There is nothing new under the sun. Reflecting recently on the implications of the Spanish election results, Billmon at Whiskey Bar compared the Bush Administration's journey into unilateralism and the "War on Terror" with the descent of Kaiser Wilhelm's Imperial Germany into aggressive nationalism and, eventually, the Great War. It is a interesting exercise in historical perspective, and a salutory reminder that, adept as we are at flag-waving and shameless hubris, we have no monopoly on nationalistic bluster and its unintended consequences.
In Kaiser Wilhelm's Shadow describes how, under the guidance of Chancellor von Bismarck, the German Empire for thirty years used diplomacy and international alliances to avoid war and to safeguard its economic and industrial predominance. But with the accession to the throne of the inept and insecure Kaiser Wilhelm II, the most powerful nation in Europe was quickly reduced to an arrogant and intolerant militaristic regime, set on a course of aggressive military expansion, and carelessly alienating those who might have been allies.
By the end of the 19th century, German nationalism had taken an belligerent turn -- and tone. Gone was Bismark's emphasis on the "concert of powers." Wealthy industrialists and conservative ideologues egged their emperor on, demanding colonial expansion, naval expansion, and a more muscular diplomacy...The irony is that in their quest for national greatness Kaiser Wilhelm and his conservative claque only succeeded in frightening France, Russia and even England (Germany's ancient ally) into a rival coalition. This, in turn, aggrevated long-standing German fears of encirclement, which triggered an even more furious military expansion, which further alarmed the country's rivals. An almost perfect example of negative feedback, in other words, one which converted Europe into a powder keg.
Something similar may be happening now, although the danger for America isn't encirclement -- it's isolation. Ever since it emerged as a global superpower in World War II, the United States has taken great pains to surround itself with allies and embed itself in a framework of collective security arrangements -- the better to both leverage and legitimize its power. Since 9/11, however, the neocons and their masters (Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush) have attacked those same arrangements with a peculiar ferocity, apparently in the belief that America no longer needs, or can afford, to cloak its hegemony in the trappings of multilateralism. But with the meltdown in Spain, it appears to have finally dawned on many conservatives that America really might be alone, or fast heading that way -- and that this might not be such a good thing after all.
... [I]t seems impossible for conservatives to even consider, much less accept, that Bush's strategic blunders -- not French perfidy or Spanish appeasement -- have been the catalyst for a transatlantic crisis. Likewise, I'm sure that few if any German nationalists blamed Kaiser Wilhelm for the string of miscalculations that triggered the guns of August. By 1918, however, quite a few of them had changed their minds.
I think that the analogy between the unanticipated slide into world war in 1914, and our lumbering into a poorly-planned and ill-defined War on Terror today, is a valid one. But if Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany provides a good comparison for our current nationalistic mood and the quality of our leadership, it is the conduct of his Austro-Hungarian ally in August 1914 that provides the closest analogy to the Bush Administration's determination to go to war with Iraq. There is a striking similarity between George Bush's use of September 11, 2001 to further his own – not necessarily related - wider goals in the Mid East region, and Austria-Hungary’s use of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 as an excuse to launch a war on Serbia intended to sort out the Hapsburg Empire’s “Slav Problem” for once and for all.
Immediately after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, world opinion - including the rival powers of the Triple Entente - was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Austria-Hungary, and supportive of whatever measures the Empire might take to punish the assassins (Nous sommes tous americains). Despite the seriousness of the assassination, it was regarded as a crime by a small sub-national group (Bosnian Serbs then, Al Qaeda now), not an act of war by a nation. So there was at first no expectation in Europe that this Balkan crisis would lead to a general war, any more than did the Balkan crises of 1912/13, which had been settled by diplomatic contacts among the Great Powers.
But in 1914, there was a conscious decision not to proceed by international consensus (**** the UN and Old Europe!). Austria-Hungary's government, most vocally the Chief of the General Staff (von Hotzendorf) and Foreign Minister (von Berchtold - insert the name of your favorite PNAC'er here) saw the opportunity to exploit the incident as the provocation that would allow Austria-Hungary to launch a preventative war against Serbia (Iraq), removing the destabilising effect that an independent Slav kingdom (Arab regime that didn't toe the US line) exercised over the restive southern Slavs of the Empire, and asserting Hapsburg hegemony over the Balkans (US hegemony over the Mid East).
So the Austrian government publicly blamed the government of Serbia for the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, describing the assassination as a "well-organised plot whose threads extend to Belgrade" (we know there are ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda), and outlining impossible demands that Serbia had to comply with if it was to avoid war (Hey Saddam, prove you’ve destroyed nuclear weapons you haven’t got). In reality, even the official Austro-Hungarian enquiry into the assassination found no evidence of official Serbian involvement in the crime, but by continuing to maintain that Serbia was responsible, Austria-Hungary could justify going to war under the pretext that she was punishing the real murderers of the Archduke.
Except that wars never go to plan. What Austria-Hungary intended to be a short, sharp war in the Balkans to bring the uncivilized Slavs into line turned into a catastrophic world war that claimed 20 million lives, destroyed the old social order of all Europe, deposed three emperors, dismembered the German and Hapsburg empires, and ended in a Treaty of Versailles that contained within it the seeds of even greater disaster 20 years in the future. Almost 100 years after the event, European historians still look back on that one criminal act in Sarajevo and try to understand how exactly it led where it did. Let’s hope that our war of choice doesn’t do for us and the entire Middle East what Austria-Hungary’s war of choice did for the Hapsburg Empire, and for all of Europe.
Germans (and one infamous Austrian) celebrate going to war with Russia over a terror attack by Bosnian Serbs; Munich, August 1914.
Americans celebrate going to war with Iraq over a terror attack by Saudis; Chicago, March 2003.
Footnote: "the Schlieffen Plan". Germany had anticipated well before World War One that Austria's designs on Serbia might lead Germany into war with Serbia's allies, Russia and France. The Chief of the German General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, devised a plan in 1905 to defeat France and Russia in a short, decisive campaign that would prevent Germany having to make war on two fronts simultaneously. The Schlieffen Plan was based on four major assumptions about the likely progress of a war with France and Russia. When the plan was implemented in August 1914, all four assumptions proved to be false, and instead of enjoying a six-week campaign leading to decisive victory, Germany ended up in a four-year quagmire leading to eventual defeat.