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When the archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the world slided toward one of the greatest conflicts ever. Our associate Milena Milicevic talked to a Cambridge historian, prof. Christopher Clark about the relevance of this big anniversary for our understanding of the present world during his recent visit to Belgrade. Prof. Clark is the author of many books, most recently, The Sleepwakers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, and is one of the leading historians globally.
Christopher Clark: The events of 1914 are still the primary example of how terribly things can go wrong when communication ceases, trust is exhausted and political compromise becomes impossible. In that sense it is still a warning to us in the present. The Second World War is not the same, because we know that there was a particular regime – the Third Reich – with a racist and exterminatory vision of the future as well as political culture that was not just extremely violent but also affirmed the value of violence, and there is no riddle about how that all came about.
The First World War came about in a different way. So 1914 is about the riddle of how peace can become war without necessarily any single one of the actors actually attempting to achieve the kind of catastrophe that actually took place. That’s why 1914 is relevant today: we live in a multipolar, non-transparent and unpredictable world environment inhabited by a rising power (Germany in 1914 and China today) and a weary titan (London in 1914, Washington today) – think of President Barack Obama's recent speech at West Point, in which he announced a downscaling of the US commitment to global policing tasks. And don't forget the emergent regional powers: Turkey, Iran and so on … It’s a very complex world, it’s much less like the relatively predictable bipolar world of the Cold War and much more like the world of 1914. That’s why 1914 is fresher and more important than ever.
Christopher Clark: I think what we are facing is complexity. It is very difficult to read the international climate to predict the behaviour of individual actors. And that includes the EU. The EU is very complex, and it has a plurality of different subcultures which operate in semi-independence from one another. It has 28 member states, and it is at least as complex as the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was! So we have the problem of complexity, just as we did we in 1914.
I think, I must say, that the Ukrainian crisis is less threatening to world stability and world peace than has sometimes been claimed. But most important being, I think, that all the actors involved, including President Putin, who, at least since the annexation of Crimea, has actually shown relative restraint in dealing with Ukraine. Everybody is working from an understanding that the solution of the situation for the Ukraine has to be a complex constellation. It can't be an absolute solution. No “NATO Ukraine”, no completely “Russian Ukraine” - but something in between. Something that meets the interests not just of the Ukrainian communities – in the plural! – inside Ukraine, but also of Russia and of the EU and of the other interests involved. So, I don't see that as the main threat.
The conflict in the western Pacific is a more worrying crisis. Because there are great powers directly involved. We have seen a lot of rhetorical inflation, we have seen the sinking of a boat tension between Vietnam and China, the Philippines is involved and Japan is involved, not to mention Korea – all the local states are interlocked in complex ways through a set of connected, but actually distinct conflicts. That is a dangerous situation.