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Did destruction and upheaval of WWI pave way for Ukraine, Mideast conflicts?

August 6, 2014 at 6:43 PM EST
The collision and shattering of world powers during World War I have laid the foundation for wars being waged today. For analysis of the war’s footprints, Jeffrey Brown is joined by Margaret MacMillan of University of Oxford, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Jack Beatty, the author of "The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: From then to now, we turn to three people who have studied and written extensively on the war.

Margaret MacMillan the author of “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.” She’s a professor of international history at Oxford University. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is author of “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.” And Jack Beatty’s book on the war is “The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began.” A former editor for “The Atlantic,” he’s now a news analyst for the NPR program “On Point.”

Well, welcome to you all.

Margaret MacMillan, it’s a very big question, but I want to put it on the table right now. How is the world we live in today most shaped or influenced by World War I?

MARGARET MACMILLAN, University of Oxford: What World War I does is begin to destroy European power. Europe starts its slide to being a much less important part of the world.

The United States’ rise to a great power is accelerated. And of course what the First World War does is leave behind it a legacy of violence, bitterness, radical politics, ethnic politics which is going to go on playing out through the 20th century and indeed into the 21st century.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Mearsheimer, how would you answer that, especially looking at today’s headlines about the Middle East and about Ukraine and Russia and so on?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: Well, I would make two points.

First of all, it is the first time that the United States engages in a major war outside of the Western Hemisphere. And, therefore, it represents the first time the United States begins to act as the world policemen, a policy that it continues to pursue today.

Secondly, it’s very important to understand that, as a result of the war, three big empires, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Ottoman Empire, all collapsed. And the end result is you got the map of the Middle East that pretty much exists today after World War I.

And you also got a change, a fundamental change in the map of Europe, where you have got all these states that didn’t exist before World War I created after World War I, countries like Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and so forth and so on. And that has had a major consequence on European politics ever since then.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jack Beatty, same question, but framing it a little differently, just to think in terms of some of the themes we just heard about, the catalyst for the nation-state, for nationalism, for industrialization of war, certainly, after World War I.

JACK BEATTY, Author, “The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began”: Yes, indeed, the mechanization of war.

But there is a sort of cultural or psychological legacy that Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died recently, nearly age 100, commented on. He said that the legacy of the war was barbarism, that people of his parents’ generation, people who grew to maturity before 1914, couldn’t imagine the horrors that were to come, that there were limits to what you could expect nations to do to one another.

Now, of course, the nations had been doing terrible things to people in the tropics, and they had been doing — the Battle of Omdurman, for example, in a few hours, 10,000 Dervishes were mowed down by British Maxim guns. The line went, thank God that we have the Maxim gun and they have not.

So, people in the Third World, as we would call it, felt this kind of barbarism or mass violence. But it was only after the Great War that that barbarism became a permanent fixture in warfare between nations and between — especially between European nations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret MacMillan, when you look at, well, the rise of the modern concept of the nation-state, these things that are — remain so problematic, to what extent was that all there in the aftermath of World War I? To what extent was it there from the beginning?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Well, it was there even before the war.

The idea that you should have a state based on a particular ethnicity, a nation-state, was already there. But what the First World War did, as John Mearsheimer said, was make it much more possible, because it destroyed the old empires which had kept these different nationalities inside one border. And so you have got a series of ethnically based states which sadly contained large minorities. And so it was an absolute formula for disaster.

And we’re still seeing it happening in the Middle East today, as Iraq gets torn apart by this growing nationalization of different ethnicities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, Margaret MacMillan, I was seeing that it’s still with us even in Europe. I was just reading today about coming elections in Catalonia. Of course, you have elections in Scotland. These issues are still very much with us.

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Well, I think in a funny way it’s almost a reaction to globalization, because I think as the world gets more interconnected, people cling to smaller identities. It’s a sort of home and it’s a sort of safety.

I agree. Scotland has a strong nationalist movement, Catalonia, of course, and you see it further east in Europe. In the Balkans, you still have very strong national identities. You have trouble now still between Hungarians and their neighbors because of Hungarians living outside Hungary. And so, no, we certainly haven’t moved away from it yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Mearsheimer, when you’re thinking about great power situations today or the kind of global struggles we see today, are there lessons that you most look at from 100 years ago?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think there are two fundamental differences between Europe today and Europe in 1914.

I think the first is that, in 1914, you had one country, Germany, that was especially powerful, yet fearful. And I think that that Germany, imperial Germany, was the principal cause of the war. Today, you have no power in Europe, whether it’s Russia or Germany, that has the power to dominate Europe.

So there’s no one country that can cause a lot of trouble. The second big difference is the presence of nuclear weapons. I think it would be almost impossible today to have World War III that looked like either World War I or World War II in Europe or in Asia or any other place on the planet, simply because of the presence of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are major league forces for peace. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have a limited war. But, anyway, all of this is to say that I think the situation in Europe is much more stable today than it was before World War I, before World War II, or even during the Cold War.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, Jack Beatty, of course, globally, we still have superpower competition. We have the rise of China in Asia. What kind of lessons do you see from looking at the run-up to 1914?

JACK BEATTY: Well, I see what Graham Allison at Harvard has called the Thucydides trap looming as a potential over history, U.S.-Chinese relations.

The Thucydides trap refers to the book by Thucydides “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” in which he writes it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.

Well, change that around. It was the rise of Russia and the fear that this inspired in Germany in 1914 that made war inevitable. As you look through the German — what Germans of the period were saying, it was a feeling of now or never. Russia’s power will be irresistible in a few more years. It’s strategic railroads to the — its western borders will have been completed. Our whole strategy of a two-front war which counted on a lag in mobilization between Russia and Germany, that will be out the window. We won’t be able to stand for it. Let’s have a preventive war now.

Well, you say we would never have a preventive war in China. And yet, in 1990, Paul Wolfowitz, who was then an assistant secretary of defense, wrote a paper, made front-page news in The New York Times, saying that it should be the policy of the United States to prevent the rise of a rival power.

And, of course, the Bush doctrine of 2002, as it’s been called, essentially is a doctrine of preventive war. We will not wait for dangers to gather. We will prevent that from happening.

So we have been tempted at the level of our elites. And then there’s just — to talk about preventive war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret MacMillan, I just wonder, as a historian, do you like to make these direct analogies, or do you hear echoes? What’s useful for us to think about now?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: I think what is useful to think about is how we might formulate questions about the present by drawing on the past.

But I don’t think the situations a hundred years ago are the same as today. So many more things have happened. And, as John Mearsheimer points out, we now have nuclear weapons. I think we can learn that it is very important to understand your neighbors, to understand what it is that they’re worried about, to try and build bridges.

It’s very important to have international institutions. I wouldn’t agree completely with Jack Beatty, that I don’t think that things are inevitable in human history. I think if we accept that there are human factors, there are possibilities of making decisions, that nations on the rise don’t necessarily need to go to war with those comfortable hegemonic nations.

You could have argued that Britain was probably going to go to war with the United States in the 1890s because the United States was a threat to the British position in the new world. And it didn’t happen. The British and the Americans decided to manage that relationship. So, I think you can have a transition as one nation becomes more powerful and another nation becomes less powerful.

And I think we need to remember that. We need to remember that there are choices in history.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know what? On that, we’re going to continue that discussion. We will do that online. And I will invite the audience to join us there later on.

But, for now, Margaret MacMillan, Jack Beatty, and John Mearsheimer, thank you all so much.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: You’re welcome.

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Thank you.

JACK BEATTY: Thank you.