Professor Sir Adam Roberts on the Military and Political Challenges of 1914 and 2014

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  • 2014•10•20

    In this video Professor Sir Adam Roberts, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, Oxford University, and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, joins UNU Rector David M. Malone to discuss the influence of the events of 1914 on contemporary political challenges.

    Sir Adam Roberts begins by noting the element of chance that triggered the First World War when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. This, combined with other factors of the time such as a general belief in social Darwinism — manifested in the need for nations to prove their superiority by acquiring empires — all contributed to the war. Sir Roberts uses these examples to illustrate that “great disasters always have multiple causes”.

    Sir Roberts links the events of 1914 to 2014, by pointing out how the First World War had begun, quite ironically, as an “anti-terrorist” war, with the British on the same side as the “terrorists”. Although this draws a seemingly clear parallel to the ongoing struggle with global terrorism, the world has indeed changed in the subsequent 100 years and the end of the First World War introduced a new international system, which had global political consequences stretching to the Far East, for example China, who in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, felt that Japan was left with too much control.

    While the international system has evolved, there are still significant similarities and differences that are essential to address in order to refrain from repeating past mistakes. One particularly striking resemblance is the rise of competitive nationalism, with examples including the issues in the South China Sea between China and Japan, and the way in which terrorism continues to contribute to initiation of wars. However, Sir Roberts emphasizes two important indicators of difference in the political status quo of 1914 and 2014: the dramatic decline of international wars and the collective approach to security taken by nation states, embodied in international institutions such as NATO.

    As a final remark, Sir Roberts acknowledges the changing nature of the origins of conflicts in the post-1914 era. Although national self-determination still plays a serious role in international affairs, Sir Roberts states that all conflicts in the world after 1914 are characterized by post-colonialism. This applies to the failure of establishing sustainable boundaries and constitutional frameworks, the African colonies, complications in Northern Ireland, and more recently to the attempts of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to take over the Kurdish city Kobane in Syria.