As the early 21st century rolls by, the previous century continues to loom large both as a warning and an instructor.
Last year marked the centennial of the establishment of the Federal Reserve and ratification of the 16th and 17th amendments to the Constitution, which started the modern income tax and required senators to be elected by popular vote.
As controversial and consequential as those were, they are nowhere as grim as the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, which will be marked in this new year.
The parallels between today and New Year’s 1914 are instructive. Today, as then, complacency and an overriding confidence that market forces would make war illogical are prevalent. Today, as then, people are enamored by new technological wonders and a global marketplace.
On New Year’s Day a century ago, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Navy had sent radio signals at midnight from tall towers in Arlington, Va., toward the Atlantic. Ships across the ocean sent instant replies, and the signal was believed to have been received at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The world was connecting and seemed on the verge of an unprecedented global unanimity toward common goals and progress. In Britain, Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George was arguing loudly that his nation should drastically reduce its expenditures on defense.
The reason was that England had become friendly with Germany, enjoying robust mutual trade. “Both countries seemed to have realized that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose by reverting to the old policy of friendliness,” said a Times report that was proudly labeled as having come instantly by “Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Telegraph.”
History tends not to repeat itself quite so neatly, of course. We’re not suggesting the world will plunge into war in 2014. It is worth recalling, however, that in the world of 1914 few people understood how precarious civilization stood. Germany, in particular, was about to embark on a 40-year odyssey leading to unspeakable horrors, and the world was not to begin speaking seriously of a truly global marketplace again until the Soviet Union collapsed near the end of the century.
An editorial in the most recent issue of The Economist draws some parallels between the world today and that of a century ago. In the magazine’s view, China and the United States are playing rolls similar to England and Germany. Japan could be the France of 1914, a British ally battling its own declining influence.
The comparisons aren’t so neat, of course. It is worth noting, however, that China has begun lately to claim an extended territorial boundary at sea, encompassing several uninhabited islands controlled by Japan. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine to Japan’s war dead in central Tokyo, which China perceived as a provocation. China’s foreign ministry said the prime minister no longer is welcome in China, adding to tensions.
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The United States, meanwhile, appeared weak last year in efforts to end chemical warfare attacks in Syria, allowing Russia to broker a deal while conventional attacks continue killing thousands. A perceived loss of U.S. influence naturally would lead some nations to try filling the void. U.S. efforts to broker an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions could backfire, as well.
All of this is to say that civilization and peace are not things to be treated lightly or taken for granted. The United States continues to have the largest military on earth, but it needs to deftly wield its influence and keep that big stick conspicuous in order to keep from having to use it in 2014 and beyond.