions to events and never attempted foresight. Many spoke of the rise of Russia and America, but few pondered when or how that might happen.
Others will accept the immediate postwar analysis that the war sprung from some sort of madness of civilization. At first glance, the sheer destruction and length of the war might reflect international insanity.
But that's not true. If insanity or evil, like Hitler's drive to power, lay at the core of World War I, it could be safely consigned to history. In reality though, World War I is much more terrifying than World War II because it resulted from each nation acting through its own logic and responding to lessons it learned from history.
Britain dominated the 19th century after the defeat of Napoleon. For much of that time, it remained more interested in expanding its markets than its empire. Except for three or four years of the American Civil War, it had the largest navy on earth. Britain also dominated industrial production. Most countries, especially the US, mildly resented British dominance. Its world leadership, however, edged international relations toward more civility while restraining practices like piracy and slavery.
France remained hobbled by a hatred of Germany after their 1871 defeat and an unwieldy republican government that encouraged chronic domestic crises.
Germany did not exist as a nation until 1871. Prussia plus several minor German states equaled the largest country on the continent besides Russia. Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, it comfortably expanded production and trade, built the most impressive army, and enjoyed its unassailability. No one wanted to challenge the Germans and, between the 1870s and the end of Bismarck's tenure, the Germans seemed content. The young Kaiser William II in the 1890s found Bismarck's restrained policies anachronistic. Envious of Britain and his royal cousins there, William wanted an empire of something besides islands and deserts. Unfortunately, he resolved on boorish aggressive moves to obtain it.
Russia and Austria-Hungary struggled to bring centuries old dynasties into the modern industrial age. Russia had the upper hand in the era of nationalism because of its dominant ethnic population. Austria-Hungary contended with 15 different groups, most wanting equal treatment and recognition. Their economies could not compete with Germany, Britain, or the United States. Their struggles led them to seek external successes to build public pride. Unfortunately, they faced off against each other trying to build influence in the Balkans.
Japan and the United States gradually gobbled island empires and developed their own industry. Both expanded their regional power at the expense of defeatable nations.
Italy doesn't count.
France and Britain lurched from friendship in the 1850s to frenemies in the 1870s, to near war in the 1890s, then back to friendship. Competition for colonial lands spurred animosity between the two and war could have happened had Kaiser William not abandoned Bismarck's approach. William's strategy of brinksmanship was designed to bully France and Britain into begging him for an accomodation. All it did was to push them together.
German prewar policy was based on a calculation of force and pressure, not nihilism and ideology like the Nazis. It was not particularly defensible, but it also was not too much of a departure from traditional European practice, either.
Friendships coalesced into alliances. France and Russia concluded an ironclad pact as did Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain had no direct obligation to anyone except Belgium, but worked with France on joint planning. The war started, as most know, when Russian supported Serbia was associated with a terror attack on Austria-Hungary's ruling family. Austria-Hungary eventually attacked, drawing Russia against it. Germany protected her ally by attacking Russia's ally France, who wanted nothing to do with the war. But previous French animosity left Germany convinced that she had to be neutralized in any conflict with Russia. Britain wanted nothing to do with the war, but Germany's attack plan took her through Belgium, so...
A chain of logic led to war. If the fact that it led to such a horrible event was omitted, the decisions would not look remarkably stupid (or remarkably intelligent either!)
Does 2014 look much different?
Persistent international terrorism
Relative decline of a hegemonic power
Rise of states opposed to the status quo (China, Iran, among others)
China is actively challenging a neighbor with whom it has long historical emnity (as Germany did with France) Like a hundred years ago, the disputes that China is picking are silly but must receive a response.
International agreements tie powers to smaller countries. Where North Korea goes, China may have to follow regardless of how insane it is. Germany's only friend in 1914 was Austria-Hungary. China's is North Korea.
Digital age technology, like the industrial revolution, has changed nations, economies, militaries, and ways of life beyond recognition to someone thirty years ago.
The US military increasingly realigns to fight in Afghanistan or some other distant and unpleasant place. Its shrinking, but still well-equipped and highly professional force resembles Britain's "thin red line" of 1914 relative to the size and population of each nation.
The seeds of a world war are planted today. We cannot keep ignoring international problems such as the behavior of China. Responding to China's belligerence with more belligerence will not help, but neither will accommodation and weakness. The United States needs to build a firm economy at home to demonstrate strength and stability. It also needs a wise foreign policy approach to handle the Far East sensibly.
Lessons from a hundred years ago are relevant now. War can happen if today's Great Powers blunder into it as they did then.