George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” President Obama has managed to put his own twist one that aphorism: those who learn the wrong lessons from history screw everything up.
One of the worst wrong lessons Obama clings to what I call the “Oops Theory” of World War I. In short, this theory lays the blame for the war on the failure of the main combatants to communicate their intentions and thus stumbling into way. This view was popularized by stories and TV movies about the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy, citing his recent reading of historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, obsessed over the danger of miscommunication leading to a violent incident and a possible spiral to war. This theory has taken hold in the popular culture and is considered fact in the media.
Obama has taken to this theory with notable zeal, spending long hours conversing with Vladimir Putin to no effect. His administration talked with Mohammed Morsi in Egypt about building a peaceful, pluralistic democracy, yet Morisi did his best to implement an authoritarian, sectarian state until he was deposed by the military (with much popular support at the time). Over and over Obama clings to the idea that talk therapy can be the foundation for international relations. And this is based, at least in part, on the “Oops Theory.”
There is a problem, however, with the “Oops Theory.” It’s completely wrong.
World War I was no accident. In fact, it was eagerly anticipated by a majority of the combatants. Recent works by a diverse set of authors generally agree on four important points that significantly contributed to the start of World War I, each of which has relevance today:
Words were worthless: The flurry of peace offers that preceded the hostilities was just propaganda. The rhetoric was crafted to make the respective national leaders appear they were looking for peace, when, in fact, the rhetoric was truly intended to portray their enemies as on the attack. This perception of one’s nation as the victim was critical to rally domestic support. It is much easier to rally domestic opinion in the face of attack, rather than to be an opportunistic aggressor. The belligerents talked peace in public, but pursued what they perceived their national interest to be.
Faced with domestic problems, the authoritarian governments sought to unite their publics against foreign enemies: While the apportionment of blame remains controversial, the immediate fault of World War I did lie with Austria, Russia, and Germany. Each of these nations was dealing with domestic strife that the political leadership felt could be solved by war. War was intended to delegitimize internal opposition and allow the incumbent leadership to crush dissent.
Lack of democracy made conflict more likely: Historian Niall Ferguson makes a persuasive case that the public was rather opposed to the coming conflict. Austria, Russia and Germany provided no opportunity for the preference for peace to result in political expression as their limited democratic institutions (non-existent for Russia) possessed no influence over defense or foreign policy. The decision for way was made by small cliques within the military and diplomatic corps. The democracies who became embroiled in the conflict, France and Britain, were experiencing severe domestic difficulties, but neither sought war. France may have willingly drifted into the war, but Britain was certainly reluctant. Neither pursued war like the authoritarian nations.
Insecurity bred conflict: Feelings of insecurity nearing a state of paranoia gripped Austria and Germany in the run-up to World War I. Both nations believed that their geopolitical opponents were gaining in strength and that only war would prevent their ultimate destruction. Their militaries had warned repeatedly that the window of military advantage was closing. The crisis of 1914 was a convenient excuse to move before it was too late.