Mark Twain once commented, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The U.S. conflict with Iran sounds a lot like a rhyme with World War I. The portent would be World War III. The parallels are not trivial. They are haunting, and should be sobering.
World War I was called “The Great War” for good reason. It rearranged the architecture of global power more quickly and decisively than any event of the past 1,000 years.
Four great empires were destroyed, 16 million people were killed, eleven new countries were created, communism emerged as a state-based system, the modern Middle East was laid out, and the center of global power shifted from Europe, where it had resided for the prior 400 years, to the U.S., where it still resides today. At least for now.
The parallels—or the rhymes, if you will—between 1914 and 2019 are ominous.
World War I occurred because a rising power, Germany, threatened the primacy of the world’s then-leading power, Britain. Neither would yield, so the outcome was War. It is worthwhile understanding what had happened.
It was the late 1700s. Britain invented the first Industrial Revolution, the one based on iron, steam, and coal. With those technologies, it dominated global commerce and political affairs for the whole of the nineteenth century.
But by the late 1800s, those technologies were old, obsolete. That was when Germany brought together the elements of the second Industrial Revolution, the one based on steel, internal combustion, and oil. As a result, it blew by Britain in manufacturing, commerce, and international trade. The numbers tell the story.
In 1850, Britain controlled 59% of global wealth, compared to only 3% for Germany. By 1910, Germany’s share had soared to 21%, while Britain’s had shrunk to just 14%. If Britain did not counter Germany’s economic-based ascent, it would be brushed aside as the world’s leading power.
Today, it is the Chinese who are threatening U.S. primacy in global affairs. Its economy has already surpassed that of the U.S. in purchasing power parity terms. It will complete the ascension in absolute terms sometime around 2025.
The problem for the U.S. is that it has hollowed out its industrial core, outsourcing its once dominant manufacturing position to China, so that its corporations could make more profits. It worked for making the profits, but it has left the U.S. as a hollow economic power, one that can only be kept propped up by the government borrowing $1 trillion a year in deficits, $21 trillion over the past 40 years. It is not a strong position, but neither is it one the U.S. wishes to surrender.
As with Britain and Germany, if the U.S. does not counter China’s ascent, and with something more substantive than more borrowing, it will be brushed aside as the world’s leading power. U.S. leadership knows that, yet it is not prepared to do anything meaningful to regain economic potency in the world. So, the only weapon it has left is war.
The second historic parallel with World War I is that to prosecute their war aims, both Germany and Britain formed blocs, or alliances, to confront their respective rivals. Germany formed the Triple Alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance controlled Central Europe.
Britain allied with France and Russia to form the Triple Entente. The Triple Entente surrounded Germany, with France to its west and Russia to its east. This had the effect of increasing paranoia and, therefore, the lurch to war.
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The tipoff to the profound strategic implications of the War is that France and Russia had been Britain’s primary historic enemies. Yet, it buried those rivalries to deal with what it knew was a far greater threat.
Today, the Chinese have allied with Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran to challenge U.S. power. It extends that alliance through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which it founded in 1996 to integrate the economies of Eurasia into a single market.
In an industrial civilization, who controls the oil controls the world.
The U.S. is trying to hold together an historic alliance with western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and other nations to contain China. But that alliance is fraying as China uses the lure of access to its vast markets to peel countries away from doctrinaire loyalty to the U.S. Russia is using is vast energy resources to do the same. These moves seem to be working, weakening the western alliance.
Finally, there is oil. World War I became inevitable when Germany announced the Berlin to Baghdad Railroad in 1903. The Railroad would have given Germany access to the Persian Gulf, and the chance to seize control of the world’s largest oil reserves.
This was a life-and-death matter for Britain. It had just begun converting its navy from running on coal to running on oil. It was the British navy that made the British Empire, the one on which the sun never set. If Germany controlled the oil, the British navy, and, hence, the British Empire, would be irretrievably diminished. It had to be stopped.
Today, after trillions of dollars of oil-centric infrastructure investment, the world is more dependent on oil than ever before. It’s the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003: to try to seize control of the world’s oil. In an industrial civilization, who controls the oil controls the world.
The flash point for World War I was unforeseen. In June 1914, a tubercular high school student in Sarajevo assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austrian-Hungarian throne. By then, of course, everybody was “locked and loaded,” so War followed immediately.
Russia mobilized its army, confronting both Austria-Hungary and Germany with a “use them or lose them” situation concerning their forces. Germany could not leave its troops idle in the face of such a threat and so declared war on Russia. Then, in carrying out its plan for a two-front war, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium on its way to Paris. England came to the aid of its ally, Russia, and declared war on Germany. France declared war on Germany as well.
It was like dominoes, but they were countries, and they fell with stunning rapidity. Within a month of the assassination, all of Europe was at war. Within another month, the Germans were dug into their trenches on the Marne River outside of Paris where they would stay for the duration. Trench warfare made the War the bloodiest war ever, up to that point. The whole of the twentieth century was but its long shadow.
To be sure, rhymes are not repetitions. But we should heed their cautionary intimations. In 18 years, the ritualistically over-hyped U.S. military has not been able to defeat the Taliban living in caves in Afghanistan. It lost its war in Iraq, despite that nation having been bombed and sanctioned for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion. It proved incapable of toppling the grievously weakened Assad regime in Syria, even with the help of its noxious proxies, al Qaeda and ISIS.
If the U.S. cannot defeat the likes of second- and third- and fourth-rate military powers like Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, does it really want to start a war with the strategic ally of the #2 and #3 nuclear powers in the world? And do we really want an insecure bully, a pathological liar who only looks out for himself, making that decision?
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. It is, quite possibly, life-and-death for the planet. An idiot can start a war, and well may. It’s not at all clear how one would end. The Chinese have shown on tariffs and the South China Sea, and the Russians on Crimea and Syria, that they are not backing down. Their leaders do not conduct diplomacy through bluster, nor policy through tweets.
The Chinese expression says it all: “It’s easy to get onto the back of a tiger, but hard to get off.” This is not a reality TV show where script re-writes are quick and easy. This is real reality, which is long and hard. We need some adults in the room before things get out of hand.