On Nov. 11, 1918, World War I officially ended with the signing of an armistice between Germany and the Allies. Because this event happened so long ago, it might be easy for some to dismiss its significance — and the significance of the events which led up to it. Specifically, it can be easy to think that the events which caused the First World War, now shrouded in antiquity, are completely unthinkable in the modern era. However, this could not be farther from the truth. Long after the close of the “war to end all wars,” we must remember that the geopolitical issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries can easily be recreated — with potentially more dangerous consequences than they had the first time.
One of the most important features of pre-World War I Europe was its intricate alliance system. Indeed, it was far more than the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Even though this was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back, had it not been for the alliance system of that era, World War I would have involved far fewer countries. The Triple Entente bound the interests of France, Russia and Britain together, while the Triple Alliance connected Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy. Without the latter, for example, Germany would not have been forced to enter the war; it did so in defense of the Austrians with whom it had aligned itself with. Further, Britain was only brought into the war because of the Treaty of London, by which it was obligated to defend neutral Belgium.
My issue is not that alliances existed, but rather that many of them were created and maintained in secret. This is still a current issue because it creates questions of which countries will defend each other in case of attack and which countries desire to align themselves with others — questions that policymakers need to know in order to keep their respective peoples safe.
Although the issue of highly complicated secret treaties may not seem like cause for concern in an era when many countries, including the United States, seem to be pushing back against globalism, they present a lack of clear allegiance to a delineated group of others that was precisely one of the reasons for all the chaos of the First World War. Even modern foreign policy leaders must look back to the treaties of the late 1800s and early 1900s and the geopolitical realities of that era to learn the lessons they can teach. Importantly, focusing on openness and clear allegiances as opposed to constantly shifting a nation’s international commitments can keep us away from major world conflicts.
Another essential part of the global political conditions which led to the First World War was a sense of hypercompetition, specifically involving a naval arms race between Germany and the United Kingdom. This arms race created a tense atmosphere within Europe, where neighbors constantly wanted to be better than and more technologically advanced than each other. This kind of competition set up a European continent in which a rather unimportant event could cause such a disastrous conflict as World War I.
This kind of tension is hardly unique to the early 20th century. President Trump has treated North Korea, for example, as something of a competitor which could, if necessary, be destroyed. He has made up nicknames for world leaders (e.g., “Rocket Man” for Kim Jong-Un) as a kind of mockery, and even as negotiations occur, the North Koreans have continued to hold military parades as a way of highlighting their military technology. Clearly, tension and the international desire for dominance have made their way into the 21st century.
World leaders must remember the events that occurred after their last arms races and the tragic consequences they had. Overall, remembering the causes of World War I and actively attempting to avoid the kind of environment in which one event causes a chain reaction that spirals into worldwide chaos are essential actions that the global policymakers of today — and indeed, tomorrow — must focus on.