As Americans sat down to their noon repast on Tuesday, July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, exactly one month after Serbian-trained radical students assassinated Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand during a brief visit to Sarajevo (see the New York Times headline here). The assassination of the archduke and his morganatic wife, Sophie, through an almost inconceivable train of chance and mistakes, led to the slaughter of 9 million combatants and 5 million civilians (and abetted the death of 40 million more in the great influenza epidemic of 1918) over the next four years. The war remains one of the few events that truly altered the course of human history, and naturally has been the subject of hundreds of books and thousands of articles, many of which have labored in vain to determine why the most advanced and cultured nations on the globe wound up destroying their world and annihilating nearly 15 million of their peoples. At 6 p.m. that fateful evening (12 noon Eastern time in the U.S.), Austria began shelling Serbia.
Exactly one hundred years later, Americans awoke to news that Russian president Vladimir Putin apparently has decided to intensify his military support for Ukrainian separatists, in part by shelling Ukrainian territory from the Russian border. There is little to be gained from comparing 2014 with 1914 in any respect, other than to recognize that, for all our supposed advances, the human propensity to destruction seems to be hardwired into our nature, just as is the “fight or flight” syndrome that perhaps characterizes the Western desire to avoid conflict until forced into action.
Those seeking destruction never cease, until they win or are stopped. As Putin is steadily achieving his immediate goals in Ukraine, the Islamic State (of Syria and Iraq) is progressively obliterating Iraq and Syria’s irreplaceable cultural heritage of over 2,000 years, all in a murderously utopian attempt to impose a new caliphate on the Middle East. America has just pulled out of its embassy in Libya, a state which has increasingly become a haven for jihadists since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. Iran has unceasingly abetted global murder and mayhem since the mullahs took power in 1979, and is almost certain to gain the ability to build nuclear weapons before this decade is out.
The West today is under siege, even if the battlefields seem far away (less so in Ukraine). While our imperfect values are squarely in the cross hairs of the disrupters, we hope to talk away problems and threats, which from our Western perspective is a quite civilized and rational thing to do. Some Western leaders further bet that their ultimate strength (increasingly represented by the United States) is enough to deter or, if necessary, punish those who finally cross whatever red lines the West belatedly imposes. Others recognize that the decisions they have taken over the past 20 years are making it increasingly difficult to credibly make such claims, and just as difficult to act effectively, if such decisions are made.
The still-comfortable, still-wealthy West may not like the global reality that diverts it from enjoying the fruits of its still-impressive productivity and patrimony. Neither did its ancestors a century ago, when they went to bed in a world at war.