Fri, Jul 25, 2014 - Page 9 News List

WWI hundredth anniversary highlights continued waste of war

By Jeffrey Sachs

Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Yet, when we look around nowadays, we can’t help but wonder whether tragedy will be followed by yet more tragedy. Here we are at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I and we find ourselves surrounded by cascading violence, duplicity and cynicism of the very sort that brought the world to disaster in 1914, and the world regions involved then are involved again.

World War I began with a mindset, one based on the belief that military means could resolve pressing social and political issues in Central Europe. A century earlier, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had written that war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Enough politicians, in 1914, agreed.

Yet World War I proved Clausewitz tragically wrong for modern times. War in the industrial age is tragedy, disaster and devastation; it solves no political problems. War is a continuation not of politics, but of political failure.

WWI ended four imperial regimes: the Prussian (Hohenzollern) dynasty, the Russian (Romanov) dynasty, the Turkish (Ottoman) dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) dynasty. The war not only caused millions of deaths; it also left a legacy of revolution, state bankruptcy, protectionism and financial collapse that set the stage for Adolf Hitler’s rise, World War II and the Cold War.

WAR IS POLITICAL FAILURE

We are still reeling today. Territory that was once within the multi-ethnic, multi-state, multi-religious Ottoman Empire is again engulfed in conflict and war, stretching from Libya to Palestine-Israel, Syria and Iraq. The Balkan region remains sullen and politically divided, with Bosnia and Herzegovina unable to institute an effective central government and Serbia deeply jolted by the 1999 NATO bombing and the contentious independence of Kosovo in 2008, over its bitter opposition.

The former Russian Empire is in growing turmoil as well, a kind of delayed reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Russia attacking Ukraine and violence continuing to erupt in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. In East Asia, tensions between China and Japan — echoes of the previous century — are a growing danger.

As was the case a century ago, vain and ignorant leaders are pushing into battle without clear purpose or realistic prospects for resolution of the underlying political, economic, social, or ecological factors that are creating the tensions in the first place. The approach of too many governments is to shoot first, think later.

Take the US: Its basic strategy has been to send troops, drones, or bombers to any place that would threaten America’s access to oil, harbors Islamic fundamentalists, or otherwise creates problems — say, piracy off the coast of Somalia — for US interests. Hence, US troops, the CIA, or US-backed armies are engaged in fighting across a region stretching from the Sahel in West Africa, through Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

All of this military activity costs hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. But, rather than solving a single underlying problem, the chaos is growing, threatening an ever-widening war.

Russia is not handling itself any better. For a while, Russia backed international law, rightly complaining that the US and NATO were violating international law in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

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