This month has seen the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the conflict that was supposed to end all wars. Unfortunately, it never did – as we well know. Here in 2014, a century on, we again face the prospect of global conflict – but an altogether different one in concept.
Its interesting that the first quarter of each century for the last 500 years, from the time of the 30 Years War of the 17th Century, has seen a major upheaval that has set the political and social landscape for the remainder of the century (an idea promoted in the excellent book ‘2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis’ by Nicholas Boyle.) For instance, in the case of the 30 Years War, we saw an end to the temporal and spiritual hegemony of medieval Christendom under the Papacy with the culmination of the reformation and the establishment of the modern nation-state, after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that brought that war to end. The following centuries saw the ‘Enlightenment’ and the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars (the latter of which led to Britain’s ascendency as the world super-power), whilst 1914-18 led to the decline of British hegemonial power, the rise of 20th Century Totalitarianism and the ascendency of the US as the guarantor of international security.
Why should the early years of the 21st Century be any different? As Boyle explains in his book, the first quarter of the new century is when the generation born in the latter part of the previous one come to power and influence, leading to a change of ideas which in turn leads to a conflict as these ideas become contested.
However, this time around, as Jonathan Sacks rather brilliantly pointed out in an article yesterday (‘The hate that starts with the Jews never ends there’, The Times, Saturday 16th August 2014), the ideas which appear to be in conflict now are spiritual in nature. In other words, the main cause of the conflicts we see springing up around us are based on religion – with the exception, maybe, of the conflict in Ukraine, which appears to be bear more relation to the ‘Great Game’ confrontation that helped to fuel WW1 in that part of the world, as Vladimir Putin works to protect Russian strategic and hegemonial influence in and around the Black Sea, much as his Tsarist predecessors attempted to.
Contrast this with the main cause of WW1 100 years ago, where the main idea in contest was that one nation could dominate by industrial might and superiority. This was about Germany, the newly-united upstart power-house, taking on the Industrial Superpower of the 19th Century – Great Britain. Although Germany could have dominated Europe (as it does now) by pure economic might if it had so chosen to do, it instead elected the path of confronting Britain and other powers on the pretext of the nationalist crisis that arose out of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. How much the cause of this war was down to political machinations, secret diplomacy and misunderstanding still remains a cause for debate. However, the root cause seems to be that of the ‘young pretender’ taking on the ‘old King’ as to who controlled the idea of who wielded global power in the 20th Century political landscape, as exemplified by the naval arms race that led up to the start of hostilities in 1914. The result was, of course, the first truly modern war involving a clash of civilisations and fought with all the truly horrific attributes of a modern industrialised society.
Now, in the 21st Century, we are seeing the beginnings of a new conflict of ideas but not one about who controls industrial supremacy. We are now in the post-industrial Information Age, based on the new technologies which we saw emerge at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present. Yet, ironically, this has led to the re-emergence of some old, once thought forgotten conflicts and hatreds. As Sacks states, this is not ‘an age of secular ideologies.’ In many ways, the rise of the ability to trade information at the click of a button has, perversely, led to a re-emergence of spirtual ideas which are postively medieval in appearence. It has become a reversal of the conflict that occurred in the 17th Century, yet still has the propensity to cause a serious threat to our secularised Western democracies.
Yet it goes even further than this, as the end of the hegemonial structure that created the stability of the Cold War ideological ‘clash of civilisations’ has led to a far more fragmented, multi-polar world where spiritual ideology has attempted to step in to replace secularism. And of course, this has seen the re-appearence of old hatreds and prejudices underlined by tribalism and prejudice, as we see with the sudden rise of the Islamic State and their horrific persecution of Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims in Iraq. Robert D. Kaplan, in his 1994 article ‘The Coming Anarchy‘, appeared broadly correct in his predictions that this would underline the nature of conflict in the 21st Century (see Dominic Sandbrook’s article in The Daily Mail on this point.)
Although this might seem to be something restricted to the Middle East and distant from us here in the UK, we must bear in mind that all this occurs on Europe’s doorstep and that it can, and has, affected us in our now globalised, information-based world. What we are seeing now is probably a repeat of the same pattern that has emerged at the beginning of each century for the past half-millenium – but this time very much framed in spiritual terms.
David Cameron spoke today in The Sunday Telegraph about the threat posed by the rise of IS and how it will affect us on the ‘streets of Britain’ in terms of terrorism. But I am sure the nature of the challenge goes much deeper than just ‘terrorism’ alone. Perhaps Samuel Huntington was largely right: we are seeing a civilisation clash. However, it is more than just one of ‘Christianity Vs Islam’ as he framed it. Instead, it appears to be one of secular versus spiritual power that we are facing: a struggle which could prove to be as catastrophic and epoch-making as was the one that was marked this month 100 years ago…