Learn­ing from the mis­takes that led to war

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Eu­ge­nio Bre­go­lat The au­thor is for­mer Span­ish am­bas­sador to China.

Acen­tury ago, on Nov 11, 1918, at 11 am Paris time (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month), the armistice con­firm­ing the to­tal sur­ren­der of Ger­many to the Al­lies came into ef­fect, putting an end to World War I. It had been signed five hours be­fore at Rethon­des in the forests of Com­piègne near Paris in­side a rail­road wagon.

On June 22, 1940, the same rail­road wagon would host the sign­ing of a sec­ond armistice; this time, France would sur­ren­der to Ger­many. That restau­rant car of the Com­pag­nie des Wagon­sLits sym­bol­izes the drama and folly of Eu­ro­pean his­tory in the 20th cen­tury.

Nine mil­lion sol­diers and 7 mil­lion civil­ians were killed. Af­ter four years of un­told suf­fer­ing and car­nage, Eu­ro­pean youths lay un­der the fields. Three im­pe­rial crowns and half a mil­len­nium of Eu­ro­pean geopo­lit­i­cal pre­dom­i­nance ac­com­pa­nied them to their grave. All the Eu­ro­pean pow­ers in­volved lost, even those that hap­pened to be on the “win­ning” side. Had the ac­tors of the drama been pre­scient enough to an­tic­i­pate the land­scape af­ter the bat­tle, no­body would have dared to start it.

US diplo­mat and his­to­rian Ge­orge Ken­nan’s The Fate­ful Al­liance, pub­lished in 1984, is a good read to re­flect on the les­sons to be drawn from that war. He points out to “the in­abil­ity of oth­er­wise in­tel­li­gent men to per­ceive the in­her­ently self-de­struc­tive qual­ity of war­fare among the great in­dus­trial pow­ers of the mod­ern age”, and how they suf­fered “a ter­ri­ble penalty for their lim­i­ta­tion of vi­sion”. And he de­nounces how “the un­jus­ti­fied as­sump­tion of war’s like­li­hood be­came the cause of its in­evitabil­ity” — a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy.

Split­ting Eu­rope into two mil­i­tary al­liances — which, once in place, de­vel­oped a mo­men­tum of their own — led to dis­as­ter. To split again the world in blocs, whether eco­nomic or mil­i­tary, would be to re­peat the mis­take of the Eu­ro­pean coun­tries at the be­gin­ning of the last cen­tury. The “pivot”, Obama’s ver­sion of con­tain­ment tar­geted at China, had an eco­nomic leg, the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. The Fi­nan­cial Times called it “ABC, any­one but China”.

For­mer US deputy sec­re­tary of state Robert Zoel­lick said that “at­tempts to iso­late China will in­evitably fail, since all the mem­bers of TPP are great ben­e­fi­cia­ries of their re­la­tions with China”. And for­mer US sec­re­tary of state Henry Kissinger said China had to be ad­mit­ted to TPP and warned: “If a global eco­nomic or­der does not ap­pear, ob­sta­cles in the field of se­cu­rity might be­come un­sur­mount­able”. For­mer Sin­ga­pore prime min­is­ter Lee Kuan Yew was more ex­plicit: “Pro­tec­tion­ism un­der the shel­ter of re­gion­al­ism will breed con­flicts or even wars”.

Much worse would be the for­ma­tion of new mil­i­tary blocs. In May, the US Pa­cific Com­mand be­came the “Indo-Pa­cific Com­mand”, an at­tempt to en­list Ja­pan, In­dia and Aus­tralia to con­tain China. It is not yet clear, though, whether th­ese coun­tries, with close eco­nomic links with China, will fol­low the US lead. Ken­nan said that in the nu­clear age “if gov­ern­ments are still un­able to rec­og­nize that mod­ern na­tion­al­ism and mod­ern mil­i­tarism are, in com­bi­na­tion, self­de­struc­tive forces, and ... if they are in­ca­pable of bring­ing them un­der con­trol ... they will be pre­par­ing, this time, a catas­tro­phe from which there can be no re­cov­ery and no re­turn ... our fail­ure will be fi­nal — for our­selves and for all fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

On Sept 13, Kissinger said that, talk­ing about US-China re­la­tions: “The is­sue is not vic­tory, here the is­sue is con­ti­nu­ity, and world or­der, and world jus­tice, and to see whether our coun­tries can find a way of talk­ing about it to each other.” This vi­sion dove­tails with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s con­cepts of a com­mu­nity with a shared fu­ture for mankind and a new type of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, based on win-win co­op­er­a­tion.

What the world needs is not eco­nomic or mil­i­tary blocs, but peace­ful and in­clu­sive part­ner­ships; not con­fronta­tion, but co­op­er­a­tion; not con­tain­ment, but en­gage­ment. Dif­fer­ences, eco­nomic and oth­er­wise, can be ironed out through ne­go­ti­a­tion.

In­ter­viewed by Ed­ward Luce, of the Fi­nan­cial Times, on July 20, Kissinger said: “We are in a very, very grave pe­riod.” He was not more ex­plicit, but in view of the turn US pol­icy to­ward China is tak­ing, it is not dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what he meant. There is still time to avoid the griev­ous mis­takes that led Eu­rope to self-de­struc­tion a cen­tury ago.


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