First Global War, Then Global Revolution?
We humans are a strange lot — capable of brilliant perception, yet more likely to clumsily walk straight into a brick wall for not looking directly ahead. History repeats; it rhymes; it mocks. We choose to ignore it at our peril, yet we often do. So here we are once again within spitting distance of seeing another great war unfold (because WWI and II weren't devastating enough) as the U.S.-led West spars with Russia and China, and I can't help but wonder if the movers and shakers of the planet have mindlessly set to work digging their own graves.
Global wars tend to establish prominent markers separating human history as it was from what it became. Societies change. New ideas take hold. Economies transform. And rebellions always rise against the old, established orders that delivered misery and carnage on such a grand scale.
While England and France were duking it out for global domination during the Seven Years' War in the mid-eighteenth century, the American colonies were forging a national identity fighting side by side in the French and Indian War (which had started two years earlier). When the Brits later came calling on their "obedient" American subjects to pony up for new tax revenues needed to pay off debts accrued from nearly a decade of conflict against their steely-eyed froggy foes, colonists long accustomed to governing themselves without much Crown interference started speaking passionately about ideas of "liberty" and "independence" and "patriotism." No global war, no Stamp Act. No colonial cries of "no taxation without representation," then no Declaration of Independence defending "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Unintended consequences can be a kick in the rear for the status quo, eh?
While England lost most of North America, the French aristocracy fared far worse. By bankrolling the Americans' War for Independence, King Louis XVI put his nation on a path toward bankruptcy, the French Revolution, and the notorious Reign of Terror. In the process, he lost his own head in Revolution Square.
A war between the two great superpowers of the eighteenth century left one humiliatingly defeated by its American colonies and the other decapitated from power — quite literally! No Seven Years' War, then no War for American Independence the following decade. Two global powers went to war, and American freedom won the day.
Fall of the Empires:
World War I was no kinder to global powers. What started as an exercise in one-upmanship between third cousins Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II following the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and spiraled into an unparalleled slaughter as treaty alliances kicked into high gear, ultimately ended up taking down most of Europe's aristocratic dynasties by the time the bloody ordeal ended.
Do you think the early twentieth century's "elite" would have boisterously pressed their peasants to defend their countries' honor on the red poppy battlefields of Europe had those bluebloods understood that doing so would end up backfiring so spectacularly that four great empires — the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian — would end up being wiped from the map? Had the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Ottomans, and Romanovs known what lay ahead should they indulge in tit-for-tat brinkmanship on the European continent, they would have quietly given Ol' Franz a state funeral and moved on. Instead, their impulse to treat the world as a chessboard collapsed what was left of the feudal system and razed Europe's monarchies.
In their stead, a new middle class unbeholden to hereditary titles and caste expectations rose from the ashes of the Great War. National identities were chiseled from the breakup of kingdoms. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand stepped out from the shadow of their "mother country." The United States emerged as a global player. Communism transformed Russia into the Soviet Union. And from the early discussions outlined in the Balfour Declaration, the eventual statehood of Israel took root.
An ascendant United States of America and an indebted European continent swept up in vast social change beyond the control of "elites"? The loss of the Russian monarchy to a bunch of murdering crackpots? The return of a Jewish state? This is not what the foo-foo royals of Europe had in mind when they rode gallantly off to war, but it is what they had coming.
Rise of National Self-Determination:
If WWI proved that a hereditary aristocracy could no longer limit the growing self-awareness of an independent and empowered middle class, WWII and the half-century Cold War that followed proved that empire and conquest eventually lose out to national self-determination and the desire to be free. Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini, and Stalin divided the world among themselves in pursuit of global domination, but instead, they ignited nationalist movements seeking independence and liberation around the world.
Between 1492 and 1914, European empires had conquered 84% of the planet. After the destruction of WWII and the debilitating financial bankruptcies that swept through Europe, empire-building came to an end. Having forged national identities from the fires of war, European and Japanese colonies from Africa to South America sought recognition as new states. Two hundred million people across thirteen modern nation-states emerged from Imperial Japan's surrender. India won its independence from Britain in 1947. Israel declared statehood. And after a half-century of Soviet control that prolonged the agonies of WWII for tens of millions of people, the collapse of the USSR and the fall of the Iron Curtain brought independence for countries across Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic states. Between the end of WWII and the conclusion of Cold War hostilities, around a hundred independent nations came into existence. A handful of twentieth-century empire-builders set out to conquer the world, and they unwittingly unleashed the greatest drive for national self-determination in world history.
So let me ask: is it more likely that the European Union will transform its members into a single generic melting pot, or that those nation-states will rebel against the empire-builders of Europe once again? Is it more likely that the citizens of the United States will quietly submit as the federal government continues accruing unchecked powers for itself, or that some number of the fifty states will begin defending their sovereignty? Are we really observing the opening gambits in the next prolonged Cold War among NATO, Russia, and China? Or are we witnessing what happens throughout history when great powers stubbornly chase glory and world domination before their hegemony ultimately crumbles?
There are certain historical lessons that are so clear that it is astonishing to see them ignored time and time again. Never invade Russia in the dead of winter. Never get involved in a land war in Asia. And never sleepwalk into a global war, if you aren't prepared for global revolution to follow. However this lethal battle among Great Reset Western internationalism, Chinese communism, and Russian expansionism plays out, the old power structures will inevitably set in motion their own demise.
It can't be said enough: the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. What comes next once they do? Well, that's what we get to decide.
Image via Public Domain Pictures.