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Bad Actors and Big Wars

by Eric Ferguson on April 3, 2017 · 1 comment

coat of arms of Hapsburg empire of AustriaApril 6th marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. If there’s one metaphor you’ve read in every history of World War I, it was probably “tinderbox”. That’s how the pre-war world is frequently described: “Europe was a tinderbox”, or “rival alliances were a tinderbox”. If someone had asked me about WWI before recently, I probably would have said “something something tinderbox” too. Not now, in a change Trump has already wrought. I occurred to me that it was in a way something worse: two bad actors started the war. There was nothing unavoidable about it. Two people could have stopped it. Yes, two, and how this relates to Trumpworld will likely be guessed by readers before I spell it out, but let’s spell it out anyway.
 
That’s not to dispute that the European empires weren’t a metaphorical tinderbox, but when weren’t they? Was a balance of power that could crash down in a major war an invention of the early 20th century? We’ve had balances of power between rival states going back to at least the invention of states, and I suspect it goes back to whenever groups of pre-historic humans noticed there were other groups of humans, and found themselves asking how strong everyone was and who were likely enemies or allies. Point being, it’s wrong to think there was something unique in the early 20th century and it had to result in a big war inevitably. Maybe it was inevitable, no way to know, but it didn’t have to happen right then, the way it did. So why did it? What caused such a massive breakdown of global order and the world’s biggest war (pending the next world war, of course)? What went wrong?
 
What went wrong was two bad actors: Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.
 

By “bad actors”, I mean people who act to deliberately create problems. I don’t mean people who make bad decisions in difficult situations, or take advantage of the changed circumstances the bad actors create. I’m referring to people who screw up on purpose because they think the results will be to their benefit. That’s what the emperor did by launching an invasion of Serbia to try to make it part of the empire, and that’s what the kaiser did by backing the invasion. It isn’t just that these decisions turned out badly, but that it was so obvious this would be a terrible decision. Russia was Serbia’s ally, and had set itself up as the protector of the Slavs. Austria couldn’t have provoked Russia more unless it invaded Russia itself. Germany knew this, and Austria wouldn’t have tried it without Germany’s backing, but Germany told Austria to go for it.
 
Of course, when we say “Austria and Germany”, we mean their rulers. Of course Wilhelm and Franz Joseph had their cabinets, their high commands, and the constituencies that even autocrats have to consider, but these were monarchies. It’s not like they could have been outvoted if they said “no”. The emperor could have rebuffed everyone pushing for a war and said no, that’s inviting a full-scale war with Russia and maybe war across the continent, so I won’t do it. The kaiser could have said since you won’t do this without our support, then you won’t do it, because it’s a stupid idea. Either of them could have stopped the whole thing.
 
They didn’t stop it. Austria invaded Serbia, Russia went to war with Austria in support of Serbia, Germany went to war with Russia in support of Austria, and the infamous cascade followed.
 
Which gets to where Trump comes in. Is he going to be a bad actor, someone who deliberately creates problems because he thinks he’ll benefit? Given how he’s done everything else in his life, need I even ask? As for his sponsor Vladimir Putin, is he a bad actor? Ask Ukraine. Ask Putin if he had a plan for Ukraine beyond break things and see if something good happens. Maybe he did — I don’t see it. What will happen if Putin succeeds in breaking up the West, as his co-ideologues in the extreme right of western democracies seem happy to help him do? Somehow he must think something good, though the last two breakdowns in the political order of Europe are generally referred to as the world wars, and Russian deaths were pretty massive each time. Yet Putin is going there, Trump seems happy to help break up the EU, and even NATO is in some doubt.
 
History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but that doesn’t mean something similar can’t occur. I could absolutely see Trump starting a stupid war and Putin saying, “sure, go ahead, what could go wrong? No objection from us.” Or visa versa.
 
So what does Trump mean when he says he’s going to go it alone to “solve” North Korea?
 
Comments:
 
From Mac Hall:

Let us remember that only Congress can declare war … so as the Syria situation escalates, let us remember that Tom Emmer offered (in 2015) H.J.Res.73 – Declaring that a state of war exists between the Islamic State and the Government and the people of the United States and making provision to prosecute the same.
 
Emmer got zero co-sponsors and no vote.
 
Fast forward to last month … 4 Republicans and 4 Democrats offered H.R.1666 – To prohibit the availability of funds for activities in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and for other purposes.
 
Don’t expect HR 1666 to get any traction either.
 
Congress would rather let the President — regardless if it was Reagan, Clinton, Bush or Obama — take the flack.

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