Margaret MacMillan - “I’m Always Wary of Lessons from the Past”




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Sep 02, 2014
by Salzburg Global Staff
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Margaret MacMillan - “I’m Always Wary of Lessons from the Past”

Leading historian delivers keynote lecture at joint Salzburg Global-IPI program on lessons from both 1814 and 1914 Margaret MacMillan speaking at the opening of the session "1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future"

Professor Margaret MacMillan is a leading historian and warden of St Antony's College, Oxford University. Prior to taking on the wardenship, she was Provost of Trinity College and professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War (Profile Books, 2013). She comments frequently in the media on historical issues and current affairs. Professor MacMillan delivered the keynote address at the opening of the Salzburg Global Seminar-International Peace Institute session 1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future.

The following is an unedited transcript of Margaret MacMillan's lecture and as such may contain small errors; please refer to the audio above for accuracy

I’m going to of course look at this as a historian and I hope you’ll forgive me if I go back to 1814 and the years immediately afterwards because I think there are some interesting parallels, and some interesting thoughts which come out of looking at the past. I’m always wary of lessons from the past, partly because you can find any lesson you want from the past, and there’s an awful lot of past out there, and if you want to find lessons, if you want to find guidance, you can pretty much find anything you want. What I think the past can do is act like warnings, it can act like the certain warnings you see when you’re driving which said this road has a dangerous curve ahead, or this road is particularly dangerous in winter, and I think this is what history can help us do, it can offer warnings and some guidance perhaps as to how to avoid the pitfalls that others have fallen into in the past.

I think 1814, 1914 and 2014 of course, occurred in very different periods, in very different circumstances, but I think there are some interesting and provocative similarities. I think it is fair to say [they] were pivotal moments in world history. We can see clearly in 1814 - that long period with the French revolutionary wars, and then the Napoleonic wars came to an end, and a very different world succeeded that period of war. 

1914 was the end of that long period of peace, almost unprecedented in European history from 1814 to 1914. There were, it’s true, short wars in Europe but they were generally decisive wars and they generally were over very quickly indeed. And so Europeans could be forgiven for thinking by 1914 that they were living in a world where war was becoming obsolete, that it was not something at least they in Europe did anymore, and that they could expect another century of extraordinary progress, peace and prosperity. Because that is what they looked back on in 1914. And of course we know now that 1914 was not going to be the beginning of yet another a prosperous century, it was going to be the beginning of one of the worse centuries in Europe and world history. 

2014 of course is more difficult to see because we’re in the middle of it, but I think we would all agree that the events that have taken place since the beginning of this year are, in themselves, worrying and seem to suggest that certain shifts are occurring in the world, certain things are happening in the world - the consequences of which, I think will be with us for a long time. And so I think there is real value in looking at these three key moments 100 years apart. I think similarities among them all are that they took place in worlds that were in the process of becoming increasingly interconnected. Europe was more interdepended as a result of the Napoleonic wars, partly because of what those wars themselves did, but also because the beginnings of the great transformation of the industrial revolution was starting to take place, and travel was in the process and communication was in the process of becoming better across Europe. And of course the period of 1914 was a period of increased interdependence not just in Europe but increasingly globally. The great era of globalization before our own was those two decades before the First World War when the world was linked in so many ways. We had massive movements of capital, of goods, and indeed of people around the world, something that was only really paralleled in the years after the end of the Cold War.

I think all three periods, 1814, 1914 and 2014, are also the periods where all the changes that were taking place were causing tremendous strains in society and I think that is particularly clear in 1914 and 2014. In 1914 there was a very similar concern that we have today about the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. The ways in which the middle class is being squeezed, the ways in which those who felt themselves somehow to be alienated and marginalized by their own societies were perhaps increasingly prepared to turn to violence and in the period before 1914, there was an increasing worry among Europeans and indeed in parts of north America as well and south America that the world is becoming a dangerous place and people were resorting more easily to violence - that there was a spread of an international revolutionary movement which of course is something we fear today. I think we also saw changes in the nature of war in all three periods. 

The wars of the French revolution have brought about a new relationship between the subjects in a particular country and their governments. People have moved in many European countries, starting of course with France, from being subjects to being citizens, and that brought a very different relationship between those who lived in a country and the wars that that country fought. The French citizens felt themselves as part owners or indeed owners of French state and French polity, and that of course imposed upon them a corresponding obligation to come to its defense. And so we see in the wars of the French revolution, the beginnings of the movement towards mass war which was going to become, of course, so much more pronounced in the 19th and the 20th century. What we’re also seeing in our own periods and what they were seeing in 1914, which is something they weren’t seeing as much in 1814, was a tremendous change in the technology of war. In the period before 1914, thanks to the very success of European industry in science and technology, Europeans were becoming capable of building enormous armies, sending those armies into the fields, keeping them in the fields for periods which would have been unthinkable in earlier wars, and of course, they were becoming much more efficient in killing each other. And I think we again are living through a period of rapid technological change in war, I think really not yet, because we’re in the middle of it, [it’s not] clear what it’s going to be like, but I think the development of new types of weapons the developments of new drones technology for example, the potentials of biological chemical warfare or something which we are having to confront more and more in our own period. I think what we also see in each period is a balance between those forces that push for wars and those forces that push for peace.

As a historian, I resist very strongly to the idea that events in history are inevitable. We can look back and see reasons why things happen but that doesn’t mean they had to happen, and I think we need always to keep in mind that there are balances always in societies between those forces who would push towards war and those forces that push towards peace. And sometimes the forces that are making war more likely tend to win out and sometimes the forces that push for peace more likely win out. And I think we must also take into account individual human agency. Our history of course is affected by forces; economical, societal, political, intellectual [and] religious, but I think we also have to be aware that there are key moments in which those who are in positions of power making decisions are very important indeed. I think the First World War, and I believe this strongly, could have been avoided if certain key decision makers in that fateful month of July 1914 had made different decisions or had perhaps, in some cases, stood up to their own military when those military were urging war. And so we can never abstract or take away the role of human agency and the importance of human leadership in the ways in which history turns out.

Let me just say something very briefly about the period after 1814 because I think in some ways it is a period that is less familiar to most of us. I know we have with us a very distinguished historian of that period but I think for a lot of us, the period after 1814 is more remote and perhaps less familiar than the period after 1914 or close to the period after the end of the Cold War. I think what we need to do is look again at what the Congress of Vienna did. This was the great congress of nations which met in 1814 and was briefly interrupted when Napoleon was brought back from exile and had been defeated yet again at the Battle of Waterloo, and then the rest of the Congress in Vienna resumed its work. I think what was important about the Congress of Vienna was that it did not just settle the borders, it did not just [settle] who was going to rule which country, it did not just settle what would happen to France as it was defeated, what it did was set up a system which actually served Europe very well for the next half a century, and might have gone on serving it well if other things hadn’t happened. I think there was a very important shift as a result of the Napoleonic wars in the thinking of those who came to make peace in Vienna and that was that they had to build something different. [It was] very much the same sort of attitude after 1918 when the peacemakers who met in Paris said ‘we can’t do this again, we can’t afford to have war on this scale again’, and I think very much of the same sort of shift in thinking and sensibility that you got after 1945 again when those who were responsible were trying to set up a new world order said ‘we can’t just repeat the sort of mistakes we had in the past and we can’t repeat the sort of system we had in the past’. 

I think the key shift at the Congress in Vienna was a shift from the thinking of the 18th century, where international relations were seen very much as a zero sum game- a game when nations jockeyed for advantage, if one nation won something, another nation had to lose, and I think what the Napoleonic wars had done was persuade many statesmen that, in fact, this was not the right way to manage the international order; that you could build an international order in which every participant or at least key participant had a stake in stability and order; that all would benefit by a stable order that it wasn’t necessarily a zero sum game and that you could actually move beyond that and build an order in which nations could work together and avoid costly and protracted struggles. And what the Congress of Europe [did] which came out of the conference in Vienna, was help to bring the nations of Europe into this sort of understanding that helps to make them socialize; helps to bring them into this community of nations; helps to make statesmen realize that there are other ways of settling disputes. And if you look at the pattern of international relations in Europe, particularly in the first half of the 19th Century, you really do see an understanding that disputes can be settled peacefully if the powers agree, if the powers can be brought into come sort of understanding each other [and] that you can in fact build an international order that will work. And you see, time and time again in Europe, potentially dangerous disputes, the fate of Belgium for example which is settled by cooperation among the great powers, and I think you get a sense that a new type of world order is at least struggling to be emerged.

The system as we know didn’t last, it began to break down with Crimean war. When the great powers [of] Britain and France went to war with Russia that helped served to alienate Russia; served to drive Russia out of what had been a system that it was very much involved with and I think, had a longer term impact on Russia’s relations with the rest of Europe. When Germany began to move towards unification, the Russians were prepared to stand aside and that had, of course, long term consequences for Europe.

By 1914, you had a breakdown of that consensus which had emerged after the Napoleonic wars and increasingly, states were reverting to the attitudes of the 18th Century that international relations were an anarchic system in which states jockeyed for advantage, in which someone had to lose and someone had to win. What helps also defeat into that were the ideas of social Darwinism. I think we should never underestimate the importance of ideas in human affairs and in shaping the ways in which ‘we’ and ‘those’ in positions of authority look at the world. And the social Darwinist ideas of the 19th Century, the misapplication of Darwinian theories to human nations arguing that each human nation, was somehow a separate specie as it would be in nature, arguing that struggle was a part of the relationship between human species - that they were in fact condemned to struggle with each other became very much part of the thinking of those in positions in authority - and indeed of many people in European countries by 1914. And so you get people saying, what can you do? War is a part of human history, war is something we do, war is necessary and nations that don’t struggle, nations that aren’t prepared to fight don’t have the right to survive. And so I think you get a very dangerous breakdown in consensuses which had helped to provide a sort of stability and peace in Europe. Well as you know, the war of 1914-1918 was a war unlike what people in Europe had seen or had expected. There were a few people in Europe who had expected that the war would be long and protracted because of what was happening with technology and because of the enormous industrial capacity of European societies to organize themselves and put troops in the field. But they were very much lone voices in the wilderness and tended to be dismissed.

One of the great prophets of what the First World War was going to be like was a Russian banker called Ivan Bloch who wrote a 6 volume history of [the] war saying that Europe is in danger of getting itself into a dreadful stalemate, out of which no country will emerge a winner; societies will be destroyed; old orders will topple because of the strains that such a war will impose, and he was dismissed. By many of those in positions of authority because what did he know? He was a Russian, he was a Jew who had converted to Christianity, he was a banker, he was a civilian - all these things were used as ways of dismissing him, and at last he was in fact perfect in his recognition of what was happening. And so Europeans went into the First World War believing, or wanting to believe, that it would be a short and decisive war. And as we know it wasn’t. It was a war that turned into a dreadful war of stalemate, particularly on the western front, on the eastern front what you got was a three cornered struggle with neither of the three corners emerging victorious. The Russians could defeat the Austrians but the Germans could defeat the Russians. And so the struggle went on until eventually in case of Austria, Russia-Hungary - those two countries began to collapse under the strain of war. Europe was left in 1918 badly damaged. It had thrown away much of its wealth, thrown away much of its advantage in the world. It had gone from being the most powerful part of the world, to become a depleted part of the world, its empires were beginning to shake, and of course new powers, most importantly, the United States were now emerging much more strongly onto the world stage. 

 The dreadful thing I think for many people about the First World War is that it caused enormous damage, it destroyed empires, it brought about the end of the Russian empire, and it caused the birth of Bolshevism in Russia which had long term circumstances for the 20th and 21st Centuries – it destroyed the Austria-Hungarian empire, and destroyed the Ottoman empire, which meant that there were going to be tremendous changes on the map of Europe, and I think what appalled people about the First World War is that all those changes didn’t bring a period of peace and stability, what they did in fact was usher a period of instability. The First World War, for all its cost, for all its expense, for all that it had done to societies, it did not settle things. And although I don’t believe that it lead directly to the Second World War, I think a 20 year period is a long period to say that something that happened in 1918 leads directly to 1939. That war did help create the conditions in which the Second World War took place. I think it’s fair to say we would not have had a Second World War of that particular kind and in that particular horror, without what had happened in 1914-1918. 

Those who went to Paris in 1918 realized something of what had happened, realized something about how European societies had been shaken to the core, and realized something of what that had meant to the world, because it wasn’t just Europe that had been engaged in the war. In the end, of course, the European empire were engaged, the United States was engaged, China came in, Japan came in, as did a number of Latin American countries, and the consequences of that war while they were felt, I think much more sharply in Europe, but were I think truly worldwide, and I think what you got after 1918 was both a shocked recognition of what Europe had done to itself and what that might mean to the world, but also I think a genuine attempt to build a better sort of world order. It’s very easy to criticize those who met in Paris trying to make peace because they didn’t, in fact, build a better world order, and they didn’t in fact prevent another world from happening, but I think they tried, at least some of them tried and some of them tried harder of course than others. The tragedy, I think, of the peacemaking in 1919 and immediately afterwards was that the objective conditions for peace simply were not there. Unlike the Congress of Vienna, when the French revolutionary forces had burnt themselves out when Napoleon had been completely defeated, when Europe was ready for peace, what you had after 1918 were in many cases rising revolutionary forces, not just Bolshevism which was going to become an example for similar movements around the world, but also the rising revolutionary forces of ethnically based nationalism, which were almost impossible to contain, and almost impossible to satisfy. 

The peacemakers in Paris found themselves having to try and draw boundaries for ethnically based states in the center of Europe, where the ethnicities where completely mixed up. When they finally came to some sort of borders after 1919, something like a third of all the people living in the center of Europe were ethnic minorities in the states in which they found themselves, and these now were ethnically based states. And so for example in Czechoslovakia, you had a state based on a Czecho Slovak ethnicity in which in which there were large numbers of Hungarians and Germans who always felt themselves to be marginalized. This, I think, is not the fault of the peacemakers, this was the fault of the long period of history which had left this jumble of people at the center of Europe and unfortunately ethnic nationalism is not sympathetic to such jumbles. Ethnic nationalism looks at ‘us’ and ‘them’, we belong here, they don’t belong here. And so often there are exceptions but so often ethnic nationalism is tied to possession of a particular piece of land, this land must be ours and those who don’t who don’t belong here must somehow be either absorbed, simulated, or of course got rid of. And the ethnic minorities’ problems in the center of Europe was solved, as you know, by murder, by genocide, and by forced migration. It was not a way of course that was any liberal international order want to solve it but that is in the end what happened.

And so I think the objective conditions of peace were not there after 1919, but what did happen I think again was a rethinking of the international order, and the ideas that were associated with Woodrow Wilson but by no means were his ideas alone, ideas of building a league of nations, ideas of building international institutions, ideas of building international law, ideas of finding alternative solutions to conflict between nations for settling disputes, in many of these ideas,  many had been around in the world before 1914, the notion of arbitration for example as a way of settling disputes among nations had been there since the 1790s and you can see in the course of the 19th Century a real trend developing - there were some 300 arbitrations to settle disputes between nations, between 1794 and 1914, more than half of those 300 were held until after 1890. So many of those ideas on which Woodrow Wilson and others drew on in the aftermath of the First World War were, in fact, ideas that had been around for some time but The First World War made them seem that much more salient, and that much more important. And so there was a very genuine attempt made after 1918, in the conference of 1919, to build a new world order, to build some form of international structure or international institutions which would try and mitigate the horrors of conflict between nations and I think there were also strong feelings, attitudes that the more the world could be linked together, the more trade could be freed up for example, the more economically interdependent the world could become, the safer it would be and the more likely it would be to be stable.  Well, as we know, it didn’t happen. But again I think it was an honorable attempt, and those ideas like the ideas that came to be common place after the Congress of Vienna didn’t disappear, and in 1945, a renewed attempted was made to try and build an international world order, drawing on the experience of the 1920s and 1930s but drawing on those older traditions that there must be some way of having a world order as an alternative to anarchy in which nations are simply are at each other’s throats trying to gain advantage or trying to protect itself. 

So in the period after 1945 the United States which had for various complicated reasons not engaged fully with the world order after 1919, did become committed to the building of the United Nations, did become committed to the building of a large number of international institutions and although the Cold War intervened, it did - luckily for all of us - not become a hot war, and gradually, and you can see this as the Cold War went on, the Soviet Union which was becoming increasingly a conservative power was drawn in to an engagement with other nations, drawn in to becoming part of an international community, and China of course eventually by the 1970s was drawn in as well. 

While announcing again what had been a system which brought us a period of peace been challenged been undermined, 2014 perhaps marks the end of that period of internationalism and international corporation which we saw since 1945 and we see increasing unilateralism on the part of certain powers which have undermined the system most recently of course President Putin in Crimea and now in Ukraine. And it may be that we’re now living in a period of change much as people lived through the fading of the Congress Of Vienna system, the failure of the legal of nations system, so are there some lessons we can take from those earlier two periods, I’m not sure again that we have very clear lessons, but I think there are a certain number of things we need to take very seriously indeed. We have to somehow come to a way of dealing with the struggle which is always there in societies and in international orders between the forces of stability and change, how do we manage to contain change without preventing it, how do we manage to preserve stability. Another problem which they had to deal with then in the aftermath of both those earlier struggles and I think we still have to deal with them, is how do we deal with the end of empires, we tend not to think in terms of empires these days because most of them have disappeared but they had to deal with them in the past with the end of Austria-Hungary empire, the Ottomans as an empire, deal with the emergence of people out of a wreckage of empires, and I think we’re seeing the same today with the emergence of the countries around the peripheral of the old Soviet Union. 

How do we collectively deal with states that are often new and shaky that are merging out of empires where they haven’t had the autonomy and the experience I think this is one of the problems. How do we deal with public opinion, public opinion has become increasingly important since the beginning of the 19th Century it is a factor that has to be dealt with every government which has to be aware of it and how to we manage in a way without telling the public what to think but how do we deal with public opinion and I think this is becoming more difficult than ever because public opinion has become so fluid and there’s many different media in which it can express himself, in the recent troubles of Ferguson Missouri, apparently Twitter has been providing much more current and up to date reporting than newspaper than the more conventional media but this is not always necessarily a good thing because it can often be misleading and dangerous and these are just issues we have to deal with. 

How do we deal with the dangers of local conflict which have possible wider repercussions where you have great power interest, they didn’t do it very well in the Balkans before 1914 where local conflicts drew in great power interest, I think we see the same dangers today, possibly in the Middle East in Iraq and Syria, and certainly in the South And East China sees today, where local conflicts can get overlaid by great power conflicts.

How do we deal with the need to build confidence among nations, how do we deal with bringing in nations which feel themselves to be alienated from the international system? I think again as they knew then, statesmanship and leadership and diplomacy were very important tools here. I think we have particular challenges in the present which perhaps they didn’t have in the previous periods - 1914 and 1814. I think the interlocking nature of the global order is unprecedented, certainly in 1814 and in 1914 there were connections among parts of the world but I think the world is now much more interlocked so that a crisis in one part of the world can have repercussions almost instantly in another part of the world. 

How do we build international institutions and norms that will work? How do we prop up those which we have, I mean this is something we’re really dealing with at the moment? How do we deal – I’m not throwing these out in any particular order but I think they’re things that will probably come up - how do we deal with the shift in power which seems to be occurring in the shift of the international system? We are probably living through the end of the American hegemony, which certainly we saw from the end of the Cold War, United States is still a very powerful nation but relatively it is less powerful in comparison to other nations as it might want to be, it is still the world leading military power, it may be according to The Economist overtaken by China as the world’s greatest economic power or at least with the world greatest GDP, not yet, the United States will not be yet overtaken as the world’s greatest military power, but these are things which perhaps we will see in some of our lifetimes. Will there be another hegemon? Will China be prepared to play the role that the United States and Britain before it played in maintaining a world order or will we have a series of regional hegemons, with no world hegemons, I think it’s very difficult to see. 

How do we deal with identity politics, this is something which continues to plague the international order and continues to of course the plague of societies, and we’re seeing now in Iraq what had been loose, often very loose religious identities, Shia, Sunni, Yazidi or Christian, hardening into something much closer to ethnic identities and what we’re seeing I think in Iraq is identities which were once exclusively religious now becoming in some way ethnic and religious identities in which those who report to speak for their particular co-religionist whether Sunni and Shia, are no longer simply talking about religion but are now talking in terms of land and are now beginning to do what we saw happening elsewhere in the world in earlier periods beginning to carry out cleansing of those who they think don’t belong in their particular pieces of land. I mean what’s happening in the north of Iraq today is an appalling example of what can happen when such identities can become these exclusive sort of identities which turn on others. 

How do we deal with some of the enormous problems that the world is facing, these are not just political problems. How do we deal with the environmental issues which affect the world as a whole? How do we deal with competition for resources, water for example is increasingly becoming a resource which is capable and I think has been capable of causing conflicts. How do we deal with the economic instabilities in the world, we came through a difficult period after 2008 but we are by no means out of the woods and I think there’s a good deal of reason to feel that the economic system worldwide is much more fragile than we might like to think. How do we deal with the social issues that I referred to earlier, the gap between the rich and poor. How do we deal with unstable regimes? How do we deal with the tremendous growth of refugees now, it’s estimated that there is some 51 million people in the world who are now refugees, and this is a huge strain, not just for individual countries but for the international system. 

How do we deal with health issues? The spread of Ebola I think has shown us just how necessary it is to deal with disease which spreads beyond borders. And how do we deal with our own electrets who may be disillusioned, disenchanted with the politics? I mean one of the great problems it seems to me the European Union has is that people are forgetting why it was so necessary, as the generations go by people forget, why it is that the European Union seemed so important and was so valuable after 1945. 

I would like to just leave us if I may with four questions that we might consider. Can we hope that there has been progress in the past 20 years of international relations, for all the failures in international relations can we hope that we have moved ahead a little bit, we seem to have to relearn things every so often but can we hope that we have learnt that it is important to try and build a system that people can invest in and that we have to keep building it?

Is international world order breaking down, or is it changing? Can we remain hopeful that we can continue to build?

Can we continue to talk of a world community, with shared values and rules, and respect for the rights and interests of others. 

And perhaps on a grander and more abstract level, can we talk about international order at all? Is there something called international order? If there is, is it always going to be a working progress and we simply have to resign ourselves to that? 

I think there are some questions may need to consider and perhaps the very consideration of them may help us to become clearer about what it is we need and about what it is that we can all collectively do. 

The program “1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future” was held by Salzburg Global Seminar and the International Press Institute at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, August 25-29, 2014.