Monday, April 10, 2017

The War to Begin All Remaining Wars

The War to End all Wars may have actually been the war to begin all remaining wars. In fact, we still feel the impacts of World War I today. Geopolitical relationships; economic inter-dependencies; state powers; balances of power; political structures; sovereign boundaries; normative values; ethno-national identities, technological advance, revolutions in war fighting… These momentums, which had already been in motion by the turn of the century, were realized throughout the war. They began to be codified at the end of it as the idea of political organization in principle and in practice transformed to a wholly new era. We live today with the consequences of the shape of those new norms. Consider this, then. What if a war to end all wars actually set up an international structure whereupon all future wars would emerge? What if the War to End All Wars was actually the war to begin all remaining wars?
To help think about this is a fascinating essay from an intellectual giant. He was a former Secretary of War and statesman who had a strong influence on foreign policy in the early decades of the Twenty-first Century. One of the issues the United States faced was their isolation from the rest of international affairs. Frankly, they did not know what was going on in the world because they were separated from the world, and they were not really interested in it. The U.S. participated in the world in so much as global engagements offered investment opportunities. Remember that the U.S. was not really a considerable world power in 1914. Foreign affairs was the business of other world powers. That changed in a fundamental way by 1918, when the war ended.

In 1922, Elihu Root made the following critical observation about the future of a global system restructured around democratic ideals. This was the leading essay that kicked off the first edition of Foreign Affairs Journal, which was reprinted in 1937 after his death. He says:

When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchs the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent people from having erroneous opinion.[1]

Thomas Friedman posits the thesis that “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”[2] It has been an attractive, but potentially seductive argument. The idea is that McDonald’s represents a manifestation of democratic values. Is that really true? We should always be self-critical because tensions can arise and reveal themselves in war when human motivations clash. Again, leaning on Root’s observations in 1922, we should be mindful of what is at the core of the “Big Mac” theory of international relations.

[Two] democracies will not fight unless they believe themselves to be right. They may have been brought to their belief by misrepresentation as to facts, by a misunderstanding of rules of right conduct, or through having the blank of ignorance filled by racial or national prejudice and passion to the exclusion of inquiry and thought; but they will fight not because they mean to do wrong but because they think they are doing right.[3]

Incidentally, there is a fantastic series underway right now on PBS entitled, The Great War.  I strongly encourage checking out the second and third episode later this week. Go back and watch the first episode too. This is just too important a story to forget. It is too important, because we still are dealing with the repercussions of it. Someone asked me today, how does this story end? They asked it in a rhetorical way, because we know who won it. But, really, how did that story end? Has it ended? Will it end?

[1] Root , E. (1922 reprinted 1937). A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 405-412.
[2] Friedman, T. (1996, December 8). Foreign Affairs Big Mac I. Retrieved from New York Times:
[3] Root , E. (1922 reprinted 1937). A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, p. 407. Emphasis added.

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Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your interest in the topic. It adds a little more to how we understand our world.