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June 18, 2021

Sarajevo not Munich

At this beginning of year 2014, the press all over the world and the blogs of many experts dedicated to international relations published plenty of evaluations of what happened the previous year or what might occur in the year that has just started. Usually because of insufficient space, but also because such evaluations reflect the difficulty of choosing the most representative events of the past or future, the authors only bring in the spotlight 3, 4, 5 or 10 of them. This way, they establish a hierarchy of importance – the most significant, those with the biggest impact etc. – in order to identify global or regional trends that will develop subsequently. The method yields results because it is obvious that, if during the year that passed major events were registered in a certain region of the globe – say the Mideast – then in 2014 surely the evolutions here will be in approximately the same registry (of course – and this is the nice, but also the dangerous thing about the future – one cannot rule out some ‘game changers’).

It is worth noting that some experts also see the matter under a different light, that of the most important losers of the previous year. Such an example is the list of ’biggest 10 losers’ drawn by Walter Russell Mead on his blog at “The American Interest”. In pole position comes the ‘Muslim Bortherhood’ movement, which began last year at the helm of the state and ended it indicted in court as a terrorist organisation and, from this perspective, the author believes that the biggest loser of 2013 is also the ‘democratic Islamism’. The second big loser is the European Union, which was unable to steer clear from the euro crisis and registers not just the failure of resuming of economic growth, but also opens the door to the reinforcement of far-right forces and of euroscepticism in all member countries. The third loser is the ‘Obama Administration,’ which had – according to Mead – failures both at home and abroad. Fourth on the list of losers is Israel, which did not succeed in preventing an accord with Iran and a temporary relaxation of international sanctions, and according to Jerusalem this way Tehran made one more step toward the nuclear weapon. But this is much more at stake in this case, more precisely the general deterioration of the geopolitical situation in the Mideast, where the civil war of Syria caused neither the toppling of Assad, nor a firm intervention of the West against him, while Egypt is heading toward an acute instability, which might expand to other Arab countries too. The fifth place on the losers’ list is held by the global democratic process as a whole, which had scored successes during the previous years, but backtracked in 2013 – with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq being just few examples with this regard. The deterioration of the political and social situation in Turkey qualifies this country for the 6th position among the top losers of last year. Brazil, the Mediterranean Club (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece), the Syrians and Argentina come next in the top. The same expert also produced a top of “biggest winners” in 2014. First comes the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who has in the “Western stupidity… his chief strategic asset, and in 2013 at least, there was a lot of that going around.” Next come Iran, ‘Bashar Assad and his Damascus regime’, Japan (‘who visibly enhanced… position in the international horse race last year’ ), ‘Al Qaeda and violent Sunni Jihad’, ‘climate sceptics’ , Saudi Arabia, Germany (“It is getting harder to figure out a way forward for Europe, but Germany will have more say than ever in where Europe goes.”).‘The Egyptian military’ ranks 9th and the United Kingdom 10th: “In 2013 Britain’s position improved as scepticism about the ever-growing powers of the EU bureaucracy (and the high pay of European bureaucrats) grew in an increasingly populist Europe.”
Another way of trying to probe the near future is resorting to parallels with the more or less recent past. This is the idea embraced by Graham Allison in his column named “2014: Good Year for a Great War?” published the very first day of the year in “The National Interest”. He draws a parallel with the start of World War 1 100 years ago. As a matter of fact – we are told – most considered war as unconceivable back then, in 1914, but the skidding toward this war was possible precisely in this prevalent atmosphere of confidence in peace. Similarly, a war between the big powers seems unconceivable today (Russia is weakened, Europe is self-disarmed etc.), but the competition between China and the USA renders interesting this historic parallel, because what the expert calls the “Thucydides’ trap,” which is the complicate perception of the ‘rise and fear’ binomial (the rise of a big power and the fear felt by another for this evolution, as a sure recipe for conflict) can make it impossible to avoid a tough reality. “Will 2014 bring another Great War?” – G. Allison wonders in the conclusion. And his answer is: “My bet is almost certainly not but with a note of caution. Claims that war is ‘inconceivable’ are not statements about what is possible in the world, but rather about what our limited mind can conceive.”
The abovementioned methodology – the parallel with past events, applied to the evolutions of today, with emphasis on World War I, with the commemorations of its centennial due for 2014 – is also used by Gideon Rachman, the international relations expert of the ‘Financial Times.’  In his article named “Time to Think about Sarajevo not Munich,” he lists among the paradigms that guide the actions of today’s politicians with regard to the past those expressed by the words ‘Sarajevo’ and ‘Munich’. The capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on 28 June 1914, was the place where the heir to the Hapsburg throne was assassinated 100 years ago, an event that led to the start of World War I. By using the paradigm ‘Sarajevo,’ politicians understand the skidding in the context of an international crisis that can determine the beginning of an otherwise avoidable war. On the other hand, when they mention ‘Munich’ or ‘another Munich’ – like US Secretary of State John Kerry did last summer in reference to the imperative of a strong answer to the Syrian dossier – they refer to the crisis of the summer of 1938. Then, during the Munich conference of 28 September 1938, the big western powers England and France yielded to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia and the absence of a strong answer hastened World War II. Because it is more recent, ‘Munich’ is used more often than ‘Sarajevo’ by present-day politicians. Rachman concludes: “The Munich mindset is so entrenched that a real intellectual shift will be required to change it. The many commemorations of the First World War that will take place this year may just serve that purpose – by influencing world leaders to take a less dangerously macho approach to their rivalries. With tensions rising in East Asia and conflict spreading in the Middle East, the 100th anniversary of the Great War comes at an important time. Let’s hope it does some good.”
Rachman’s conclusion, like the above-quoted one of Graham Allison, is an appeal to staying alert so the supposed ‘inevitable’ does not become certainty – as it happened in 2014 – as a serious warning to be heeded by responsible politicians that one should not rule out a repeating of the past.

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