Learning From The Great War

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As Remembrance Day approaches, it is a good time to reflect on the factors that brought the world’s great powers, and their loyal allies, into "the war to end all wars". The Australian experience in World War I, and the lessons learned from it, are perhaps more relevant today than ever before.

The parallels between the international climates of 1912 and 2012 are striking. In 1912 the British Empire, the declining global power of the day, felt its economic and security interests threatened by an assertive and ascendant Imperial Germany. As a hedge against the perceived threat presented by Germany and its allies in the Triple Alliance, the British had established the Triple Entente with France and Russia, two of Germany’s neighbours who shared the fear of an emergent Germany destabilising the political and territorial status quo.

Due to the unprecedented global interconnectedness that characterised the era, particularly in trade, finance, transportation and communication technologies, few thought that an issue could arise between the great powers that would not be overcome in the interests of mutual wealth and commerce. The Concert of Europe had kept the (relative) peace since the Napoleonic Wars, and the European powers looked set to comfortably continue on their path of the rapacious colonial exploitation and abuse of most of the rest of the world.

Six years later, 16 million were dead, the economies of Europe were devastated, and the inequity of the treaty of Versailles laid the foundations for the rise of fascism in Europe, with a further 60 million deaths soon to follow.

The spark that ignited World War I, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, would have, in isolation, been a mere footnote in the annals of history. However, the military postures of the European great powers, their confrontational alliances, and the prevailing zero-sum realpolitik approach to international security, allowed this relatively insignificant event to spiral into the most lethal and horrendous example of industrialised warfare the world had ever seen.

In 2012 we find ourselves at a curiously similar juncture in the international environment. The United States, the world’s sole superpower, is in relative economic decline. Its military is bloated and like Britain before it, "rules the waves". An ascendant China is forecast to surpass the United States economically within the next decade. Its rapid military buildup and controversial territorial claims are unsettling its neighbours, who are moving towards an alliance of containment with the United States.

China is finding its own place in the sun; its business and resource extraction operations in the African continent are expanding to levels comparable with the United States and other western economic heavyweights. Some laud this as a progressive example of "south-south" investment that is more equitable and development-focused than traditional "north-south" investment; others see it as China joining the club of exploitative wealth extractors preying on African resources.

Either way there is tangible discomfort in Washington over China’s spreading global economic interests, not only because of the new challenge it poses to American business, but also in anticipation of the military — particularly naval — expansion that historically accompanies economic expansion. In an international climate, that operates on realist terms — as national interest spreads, so must military power in order to defend it.

While actual military conflict between the United States and China is not imminent, the United States’ security policy — which includes its regional allies, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea — is unquestionably directed towards countering China’s developing military capabilities. This is no great surprise; powerful states will always seek to strategically outmanoeuvre each other in preparation for the worst case scenario of war.

But the comparatively little effort being put in to engaging China is worrying. Offering it the opportunity to become incorporated into the existent regional security architecture, ensuring a higher level of trust and mutual strategic interest, would mitigate the potential for conflict.

Australia jumped at the opportunity to join Britain in World War I. Our unquestioning loyalty was rewarded by the British high command, who sent our young men to die in various ill-conceived assaults, most famously in Gallipoli, often under the command of incompetent British aristocrats. Over 60,000 Australian soldiers died fighting a war to uphold British hegemony. The Australian national identity that was forged in Gallipoli was largely a reaction against our subordinate, colonial, position in the British Empire, and brought forth a fledgling domestic movement to control our own foreign affairs.

These inclinations towards foreign policy independence were proven correct a quarter century later when, in Singapore, Greece, and Crete, Australia once again learned the lesson that the national interests of an allied great power will never mirror Australia’s own national interest.

The US alliance has served Australia well up to this point because Australian and American regional security interests have been so similar. While the United States was so far beyond any other state in the region in terms of military, economic, and political power, its interests were solely to maintain the status quo: guarantee open waters for commerce, and discourage any squabbling that could rock the boat.

As China emerges as a challenger to the United States in these spheres, American policymakers, guided by a zero-sum conception of power, run the risk of themselves destabilising the region. The emerging US containment strategy should at most be a secondary and precautionary policy, running in parallel with one of engagement and trust building, not the primary policy response to the development and rise of China.

If pre-emptive containment trumps diplomacy and engagement as America’s primary policy response to China’s rise, Australia should be willing to take a more independent foreign policy stance. Almost a century ago Australia followed another "security guarantor" into a conflict in which there was no "right" side, only the self-interest of rival great powers. Over 60,000 Australians lost their lives, but through their sacrifice we began to awaken as a self directed, proud, and independent nation. The new methods of industrialised warfare employed during World War I wrought horror on a scale never before seen.

In the nuclear age the thought of a similar hegemonic struggle between rival great powers is intolerable. A century ago the military postures of the European great powers were set up as such that it took only a tiny spark to light the powderkeg of war. Engagement, trust building, and international cooperation are the paths to avoiding a repeat of such conflict. Lest We Forget.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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