Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The End of Europe’s Splendid Isolation

A personal favorite piece of early American wisdom, one that I first learned as a boy of ten and have never forgotten, is Thomas Jefferson’s injunction of “Peace and commerce with all nations- entangling alliances with none.” Of course, the world has never known a simple order of “peace and commerce,” nor have nations ever, in all of history, managed to avoid “entangling alliances”. To expect any country, big or small, to be able to conduct its foreign policy without partnerships of some sort is quite unrealistic. Unless you’re Switzerland, which has a very unique geography and history, sooner or later any country is bound to get caught in the snares of international politics whether they want to or not.

In my last post, I discussed how many scholars and practitioners of foreign policy and international relations have become burdened with the task of making sense of the “new” world we live in. It has become somewhat vogue to draw parallels with the state of affairs in 2014 with those of 1914. Of course there are indeed many similarities, and anyone familiar with my writing knows that I am a major advocate of using history as a guiding light for modern issues. But I accept the use of history as a compass only up to a point.

Nevertheless, if there is one lesson we can definitively draw from, it’s that no matter how hard a nation or polity tries to prevent itself from being ensnared in the tangles of international politics, sooner or later (again, unless you’re Switzerland), you are bound to get caught up in the throes of international politics. America’s founders had a vision for a quiet and peaceful United States, and aside from some foreign adventures the US managed to pursue a relatively isolationist policy on the global stage. That definitively came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War. Now it seems that the new Europe of the post Cold-War era, which seemed to be enjoying an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity and stability, is once again being dragged out of its blissful aloofness from the troubles of the chaotic global order.

Pope Francis recently warned of the beginning of a “piecemeal” World War III, which he believes has already begun, given all of the localized conflicts that have spread around the world. While I appreciate the pontiff’s calling out the horrendous situation developing across the world, the parallels between 2014 and 1914 are far from a perfect facsimile. Some scholars have pointed out the relatively isolated and (numerically-speaking, in terms of costs and casualties) low-calorie conflicts that have emerged across the world, which were the impetus for the Pope’s statement. Nevertheless, the international political landscape as a whole bears marked contrasts, along with some similarities, to the way it looked a century ago.

In brief, the First World War was essentially started because the rivalries between several great powers became entangled in a set of geopolitical alliances. All it took was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a street in Sarajevo, and soon colonial troops as far-flung as the Namib Desert in Southern Africa and some of the lesser islands in the Pacific were fighting each other in the name of distant European imperial metropolitans. True, the assassination was one isolated event that took place in some “silly place called the Balkans” (as one leading German public figure of the time predicted where a war in Europe would start). But it seems unlikely now that a true “world war” will emerge due to one incident or even one conflict.

The Second World War--again, in an incredibly simplistic overview given the scope of this blog post--was started in many ways due to unresolved issues from the first war. Again, that’s a great over-simplification, but for our purposes it will have to do. One thing that distinguished the first and second wars from each other was that in the first, empires had already been more-or-less established. The second war involved a greater amount of imperial expansionism--Germany’s Lebensraum and Japan’s thirst for more land and resources to satisfy national glory and an increasing industrial base.

Today, Twitter memes of Putin and the streets of Aleppo have replaced the Punch magazine caricatures from Edwardian England featuring “Kaiser Bill” (which are quite funny, by the way). The US and Russia have also continued to jockey for power, particularly in East Asia to assert their own strategic positions and, in the case of the US, to contain China. Yet the political and social landscape of today is vastly different from that of yesteryear. The throngs of young men responding to the Lord Kitchener posters, lying about their age and desperate to get into the “good fight” are nowhere to be seen, and instead we in the West have developed little appetite for any more war. Nowhere is this more apparent than our retreat from the Middle East, followed by a much less conspicuous return in the form of airstrikes against IS, and in NATO’s highly-cautious treatment of the situation in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, one thing that we can certainly draw a parallel between is the Britain of the early 20th century and the Europe of the early 21st. Britain’s foreign policy through much of the 19th century was described by the phrase “splendid isolation,” meaning that, aside from the Indian Mutiny or the odd war with the Boers or Zulus in Southern Africa, Britain was able to escape from the majority of bloody conflicts that has beleaguered the other great European powers throughout much of the century.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Britain found she could no longer remain free from the snares of continental security and balance-of-power politics. Indeed, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm even stated his desire to end Britain’s “free ride on the coattails” of other European powers. Today we see a similar situation unfolding, in which Europe is no longer able to depend exclusively on the United States for its security.  In Of Paradise and Power, Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan likens modern Europe to a retirement home, which essentially farms out its security to the United States.

Of course, some European powers have begun “pulling their weight” by intervening in the crises in Libya and the Sahel regions. But now the combination of preparing NATO to defend against further Russian aggression on the continent along with more coalition-style intervention by European powers against the Islamic State shows that there is a greater universality to the nature of Europe’s security complex.

While I don’t think we are “reliving 1914” or on the cusp of “World War Three” as many have postulated, I do think we can agree that the era of Europe’s relatively comfortable position and freedom from security threats is over. Perhaps we will see the rise of a Europe once again that is more willing to take up arms. While many had hoped that after such a blood-soaked history on the European continent, Europe would finally come to enjoy a measure of peace. But it seems Europe will have no such privileged position. True peace in international relations, it seems, can only be temporary.

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