Rationality is no safeguard against another world war
Andreas Herberg-Rothe warns against assuming the current friction in Asia will not escalate into a world war, just because it would benefit no one, as history shows the danger of irrationality
One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the outbreak of the first world war, and whose effects ultimately stretched even to the second world war. Are there any lessons here? Is there only one lesson to be learned - that you can learn nothing from history? Or are we doomed to repeat history if we don't learn anything from it?
History will not repeat itself exactly, but wars have repeatedly occurred throughout history, even great wars. We are living in an age in which a war between the great powers is viewed as unlikely, because the outcome would be so devastating that each party will do their utmost to avoid it. Rationality seems to prevail in our times. But no war would have been waged if the losing side, or even both sides, knew the outcome in advance.
The beginning of the first world war will not repeat itself as the First World War in Asia, 100 years later, in 2014. But there are striking similarities between the era leading to the first world war and current developments in Asia: the anniversary of the first world war signifies the danger, not the inevitability, of a new world war to come.
The year 1914 is a symbolic representation of the risk that a war among the great powers could erupt although nobody would benefit from it. It is symbolic of the problem that rationality is no guarantee of avoiding self-destruction.
All reckoning about a repetition of such a war in Asia is based on the assumption that it would be in no one's interest to fight a large-scale war, even without weapons of mass destruction, the use of which could lead to the destruction of great parts of the region. But what if conflicts in Asia were not fought to pursue national interests so much as recognition? What would this mean: to be accepted as an equal again after humiliation in the course of European colonisation and subsequent American hegemony? Indeed, acknowledgment of past suffering seems to matter to many Asian nations. Are those desires merely irrational or a different kind of rationality?
The first world war is foremost a lesson that a limited conflict could escalate into a nightmare of millions of deaths and unspeakable suffering, for which no rational explanation could be found. Military aims and strategies took priority over meaningful political purpose.
Although the generals of the German empire believed they were relying on Clausewitz's theory of war, in fact they perverted it. Tactics replaced strategy, strategy substituted politics, politics gained momentum above policy, and policy was militarised. It was as if everybody was saying: being at war would mean a stop to thinking.
Perhaps the deepest and hidden reason for this escalation was that no war party could admit defeat. Striking evidence for this is that the proclaimed war aims of the German empire gained momentum the more they became unrealistic and irrational. The pride, honour and identity of the German Reich prohibited the acknowledgment of defeat. It was the same with Russia, France, England, the Habsburg empire and the Turk empire, too.
Perhaps these empires knew their rule wouldn't survive if they had to acknowledge military defeat. Defeat would have humiliated their identity and "face": their social recognition within their society and community. A military defeat would signal their "symbolic death" - and so, the empires fought a war for life and death.
This does not mean we can equate today's rising China with the then rising German empire. However, although the actors then and today seem quite different, the dynamics generated by the rise of emerging powers are strikingly similar.
Robert McNamara, the US secretary of state during the Cuban missile crisis, famously noted that it was sheer luck, not rationality, that prevented the escalation of that crisis into a world war. In the 1983 nuclear war scare, the world needed more than great fortune to avoid disaster.
In our times, all great powers use military means to pursue their political and economic interests. But we should not allow ourselves to bet, casino-style, that military conflicts and strategies would not escalate into great power wars.
The aim of policy in a globalised world therefore has to be to initiate discourse for decades to come. Despite our conflicting or competing interests, identities and self-understanding, this obligation helps to develop policies and strategies to avoid the escalation of conflicts and competition in Asia into a new 1914.
Thomas Hobbes once famously noted that the natural stage of mankind is not peace, but the war of all against all. We should not delude ourselves with the assumption that peace is the natural stage of mankind in our age. The late Yitzhak Rabin made the proposition: you don't need to make peace with your friends; you need to make peace with your foes.
Political theorist Carl Schmitt believed that the essence of politics is the differentiation of friends and foes. In my interpretation of Hannah Arendt and Schmitt, both should be understood as follows: initially, politics seeks to differentiate between friends and foes, but its final aim is the mediation of friends and foes, to find common ground between these antagonistic contrasts without eliminating the competition (this concept stems from Plato, Eric Voegelin and Arendt).
This might be the most important lesson we should learn from history.
Dr Andreas Herberg-Rothe is a lecturer at the faculty of social and cultural studies at Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany, and the author of Clausewitz's Puzzle: The Political Theory of War