Promoting WWI as a ‘great war’ for liberalism is perverse, and dangerous
By Daniel Larison
via the Responsible Statecraft web site
WWI has traditionally been seen as a cautionary tale of what comes from arms racing, national rivalries, and “great power competition.” It has loomed large as an example of the futility and stupidity of war as it destroyed the relatively stable order of the previous hundred years and left almost 20 million people dead and tens of millions more injured.
Portrayed by contemporary and later propagandists as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, the Great War was mainly a struggle between colonial empires that the status quo powers barely won at staggering cost. This is the war whose “real lessons” Hal Brands wants to teach us in a recent Bloomberg essay in order to promote a new round of great power rivalry with Russia and China today.
One of the “real lessons” that Brands imparts is hard to take seriously. He writes: “The resulting conflagration was not a pointless slugfest. It was part of a longer-running clash between liberalism and illiberalism.” The war was not only fought entirely by colonial empires, including the United States, but the wartime measures taken to fight the war introduced extensive authoritarian political and economic controls that trampled on liberal principles. This would include wartime nationalization policies and crackdowns on freedom of speech and press — like the arrest of anti-war figures like U.S. presidential candidate and activist Eugene Debs in 1918.
If the war involved a “clash between liberalism and illiberalism,” the clash was taking place inside each belligerent state and in each one illiberalism triumphed. If the war was part of “the contest between liberalism and its enemies,” as Brands says, this was the part where liberalism lost.
Brands needs to make WWI into a clear-cut ideological struggle to use it as a precedent for the ideological struggle he imagines the U.S. to be engaged in now. It is not surprising that people on both sides of a conflict try to present theirs as fighting for important ideals, but that doesn’t mean that the competing propaganda claims were the real stakes of the war. The Allies could say that they were fighting for the rights of small nations, but they had no compunctions about trampling on those rights when it was expedient. The advocates for self-determination at the end of the war had no intention of applying that principle to the nations subject to the rule of Allied empires.
The correct lesson from the war is quite different: WWI was the result of competing aggressive nationalisms and imperialisms that served to bring ruin to almost all of the nations and empires involved, and we run the risk of falling into the same trap by whipping up hostility towards other major powers now. Whether one wants to describe it as an “amoral clash of empires” or not, it was undoubtedly a colossally stupid and unnecessary clash of empires.
Brands is on firmer ground when he says that WWI was not accidental, but then very few people would still maintain that it was. Here he seems to be arguing with a consensus from long ago that no one continues to accept. What the history of the crisis leading up to the war does show, however, is that boxing in rivals can encourage them to lash out aggressively and that giving allies blank checks can encourage reckless behavior that leads to a general war.
The example of Russia is perhaps most telling of all: their government chose to intervene in a conflict when it didn’t have to, and it ended up destroying them. Brands claims that “World War I resulted less from a failure of de-escalation than a failure of deterrence,” which oddly minimizes the role that the Franco-Russian alliance had in encouraging the German government to go on the offensive.
Read the entire article on the Responsible Statecraft web site here:
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