Is World War III on our doorstep?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic

A discussion of the similarities between the geopolitical situation just before the Great War and the one at present.

Submitted: July 21, 2018

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Submitted: July 21, 2018



Is World War III on our doorstep?

The first half of the previous century brought the world two global wars. Immediately after those wars, the parties involved stated: “Never again.” Consequently, the major powers in the world could restrict themselves to becoming embroiled in a number of localized conflicts, some of which lasted for decades. World peace is a phrase people love to use around Christmas when they are in a convivial mood. Yet, everyone knows it is a Utopian idea, which simply doesn’t seem to suit mankind. As a species we love conflicts. Just watch television for a week, or have a look at what kind of films can be seen in the cinemas.

On regular intervals, wars flare up around the world, but so far, a third global conflict has been avoided for more than 70 odd years. That seems to be quite a feat, for our belligerent species. Consequently, large numbers of people get lulled into a false sense of security. False, because if you look at human history, all kinds of human phenomena occur in cycles. Those cycles are not as periodically fixed as our calendars, but regularity is an established characteristic. Wars, economic bloom or its opposite, the economic crisis, the plagues that decimate the world’s population and a number of other phenomena come and go and reappear again. But a world war has only occurred twice. So that must have been an unfortunate fluke.  Not if you take a look at what the global circumstances were when those wars broke out.


Setting the stage

In the 19th century, the western world changed considerably. At the beginning of the century Russia was a backwater of Europe at best, the U.S.A. was a developing country, and only in the second half of the century, Germany became a country, instead of being a loosely connected group of relatively independent states. France and Great Britain were the European superpowers at the time, and they fought one another fiercely. At the end of the century the European circumstances had changed. Industrialisation had brought wealth and economic power to most European countries; Russia being the exception. Now it is important to take a look at the two different levels on which the economies involved prospered.


On a national level a country may prosper economically, but on an individual level, the distribution of wealth as it was generated by the economic growth was completely lopsided. There were distinct classes of affluent people and people of no means whatsoever. This led to widespread feelings of discontent, which caused social unrest. One of the phenomena involved was the migration from rural areas to the urban centres. A move that consequently led to overpopulation and in many individual cases to poverty. It was the perfect social climate for new political doctrines to arise. Two of the best known being Communism as it was devised by Marx and Engels, and Anarchism as it was propagated by people like Bachunin. In essence, it led to the polarization between the haves and the have nots, and between the powerful and those without any influence whatsoever. In a nutshell, you could live in a relatively successful country, but you were dirt poor and you had nothing to say about it. This made the 19th century into an era in which revolutionary thoughts blossomed. For argument’s sake it is important to keep this in mind.


The first global conflict

The Great War was fought for a number of reasons, but the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was not the true reason, it was just the signal for opening hostilities at that particular point in time, instead of slightly later. The conflict about Alsace Lorraine between Germany and France was one of the real reasons, but also the fact that Germany wanted to have the industrially valuable coalfields in the North of France played a role. There were also problems between Germany and Great Britain. Germany wanted to have more influence in Africa, and it wanted to have the largest fleet in the world to back up claims in Africa with a powerful navy. A course which immediately led to tension with Great Britain, at that point in time the biggest naval power in the world. On the Balkans, Austria-Hungary struggled with nationalist tendencies in its partly Slavic empire. Tendencies that were backed by Russia. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it took just one incident to bring things to the boil in a matter of weeks. It is important to realize that all the common people who went to war didn’t mind doing so. Simply because they had been subject to the propaganda machines that had instilled feelings of nationalism in them. Making your population think about us and them, is a sure way of steering people away of starting revolutions in your own country. Thus the stage was set for war, and once out of their dressing rooms, the players wouldn’t retreat to them again. Five years later, the negotiations in Versailles made sure that a breeding ground for further feelings of nationalism was established in Germany. The following rise of the Nazis in Germany, Austria, and the popularity of the fascists in Italy and Spain were logical, and led to the Second World War, or should one say, it led to reopening hostilities again. In a way, World Wars I and II can be seen as one conflict, a bit like the football match with a short break at half time in which the teams changed a number of their star players. To many people who view the Second World War as a completely new conflict, the rise of fascism and the ensuing horror of the holocaust are usually seen proof of a new conflict, but when taking a closer look at the actual politics behind the two wars, in which influence on the world’s political stage, the renewed rise of nationalism, economic expansion, and the wish to create what the Nazis called Lebensraum (room to live), it must be clear that the same political themes from before the Great War were still at play. Moreover, the negative sentiments connected to failing to achieve all this in the first conflict, fuelled the willingness to pick up the conflict again within twenty-one years. Germany’s realization that the old enemies had grown a lot weaker during the interbellum, made sure that reopening the conflict was a far less risky affair than starting the war in 1914. A fact that was confirmed by the unwillingness of the Allied Nations to do anything about the expansion of the German Reich that started before the invasion of Poland.


The stage at present

Compared to the first four decades of the 20th century, the world is a completely different place. There has been some sort of stability during the years of the cold war. The west and the communist countries tried to establish dominance over a world that was divided along very clear cut economic and political lines. Looking back at the period, it is sometimes even difficult to grasp why the superpowers were worried about what went on in the world. The skirmishes were found at the periphery of the realms of influence, such as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and occasionally in minor conflicts in Africa, all of them bloody affairs for those involved, but mainly localized clashes of political ideas. Just as the conflict in the Middle-East involving the State of Israel and the Palestinians, has been a local conflict, in which the super-powers backed up different sides.

The military situation.

Taking a closer look at the military situation, the present day world has changed dramatically since World War II.  Most conflicts that are fought can be characterized by relatively small conflicts. There are localized fronts, and actual combat takes place between relatively small numbers of soldiers, using tactics learnt from the lessons of guerrilla warfare, with some developments caused by the advance of technology thrown in.  Warfare as we have seen it in the trenches of The Great War, the beaches of Normandy, the hills of Korea, has become old fashioned, ineffective and obsolete.


One thing that is completely incomparable between the present and the first decades of the 20th century is the fact that part of the military balance can be assigned to the possession of nuclear arms. The simple fact that nuclear arms are available to the major players in the political arena has a stabilizing effect. It is not far-fetched to argue that the nuclear arms race has actually brought the world stability. It may be based on wanting to prevent the horrific consequence of global annihilation, but so far, it has worked.


The role of culture and religion

When inspecting the current political situation, it is important to understand that politics are driven by economic goals of and cultural longings of people and nations, in many cases a volatile mix of motives.  When talking about the cultural longings of people, it is quite obvious that folklore and customs play an important role. They are the first aspects of culture one can recognize. Yet, there is a far more important aspect that belongs to the field of culture, that causes a lot of conflict in the modern world, and that’s religion. Let’s have a closer look.


It is very easy to link religion to modern terrorism. At the moment most terrorist attacks are linked to extremist Muslim groups. This observation does not claim that all Muslims are terrorists, who want to wipe out Christianity, Judaism or atheism. As a matter of fact, if taking a closer look at the real situation, there are more Muslim people who fall victim to terrorist attacks by other groups of Muslims, than any other people. The real problem being fundamentalism within specific Muslim groups. Inevitably, it leads to social unrest and even war in Muslim countries, the Isis Caliphate and the conflicts in Iran and Iraq being the perfect examples. Also the problems arising from what is now known as the Arabic Spring are developing along the lines of religious differences within the countries involved.


The true basis of the unrest lies in people’s wishes to have a clear-cut identity; we are true …. The blank can be filled in almost any way as one likes, just pick a religious group, a tribal one or nationality.  It is the story of us and them all over again. This also plays an important role when looking at other cultural phenomena.


Perhaps the most important change taking place right now is the creation of what is known as the global village. The technological development has caused the shrinking of the world as we know it. We can learn about the things happening in the world within minutes of them taking place. In itself that’s a positive development, because it means people get informed very quickly.  But there is also a more sinister side to this development, a side which most westerners don’t even think about. Remember that folklore and customs are parts of the cultural make-up of a people. By shrinking the world to a global village, people get exposed to ways of living which are completely foreign to them. This can have positive influences, it can cause the desire to live like that other group portrayed by the world media, or it can cause resentment; causing people to think, that’s not the way we want to do things. In a way, people around the world may question more and more if this is the village they want to live in, and in line with this question, who is going to lay down the ground rules for the way the village gets run?

Now it becomes important to look at economical influence.  The world economy gets driven by a number of multinational companies, in which the companies based in western countries were dominant, the world of finance being a good example. It is true that the leading western country is the U.S.A., simply because the American companies are active all around the globe. Coca Cola, The Walt Disney Company, and McDonald’s being the names everyone can think of. A famous expression for this phenomenon is the Americanization of the World. In essence it is a shift towards a culture in which the world portrayed in the media, entertainment such as soap operas and films gradually becomes part of the other cultures. That is where problems arise. There are always people who find this intrusion of their culture unacceptable. What can be seen in a lot of Muslim countries is that the values portrayed in the global village don’t match the cultural needs of large groups of people, thus causing conflict between them and the other people who don’t care about those things, often even the ones living within the borders of their own countries. Consequently, social unrest increases again, causing some people to become fundamentalists, because they would like to cling to the old values, which seem more acceptable to them. Again, this adds to the idea about the world consisting of us and them, whoever they may be.


Also when thinking about the economic situation on a world scale, something worrying is going on. The western countries used to be the economically dominant countries, but since the collapse of communism as a viable economic system, things have changed dramatically. After World War Two, the west, with the U.S.A. leading, have tried to instigate developing countries to become more like Western Europa and the U.S.A., especially politically and economically, making capitalist competition as the principal concept underlying their economies. In the last couple of decades, this approach proved to be successful. Communism as an economic system failed, so that even Communist China now has an economy largely based on Western Economic Principles. Unfortunately for western countries, this success meant that most industries have moved their production of goods to those new economically vibrant countries, often countries in Asia where labour is rather cheap, and that those countries developed their own industries along the lines of the former western industries, thus competing western companies out of a number of markets, and causing unemployment figures to rise in the formerly extremely successful western countries. When looking at populations in western countries, it is clear that there is a growing number of people who would like to reinstate some form of economic protectionism; slogans like “Buy British” and “Buy American” and “Let’s make America Great Again”, to name but a few, are heard over and over again. In addition to the fact that immigration is putting strain on the older economies, it causes nationalist feelings to be on the increase, thus creating undesirable collision courses with the rising economies. The perfect example being the trade war that is slowly developing between the USA and China. This situation puts unnecessary strain on the international political situation. Consequently, the call for taking into account the fact that there is us and them, may feed the willingness of people backing up their political leaders, to regard the opposing side as a threat that has to be dealt with swiftly and thoroughly.  This looks an awful lot like the situation as it developed at the beginning of the twentieth century.


In conclusion


When comparing the situations before the two world wars to the current socio-political situation in our world, parallels can be found. There is more social unrest, cultural tension, and economic pressure on existing power blocks, than in the first decades after World War Two. There is also a rise in fundamentalism, in this respect it can be argued that nationalism is a form of fundamentalism based on national identities, a phenomenon also seen in the decades leading up to The Great War and World War Two. In addition, there is a dramatic shift going on in economic power, which makes it hard for the older economic powers to cling to their former markets, comparable to the economic shifts going on before the first global conflicts. All this in combination with the fact that history has a tendency to repeat itself in cycles, can lead to the assumption that the world is slowly moving towards a new global conflict, although forecasting at what particular point in time this is going to happen, is simply impossible. Unfortunately, the current, egotism found amongst the world leaders that dominate the news closely resembles the egotism of the leaders at the beginning of the Great War; giving rise to a sense of alarm that global war may be lurking around the corner again.

© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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