The international scene today recalls the infamous ‘sleepwalk’ to war before 1914, argues historian Chris Bambery.
As President Xi Jinping of China bade farewell to Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Kyiv to meet the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Last month Kishida predicted: “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” He might well be right.
Watching these two visits I was reminded of The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, first published in 2012 and widely hailed a modern classic of historical scholarship. It was written in response to conventional histories which seek to blame one state above others of igniting the Great War; usually Germany.
Sleepwalking in 2014
By the centenary of WW1 much conventional wisdom held that Britain went to war because Germany invaded Belgium and committed atrocities there. Ignoring British and Belgian colonial atrocities for a minute (which were far, far greater than those the Germans committed in Belgium), the Royal Navy had already been sent to protect the Channel and Atlantic coast of France, after it went to war with Germany, and for years Britain had planned with France that in event of such a war the British Army would be sent across the Channel. All the European powers had drawn up such plans and made such commitments to their allies.
This was Clark’s key point. No European power in the summer of 1914 wanted war (Austro-Hungary is a possible exception). Few would have thought that the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian heir would lead to such a cataclysmic conflict – but it did.
As he writes: “There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” (P561).
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand occurred in the Balkans, which had been an arena for international confrontations for decades, with three Powers – Austro-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire facing off against each other. By the summer of 1914 Germany was committed to supporting its neighbour and the Ottomans, while Russia was backed up by Britain and France.
Clark outlines the evolution of a fundamentally divided Europe through the German-Austrian Dual Alliance of 1879 (extended later to Italy), the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain in 1904, and the convention of 1907 between Britain and Russia. These were, Clark argues, “watchful calculated steps” that states made in the years preceding the outbreak of war (somewhat contradicting the sleepwalking metaphor).
In this reading Europe at the start of the 20th century was trapped into a system of alliances created to prevent rival powers gaining advantage. Britain, for instance, entered a naval arms race with Germany, which it won. But in securing its cherished naval supremacy, Britain was drawn into an alliance with its old enemies France and Russia, and so guaranteed itself a place in a continental land war. Long before Sarajevo it was committed to war if one or other was at war with the Central Powers.
This entire system of international alliances was highly unpredictable, characterised by mutual distrust with each power balancing between interdependency and competing national interests.
Europe to the Pacific
That is not a bad way to understand how war came to Ukraine. It doesn’t diminish the outrageous character of Putin’s invasion to note that it too related to such an international system of alliances, emerging from years of similar unpredictability and distrust, caused in large part by NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics.
The grid of alliances is global, and shifts in one theatre can result in explosions halfway around the world. Never has it been so apparent that tensions in eastern Europe are closely linked to those in the Pacific. There is an arms race and an arms build-up going on in the Pacific and South China Sea, plus the creating of military alliances, reminiscent of Europe pre-1914. Last month the US signed a treaty with the Philippines, as Geographical reports:
“The USA is manoeuvring to place China in a ‘straitjacket’ designed to restrict its ability to bend neighbouring states to its will.
“US forces will now have access to four military camps in addition to the five they already use on a non-permanent basis. This will allow them to better monitor Chinese military activity in the region, to pre-position heavy weapons and to surge forces to key locations during times of high tension. The two countries will also partially integrate their command structures and increase their ability to carry out combined operations. US military parlance calls this ‘setting the theatre’. The Philippines’ position in territorial disputes with China will be strengthened and signals the fact that Manila has made its choice in which way to lean in the key geopolitical strategic contest of the 21st century. The deal also plugs the gap in the arc of pro-American countries that begins in Japan and stretches down to Australia via Taiwan.”
The US and its regional allies look to be blocking China’s access to the Pacific: “Looking out to sea, China sees a wall consisting of islands and US naval power, which, together with America’s allies, could deny it free movement into the Pacific. The archipelagos that stretch from northern Japan all the way down to south of the Philippines are known as the First Island Chain. The gaps between the islands are narrow enough to allow America’s fleet to control entry and exit between them.”
China is the world’s biggest exporter. Blocking sea routes out to the Pacific is a very big deal for Beijing. It also faces an alliance linking the US with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Chinese warships manoeuvre against American ones, their aircraft fly into air space claimed by Taiwan, encountering American warplanes. This is only one of numerous possible Sarajevos – flashpoints where unforeseen or apparently isolated incidents lead to a more generalised or multifaceted conflict.
The British Connection
It this all seems a long way from Britain, it shouldn’t. The British state is up to its neck in the system of alliances around the US. Back in April 2019 the Stockholm based Institute for Security and Development Policy pointed out the UK maintained a significant military presence in the Pacific and South China Sea:
“The British Armed Forces have a regional defense staff and a naval logistics facility in Singapore, while the British Army’s jungle warfare training installation, complete with a battalion of Gurkhas, is located in Brunei. Singapore and Brunei are both littoral countries of the South China Sea. Just beyond the South China Sea, the UK has military facilities in Nepal and on the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia. All these military facilities combine to form the UK’s ‘strategic array’ of military facilities linking back to the British home islands. Furthermore, the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) involves the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore…Its military presence in various forms demonstrates the strategic importance of the South China Sea to the UK.”
Back in September 2021 Britain joined the US and Australia in AUKUS, a joint programme to provide Australia with nuclear submarines to patrol the Pacific. Each with the capability to carry and fire nuclear missiles.
In January Rishi Sunak and Fumio Kishida signed a UK-Japanese Reciprocal Access Agreement which commits Britain to deploying armed forces to Japan. This followed the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), a UK-Japan-Italy partnership to deliver next generation combat fighter jets.
After the signing Kishida flew straight to Washington to strengthen further still the already deep US-Japan alliance, aligning Japan with US plans to defend Taiwan from China.
Since then, Sunak and French President Macron have agreed a joint naval taskforce, headed by the aircraft carriers Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth, which will be sent to the Pacific arena.
Long gone are the days when Britain could send its gunboats to force the Chinese Empire to lift its ban on the mass import of devastatingly addictive opium. But by integrating forces into this new ring of steel around the South Pacific and China, the British government has placed our forces on the most dangerous front line in the world, outside that in Ukraine.
Perhaps sensing that all was not well in the apparently peaceful European scene – the so called Belle Epoque – of the late 1800s and early 1900s, A.E. Housman wrote The Idle Hill of Summer as part of his Shropshire Lad collection. It opens:
“On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.”
Perhaps there are fewer such perceptive voices among the western elite today, gripped by war fever again. But anyone paying attention can hear a faint drumming in 2023.