It was a hundred years ago a month from now that the guns fell silent on the Western Front. For four long years millions of men and women had fought. Many millions had lost their life. Countries had been devastated. But now, finally, an armistice agreement came into force.
But it wasn’t peace.
The armistice did not cover the east of Europe, where fighting continued to rage for years in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Bolshevik revolution.
After the turmoil of its civil war, the Bolshevik armies advancing towards the heart of Europe were stopped at the crucial battle outside of Warsaw in August of 1920. Control over Kiev had by then changed hands 16 times since the end of 1918. Peace was reached between Poland and Russia only with the Treaty of Riga in 1921.
In the south-east – from Anatolia up into the Caucasus and down into Mesopotamia – turmoil continued. It was only with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that a new Turkey could appear. The Mosul issue wasn’t sorted out until 1924.
And it might of course be added that the different issues of the post-Ottoman area, from Bihac in the north-west to Basra in the southeast, haven’t left our agenda since then.
The peace treaty that was concluded in Versailles, and the subsequent treaties in St Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, and Sèvres were, taken together, the most ambitious ever concluded, and undoubtedly had their merits, but in the end did little to achieve long-term peace and stability.
Soon, Europe and the world was engulfed in another war.
The summer of 1914 had been the last summer of the era of Europe. As the guns started to roar in August, they marked not only the beginning of a truly devastating war, but also the beginning of the end of the brief era of Europe dominating the world.
Europe was the powder keg. The Balkans was just the fuse. The different manoeuvres of the preceding years had set up a viral diplomatic doomsday machine. It was a mad dash for disaster for Europe
And ever since, the question of why did this happen, how or what was responsible, and could it have been prevented has been hovering over our continent.
I don’t think there is any historical subject that so many books have been written about as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and I would also guess that the questions about what led Europe to the collective self-suicide that started in the summer of 1914 comes in second on this list.
There is, needless to say, no consensus on either of these subjects.
And the discussions and the disputes on these two issues revolves essentially around the same question: how can an order and a stability that has been achieved be preserved, and what can be done to prevent such a situation from decaying into division and destruction?
We have all heard the history. It all started in Sarajevo. The eternal powder keg of the Balkans. And it’s certainly true that there were rivalries, conflicts, and wars in south-east Europe – it was in those days often referred to as the Near East, during the decades leading up to the disaster. The Berlin conference of 1878 was only one of the attempts to keep things under control. And there had just been both the First Balkan War and then the Second Balkan War. The summer before there had been an acute crisis over control of the city of Scutari – today Skhoder in northern Albania – that had risked escalating into a wider conflict. A diplomatic conference in London averted disaster.
But it wasn’t the Balkans that was the powder keg. It was Europe that was – the Balkans and its different disputes was just the fuse that lit the explosion.
There certainly hadn’t been an absence of disputes and challenges of different sorts on the European scene since the Congress of Vienna had tried to put Europe back into some sort of shape after the French Revolution and the years of the Napoleonic wars. And there had even been wars. Look at the Brandenburger Tor or the Siegesäule.
But none had escalated into the sort of continent-wide catastrophes that Europe had seen with the Thirty Years War or the Napoleonic wars. The mechanisms put in place, and the principles agreed to in Vienna in 1815, had managed to control and contain the conflicts. Some sort of peace and stability had been preserved.
It was when this all started to deteriorate that war become a possibility again. Not one of these short and glorious ones – but one of these truly devastating ones.
The rise of the economic and military might of Germany, and the recklessness of its diplomacy in the post-Bismarck era, was clearly one factor that made the situation more difficult. The race between European powers in far-away areas in Africa and Asia added additional powder to the keg. And the rapid development of technology also created new conditions difficult to handle within the old frameworks. The discussion about mobilisation plans and railway schedules can serve as an illustration.
The rest, as they say, is history. Europe was the powder keg. The Balkans was just the fuse. The different manoeuvres of the preceding years had set up a viral diplomatic doomsday machine. It was a mad dash for disaster for Europe.
The Versailles treaty, and the League of Nations it set up, has been critiqued ever since. It has been described as a fragile compromise between American utopianism and European paranoia. It sought to set up a true system of global collective security at the same time as it redrew boundaries, set up states, and micromanaged conflicts after the demise of the Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian, and German empires.
But while the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars had been a century of relative stability and remarkable progress, Europe now entered a period of profound social upheaval and sharp ideological conflicts.
Peace failed, and a new and even more devastating war soon erupted.
While that war was still in its infancy the leaders of the United States – still only neutral – and the United Kingdom – having fought off the immediate threat in the battle over its skies – met in August 1941 off the coast of Newfoundland to chart the course for the world they would seek to build after the war that they then couldn’t even be certain of winning.
The Atlantic Charter that resulted from this meeting obviously sought to learn from the painful failures of Versailles, and in two crucial respects.
First: The desired world order should be inclusive, bring everyone around the table, notably all the powerful players, and instead of pressing down those defeated one should try to lift them up and have them join in the global endeavour of peace and prosperity.
Second: Economic, monetary, and trade issues should not be neglected, risking a new descent into the disorders of the Great Depression with all its consequences, but rather made part of the envisaged global order.
And there was also, of course, the remaining Wilsonian belief that a world made safe for democracy was a world secured from war. One saw a link between the internal order and the external behaviour of states. Regimes that didn’t respect the rights of its own citizens would in the end not respect the rights of its neighbours.
So we got the United Nations, we got the Bretton Woods institutions, and we got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A new effort to build a global system – taking into account the failures of the previous one.
But it didn’t turn into a world of harmony. The ambitions of Stalin soon become clear enough. What his Red armies controlled, his Communist satraps should rule. And his Chinese communist allies also took power in Beijing.
An Iron Curtain descended over Europe. A bamboo curtain descended around China.
The Western response came. The Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Alliance, and the Schumann Plan and all what followed in our part of the world. And a US system of security alliances also in east Asia.
This Western order, if I might call it that, proved eminently successful for half a century. The defeated countries were not only rebuilt, and became vibrant democracies, but Germany and Japan in a couple of decades developed into global economic powerhouses.
The democracies of Europe came together in an historically unique effort of shared sovereignty, bridging the dangerous divides of the past. And with its horrible logic, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction moderated the different confrontations, and prevented a war that certainly could have brought Europe back to the Stone Age.
The strategy of containing the Soviet communist system also worked. As the inhuman system finally crumbled and collapsed, primarily due to its own contradictions and failures, and China started to open up its economy and seek integration with the global economy, there was suddenly the historic possibility of extending this Western liberal order into a truly global liberal order.
The first world had succeeded. The second world had collapsed. And the third world started to integrate rapidly into the emerging liberal order. It was no longer democracy versus dictatorship – everyone talked democracy. It wasn’t rich versus poor – a huge new middle class started to emerge, from Sao Paulo to Shanghai.
In our Europe, ten nations and a hundred million people from the Gulf of Finland in the north down towards the Bosporus Strait in the south were able to join the European Union. The process of European integration had already cemented the peace in the west of our continent, and secured democracy in its south, but this, I believe, was still its finest hour.
And our economies started to develop rapidly. The global economy grew by 4 or so percent a year. Global trade grew by perhaps double that figure. And global financial flows by even higher figures. It was globalisation bringing prosperity. The World Trade Organisation was set up. China, and then Russia, joined.
There were certainly challenges and horrors – a decade of wars of Yugoslav dissolution, meltdowns in the Middle East, 9/11 and new terrorism – but the quarter of a century that followed is still likely to go down in history as the best for mankind in recorded history in terms of economic, social, and political development.
The big change that we are now trying to understand and digest is the change in the policies of the United States. Is this a temporary phenomenon, driven by a commanding and controversial personality, or are we seeing a more fundamental change?
Child mortality was cut in half. The number of absolute poor decreased dramatically. Democracies proliferated. And the number of people killed in conflicts went down radically.
That was then. But for a decade or so it has been obvious that things have changed. You can hear it in the political rhetoric of our Europe. A decade or so ago we could still talk about a Europe that projects – that could project its soft power, its multilateralism, and its stability onto its immediate neighbourhood as well as onto the world.
Now, instead, we hear about trying to build a Europe that protects from the turmoil of the outside world. It’s no longer us projecting stability towards the outside world – it is the outside world projecting instability onto us and our societies. The Europe that seeks to project has turned into the Europe that seek to protect. Our world has changed. We now have a revisionist Russia.
We now have an assertive China. We now have a disruptive United States. Perhaps a revisionist Russia was unavoidable. History teaches us that when Russia has the strength, and when opportunities arise, it seeks to expand. Throughout its history the country has invoked the myth of some vast foreign threat which over time has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy endangering the stability of Europe.
Setting limits on itself has never been a Russian strength – it has only accepted the limits imposed on it by the outside world. Containment did work. There is a lesson also for today in this. And that the phenomenal economic rise of China would over time produce a policy more nationalist and assertive in trying to shape its surrounding environment and gain advantages from other nations isn’t perhaps that surprising either. If its increasingly authoritarian regime endures – hard regimes can be brittle – this trend is likely to continue.
But the big change that we are now trying to understand and digest is the change in the policies of the United States. Is this a temporary phenomenon, driven by a commanding and controversial personality, or are we seeing a more fundamental change? And the fact that this happens at the same time as that other nation – the United Kingdom – behind the Atlantic Charter turns its back on the Europe it has been part of shaping for nearly the last half-century is of course particularly disturbing. The United Kingdom is turning its back on European integration, and the United States is turning its back on global governance.
When President Obama left office, he left a note to his successor saying that “It’s up to us, through example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”
But, realistically speaking, there had been signs of the United States no longer being prepared to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” – to use the famous words of President Kennedy’s inaugural address – to uphold the international order in its different aspects.
Indeed, when President Obama took office he declared that now it was time for “nation building at home” rather than the foreign wars and the foreign engagements that seemed to go on forever without either glory or resolution. The United States was beginning to be exhausted. It was time to retrench.
With President Trump this has turned from a reluctant attitude to an assertive ideology. The United States is leaving the one international agreement after the other, and is instead proclaiming a belief in a world of sovereign states fiercely competing with each other to assert their respective national interests.
“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination”, proclaimed President Trump in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict”, says the new National Security Strategy, and adds that “a central continuity in history is the contest for power”. Words like these don’t sound alien to the ears of Moscow and Beijing – a world guided by power rather than principle gives also them new opportunities – but words like these sound profoundly alarming to the ears of us Europeans. A world of fiercely competing sovereign states, hardly bound by any rules or any common order, is something that Europe has tried before in its history, and always with the same catastrophic result. For us, this does not sound like a recipe for peace. For us, it sounds like a recipe for war.
We live in a time when the tectonic plates of global power are shifting, when numerous global challenges are mounting, and when the urge for a world order should be on the rise instead of, as seems to be the case, in decline. There is a rise in the reality of interdependence between nations and continents – climate change, migration pressures, cyber rules to name just a few of the issues. But simultaneously there is also a rise in the rhetoric of sovereignty, between and to some extent also within our nations.
August 1914 was the catastrophe of Europe. The then UK foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey famously said, as he looked out over Horse Guards Parade in London, that: “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Unfortunately he was right, and it wasn’t really until early November 1989, when the wall that had divided this city, this nation, and this continent, came down that the lights could be lit up throughout all of our Europe again, and we could enter a period of profound optimism and remarkable progress all over the world.
Now the lights are undoubtedly dimming, and we have entered a period of uncertainty and fluidity in the global system. Europe has to discuss and decide where it wants to go.
We have built an order more on principles than on power in both the hope and then belief that this was the wave of the future for the world as a whole. But we now have to confront the reality that it might be the other way around in the years ahead.
Looking back on our experience during the century that has passed since 1918, and indeed on the century that preceded the catastrophe of 1914, I’m even more convinced of the necessity of that model of shared sovereignty and integration, of common rules and frameworks, that we step by step have developed in our part of the world.
It’s a model that is under threat from both the outside and from the inside, and it’s a model that’s also under strain from the different challenges we face. But for us the answer must not be in abandoning it, but rather to see to develop it further in partnership with other global actors with similar orientation. But we also have to recognise that this will not be enough. There is a limit to what preaching can be achieved. Power is a factor in global affairs that cannot be neglected. And in order not to sink into irrelevance, we must better pool the powers of the nation states in order to be able to assert the sovereignty of Europe whenever needed.
I believe this is important also in order to preserve a healthy relationship across the Atlantic. To just coerce into submission isn’t conducive to a healthy relationship. It’s when we are obligated to shape a partnership through dialogue and respect that we can make it stable and strong.
In this world of rising rivalries, of increasing state competition, our number one duty must be to prevent our Europe from becoming a new Balkans torn apart, divided, and thus unavoidably also increasingly dangerous.
In his most recent book on the search for world order, Henry Kissinger, the ultimate European in his approach to international relations, writes: “Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of global order. Chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence. Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?”
We need, in this year of remembering 1918, a European search for an answer to this challenge.
Federal Foreign Office, Berlin, 11 October 2018. Check against delivery.
Carl Bildt is the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.