The World Before World War II Re-Emerges
Instability runs rampant across the Eurasian landmass today at a level unseen since the years leading up to World War II.
The Eurasian landmass is in crisis. The last time the world looked like this was on the eve of World War II. Crises simmering in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and China are beginning to interact with each other. There is nothing to stop the momentum of these crises. The global order is poised for a major reconfiguration. That will not necessarily mean a new world war, but the possibility of war cannot be dismissed.
• The instability that preceded World War II was similar to the conditions that prevail in Eurasia today.
• Russia, China, the Middle East and Europe all face varying degrees of political, economic, social and institutional crisis. These crises are beginning to interact.
• The United States was an emerging power on the eve of World War II; it is the global hegemon today. Then, as now, it will avoid direct intervention until the last possible moment.
• There appears to be nothing that can or will halt the momentum of these crises.
Almost 5 billion of the 7.4 billion people on Earth live on the Eurasian landmass. It is the heartland of humanity. Eurasia has always been a turbulent place, but over the last few years its turbulence has taken on a new and more ominous form. Various parts of Eurasia have destabilized, and the destabilized areas are beginning to interact. The last time we saw this happening was prior to World War II. This isn’t to say that we are necessarily heading toward a Eurasian war. It does mean that we have entered a new historical phase, and that new phase carries with it dramatically increasing risks. At the very least we are entering a phase where the global system is shifting in fundamental ways. When the human heartland comes under intense pressure, humanity as a whole shifts.
Currently, Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East are destabilizing. The destabilization in Europe is economic, social and institutional. In Russia, it is economic and strategic. China’s destabilization is economic and social. The Middle East is destabilizing culturally and militarily. What is happening in China is different from what is happening in the Middle East.
But they are both struggling with transformations they can’t control and can’t stop. The Middle East sinks into war, China into dictatorship. But there is an underlying reality they are both dealing with – instability. The instability leading up to World War II ended in general warfare. Today’s instabilities may heal, or remain separate. They could also turn into a range of interlocking instability or even escalate to war, which should never be excluded as a possibility.
Before World War II
The causes of World War II predated World War I. In fact, we should think of World War I and World War II as one war with a truce, as has been said. World War II simply continued World War I and spread it to the rest of Eurasia.
There were three causes of World War II. One was the rise of a new set of powers – Germany, Japan and the United States – that needed to redefine the global system. None had been significant powers in the 19th century. Germany and the United States had changed the global economic order and by 1914 were pressing for a restructuring of the global system, particularly redefining the British and French empires. After World War I, Germany recovered from its defeat, Japan emerged as a first-rate power and the United States continued to be uneasy with the established powers and the new emerging powers.
The second cause was the economic consequences of World War I. The collapse of Germany and the human and financial costs of the war for France and Britain created massive economic dislocation. This was exacerbated because Germany, which had been a dominant trading power, could no longer export or import. Russia underwent a revolution that further disrupted economic life and opened the door to destabilizing political movements. Populations that had lived through the slaughter of World War I were caught in economic failure and mainstream regimes were confronted by radical parties. This was underway in China, Japan and India as well.
The third cause flowed from the first two. World War I had created bitter distrust among European countries. The collapse of the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Romanoff and Ottoman empires after defeat in the war had created a large number of newly independent countries, none of which trusted each other. Their foreign policies were highly unpredictable. In addition, the global economic decline following World War I caused nationalism to rise in all countries, on the assumption that it was every man for himself. Nationalism manifested in different ways, from an indolent French nationalism to a virulent German one. International tensions and economic dysfunction radicalized and fragmented the European system.
The American position was the most important. The United States went into a deep depression in 1929. Its political system shuddered but didn’t break. It was not isolationist, as most people think. It simply sought to avoid a European war. It was deeply involved in East Asia politically and militarily. By minimizing internal unrest and enjoying its distance from Eurasia, it was in a position to avoid engaging Eurasia unless and until required, while struggling to rebuild its economy.
In the decade before war broke out, Europe had been economically shattered. Russia was undergoing forced industrialization and brutal repression. The Middle East was dominated by the British and some looked to Germany as a solution. China was mired in warlordism and civil war and, by the 1930s, a war with Japan. Japan’s industrialization had surged, but its political system had been radicalized by the rise of the military’s political power and its militaristic ideology. All of these crises were interconnecting. The Soviets were destabilizing Europe ideologically and politically. The Europeans and Americans were involved in China. The United States and Japan competed economically and prepared for a possible war with each other.
In history, nothing is simply the same as it was before, yet the broad trends can be similar.
The United States is now at the heart of the international establishment. New powers are rising to challenge the world the United States constructed after World War II. China has emerged as a major economic power and a rising military power. Russia, after its collapse at the end of the Cold War, has also re-emerged as a rising power, wanting to redefine the international system.
And various strands of the Islamic world are looking to redefine the international system, first by trying to construct a coherent Islamic regime in the Middle East and then by posing a broader challenge.
The financial crisis of 2008 has created systemic instability throughout the world. The contraction of the global economy in the wake of the financial crisis and its failure to resume robust growth struck all exporting countries. China was the most badly hit because it was most dependent on exports. The Chinese economic problem led to decreased demand for industrial commodities, particularly oil. This led ultimately to a collapse of commodity prices, which particularly struck at Russia and Saudi Arabia, destabilizing the Middle East further. The financial crisis struck Europe particularly hard and the European Union had to reconcile the interests of southern European countries with those of Germany. Some areas of Europe plunged into recession, while others continued to do fairly well.
Under this economic pressure, the social and political glue started to disintegrate. In Europe, the nationalism of each country rose under divergent economic interests. And the question of where decisions are made on matters like immigration made people realize that the EU was taking sovereignty away from individual countries. That was all fine when giving away sovereignty didn’t mean anything, but once it meant you had to carry out immigration policy according to Brussels, not Budapest or Warsaw, it became a problem. Nationalist and anti-immigration parties surged.
In Russia, economic problems combined with strategic problems to increase the power of the state and the use of military force. In China, a dictatorship was imposed and a massive purge is being carried out to frighten any potential enemy of the regime. Naval activities in the South and East China seas drew Southeast Asia into confrontations with China. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage potentially destabilizing jihadist groups through financial incentives decreased, and wars intensified throughout the region.
These various regional crises are now beginning to interact. The conflict in the Middle East is generating a huge flow of migrants to Europe. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over 2 million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2014. Europe has also seen several jihadist attacks, and European countries like France and Germany have deployed some forces in the Middle East. Russia is engaged in the Middle East as well, while simultaneously maintaining support for anti-West forces in Ukraine. It has conducted maneuvers near the Baltics and its aircraft are patrolling deep into the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The Chinese economic crisis has reverberated throughout Eurasia. Since China’s foreign exchange reserves almost hit $4 trillion in June 2014, they have fallen to $3.2 trillion, the lowest figure since 2011. Meanwhile, the Chinese have confronted Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia over sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas.
Two areas in Eurasia have thus far avoided involvement. India, barricaded behind the Himalayas in the north and the jungles to the east, has not been involved in the crises of surrounding countries beyond Pakistan. Nor has it had an extraordinary internal crisis.
The other area is Central Asia, which has not yet fully participated in these crises. But it is in the process of entering crisis mode, in large part due to the collapse of oil prices, which has weakened central governments and generated regional hostility. But there are ample signs that the pressures from falling oil revenue, increasing Russian influence in the area, Chinese interest and activities by jihadist groups will destabilize Central Asia as well.
Therefore, with the exception of India, which was only marginally involved in pre-war and wartime events during World War II, the entire region is destabilizing. We need to consider each individually and in detail to see what the destabilization is about.
A Closer Look at Each Region
Europe’s destabilization comes from a fundamental flaw in the European Unions’ founding. It linked together wildly different economies and societies in a single structure, with the euro as the most extreme example. Consequently, when a financial crisis came, as such crises always do, Europe had to craft a single policy that covered the needs of northern and southern European economies. A single policy was impossible, and the policies placed southern Europe at an extreme disadvantage, creating a regional depression.
The divergence in national interests created a second problem. Sovereign nations reclaimed their right to make decisions independent of central EU policies, as we saw in the migrant crisis. The pre-World War II movement from economic failure to radical nationalism is therefore underway again in Europe, with old intra-European conflicts re-emerging. An emerging crisis is Germany’s hyper-dependence on exports. Exports account for 46.9 percent of its GDP in a world where demand for manufactured goods is stagnant or declining. If German exports fall, so does German GDP and unemployment will rise.
In Russia, the core problems are strategic and economic. Strategically, Russia has always maintained a buffer zone from the Baltics to Ukraine. The Baltics have been absorbed by NATO, and events in Ukraine convinced the Russians that the West was trying to absorb it as well. The loss of the buffer zone, in at least a neutral form, undermines Russian national security. However, the near simultaneous collapse of oil prices revealed that Russia had failed, once again, to create a modern economy out of the flow of money when oil prices were high. As a result, Moscow’s control over Russia’s peripheral regions through financial support from the center is in danger, and so is Russia’s political cohesiveness. During periods of weakness, Russia historically has tried to compensate by focusing on its external power. This has led it to engage in the Middle East.
The Middle East
In the Middle East, the story is simple. First, the countries created by the British and French after World War I are dissolving. They were artificial nation-states in the first place, which is why only dictators could control them. Second, the underlying culture of the region, Islam, is replacing the secularly oriented political culture shaped by the British. The new Middle East is dissolving and it is being replaced by an old one. During World War II, there was a rise in Islamic consciousness as well as an anti-British and therefore pro-German sentiment. In the Middle East, the situation is actually similar to what it was during World War II.
China is experiencing the same type of slowdown that Japan did around 1990. The idea that China could indefinitely continue to experience the growth of the last 30 years was irrational.
But it was irrational not only for structural reasons, but because hundreds of millions of Chinese have participated very little in the economic growth and now know that they never will. The coastal region, which has participated, resists the transfer of wealth to the interior.
The interior demands rectification. The danger here is that China will return to the regionalism it experienced from the late 1800s to 1947. To avoid that, China is imposing a dictatorship along with a purge. Simultaneously, it has increased activities in the South and East China seas, which, like Russia’s excursions abroad, are more designed to shape domestic public opinion than to actually enter a shooting war. China is struggling to keep the pre-war regionalism from re-emerging.
Each major Eurasian region is in crisis. Each crisis is different. But all of the regions have destabilized. They have done so in different ways and to different degrees. We are not anywhere near an all-inclusive war, and we may never get there, but the entire landmass is off balance with social and economic problems, dramatic internal political shifts and in some regions, military conflicts. It is clear that we are entering a fundamental shift in how the world works.
The United States
The world differs in this sense. Prior to the world wars, the United States was one of the nations seeking a shift in the international system. The old establishment in Europe was struggling to hold on. Today the United States has become the anchor of the established international order. It produces almost a quarter of the world’s GDP. It has the only military with global reach. It is pulled into all problems in one role or another. China, Russia and even Europe want U.S. power limited.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States became the only global power. It anticipated a period of pleasant self-absorption. But 9/11 ended that, and the United States responded with a massive intervention in the Islamic world. It failed to solve the problem of Islamist terrorism. The United States has since shifted from a strategy of intervention with main force to very light interventions, relying on powers in the region to manage the major burden.
It is impossible for the U.S. to manage the world. Its power is great, but it is not omnipotent. Nor is every conflict in the world an American issue. Therefore, the United States is moving to a position in which it manages regional balances of power and intrudes much more lightly than before. This is not isolationism, but the adoption of the British and Roman models of rare and limited interventions and support for regional powers to maintain balance.
Before the U.S. entered WWII, it expected the European war to descend into the stalemate of World War I. With the sudden collapse of France, the U.S. faced an unexpected situation. It intervened, but only on the periphery of the battle, in North Africa, Italy and the Pacific. It intervened directly against Germany, identified as the main adversary, at Normandy in 1944, when it brought its main force to bear, less than a year before the end of the war. It used its industrial base to support Britain and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets executing the major fighting.
The American disengagement from Eurasia puts the U.S. in the same position it was in prior to 1941 and 1917. It relies on regional balances to either contain or fight regional conflicts. It provides military aid, economic assistance and limited military forces to help. And it reserves major intervention for extreme situations and at the last practical moment. The rest of the world expects American involvement, but in the new era it will come in a very different form.
The widespread instability in Europe, China, Russia and the Middle East – all part of Eurasia – is something we haven’t seen since before World War II. The instability takes different forms and has not reached a critical stage. Still, economic and social crises are common and fighting is taking place, to some extent, in the Middle East and on Russia’s borders and military activities are going on in China’s coastal waters. These conflicts have not flowed into a single conflagration, but have begun to interact. Most interesting is that the United States is returning to its pre-World War II posture.
The single most dangerous factor is that there are no apparent arrestors. There are no clear forces that can stop the fighting in the Middle East, the EU internal crisis, the Russian economic and strategic crisis or the Chinese political, social and economic crises. Without arrestors, the crises will continue and intensify. There doesn’t seem to be a force to contain it.
Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that we are seeing a mounting crisis in Eurasia.
Should it continue, it will mean a reconfiguration of this region, as it was reconfigured by World War II.