The first world war was a kind of cultural suicide that destroyed Europe’s eminence. Europe’s leaders sleepwalked – in the phrase of historian Christopher Clark – into a conflict which none of them would have entered had they foreseen the world at war’s end in 1918. In the previous decades, they had expressed their rivalries by creating two sets of alliances whose strategies had become linked by their respective schedules for mobilisation. As a result, in 1914, the murder of the Austrian Crown Prince in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serb nationalist was allowed to escalate into a general war that began when Germany executed its all-purpose plan to defeat France by attacking neutral Belgium at the other end of Europe.
The nations of Europe, insufficiently familiar with how technology had enhanced their respective military forces, proceeded to inflict unprecedented devastation on one another. In August 1916, after two years of war and millions in casualties, the principal combatants in the West (Britain, France and Germany) began to explore prospects for ending the carnage. In the East, rivals Austria and Russia had extended comparable feelers. Because no conceivable compromise could justify the sacrifices already incurred and because no one wanted to convey an impression of weakness, the various leaders hesitated to initiate a formal peace process. Hence they sought American mediation. Explorations by Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s personal emissary, revealed that a peace based on the modified status quo ante was within reach. However, Wilson, while willing and eventually eager to undertake mediation, delayed until after the presidential election in November. By then the British Somme offensive and the German Verdun offensive had added another two million casualties.
In the words of the book on the subject by Philip Zelikow, diplomacy became the road less travelled. The Great War went on for two more years and claimed millions more victims, irretrievably damaging Europe’s established equilibrium. Germany and Russia were rent by revolution; the Austro-Hungarian state disappeared from the map. France had been bled white. Britain had sacrificed a significant share of its young generation and of its economic capacities to the requirements of victory. The punitive Treaty of Versailles that ended the war proved far more fragile than the structure it replaced.
Does the world today find itself at a comparable turning point in Ukraine as winter imposes a pause on large-scale military operations there? I have repeatedly expressed my support for the allied military effort to thwart Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.