In the early years of the last century, a determined terrorist set out to shock the world. Gavrilo Princip was a Serb associated with a group called the Black Hand agitating against Austrian influence over his country. His target was a highly visible icon of the time, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne. When a bomb intended for the archduke's carriage missed, Princip fled the scene in disappointment, only to find the open vehicle passing him again. This time his two shots hit their mark.
It was June 28 1914. The assassination provoked a belligerent ultimatum to Serbia from the Austrian government and, by August, the first world war was under way. As Tony Blair listened to George Bush deliver his ultimatum to Afghanistan, these events may have been far from his mind. But they are worth recalling.
Many factors contributed to the decisions leading to war in 1914. The growing power of Germany and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire into nationalist revivals threatened the existing balance of power. But the fateful steps were taken by governments operating from fundamental misconceptions about how the war would be fought. Many in Britain believed it would be over within six months.
Within months of August 1914, machine guns and powerful artillery had destroyed the professional armies of Europe and the volunteers, followed by conscripts who replaced them, were soon bogged down in terrible trench warfare. By the time the allied powers forced an armistice in November 1918, more than 10m people had been killed, 30m wounded, and the map of Europe had been rearranged. But there were no real winners. The war devastated a generation, and it left the world with a question: how could the decisions leading to such an outcome possibly have been taken?
The American administration was quick to describe the attacks of September 11 as acts of war, implying they demand a warlike response. The intended effect has been to rally the American people behind the administration. But will a bellicose approach really win this war? Terrorists deliberately try to sow panic and outrage. One of their objectives is to provoke a response intemperate enough to heighten antagonisms, draw those whom they hope to recruit to their cause, and create further turmoil through an escalating cycle of violence. Unless the response is carefully modulated, it will play directly into the hands of those who commit terrorist acts.
President Bush has invoked the words his father used at the outset of the Gulf war, but any commander should think twice before trying to fight a new war with the weapons or strategies of old ones. If suicide bombers are recruited from those who believe the United States is an arrogant superpower, hostile to Islamic peoples, a response that seems to confirm those beliefs may be just what the terrorists want.
The American president has compared the events of September 11 to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But the latter was the military initiative of a nation state with imperial ambitions. By contrast, the suicide hijackers of September may represent few beyond a small band of fanatics, and there is still no public evidence that other states participated in this attack. In many respects, the analogy to 1914 is more apt than to 1941.
Nevertheless, the temptation in America, both national and political, to strike back decisively is almost irresistible. But those who want to term this a "war" should remember that, from the cold war to Vietnam, the recent conflicts in which America has been engaged have not primarily been over territory but struggles for the hearts and minds and, in a globalizing world, many of the people who will be decisive now live beyond American borders.
In this type of conflict, the important dimensions of response may not be military. For more than a century, terrorists have been motivated by a desire to show that the principles of equal justice and the rule of law on which modern democracies are founded are no more than facades for the naked exercise of power. An American reaction that violates these principles would hand such people the victory they seek.
We can only hope that in his private discussions Prime Minister Blair has reminded President Bush of the principles on which both nations are founded. Victory in the "war" on global terrorism will depend less on military might than on the capacity of both nations to live up to the ideals of equal justice under the law that have long been a source of inspiration for others elsewhere in the world. This is a moment when the mettle of a nation will be demonstrated, not by its rage, but by its restraint.
Peter A Hall is director of the Minda de Gunzburg Centre for European Studies at Harvard University.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001