Before the first trigger was pulled that assassinated the Arch Duke of Austria-Hungary on July 28th 1914, there had been no major conflict between major state powers since 1815. Okay, some of you may recall the Crimea War (1854-56) between Russia and England against the former’s quest for warm water port access into the Mediterranean, or maybe you are even familiar with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. There were countless other minor conflicts in the 1800s I assure you; however, these were but short-lived skirmishes. Just under the surface of these battles was a smoldering geopolitical chess game between European nations and their vie for greater power in controlling global trade, or at least emerge as global actors. No one expected to find themselves in a costly global war that would last for almost 5 years. Much like today, there are many developing countries competing with one another that are watching each other’s actions closely. In an uneasy atmosphere this could easily spiral into chaos by miscalculation.
We begin with the Berlin Conference of 1884. Germany, Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and other European powers assembled together in Berlin to formally agree on how to carve up the weaker indigenous regions in the world and divide it amongst themselves as colonies. This was meant to curve any hostilities between the powerful European neighbors. However obviously imperialistic and selfish in nature its goals may seem, at its time the conference perpetuated the necessary myth that each had a moral responsibility to “civilize” or “Christianize” the native peoples of Africa and else where in the world. There is no need to try too hard to find a similarity in America’s propaganda war to justify its military adventurism today. Much like Africa in the 19th century, there has been a scramble for resources in the Middle East and Central Asia since the late 20th and 21st centuries. America’s military adventurism and many military bases in this region were justified to “spread democracy.” Remember “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? There is always a moral need for a society to justify barbarism for selfish gain. Although this view is not mainstream, there is a wealth of literature that shows how military involvement after World War II has been mostly driven by strong business interests. When one takes a closer objective look at America’s actions, there still exists a tremendous desire by the rich and powerful to feed off the weak. Read John Perkin’s Economic Hitman or Noam Chomski’s Necessary Illusions.
The Pax Britannica in Decline
In the midst of European competition for markets and raw resources, there was a relative peace between each imperial empire. As the only truly worldwide imperial power, Great Britain was the sole superpower of its time. It quarreled with other states over colonies more than anyone else since its possessions were everywhere. Ironically this may have also been responsible to the relative peace. By virtue of its vast and advanced navy, Britain controlled a virtual monopoly over the world’s most profitable markets that would be foolish for any nation to challenge outright. The Pax Britannica continued to police the seas without serious challenge until it began to show signs of decline. The successful uprisings of Dutch Farmers in South Africa, called Boers, were very embarrassing for Britain in the ongoing Boer Wars of 1881,98-99. The onset of the worldwide economic recession and falling prices meant that by 1900 Great Britain was the only major nation without tariffs for protection and found itself questioning the old free trade dogmas as competition from Germany grew fiercer and more alarming. Some British businessmen were sure that Germany was a major rival. There were plenty of signs that in technology and method German industry was greatly superior to British. By this time, Germany had already surpassed Great Britain in economic output as well as production in coal and pig iron. Although London was still the undisputed center of global trade, gradually the old certainties of British dominance began to fade. Much like China today, Germany’s rapid rise, aggressive arms race and naval buildup have been seen as a direct challenge to the hegemon of its time. The shift in power prior to World War I created a dangerous and unstable environment. Tensions were running high as the throne for hegemony seemed up for grabs.
The Necessity of Market Expansion
The Industrial Revolution did much to change the economic atmosphere in the 1800s. As Britain was the first to develop industrialized factories, it easily surpassed its other European counter parts in wealth. Seeing the need to compete or be dominated, the rest of Europe followed suit. This inevitably led to the vast European colonies around the globe that could assure more raw materials and consumers to expand growth. Although nothing close to direct colonialism exists in 2014, we can see the power many financial institutions hold over certain nations around the world. One clear example of this is the debt crisis that exists today between many third world nations and the World Bank. The IMF and World Bank are development banks created after World War II to advance the many impoverished and unstable countries around the world—ironically these same nations’ economic and political hardships were a direct result of their exploitation through European colonialism in the first place. Like vassal states that pay tribute to their conquers, much of the third world today pays back interest on the loans they borrowed from the IMF or World Bank. Since the United States is the largest share holder of these institutions, that provides political leverage over many states to support American military bases or favorable trade deals if nations cannot pay the interest on their massive debt.
The Opening Up of the Balkans
Another interesting correlation between then and now is the quest for markets in zones that previously belonged to collapsing empires. By 1900, the Ottoman Empire was only a hollow shell of its former self. At this date, European imperialism abroad had already shown signs of running out of steam. The most likely area left for control was the decaying Ottoman Empire. As it steadily lost its grip on possessions in North Africa and the Balkans, such powers as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and France already saw the strategic economic and military possibilities, and were willing to risk it all. Many of these Baltic states fought a futile struggle to be independent from all foreign influence, only to trade one dominant ruler for another. By 1912, Bosnia would fall into realm of Austria-Hungary, much to the outrage of its people and Tsarist Russia. Although the spread of enlightenment, humanitarianism, and other blessings of civilization were promoted; Russia saw the true interest of expansion into the Turkish territories in the Danubian regions as a likely play to check her influence in the region. Today, we have a scramble of influence in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. China, Russia, America, and even India are competing for market dominance in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and others, where it is both economically and militarily strategic. Culturally, Russia has the upper-hand, militarily the United states—with all its military bases, and Chinese businesses are making recent headway in both industry and loans. Another striking similarity is that much like the Balkans before 1914, intervention in this part of the world has led to a rise of terrorism.
Socialist Uprisings & Colonial Rebellions VS Occupy Wall Street & The Arab Spring
Still new to the phenomenon of Industrial Capitalism, the old ruling elites of Europe found themselves unprepared for its consequences. Rising populations in Europe always hindered economic possibilities as the discovery of unemployment proved. European farmers found themselves pressed by overseas competition and factory workers desired better worker conditions. Due to the rising successes of a century of liberal uprisings, the 19th century saw that the idea that government should be for the benefit of the governed was gaining ground in Europe. For established elites to protect themselves from further uprisings, European imperialism inevitably had to coincide with greater popular participation in public affairs. By buying newspapers, voting, or cheering in the streets, the masses were more and more involved in politics. This gave birth to another great phenomenon: propaganda. Although newspapers could inform readers with inconvenient socio-economic realities that could threaten the establishment, the manipulation of public opinion, too, seemed possible. To curb the will of the masses, the new cheap press often pandered to imperial rivalry by promoting nationalism and dramatizing exploration and colonial warfare. Some also thought that social dissatisfactions might be soothed by the contemplation of the extension of the rule of the national flag over new areas even when the experts knew that nothing was likely to be forthcoming except expense. This also promoted the myth that they possessed true civilization and were thus bound to see the ruling of others for their good as a duty. However, by the first decade of the 20th century, growth was already beginning to slow down in some countries. In Russia peasant attacks on landlords and their bailiffs reached a peak. Barcelona, Spain exploded into bloody street-fighting in 1909. Much like the Occupy movements against austerity and the Arab Spring of the early 21st century, strikes and demonstrations were frequent. These uprisings were more violent in industrialized countries without revolutionary traditions. The ideological outburst took the form of anarchists and communists leading the charge. Most protested not only against the state and its governmental aspects, but also against a whole society which they judged as unjust. Their acts of terrorism and assassinations only tightened the controls of the press from dramatizing their cause. Much like today, many governments are increasing their efforts to control the internet and major media outlets. In both instances, fighting terrorism and quelling social unrest can be argued as their true justification. Much like the occupy movement of 2011, in the background of these issues was the higher taxation of the rich to pay for social services. In both times, if propaganda was not efficient enough to suppress the advances of liberalism and meaningful democracy, violent force was always employable by the state. Like the news media today, traditional elites were able to corrupt public debate by what was reported and not reported. Noam Chomsky makes this abundantly clear that such distortions exist today in a higher evolved form in his book Necessary Illusions. The newspapers then and the television media today allow lively debate from other points of view, but in a narrowly controlled forum. The political principle which undoubtedly still has the most mass appeal is nationalism.
The parallels that I have drawn for my readers are not to suggest a coincidental fun fact nor a prophetic prediction. Rather my aim is to show that the same institutions and forces that had driven humanity to such unnecessary greed and onslaught still exist today. Instead of disappearing into the pages of history, they have become more highly evolved institutions to survive. Instead of a Berlin Conference for elites to decide which vulnerable countries to carve up for themselves, we have multinational corporations behind closed doors negotiating such trade deals as the TPP before pushing them through congress. Before it was Africa and the Balkans, today it’s the Middle East and Central Asia. As John Pilger so articulately demonstrates in his documentary, War by Other Means, instead of conquering nations via colonialism, we have the IMF and World Bank that undermine national sovereignty through debt for political coercion and economic exploitation. China’s rapid rise and military buildup have uncanny similarities with Germany’s arrival on the scene to challenge British superiority. Yesterday’s Boer Wars for Great Britain are today’s Iraq and Afghanistan for the United States. As always, capitalism demands never ending growth of production and consumption. This translates into never ending consumption of resources, which inevitably leads to competition with other nations and military buildups to protect foreign investments. Since not every nation is powerful enough to stand on its own, weaker nations are obliged to form alliances with stronger ones. The rising population of many nations only increases overall consumption and demand, putting more pressure for external expansion. The apparent inequality and injustice of this system naturally leads to civil unrest. First world nations face domestic protests demanding political reform at home while the third world struggles for more sovereignty and resistance to globalization in their desperate attempt to throw off their foreign puppet masters. Their frustrations sometimes turn to violence or even terrorism. It must not be forgotten that the final act that eventually snowballed into the Great War was a terrorist attack which killed the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. The Serbian assassins who committed the act were anarchist revolutionaries fighting for independence. They were a simple product of their times. Disputed claims over the Balkans were a very sensitive issue strategically meant to enclose Russia, just as the Senkakou/Diaoshu Island dispute and Central Asia is meant to check China. I do not know what the future will bring. All I can say is that for the Europeans in 1914, it did not matter they were each other’s best costumers. Rather than look to extreme nationalism as a reaction to economic downturn, we must intellectually defend our selves from being distracted from the issues that truly matter to us.