World War I didn’t begin in Europe. It started in Africa.
By the time the shooting erupted in 1914, in fact, a retrospective analysis of the conditions that led to war had lent credence to the conclusion that a great clash was almost inevitable. Germany’s perceived “encirclement” and that resurgent nation’s belief that they had been unfairly cut off from their share of colonial possessions in Africa led Berlin to embrace bellicosity. Germany forcefully protested France’s subjugation of a Moroccan rebellion and subsequent occupation of that territory in 1911 — a territory that Germany coveted. Paris’s move prompted Italy to declare suzerainty over the state of Libya, leading to a war with the Ottomans for control of that North African nation. After the Turks had lost control of the North African coast, the race was on to divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan possessions, culminating in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. By the onset of August Crisis in 1914, the world had already been at war for the better part of three years.
As the study of the First World War has fallen out of fashion in the United States, the presumption that the United States entered the stalemated war immediately following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat has become prevalent. In fact, the United States would enter the war 23 months after that galvanizing attack. Such was Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to his 1916 pledge to keep America out of Europe’s war. An internationalist and an anti-imperialist, Wilson was burned by his experience intervening in the Mexican Revolution (which led to an even greater civil conflict and the rise of Pancho Villa’s bandit raids into the Southern United States). But as Germany’s position in Europe deteriorated and it prepared for a more robust anti-shipping campaign that almost certainly meant more Lusitantias, Berlin sought to electrify Mexican revanchism with the ill-fated Zimmermann Telegram. The alliance that was meant to squeeze the United States on two fronts had the precise opposite effect. Reluctantly, Congress followed Wilson into war.
Today, another great and embittered power is on the march. Ruled by a rancorous cabal of ambitious men who are all but consumed with a desire to reacquire lost grandeur, it is Russia that threatens the peace. It is Russia that is taking advantage of long-simmering conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa to advance its interests. It is Russia that is pressing its luck on the outer fringes of Europe. Nearly 100 years to the month after the August crisis, another civilian transport was targeted and destroyed by forces loyal to a revanchist European nation.
Then as now, a great power conflict was virtually unthinkable. By 1914, it had been over 40 years since the last major European war. Then as now, the sun long ago set on La Belle Époque, but its lingering effects were pleasant enough to mollify the public. Then as now, few would predict that an Earth-shattering calamity that would forever change millions of lives was just around the corner.
To understand the dire state of affairs in Syria, one need only observe the behavior of American policymakers. Administration officials were caught off guard by the brazenness of Russia’s intervention into the five-year-old Syrian civil war, the commencement of which was announced by a Russian three-star general who boldly marched into the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and gave the United States one hour to clear the airspace around the city of Homs. Russian bombers were soon targeting not the Islamic State but CIA-armed and trained rebel forces. The effects of Russia’s bold maneuver will be swift. The risk of NATO and Russian air assets with limited military-to-military contacts all shooting at different targets in the same theater increases the risks of accidental confrontation exponentially. If there was a conflict, there are few mechanisms in place to prevent it from escalating. The United States may soon find itself forced out of theater merely because to continue to operate in Syria is too dangerous.
Like Wilson, the present American president’s desperation to avoid entangling and prolonged conflicts has led to the present suboptimal state of affairs. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rushed to engage in a process of “deconfliction,” which has as its primary aim ensuring that the world’s two most well-armed nuclear states avoid shooting at one another on the battlefield. Both diplomatic representatives were quick to reassure the world that they were not at cross-purposes in Syria, but their actions tell another story. Washington is faced with a terrible choice: Withdraw unceremoniously and invite further Russian aggression or deter Moscow’s military activities abroad through the credible threat of force. The Pentagon is preparing for the latter course.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon was readying a set of options for the president should he choose to protect Washington-supported rebel groups on the ground in Syria from air attack by Russian forces. The details of such a plan remain a secret, but they would necessarily include putting U.S. air assets in close proximity to Russian forces, triggering an international incident with the expectation – or perhaps the hope – that Russia would climb down from the crisis it has ignited. “At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia — a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid,” Fox News reported.
The risks are such that it seems hard to envision this administration engaging in that kind of brinkmanship, but this will not be the last time that Vladimir Putin tests Barack Obama before his second term is out. No one in Moscow or Washington wants to spark a broader conflict, but conflict is inevitable when two powers’ interests are so divergent. As is the case in Ukraine, Russia hopes to change the conditions on the ground in Syria to the point at which Washington is compelled to accept them as the new status quo. If we haven’t reached it already, there will come a point at which Russia’s aggressive actions present Washington with a crisis that it cannot back down from in a face-saving manner.
As the heat of Europe’s last summer swelled 101 years ago, few might have predicted that the international incident brewing in the alien country of Serbia might shatter forever the comfortable existence that two generations of Europeans had enjoyed. That prospect is almost as unimaginable today, but not as unimaginable as it was last week.