Read a lot of history and you’ll notice that wars are more often than not blamed on a few factors. One is aggression by one state, lusting after territory or resources held by another state. The other factor leading to war is the lack of foresight, the failure to look beyond the moment. The Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia is an example and one to keep in mind when watching what is happening in the Near East.
It’s impossible to know, of course, but by 1916 I would bet the Austrians deeply regretted sending that ultimatum to the Serbs. By that point in the war, the Austrians were exhausted by the cost of war and ready to throw in the towel. Even though it should have been obvious, no one imagined what industrial age war was going to do to Europe. They learned the hard way.
Because the Great War was a long time ago, no one remembers it or cares much about it these days, but the lessons of that war are instructive today. At the dawn of the last century, the newly industrialized Europe was still trying to make a pre-industrial political systems work, despite the obvious problems. Just as important, the great powers were trying hard to maintain an international system that worked fine in the age of sail, but was inadequate for the industrial age.
That’s what comes to my mind when thinking about the friction between Russia and Turkey over the conflict in Syria. The Turks and Russians have had reason to make war on one another for over 500 years. In 1556, the Astrakhan Khanate was conquered by Ivan the Terrible, who had a new fortress built on a steep hill overlooking the Volga. In 1568 the Ottomans sent a force of Turks and Tatars to lay siege to Astrakhan, with the idea of taking it from the Russians.
The military governor of Astrakhan drove back the besiegers using local militia and then a Russian army counter attacked and drove off the Turks and Tatars. On their way home, up to 70% of the Ottoman soldiers froze to death in the steppes. In The Great War something similar happened to the Turks at Battle of Sarikamish. The retreat left 90,000 Turks dead, most of them freezing to death in the mountains. This crushing defeat was blamed on the Armenians, which lead to the Armenian Genocide.
Stories like this one should give everyone one pause, as these are two people with a long, long memory of reasons to hate one another. It’s not going to take much to whip up support in either country for going to war with the other. There’s also the fact that both Putin and Erdogan have strong domestic constituencies in favor of bellicose and aggressive foreign policies. That alone is enough to precipitate hostilities.
There’s also the fact that like the Great War, the West is laboring under a treaty system that no longer fits the current age. The Pax Americana made perfect sense when the Soviets were aiming a bunch of tanks and missiles at Europe. NATO was a logical and practical response to the Soviet threat.
Today it makes no sense for a country of 300 million to defend a continent of 500 million, when that continent is no longer facing a real military threat. The modern Russian army would stall before it made it to Oder–Neisse Line, due to the lack of supplies. There’s simply no reason for America to have troops in Europe and there no reason for NATO to exist.
Another comparison to the Great War is the overall stupidity of key leaders in the West. President Obama makes Kaiser Wilhelm look like Bismarck. Look around Europe and it is hard to find anyone that you would trust in a crisis. This invites the sort of mischief we have seen from Russia in Ukraine, the Baltics and now the Near East. Of course, like Tsar Nicholas, Putin could very well be standing on a rotting pedestal of authority.
Comparison to the Great War are worthwhile, but now is not then and we have new challenges today for which even the savviest leader is unprepared. As we saw in the Ukraine, asymmetrical war is a new breed of cat.Those “little green men” who turned up in Crimea have no obvious analog in the past. That’s why the West was caught totally unprepared for it.
Then there is the use of unconventional warriors, like Muslim terrorists. Russia may not be able to invade Poland, but they can facilitate the movement of ISIS suicide bombers into your kid’s grammar school. The commodity war that the Saudis have been waging against Iran and Russia is yet another facet of the new brand of total war. You can be sure the Saudis will have qualms about funding Chechen terrorist either.
The wild card, the thing that makes easy comparisons to Europe’s past difficult, is the collapse of Islam. We don’t think of what’s going on in the Muslim world as a collapse since it serves our ruler’s interests to pretend it is something more malign. The endless propaganda painting Islam as Nazism is so the public will sign onto forever war. Drive around the Imperial Capital and you find thousands of firms getting rich off dropping bombs on the muzzies.
Islam is not ascendant, no matter what the rulers claim. Islam is in collapse, a collapse similar to what happened to Christendom in The Thirty Years War. The various sects within Islam are at war with one another over a dwindling amount of influence over their culture. Western materialism is shrinking the pie, as it were, and the tribes of Islam are at war over who will get the lion’s share of what comes next.
And no one comes next.