Gavrilo Princip was no sharpshooter. He didn’t have to be. His target passed just feet in front of him. Princip plugged the heir to the Hapsburg throne in the jugular vein. Archduke Franz Ferdinand bled out in his car.
That single killing sparked a global slaughter. European security issues had grown so tangled, mangled and confused that no amount of statesmanship or diplomacy could keep the dogs of war at bay.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War that engulfed the world in violence, toppled nations and empires, and left millions starved or slaughtered. It offers modern civilization only one profitable lesson: If global peace is the goal, don’t live in world like that.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the European powers ensured general peace by each carving out its own sphere of influence and respecting those of the others. That arrangement generally worked, until the rise of Germany in the last quarter of the 19th century upset the status quo.
European powers then tried to safeguard their interests by entering a series of shifting alliances. The aim was to balance one power against another, but there were just too many points of friction. Europe drifted from one crisis to the next, until Princip’s bullet shattered the peace.
The conditions that led old Europe to destruction in 1914 are frighteningly similar to those prevailing globally at the start of this new year.
As U.S. power declines, a handful of middling powers are rising. None is capable of managing regional affairs on its own, yet each is struggling to carve its own sphere of exclusive influence and security. At the same time, each relies heavily on interdependent global economic activity.
This was the world of 1914. What makes us think that the current cast of national leaders will be any more skilled at managing this chaotic mess?
In the years ahead, the options open to today’s world leaders will look eerily—and disconcertingly—similar to the options available to European policymakers before the guns of August opened fire.
One choice is the quixotic, impractical and distracting assurance of relying on treaties and multilateral institutions to “manage” conflict for us. That offers no promise of preserving peace any better than disarmament, pacifism and binding arbitration — the fetishes of the early 19th century antiwar movement.
The second option is to mimic the 1914 balancing act of playing off powers against each other. That is the most unstable security architecture imaginable.
The best way to avoid an intractable security dilemma is to not allow the world remake itself in the mold of 1914 Europe.
No country has more of an opportunity to prevent the world from devolving into the cutthroat scrapping age that started last century than the United States.
First, the U.S. needs to get its economic house in order. Economic freedom in the United States has dropped an unprecedented seven years in a row, a dismal record matched by no other country.
Second, the U.S. needs to stop running away from protecting its vital interests. President Obama has squandered our hard-won victory in Iraq. He is about to do the same in Afghanistan. Both these tragic mistakes will cause America security troubles for years to come, and they aren’t the worst of the president’s many bad judgments.
A strong American economy and a strong foreign policy focused on protecting U.S. vital interests would be a great New Year’s resolution for the White House. More than restoring luster to a lackluster presidency, it would spare the world the threat of another world war.
JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. This piece originally appeared in the Examiner.