July 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

Century-old lessons from Sarajevo

One hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, gunshots rang out near a bridge in Sarajevo, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A month later, the world found itself embroiled in a war that nobody had wanted.

     Understanding how one incident sparked the Great War offers important lessons for us today.

     The assassination at Sarajevo of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife was carried out by a Serb. Austria saw the incident as an opportunity to attack Serbia, its biggest enemy.

     By August, their conflict had spilled over to their allies, with Germany entering the war on the side of Austria and Russia supporting Serbia. Germany also declared war on France and went on to invade Belgium, leading Britain to declare war on Germany. In this way, a localized conflict on the Balkan Peninsula spread across all of Europe.

     "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman's book detailing the early stages of World War I, tells how countries were dragged into the Great War despite wanting to avoid it. 

     She describes how their leaders, shocked to find themselves on the brink of catastrophe, tried to turn back, but the tide of war pulled them irresistibly forward.

     No one assessed the unfolding events correctly simply because no one had believed such an outcome was possible. The common perception of the times was that the interdependence of European countries was so deep as to make war profitless.

The illusory illusion

The book that played the greatest role in fostering this view was "The Great Illusion," by English author Norman Angell. Translated into 11 languages, it became a worldwide best-seller. The Japanese translation, by social activist Isoo Abe, was published in 1912.

     Angell argued that the development of transportation led to a greater division of labor and interdependence among nations. As a result, political boundaries no longer reflected economic boundaries, and military strength had become irrelevant. With European economies tied so tightly together, the reasoning went, the idea that one country could become rich by waging war against another and capturing its territory was an illusion. This did not make war impossible, Angell said, but it did make it mutually destructive and thus pointless.

     However, that reasoning itself proved to be the "great illusion." The war was triggered by the archduke's assassination, an extraordinary event, but the real trouble came as each country disastrously misread the actions and intentions of the others. There were also structural factors. As the power of the hegemonic U.K. was declining and Germany's influence was expanding, the balance of power started to shift. Meanwhile, many governments used outside "enemies" to divert the public's attention from the domestic problems fueling their discontent.

     The world expected the "guns of August" would quickly be set aside. Shortly after the start of the war, the Chugai Shogyo Shimpo newspaper, the predecessor of The Nikkei, asked 55 political and business leaders how long they expected the war would last. Forty-five said it would end within a year, but this proved sadly optimistic, as the fighting dragged on for four years.

Avoiding catastrophe

World War I teaches us many things, but it is particularly important for us now to consider the implications of Sarajevo.

     The first point to be noted is that incidental clashes -- which could occur all too easily over the Senkaku Islands or in the air defense identification zones -- must be avoided. It is important for Japan to prepare to deal with "gray zone" contingencies, those that fall short of full-fledged military attacks and would not warrant responses from the Self-Defense Forces, but the nation must also put forth diplomatic efforts to avoid misreading another country's actions. Failure to do so invites catastrophe.

     The second point is the importance of the balance of power. The world must realize that the current balance is at risk as China's rise, coupled with the decline of U.S. influence, brings about a dangerous shift in global dynamics.

     The third point is how to deal with nationalism amid ongoing globalization. Every country faces simmering public discontent over social issues, such as income disparity, and some governments try to maintain power by channeling this discontent toward outside enemies. But nationalism is a volatile force and must not be allowed to run rampant in the interest of internal politics.

     Makoto Iokibe, former president of the National Defense Academy of Japan, derives the following lessons from the past 100 years:

  • World War I teaches us that we must avoid military clashes at all costs, as they can unexpectedly escalate beyond our control.
  • World War II teaches us that conciliatory policies must not be adopted toward a country that has grown dangerously ambitious and powerful, because doing so only gives that country impetus and creates an uncontrollable situation.
  • Countries that have grown stronger and more influential should be encouraged to restrain themselves through international cooperation, and relations with them should be developed through any nonmilitary means possible.

     History is unlikely to repeat itself, but only if we take to heart the lessons it offers.

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