Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Second Century of War Begins

When Pope Saint Pius X died, one hundred years ago today, Europe was already at war. The "Great War," as it came to be called (World War I, as it is known to us now), had just begun a few weeks earlier. It pitted the two ambitious rising powers, Germany and Russia against each other. Russia had as allies France (always looking for revenge against Germany), Belgium (whose neutrality Germany had violated in order to invade France), and Britain, the pre-eminent world power which had traditionally tried to maintain some sort of balance among the European powers. The kingdom of Italy was at that point still neutral, which was fortunate facilitating the attendance of cardinals from both sides of belligerents at the conclave that would quickly elect Pope Benedict XV. Of course, the politics of war were very much in evidence at that conclave. When German Felix Cardinal con Hartmann, Archbishop of Cologne, greeted Belgian Desire Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, he is supposed to have said, "I hope that we shall not speak of war." To that, Mercier is supposed to have replied, "And I hope that we shall not speak of peace."

Pope Saint Pius X's centenary comes one day after the 2000th anniversary of the death of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Augustus was the one who, having defeated all his rivals and consolidated Rome's power over the entire Mediterranean world, made possible the famous pax romana, which is celebrated in the Roman Martyrology's famous entry for Christmas, which dates the birth of Christ in the 42nd year of the empire of Octavian Augustus, when the whole earth was at peace.

Rarely, of course, has the whole earth ever really been at peace! Thomas Hobbes's famous image of "the state of nature" as a state of "war of all against all" may never have existed historically. What it is in fact is a symbol of what  is usually the case is in the absence of an effective power to maintain peace.  In civil societies, the State's sovereign power supplements the communal bonds that make society. In international relations, however, such bonds are lacking or at most very fragile, and there is usually little effective community and no sovereign power to supplement it. International peace presupposes either that everyone has been conquered by a single empire powerful enough to maintain peace within its confines (Augustus' Caesar's Rome) or else that a precarious balance of power can be maintained among competing international actors, which in turn usually requires some sort of Great Power policeman. Such was Britain's role in Europe in the century prior to World War I. Such was the role of the United States after World War II and again in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

Such arrangements, however, do not last forever. Rome's power declined and with it the unity, stability, and peace of the ancient Mediterranean world. Britain could not permanently check the rising power of Germany and Russia that turned a conflict between Austria and Serbia into a world war. And the United States today seems increasingly lill inclined to exercise the leadership role it not that long ago assumed as its inevitable role in the world.

International organizations obviously cannot effectively substitute for Great Power leadership. In the absence of Great Power leadership, whatever temporary stability and peace there is eventually tends to unravel. Thus, the worldwide century of war which began in the summer of 1914 seems likely to continue into another, second century.

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