The Great War’s Long Shadow

BERLIN – This year marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, which is reason enough to reflect on what this seminal European catastrophe teaches us today. Indeed, the Great War’s consequences for international relations and the global system of states continue to be felt. So, have we learned anything from the policy failures of governments, institutions, and international diplomacy that occurred in the summer of 1914?

Large parts of the northern hemisphere continue to struggle with the legacies of the great European empires – Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman – that collapsed in WWI’s wake, or whose decline, like that of the British Empire, was initiated by the war and sealed by its even bloodier sequel a generation later. The resulting fracture zones – in the Balkans and the Middle East, for example – are the source of some of today’s gravest risks to regional and even world peace.

After the Cold War’s end and the collapse of the Russian Empire’s Soviet successor, war returned to the Balkans under very similar conditions to those that prevailed in the period before 1914, with aggressive nationalism ultimately reconfiguring the disintegrating Yugoslavia as six separate states. Of course, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, whose call for a “Greater Serbia” triggered the war, was not alone: For a moment, Europe was in danger of reverting to the confrontation of 1914, with France and the United Kingdom supporting Serbia, and Germany and Austria favoring Croatia.

Fortunately, there was no relapse, because the West had learned its lessons from historical mistakes. Today, three factors loom large in the avoidance of disaster: the United States’ military presence in Europe, the progress of European integration, and Europe’s abandonment of great-power politics. Yet there is no point in fooling oneself: Only as long as the Balkan countries believe in the European Union and the benefits of membership will today’s precarious peace in the region become permanent.