The world has changed enormously in the nearly 23 years since the collapse of the USSR. Can we finally breathe a sigh of relief and stop drawing scary parallels with World War I?
World War I, one of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the 20th century, broke out a hundred years ago, in August of 1914.
Apart from the millions killed, the war destroyed four empires – Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German. It sparked a genocide (the Armenians in Turkey), and saw the first use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical). It led to massive relocations; many nations lost historical lands and were divided. It spawned two totalitarian ideologies – Nazism and Communism. It drew new borders that were ticking time bombs. And the war set the stage for the continuation of the conflict in World War II, the most destructive war in history, in which the most lethal weapon ever invented – the atomic bomb – was used.
This slow-motion catastrophe unfolded over the first half of the century. The Great Depression could be added to the list. WWI unleashed revanchism in Germany, weakened democracies and markets, and strengthened the USSR, which existed in an alternate economic universe. When Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the USSR the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, he had in mind only the expected consequences – the disappearance of a state that gave structure to the Eurasian space and stood as one of the two pillars of the world order in the second half of the 20th century. The vacuum was rapidly filled by anything and everything.
Is the scale comparable? Almost 23 years have passed since the collapse of the USSR – more than separated the two world wars. The world has seen enormous changes, but they have been mostly technological rather than socio-political. There has been no world war.
So can we breathe a sigh of relief and stop making scary parallels with World War I?
It seems not.
The 2013/2014 political season had no shortage of cataclysms – from the aborted military strikes on Syria last fall, to the civil war in Ukraine this spring and Iraq’s de facto partition this summer. Relations between world powers are right back where they were over a quarter century, as if transported by time machine.
World War II broke out because the winners of WWI were unwilling or unable to build a system that reserved a dignified place for the losers. The winners of WWII took a more responsible approach – the aggressor country was divided up as punishment, and its parts were integrated into the two existing systems in accordance with general practice.
While we’re fortunate that the Cold War never escalated into a full-scale military confrontation, it did not end in real peace. Everyone understood who won and who lost, but the outcome was not formally acknowledged – everything was left unsaid. This is why relations between the winners and losers have not found a secure footing, and a new world order has not taken shape. The picture is fuzzy – there are no quests for domination or revanchism as after 1918, and no system to maintain balance like after 1945.
The year 2014 is history’s revenge, with old problems returning like a boomerang.
Iraq and Ukraine are fracturing along internal lines of division that were neglected when these states were formed. The issue of Russia’s place in Europe, so urgent in the 19th century (with Crimea again at the focus), has returned to the fore. Strange as it may seem, the German question has also reemerged. Circumstances are driving Berlin into the leadership position in Europe, which is rousing powerful emotions and associations. The Middle East is reminiscent of a cross between the last days of the Ottoman Empire and the nationalistic fervor of decolonization.
Finally, the United States remains a hegemon, after beginning its ascent in World War I. However, the growing expectations of a change in global leadership whether justified or not (China dodges the issue) are eroding stability. In the 20th century, the transition from the leadership of the United Kingdom to the United States was smooth owing to their cultural and historical affinity and the rapid rise of the external (Soviet) threat. The next changing of the guard is unlikely to proceed without conflict.
There are many indications that we are at a crossroads like 1989, when the breakup of the Soviet bloc and later the Soviet Union set in motion profound changes. Due to a confluence of circumstances, Russia is trying harder than most to outwit history, but still finds itself more of an instrument of history. For the umpteenth time, history is proving how wrong Fukuyama was when he proclaimed the end of history in that epochal year.