Earlier this month, I attended a panel discussion at the World War I National Memorial and Museum in Kansas City. Dr. Matthew Naylor, President of the Museum, made some observations that frightened me. “There has never been a time since 1913 that is more like 1913 than today.” In 1913 the world and especially the major powers in Europe were “sleepwalking” their way toward and then into the Great War, a war none of the powers wanted or particularly intended to create. But it did happen and eventually led to World War II with its horrendous toll in human life with a total of 78 million deaths in both.
Based on Naylor’s comments and my own reflection, there are three ways in which 1913 and today are similar. First, the rise of nationalism, nativism, and tribalism. A commitment to the global common good has been and is being undercut by a rising concern with national self interest. There appears to be a growing movement to move away from commitments of all sorts to make things better for everyone in favor of making things better for us. This is especially troubling in the developed nations who consume vastly more resources that their share of world population. Developing nations increasingly see no reason why they should be penalized by restrictions on their development after developed nations have enjoyed more or less unfettered growth for a century.
Second, international alliances are shifting in hard to comprehend ways. After decades of stable alliances and treaties, nations are beginning to back away from them and seem to want to make their own deals in a way that sees the impact on other countries as often irrelevant. One can easily suspect that some of the newly emerging alliances are not clearly in the public arena so that implications of world events is becoming more difficult to predict.
Finally, there are regional and local conflicts which are being pursued by actors who have little regard for the global implications of their actions. Further these local actors are tied into both formal and informal alliances with major world powers. The conflict in Syria has already brought US and Russian military into close contact and near conflict.
What is different now and immensely more dangerous is that the major world powers and some of the regional actors have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. For forty years I have never thought about nuclear war as anything remotely possible. Now I have experienced again some of the anxieties that were widespread in 1950’s. Nuclear conflict in the world no longer seems impossible. God help us.