9 Nov 2012

Learning From The Great War

By Stuart Rollo
Remembrance Day is a chance to reflect on the horrors of war and those lost in battle. This year, we should also reflect on the causes of war, and how we might avoid conflict between the US and China, writes Stuart Rollo
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.

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Posted Saturday, November 10, 2012 - 21:34

Stuart Rollo, nicely put, good article.

Not going to disagree, you've got it well covered.

K Brown
Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 20:13

While this is a superficially plausible scenario that may make you think, if you do so critically, it is not hard to to realise that it is an interpolation of facts between 1912 and 2012 that ignores the difference in the political economies of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires in 2012 and that of China today. The prognosis in this article may as well be founded on the Mayan 2012 calendar prophecy for next month's end of the World. China’s economy is totally dependent on imported resources. The Triple Alliance and the Ottoman Empires were not. WW1 was initiated by the the Austro-Hungarian Empire invading Serbia closely followed by the German Empire who invaded Belgium and the Ottomans who became allies.

China has no grand military compacts with other nations and would singularly be the most impacted country in the event of an Asian-Indo-Pacific military conflict. I suggest the author return to his books and recast his analogies.

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 21:27

K Brown humans don't and haven't changed.

WW1 was an economic war between Britain, Germany, France and America.
85% of the Worlds Production and wealth was in the Hands of these big 4.
When the Railways expansion Collapsed in the U.S one of the Tycoons moved money out of the Corporation into a Trust Fund. A reporter found out, made it Public and the colapse of the world Economy soon followed.

As per Stuart Rollo
"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."

This was the excuse, like the Boston Tea Party thingy that apparently led to the War of Independence, the bull about the American south having black slaves etc. was also a lie and an excuse. The North could not compete with the south economicaly because labour costs, thats why the Carpetbaggers moved in when the South lost. It was rape, pillage and plunder.

Here in Australia NSW and Victoria could have ended up going to war because of competition in exports to Britain, the fruit fly is still down their on the border. It was only WW1 that brought them all together and they fought a common enemy.

We had the bull about the yellow cake, weapons of Mass destruction, terrorism etc. which led to Iraq and Afgan invasions all because the yank economy needed oil and they needed control of the oil to stiop the E.U out performing the stupid Yanks. The Yanks gave us almost all depressions and we had recession every ten years before WW1 then the Brits re-introduced the Gold standard after WW1 which was meant to fix it all, never fixed nothing.

If you go to Big Ideas
We've Nothing to Fear from a Powerful China and listen to
Dr Michael Wesley, his got it pretty spot on.

Your comment Brownie.
"The Triple Alliance and the Ottoman Empires were not. WW1 was initiated by the the Austro-Hungarian Empire invading Serbia closely followed by the German Empire who invaded Belgium and the Ottomans who became allies."

Part of the WW1 conflict was also about Muslims spreading into Europe

Students guide to World History 1789-1979.
The most important problems today are those of human relations. Even if there were no further advances in the physical and biological sciences, and no further advances in technology, the science and technology we already possess are quite adequate to banish hunger and want from the earth. But obstacles in the field of human relations hold mankind back from doing what should be done - and it is here that history could make a vital contribution.

'What mankind knows about itself is dangerously little. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century our most fundamental problem has been the widening gap that has separated man as a technologist and scientist from man as a rational, civilized, thinking, political and social being ....

'Many brilliant thinkers have analysed this problem. Most have feared that men are falling victim to their own scientific cleverness. They have been well aware of the tremendous changes in manners and customs, in moral standards, in political objectives and in social philosophies that have followed on improvements of technology and scientific knowledge. All of us are well aware of the insidious effects of mass communications and of subtle and ruthless methods of sapping independent judgment in order to influence opinions and beliefs. There is much in modern society that might make any intelligent observer wonder whether mankind is going to survive the risk of destruction in nuclear warfare only to become a gigantic ant-heap of people more and more like one another ....

'If the human will and the human mind can do anything to solve these problems, it will only be through the enlightened study of man. It is to the humanities that we have to turn to find some part of the guidance that we now need. The rich cultivation of the humane studies can provide sensible, intelligent people with their own resources against the pressures of an age that seems bent on standardizing people as though they were commercial products, if it does not destroy them.

My comment:
Notice what he was talking about then, we are still talking about it now. Nothing every changes with humans apart from the lies and excuses we come up with to get rid of humans.

Like I said The Planet does not need Humanity, Humanity needs the Planet. We killed each other before we invaded America, Canada, Australia and N.Z, there is nowhere left for us to go, the third world is coming here in Boats, so bace yourself. Humanity is on the move again and just like the European Catholics, Protestants and Jews then we are going to come to blows. We were a Nation of between 5 to 7 million and we went to war to save our Landed Gentry from Economic ruin then, they were the third richest Landed Gentry and totaly dependent on England, so look out. We have the worst record in war mongering next to Mother England, 15 in something like 143 years and we are still at it. So I wouldn't worry about China, your own Country will send you of to die long before the Chinese will ever fire a shot.

K Brown
Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 22:11

Stuart Rollo - The “containment strategy” that you talk about would be unrecognisable to George F Kennan who was the architect of the US’ Cold War Containment Policy that included military alliances such as SEATO that no longer exist, proxy wars such as the civil war in Laos against the Pathet Lao that no longer occur and, direct engagement in wars such as the Vietnam War to “contain” Communist expansion that have not occurred since the fall of Saigon! Why do you use lazy reactionary terminology such as “containment” to describe the current situation other than to appeal to NM’s tinfoil hat brigade? Your analysis doesn’t offer much for serious NM thinkers about how Australia should engage in Asian-Pacific strategic policy!

The current redeployment of US Force’s under your so called “emerging US containment strategy” is in fact totally contrary to the principles of containment. US Forces in Japan and Okinawa are being withdrawn to Guam (which is W of the Philippines) and makes them less of a threat to China and a USMC AGTF is going to be rotated through Darwin which is not exactly conveniently located to “contain” Chinese activities in the South China Sea!

K Brown
Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 23:16

jackal01 - you got it in one! "We’ve Nothing to Fear from a Powerful China" because they have the most to lose from regional conflicts. But this hypothesis is only valid if the region stands up to to China's present bullying tactics on matters such as territorial claims in the South China Sea.

K Brown
Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 01:00

Exactly what elements of the "existent regional security architecture" should we be offering China the opportunity to be incorporated into to ensure a higher level of trust and mutual strategic interest and mitigate the potential for conflict. Indeed is there any such thing? Kevin Rudd's proposed Asia-Pacific Conference has been a total flop through lack of interest. ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other states. Even the Asean Defence Minister's Meeting seems to think talking about matters means taking for action. The fact is the so called regional (multi-lateral) security architectrure in the Asia-Pacific is so impotent it may as well be non-existent. It is all talk and no action.

China has not only resisted any blandishments to settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan through mediation but also totally ignores international law as embodied in the current Law of the Sea in these disputes.

Turing Test
Posted Saturday, November 17, 2012 - 15:51

Nice article Stuart.

I would like to know your thoughts on Cyber warfare.
The Chinese are very good at it. Ask anyone who has taken a computer into China and attempted to connect to the internet.

I recall some kerfuffle about Hillary Clinton's entourage leaving their computers in Japan before heading into China.
I would not have thought that the US would tell anyone about it, so i take it that Chinese interests made the ploy known.

Add the world's increasing reliance on technology to do all sorts of tasks to the legendary, but not necessarily true, tale of an US Minuteman facility that thought it was under attack because of the failure of a 25c part.

A military chain of command needs secure communications. This is becoming increasingly harder to achieve.