When World War I began (in August) 100 years ago, nearly everyone involved believed it would be over by Christmas. Instead, 10 million men died in the long conflict, with two to three times as many suffering wounds and injuries. The path leading to war was complex, charged with emotion and rife with misjudgment. The disastrous war did much to shape the modern world.
In a Europe that had been mostly at peace, the Moroccan crisis of 1905 was followed by the Bosnian crisis of 1908, the Agadir crisis of 1911 and two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913. Throughout the period, Europe’s haughty politicians made their decisions based on poor information and faulty assumptions. Although Serbia’s terrorist networks were a threat to the unsteady Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany made an enormous mistake by unconditionally backing Austria-Hungary after the assassinations in Sarajevo. As Russia, strongly supported by France, stumbled into supporting Serbia, events quickly got out of hand. As Europe slid into war, its shocked leaders could only watch in dismay.
In the absence of institutions to resolve conflicting interests, the faulty calculations of Europe’s leaders let small crises turn into large ones. As the war got underway, unprepared generals had to learn how to adapt to new weapons such as the machine gun, improved artillery and aircraft as the slaughter in the trenches continued. In a war waged between industrial societies, it soon became clear that heroic action would be trumped by the slow grind of battlefield attrition.
With the clarity of hindsight, we now understand that military commanders actually made reasonable, but costly decisions, when faced with the application of little understood new technologies. At the end of the war, empires crumbled, a reluctant America was propelled into a world leadership role. Economics had also played a part in stoking the conflict, the rising economic might of Germany competed with England and France. John Maynard Keynes, the noted economist, criticized the treaty that ended World War I as being unfair to Germany. Resentment of the treaty and the onset of the Great Depression helped seal the fate of Germany’s struggling Weimar Republic, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler.
As if trying to commemorate the tensions of 1914, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine have set events in motion. While Russian troops remain posed along Ukraine’s border, Europe obtains 30% of its natural gas supply from Russia. More than half of the supply travels through Ukraine. Turkey and Azerbaijan could unexpectedly become new partners if Europe decides to launch a search for energy security. In Azerbaijan, Shia Iran has attempted to export its political model to a country with a Shia majority that is also highly secular. Iran has met with little success thus far.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been busy trying to convince the world’s doubters that Iran is mending its ways. He has managed to get a tentative agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani’s goal is to get rid of sanctions and have Iran rejoin the global economy. Rouhani hopes to turn Iran into one of the world’s ten largest economies by the middle of the century. His boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, may have other ideas. He despises the West and has pushed for economic self-sufficiency. Faced with a faltering economy, he permitted Rouhani to run in the Iranian election in the summer of 2013.
The Supreme Leader is a permanent part of the political establishment, Khamenei has held power since June 1989. He can block any policy that he deems unsuitable or detrimental to the wellbeing of the regime. His mistrustful conservative supporters fear that a nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions will weaken the power structure. If the Rouhani negotiations lead to improvement in Iran’s economy and its standing in the world, the gains could increase his constituency. The conservatives believe this would increase the pressure for implementing other political reforms.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a regional struggle, a Sunni-Shia religious rivalry. Saudi Arabia is not greatly interested in seeing Iran get out from under sanctions or improve its global relationships. The Saudis are worried that the long standing oil relationship with the U.S. is fraying. American shale oil production is increasing, the U.S. could overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2015. The change could upset the arrangement where the Gulf Arab oil producers ensure stability in the oil market while the U.S. provides military security.
In Syria, the war grinds on. About 25% of Syria’s population has become refugees in surrounding countries. With no end to the fighting in sight, the influx of refugees has strained local and international donor resources to the breaking point. Egypt has lost control of large parts of Sinai since the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011. The extremist activity has continued since the ouster of Morsi in July 2013, terrorist groups are targeting security forces and infrastructure. They have the cooperation of many of the 80,000 local Bedouin who harbor grievances against the Cairo government due to marginalization and lack of economic opportunity.
Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, artistic expression has expanded. Arab youth are turning to graffiti, art, theater, poetry, rap, film and multimedia to express their frustration and highlight problems faced by their societies. If the growing arts scene can create jobs and keep the bored, unemployed young people busy, some analysts believe the arts could serve as a bulwark against religious extremism.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks mediated by Secretary of State Kerry for 14 months are near the point of collapse. As with past peacemaking attempts, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are blaming each other for the breakdown. The failure to reach an agreement calls into question the feasibility of trying to reach a two state solution.