Hyperbole Watch

It's Not Another World War One

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By John Keegan
Sunday, July 30, 2006

WARMINSTER, England Is the conflagration in the Middle East a repeat of the escalating global hostilities of almost a century ago? Newt Gingrich asserted as much soon after the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah erupted, saying "We're in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War."

More than 60 percent of Americans now believe that the conflict in Lebanon will lead to a larger war. And the former House speaker's words have been echoed by columnists from across the political spectrum who are comparing what is happening today to the events that launched the great powers of Europe into World War I in 1914. Then, a seemingly isolated incident -- the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist -- set off a chain reaction that culminated in the Great War. Could another such incident -- Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers -- trigger a similar 21st-century cataclysm?

Having devoted my career to military history, I am certain that such speculation misses essential differences between 1914 and today. Then, the future combatants were linked by a network of mutual assistance treaties, obliging them to go to war if one of them was attacked. Today, despite the United States's commitment to protecting Israel, there is no parallel system of alliances in place.

The early 20th-century treaties in particular obliged Russia to go to war with Germany if France were attacked and obliged Germany to go to the aid of the Austro-Hungarian empire if it were attacked by Russia. There were other alliances: Britain had an understanding, though not a formal alliance, with France that committed it to send troops if the French were attacked. Most important, it had a longstanding commitment to defend Belgium if it were attacked by any power -- a commitment dating from Britain's involvement in procedures that had set up Belgium as an independent country in the 19th century.

With a deadly inevitability, these treaties triggered one another in July and August of 1914. Austria mobilized to attack Serbia, which it held responsible for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28.

Russia then mobilized its army against Austria, because it was committed to protecting its Slav brothers in Serbia. Germany then mobilized against Russia, and Russia's mobilization provoked that of France, which prompted the mobilization of Germany. When Germany invaded Belgium to forestall France's attack on Germany, as the Franco-Russian treaty required, Britain responded by warning Germany that it would go to war if German troops were not withdrawn from Belgium.

By the first week of August, all the leading states of Europe had gone to war, with the exception of Italy, which had wriggled out of its treaty responsibilities, and Spain, which did not belong to the system of alliances.

No such system operates in the Middle East today. The United States is committed to protecting Israel, but it does not have a mutual assistance treaty with that country. There are no alliances binding Syria to Lebanon or Iran to Syria. There is a treaty between Israel and Egypt, but it is a peace treaty. So there are no automatic diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East that will cause one country to go to war with another if a third is attacked.

Indeed, the undesirability of interstate relations lies in their informality, not their formality. All the Muslim states except Egypt are on hostile terms with Israel, but none is involved in a mutual assistance treaty guaranteed to bring on a war in the event of Israeli aggression. Instead of fixed and formal treaty arrangements, the nations of the Middle East coexist in a state of mutual suspicion and hostility -- hostility that may turn to war without warning, or without the specific conditions that treaties impose.

After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson, who had convinced himself that the treaty system in force in 1914 had been the cause of the war, proclaimed his demand for a system of "open agreements, openly arrived at" and set up the League of Nations to supervise such a system. As we now know, it did not work. The outbreak of World War II was the proof of that.

The world has good reason to fear trouble from the current situation in the Middle East. If it develops, however, it will not be as a result of treaty relationships between the local powers, but through unilateral and wholly undiplomatic action. Israel might attack Syria, which is a well-known sponsor of unofficial military organizations such as Hezbollah. There is also the danger of non-military but nonetheless destabilizing action by third-party states. If Israeli actions become too flagrantly punitive, Saudi Arabia might raise oil prices as a means of bringing in the United States to restrain Israel.

In the future, Iran might threaten to use the nuclear weapons it is keen to acquire against Israel, provoking nuclear retaliation. The Western powers are eager to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear state and count on diplomacy as a means of doing so. That would require treaties, which, if they could be made to work, would be highly beneficial. But at the moment there are none.

If the Middle East descends into mutual aggression as a result of the present crisis, it will not be because of similarities or analogies with World War I, but because leaders of states and non-state organizations are willing to run terrible risks.

Military historian John Keegan is author of "The First World War" (Vintage).


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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