Looking forward to 2014, remembering 1914

By J Brooks Spector 5 January 2014

As we enter 2014, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a leaf out of history to see if it can provide useful clues for contemplating what is coming up in this new year for America - and the world.

A full century ago, Europe had rejoiced in a century of peace – without a general war such as the one Napoleon’s ambitions had brought down upon the continent. Then, looking back after four horrific years of brutal warfare, a punitive peace settlement and the sweeping revolutionary disruptions that had engulfed Europe (and that would, a generation later, lead to yet another global conflict), British economist John Maynard Keynes could write, nostalgically, in 1920, “What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!”

Keynes went on to write, famously, “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend…. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.”

But of course, that autumnal glow, predictive of perpetual progress, did not even last out the European summer a hundred years ago, as a near-apocalypse arrived for many. Nations are now contemplating – and debating – how best to mark the anniversary of this cataclysm. But perhaps nowhere is the question of what is to be commemorated more conflicted than it is in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Sarajevo was and remains Ground Zero for World War I, the place where Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, on 28 June 1914.

As Otto von Bismarck had so presciently predicted years before, that some damned thing in the Balkans would set off a general European war, the region’s interlocked alliance system, conflicts over trade, colonies and spheres of influence, dire geopolitical miscalculations about potential antagonists’ intentions, a fundamental misapprehension of the (then still unnamed) concept of deterrence, and broad popular support for a short, definitive military adventure by populations across the continent all conspired to lead to war after Franz Ferdinand was dead. But perhaps most critical of all was a deep sense on the part of many Germans that their Wilhelmine empire was on a course to challenge the waning conservative power of Britain and that Germany deserved a better, more appropriate “place in the sun,” in keeping with the country’s explosive intellectual, cultural, academic, industrial, commercial and – above all – military growth.

And so why bring this up now, a hundred eventful years later when every veteran of the Great War has now died? Increasingly, politicians, policy wonks and think tankers have begun to compare our present global age with that European one of a century ago – but substituting China for imperial Germany and the US for Britain. Of course, such comparisons are never fully accurate or effective, as they can mislead as well as inform.

America and Britain’s circumstances are very different. For one thing, the US economy is actually reviving and it remains the globe’s largest economy by a significant measure. Unemployment continues to decline, albeit still slowly, from the 2008/09 financial crisis levels. The nation’s business confidence indices are rising, and there is even a gradual repatriation of some manufacturing efforts – i.e. high-end Apple computers – back to the US from their recent Asian manufacturing platforms of just a few years ago. And with the passage of the bipartisan small bargain budget deal for the next two years, the Democrats and Republicans seem to have figured out how to postpone their yearly wrestling match over government expenditures – at least until this year’s mid-term elections.

Also, contrary to what might have been the case in the early twentieth century, what has not happened in contemporary America is any corresponding rush for new, direct military adventures to bolster national prestige abroad. Despite pressure from some officials within the Obama administration – in accord with American historical tendencies towards support for the expansive export of democratic universalism – to do something decisive to end the al-Assad regime in Syria, or, even more recently, to engage in South Sudan before the fighting there descends into a savage, full-blown civil war, there is virtually no appetite in 2014’s America for any new direct foreign military interventions. The Obama administration was, after all, unable to marshal sufficient support within Congress for a relatively small intervention in Syria over those chemical weapons, after their use against civilian population. Instead, there is strong, continuing pressure to bring that now ill-fated, decade-long expedition into Afghanistan to a final conclusion – even if it eventually means Taliban-related forces would retake the bulk of the country. And, of course, there has been a fatalistic shrug and wringing of hands over the developments unfolding in Iraq as well.

To a considerable degree, the hangover from the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions by Obama’s predecessor has pushed the current president into a strategy some conservative critics have now dubbed “constrainment”. Constrainment describes a voluntary strategy of a limited military-political orientation accepting limitations that must flow from a lack of any national consensus for any overarching global military aims. This, in turn, demands a careful picking and choosing of limited strategic goals and objectives – and then aligning them closely with the economic and political capabilities of the society.

And, in fact, rather like Britain after the Anglo-Boer War, in reaching out to new allies – such as France, Russia and Japan – to offset its continental rival; the US, via its now-on-going pivot towards Asia and away from the region that encompasses Iraq and Afghanistan, has already begun a modest repositioning of forces and its geopolitical attention.

In this case, however, it is towards this century’s rising power reaching out for its place in the sun – a resurgent China. Along the way, the US is knitting together a web of relationships intended to give China something to think about, but without direct military contact. The danger in such an effort, of course, is that very possibility of setting off an escalating run of things. Something as simple, perhaps, as a collision between two naval vessels – one American, one Chinese patrolling the East China or South China Seas – might do it. Or perhaps there might be live fire between Chinese and Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian or Indonesian forces over one of those islets in those disputed waters. There are some obvious dangers here.

Within China itself, there are also tensions that may affect its position internationally. The new president, Xi Jinping, has announced a broad range of economic reform measures designed to shift growth from export-driven earnings – and towards a more domestic demand-driven model. Moreover, while China’s share of US bond indebtedness has drawn lots of media coverage in recent years, there are now some growing concerns that China’s own indebtedness, coming out of its government-controlled industries and other local and regional government borrowing, may also produce pressures on the country’s economy. Together with projections that overall growth rates will continue to decline, there may be grounds to worry over possibilities of the Chinese government’s fall back on nationalist responses to the pressures on it from international challenges. Put together with it the US pivot to Asia, and the responses of other Asian nations towards China such as Japan’s own increasingly nationalist rhetoric and actions, and there may be some choppy waters ahead in 2014.

Even as the current US administration works to wriggle free of its entanglement in Afghanistan, the tenuous nuclear agreement with Iran, a growing instability in Iraq, the continuing civil war in Syria, the military’s role in Egypt as part of a rolling coup d’état, and inability to chivvy the Israelis and Palestinians into any kind of larger settlement will all work to impede any American disengagement in that region. The Iranian deal – if it unravels in mid 2014 – could well push the Israelis into attempting to reach their own solution to that issue. Meanwhile, Syria and Iraq both may disintegrate even further – drawing in even more outside groups to seek fissiparous, deeply sectarian solutions. And while Egypt remains the key to the Arab world more generally, backwards steps along the Israeli/Palestinian continuum will generate great pressures for more American involvement in the region – not less – by virtue of the US’s own domestic political landscape.

Of course North Korea’s continuing nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions will continue to give American policy makers (and Japanese, South Korean, Russian, and probably Chinese ones as well) sleepless nights. And even Dennis Rodman’s latest round ball initiative in Pyongyang is unlikely to do much to calm such concerns about the unpredictability of Kim Jong-un’s policy direction.

When Keynes waxed nostalgic about the virtues of pre-war free trade, he was not entirely accurate, of course. There were trade barriers of many types and between many nations, but the impetus had clearly been to lessen them before the war began. 2014 may well be a crucial year in implementing real progress under negotiations fostering the sustainability of WTO rules. This is especially true as the global trading system remains weakened from the 2008-9 financial crisis and as many nations continue to struggle to get their economic growth off near-flat line levels. But trade is just one part of the global economic malaise. Many of the globe’s leading economies have been unable to reenergise job creation, and youth jobless rates remain near – or are already at – crisis levels. Such circumstances point to continuing possibilities for political instability in many nations – including key members of the EU and Eurozone – and coincidentally America’s Nato partners.

Within the US itself, attention will only grow on the politics of the mid-term electoral process. If current projections are in any way accurate, the Democrats have virtually a zero chance to regain control of the House of Representatives, given the gerrymandering that has taken place in House districts over the past quarter century to create districts that are starkly uncompetitive. But the Democrats also run the risk of losing control of the Senate to Republicans – in part because of the disproportionate number of Democrats up for re-election this year. This is especially true in states where the polling now has it those states are trending away from their Democratic incumbents because of their unpopular political associations with Barack Obama’s administration.

At this moment, at least, at the beginning of 2014, Republicans are counting on what they believe is growing popular dissatisfaction with the thoroughly botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – and the feelings among some citizens that the promises the president undertook on this measure have not been kept. Republicans are hoping that the personal testimonies of individuals whose travails in gaining access to medical insurance will play well with voters and contribute to their various victories.

However, there is also a feeling on the part of some Democratic politicians and strategists that by the time of the actual election, there will be an increasingly strong narrative from previously uninsured families who are deeply grateful for their new coverage, and that victims of cancer and other diseases that rendered them previously as uninsurable, but who now have comprehensive health care coverage for themselves and their families, will speak volumes in the public arena. If this is the case, feelings about health care reform may even be a wash in the public mood, going into the election, making other issues much more important.

Moreover, Democrats are hoping efforts by Tea Party-style political funding and advocacy groups will end up driving the Republican Party to select far right candidates from their various primary elections. And, that more cheeringly for Democrats, such candidates will be unelectable in the November election. And that may just possibly allow the Democrats to hold on to several now-vulnerable Senate seats – and thus even the Senate majority itself. Of course, all of that may just be some earnest whistling past a political graveyard and an electoral Armageddon is about to engulf the Democrats.

Nevertheless, regardless of individual elections, 2014 will provide immense amounts of political raw material – polls, focus group results, actual voting in primaries and the November races – crucial for any politician considering a run for the presidency in 2016. By the end of 2014, the Iowa preference straw poll and the New Hampshire primary will be just a year or so away and anyone contemplating a run for the top national job will need to have fundraising committees, campaign exploratory committees, and a nascent campaign staff core that can quickly bulk up – already coming into being.

Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and a handful of others from America’s political world will spend increasing amounts of time and energy making just such calculations about their relative electoral chances. (In fact, even as this writer was working on this very story, he received an email offering him a free “Ready for Hillary” bumper sticker – together with a solicitation to contribute to a committee that would test the waters for an exploratory committee for a presidential candidacy, two years from now.) All of these political calculations and 3:00 am contemplations will come from thinking about the inside baseball political game, as well as trying to figure out how to address foreign policy issues like China, the Middle East, Korea, Iran and global trade, together with domestic issues like immigration reform, infrastructure financing, tax reform, health care – and the new kid on the block – growing income inequality.

Regardless of what happens, The Daily Maverick will be right there for you, trying to make sense of both the historical background as well as the future implications for our readers. DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California June 7, 2013. Obama said on Friday he welcomed the “peaceful rise” of China and that, despite inevitable areas of tension, both countries want a cooperative relationship, as he and Xi kicked off two days of meetings. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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