A Peace to End All Peace

People have joined in cultural tribes based, in part, on their responses to modernization, writes William Milam

A Peace to End All Peace
I write this on Monday, November 11, which is Veterans Day, a federal holiday in the US. Known by other names, November 11 is observed as a holiday in much of what is often called the West, although many of the countries observing it are not geographically in the West. It used to be called Armistice Day when I was a child but was changed to honour the veterans of all US wars in 1954. France, New Zealand, Belgium, and Serbia still call November 11 Armistice Day; the UK and most of the rest of the Commonwealth call the same date Remembrance Day, while Poland calls it National Independence Day (the day it became a sovereign state again after 123 years of subjugation to Russia, Germany, and Austria). In all these countries, it ostensibly commemorates the end of what US President Woodrow Wilson termed “the war to end all wars.” On that date, 101 years ago, in 1918, after five brutally bloody years, World War I came to an end. As Field Marshall Wavell said, however, the resulting peace left a lot to be desired.

The horrific facts of the war suggest its staggering proportions and its seismic impact upon world history—over 9 million soldiers of the fighting nations killed and 21 million wounded; in one battle alone, the battle of the Somme, over 1 million killed, 30 thousand on the first day; about 11 percent of the population of France (where the war was primarily fought) was killed; 116 thousand Americans were killed in only 7 months of fighting (twice as many as were killed in our 20 years of fighting in Vietnam).

It didn’t, of course, end all wars, but instead sowed the seeds for much of the warfare that, since 1918, has plagued our world: the wars between nations; the civil wars; the asymmetric wars; and the cold wars. But its influence on our lives today extends much further than the constant wars of today. A series of interlocking agreements among the major powers of Europe, involved the UK (through its alliance with the France), and what might have been another struggle for power among continental European nations became a world war that led to the mobilization of 70 million military personnel (60 million in Europe) and though fought mainly in Western and Eastern Europe, also saw fighting in the Middle East and Africa, and its consequences still resonate.

It became essentially a power struggle between a fast rising power, Germany, seeking to break out of the “status quo” box it felt itself in against the three  powers that embodied that status quo, the UK, France and Russia, all of which had a strategic interest in limiting German power and protecting the status quo. This common strategic interest concealed their very different status quos, but it was the UK’s status quo as the major conservative power in the world - the lead industrial nation, projecting its power around the world through its so-called “Pax Britannica,” basing its success on its political ethic of parliamentary democracy and law - that the Germans perceived as the block to their ambitions. This perception turned the war from a European power struggle to a war of cultures, and it soon involved much of the rest of the world.

There it is - the concept of culture wars, a concept which dominates our discourse, our politics and our lives in the 21st century. It is difficult to look back almost 120 years and see the culture wars of today in the events of over a century ago, but in fact fundamental conflicts were developing even then in most areas of social activity. It can be seen in the rise of modernism in the arts which created much push back even towards the end of the 19th century; look, for example, at the scandal that first greeted the impressionist painters in the 1870s, who presented a new way of looking at and seeing visual reality. Impressionist music, e.g. Debussy, and impressionist writing followed. Perhaps the symbolic defining moment when the challenge to the status quo was clear came in May 1913 when Igor Stravinsky’s atonal, polyrhythmic ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring) caused a protest riot when it was performed for the first time in Paris.

As in painting, in which impressionism only led to more progressive styles — neo-impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism — modernism brought new breakthroughs in music and writing. From the arts, modernism spread to most other parts of human social consciousness; liberation was the theme, emancipation became the motif in many areas of social activity, for women, for youth, for workers, in sexual mores, between generations, in politics. As could be expected, there was push back to this impulse for modernization when it came to social activity and personal behaviour, and certainly in politics.

In the end, people have joined in cultural tribes based, in part, on their responses to modernization. It is interesting, however, that the implication of the history of how and why World War I started would imply that Germany opposed modernism. Quite the opposite is true. After its defeat in 1918, and despite the vindictive peace treaty (more below on that), it was radically modern during the years of the Weimar Republic, at least in its cities, and especially in Berlin. The best depiction of this I have seen is the movie Cabaret. The rural areas of Germany may have been largely populated by an anti-modernist tribe, to which the Nazis appealed. The Nazi era was a very nasty interruption, but Germany, at least the western part, is again quite modernist. The eastern part, a former communist state that lived almost in a vacuum without much interaction with the modern world developing in the west is another story, or perhaps just a continuation of an anti-modernist tribe.

World War I also brought the British and French into the Middle East in very counterproductive ways, drawing borders that suited them, dividing up between them the Muslim lands as their colonies or protectorates. It created a Palestine protectorate that has been since the late 1940s a serious political problem for the Middle East. These actions were validated by the Versailles Treaty. And some part of the serious problems and wars in that region now are the result of arbitrary borders and arbitrary rule in the inter-war period.

World War II was, in a sense, just a continuation of World War 1. The vindictive nature of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally closed the war, forced on an already humiliated Germany reparations beyond its ability to pay, combined with the world depression and the toxic lures of Hitler’s Nazi demagoguery, brought Hitler to power in 1933. John Maynard Keynes had warned in his 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace that a generous peace was required for the well-being of all of Europe, and the vindictive peace treaty would lead to disaster.

But what I find most worrisome in this narrative is the tribalism that has come to politics. Political tribalism, known better as excessive partisanship, is common now in almost all countries. The US is now paralyzed by it. We will be tested severely by the current move by Democrats in the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump. The Republican tribe seems incapable of breaking with him despite the mounting evidence of his culpability. And more worrisome is the right-wing extremists who have increased political space because of his tacit support, and many of whom embrace violence. If he is impeached, even if he is not convicted by the Senate which seems very likely, I fear that right wing extremist violence will increase, and that the words “culture wars” will take on a more literal meaning.

The writer is an American diplomat and Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.