Does History Move or Repeat?

The last time I wrote something here, it concerned the continuation of the Arab Spring specifically in Libya.  It’s one month later and there is no change yet in Libya’s governance or what is left of it.  The rebels are strong enough to not be beaten, but then again, so are Quadaffi’s forces.  Unlike the protests and demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, etc., the Libyan situation seems entirely stalemated, and reliant on limited NATO involvement to keep things  . . . static.  And as I observed wonderingly a month ago, Libya is still pretty much non-news.

In a passing conversation with Schuyler, another Eleventh Stack contributor, we both commented on what the current state of world affairs as represented by the Arab Spring might portend for the world.

  • Is it a good thing?
  • Is it really a significant development?
  • Could the Arab populations establish democracies?
  • Had we seen anything like it before?
  • Is it good for the U.S.?

My observation was that perhaps we’re at a moment in time similar to what the world may have been like in the 20-30 years leading up to WWI.  Before anyone gets too depressed or alarmed, it’s not that I see a major war in the offing, but rather what we’re witnessing today has some historic parallels.  We are seeing a shifting of the relative strengths and influence of the major powers, much as occurred in the quarter century leading up to World War I: the emergence and challenge to British supremacy by Imperial Germany, and the simultaneous emergence of the United States as a military and industrial power, especially taking into account our emergence from the Civil War.  Today it’s the U.S. role as the sole-superpower, and does that really bring any advantages and freedom of action?  It’s also about the emergence of China (and India, Brazil, Russia?) as economic powers, and the lingering effects of the 2008 recession.

One of Schuyler’s comments stuck with me as we parted ways — something to the effect of  “Is there another Metternich today?”  For your edification, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich was an Austrian-German politician and diplomat.  His efforts as Chair of the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna established a European political order that remained largely in place until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, finally crumbling entirely in August 1914.

Crest of the Congress of Vienna

Congress of Vienna

It took over 100 years before some of the nations of the world met again to determine a practical course to peace — I’m excluding here the failed- before-it-started Kellog-Briand Pact of 1928.  Near the end of World War II the soon to be victorious Allies (The United Nations) met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. to arrange the structure of the soon to be established UN, including the Big 5 veto in the future Security Council.  Maybe this model has worked, though there’s a side of me (and others) who wonder if the UN wasn’t greatly helped along by the well defined bi-polar world of the Cold War.  Unlike the knife fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. seemed to have rules and structure to their conflict.  As the Chinese sometimes prophecy — we live in interesting times.

—Richard

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