A centennial to remember

One hundred years ago, on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 — 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 — a cease-fire terminated what was then known as the “Great War.” The armistice ended four years and four months of fighting, a conflagration that embroiled 32 countries, claimed more than 16 million lives — 7 million of them civilians — and was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. As the world marks the centennial of the ending of that horrific struggle, it is vitally important to take stock of lessons to be learned from and ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated.

Most of that war was fought far from Japanese shores. Nevertheless, Japan was a member of the Entente, fighting with Britain and France against Germany, almost from the start of the conflict. Japan’s navy was instrumental in securing sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, and seized German possessions in the Pacific and Asia. Tokyo extended its influence in China and its position among the Allies gave it a prominent seat and recognition as a geopolitical player at the peace talks following the war. Japan was also awarded a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations.

Unfortunately, peace also sowed the seeds of future conflict. Japan was one of the victor nations, but that status was not enough to win support for its call for a racial equality clause in the Treaty of Versailles. That defeat confirmed a sense of inequality among Japanese which festered and engendered ill will toward the United States that helped push the two countries toward confrontation.

Asia was largely overlooked in the peace talks, which encouraged Japan to be more active in China to protect its interests, a policy that also contributed to its subsequent clash with the U.S. Finally, the Imperial Navy’s success in defeating the German fleet intensified competition between it and the army, which promoted growing military influence over politics.

Historians are constantly mining their field for lessons. Recently, there has been much talk of the Thucydides Trap, an argument taken from the Greek writer who detailed the rise of Athens and Sparta’s reaction to it. Thucydides concluded that “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” Contemporary analysts see a similar dynamic emerging from the rise of China and the response of the U.S.

A few years ago, there was a similar interest in the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919. Historian Margaret MacMillan is one of the most thoughtful students of that event and she has teased out important conclusions that should be kept in mind today. She highlighted the role of public opinion in countries involved in the war and the way it complicated decision-making, especially attempts by political leaders to forge an enduring peace. One expression of this sentiment was a growing identification with “the nation” — however defined — and the intense desire to see their group acknowledged in peace negotiations, whether through nationhood or compensation for damage they suffered during the war.

Another of MacMillan’s insights is that political leadership at that time had limited power. Publics were fatigued. War had destroyed or greatly limited ways in which state power was projected. There were important differences of opinion among even the Allied powers, which meant that negotiations to construct a peace were fraught and shared objectives difficult to find. Finally, the terms of the peace that the victors eventually agreed on were onerous and instilled deep resentment among the defeated countries.

These factors, in combination with the growing power of public opinion, constrained the ability of political leaders to engage in dialogue, build confidence and establish conditions that could dampen future conflict. A final lesson that MacMillan emphasized is that publics must be disabused of the idea that peace is a default condition and they must not take it for granted.

The world today is not recovering from war, but many of the conditions that MacMillan identified are evident. Once again, nationalism is enjoying a resurgence throughout the West and the leadership in China and other rising powers are relying on that force as well. The institutions of global leadership are strained and while world leaders profess to share goals, their disagreements are as important as their areas of consensus. Unilateralism is on the rise, and that leads to withdrawal from institutions and conflict.

Politicians and publics around the world must recognize that peace is not a given, that it is fragile and that it must be nurtured. As proof, they should remember that in the five hours between the signing of the cease-fire and the time it went into effect, over 2,700 more soldiers died. Recall too that the conflagration that ended 100 years ago was then called the “Great War” or “the war to end all wars.” Now it is referred to as World War I.