This week we had another series of news items reminding us of te centenary of yet another WW1 battle—this time the Amiens offensive when the Allies finally had success in breaching German lines on the Western Front and rolling them back an appreciable distance. While I would be first to acknowledge the courage, hardship and sacrifice involved, the manner of reporting made me uneasy. For a start, it was superficial: no mention of numbers involved or casualties, of devastating artillery barrages, of overwhelming tanks and aircraft deployed, of depleted armies, of fraying national morale. “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” is a mantra to live by, but there was precious little by way of lessons in the news reports.
Within four months, we will be celebrating the centenary of the Armistice, at which the British Empire grew to its greatest extent ever. Except it wasn’t the end of the war. The revolution rolled on in Russia and Britain sent troops to help the Whites; the Turks fought a bloody war with the Greeks around the Aegean; the victorious Russian Reds lost a war to the Poles; defeated Germany was made so poor by reparations that chaos and the weak Weimar Republic set the stage for Hitler and World War, Part II.
Thankfully, we have managed to avoid WWlll (so far) because most agree it would be the end of civilization, of not life on this planet. But if news coverage of WWl centenaries are anything to go by, we have not learned much.
From ancient times through the Middle Ages, warfare was commonplace. Each group/tribe/city state would develop bny forcing its will om (and plundering the goods of) its neighbours. There was no law but that enforced at spear-point. That changed with the development of the nation state. China, the Moghuls, Incas and Zulus all made stabs at this but Europe developed this furthest by the 18th century. Political stability and economic growth within each state led to competition and oftrn large-scale, sustained warfare between nations for global supremacy. The global Franco-British colonial wars of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars can be seen as precursors of WWl & ll.
But, just as the writ of law being extended throughout a country ended internecine strife and forged nation states, so the writ of international law (and the threat of nuclear Armageddon) has forged a global community of some 200 nation states, living in comparative peace with each other.
The question is, how illusory is this? In theory, disputes are taken to the United Nations for resolution. But the truth is that its writ is weak and little respected. Those with clout (Russia in Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria; USA in Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan; China in Tibet, Paracels) regularly ignore the UN when it suits. And while nation states continue to coalesce (exceptions like Sudan notwithstanding) an the same be said for out global family of nations?
What brought nation states together was a common culture, identity, language, leadership and—dare to say it—a common threat, usually another nation seen as a threat. Germans feared the Russians; Russians feared the Mongols; Danes feared the Swedes; English feared the French; Scots feared the English; Poles feared everyone.
So will it take a Wellsian invasion of tripos aliens wielding death rays to make us all get along? Because the runes are not good. Most citizens have poor insight into neighbouring countries, let alone those with a different alphabet on the other side of the globe. Brush-fire conflicts break out erratically (Saudi Arabia invades Yemen; India eyeballs Pakistan; Venezuela eyeballs Colombia; ISIS shifts from Iraq to the Sahel). Western democracies are plagued by having to play to inward-looking electorates. REak nuschief-makers like Putin have a much freer hand.
Perhaps the best catalyst for global harmony in the 21st century the way nation-states fostered national harmony in the 18th and 19th, is some form of disaster that affects everyone and that everyone will have to combat jointly to solve. The best candidate for that is global warming. Sea levels are rising and only rare countries like Nepal and Liechtenstein can shrug ‘so what?’ Iy may take losing the Seychelles, Bangladesh and half of the Netherlands before everyone takes it seriously.
But, bad though it may become before we reverse it, it’s better than WWlll.