The week, almost a hundred years ago to the day (June 28, 1914) Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was felled by a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo, thus setting in motion an inexorable chain of events that led to the outbreak of the Great War. It was a war that none of its leaders really wanted, driven more by miscalculation, ineptitude, and sheer stupidity than lofty, imperial ambition. But it was a war that would turn out to be enormously costly in terms of lives and treasure. By some estimates more than 10,000,000 lives were lost on the battlefield and in civilian casualties. And millions more died because of disease and famine.
It would take another 75 years for Europe to settle its boundaries and secure a more permanent peace. And that would only come with the end of the brutal ethnic wars in the Balkans and the Belavezha Accords, which recognized the right to independence of the former republics of the Soviet Union and respect for their territorial integrity.
Europe has learned through centuries of bitter experience that contested boundaries are the source of much bloodshed, pain and suffering. It is far better to live within the lines that have been drawn regardless of their faulty logic than to try to reopen old wounds.
In the words of Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt in a major address he delivered a few days ago in Berlin, “to open up those cases, and invite others, is to open up for the blood to start flowing again…the principle of respecting existing borders was laid down as one of the key foundations of peace in our Europe. And it has been adhered to up until March of this year.”
Mr. Bildt, who is a leading candidate to succeed the rather lackluster Catherine Ashton as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, counseled his audience that “the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the dismemberment of the internationally recognized state of Ukraine that followed with the annexation of Crimea, wasn’t just a smash-and-grab operation of limited importance and relevance. It was a fundamental violation of the core principles of the security of Europe.”
He also expressed his profound frustration that “there seem to be a number of countries around the world ready to look the other way and avoid taking a clear stand on the issue.”
He pointed out that Russia’s land grab in Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. “Instead of the principles we had all agreed on, one country is now trying to return to spheres of interest with limited sovereignty for some and limitless rights for others – a world where might is right, and where the law does not apply equally to all”.
Regardless of the flawed logic of the colonial powers that lay behind the drawing of Syria’s or Iraq’s boundaries, to redraw those lines now will only lead to a further escalation of conflict and even greater bloodshed.
In East Asia, there are looming dangers too as China asserts its territorial claims against Japan and its smaller regional neighbors who border the South China Sea.
Alas, the leaders of the Western world – save for a few like Mr. Bildt – are doing little to stand up to these developments or, more importantly, in Mr. Bildt’s words, “to stand together.” U.S. President Barack Obama has tumbled from “leading from behind” to not leading at all.
The American public is understandably wary of involvement in sectarian and other violent struggles that do not appear to strike directly at U.S. interests, whether in Ukraine or Iraq, and especially given the paucity of dividends from the sacrifice of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Americans also wonder why America’s influence is shrinking in a world that they see as spinning out of control and are focusing the blame increasingly on their President.
There are no easy choices for the beleaguered President, nor are there any ready solutions at hand. Hard-headed realists suggest that strife in the Middle East and Ukraine will take its own course regardless of what exhortations emerge from Washington.
The reality on the ground will ultimately assert itself and America and its erstwhile allies will have to deal with the consequences. What is clear is that deeper military engagement or stronger economic sanctions are not part of the equation.
Unilateralism is now in the ascendancy, including most particularly in Washington. Alliance solidarity, notably in NATO, is in retreat as each nation looks more to its own economic interests (not jeopardizing energy supplies from Russia) and turns a blind eye to security threats elsewhere. Punitive fines against European banks exacerbate matters further and render any notion of a Transatlantic trade pact moot for some time to come.
The sleep walking mania many saw as the precursor for war in 1914 finds new currency in events 100 years later.
The moral imperative, often the rudder for U.S. foreign policy, is in retreat just as many of the values on which it was based are being diluted at home. History may not repeat itself, but the world today looks a lot like the early summer of 1914.