World War I History Is Wrong, and Skewing Our View of China
By Hal Brands
via the American ENterprise Institute web site
World War I was the war that made the 20th century. It introduced humanity to the horrific potential for mass slaughter in the industrial age. It broke an international system that had prevailed for nearly 100 years, since Napoleon’s defeat. It turbocharged the toxic ideologies — fascism and communism — and the geopolitical tensions that made the 20th century an age of conflict.
Not coincidentally, the conflict also powerfully shaped our understanding of how the world works.
The systematic study of international relations, in universities and think tanks, was a response to the war of 1914-1918. Many ideas that shape current debates on foreign policy grew out of interpretations of how that war started and why it failed to produce a lasting peace. Even today, when analysts warn of an unwanted war with China, or bemoan America’s alleged lack of magnanimity following its victory in the Cold War, they are invoking perceived lessons of World War I.
Alas, some of the most commonly held ideas about the war are wrong — and they deeply skew our understanding of the modern world. For the U.S. to thrive in the great rivalries shaping this century, it must better understand the conflict that ushered in the last.
World War I was not an accidental war, or one that policy makers “sleepwalked” into. A determined but anxious Germany was willing to take risks to achieve goals it could not attain through peaceful means. The resulting conflagration was not a pointless slugfest. It was part of a longer-running clash between liberalism and illiberalism. And the fatal flaw of the postwar peace was not that it was too harsh; the trouble was that America’s strategic withdrawal from Europe destabilized the complex set of arrangements that might have made that settlement last.
Wars typically don’t happen by accident. They happen when countries knowingly take military risks to achieve their political objectives. Yet the myth that conflict can erupt even when no one wants it persists, and it traces back to a particular understanding of World War I.
Europe “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war,” David Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the last two years of the conflict, later wrote. Hair-trigger military plans, interlocking alliance commitments and rampant nationalism — according to this interpretation — turned the assassination of an Austrian archduke into an all-consuming conflict that the combatants would have preferred to avoid.
The truth is far closer to what some German historians began to argue in the 1960s and 1970s: The taproot of the conflict was ambition and risk-taking in Berlin.
Read the entire article on the AEI web site here:
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