By: Michael Steiner
Today, exactly one hundred years ago, the Austrian heir to the throne was shot dead in Sarajevo. Five weeks later, World War I broke out. It cost the lives of more than 17 million people. Sixty thousand Indian soldiers alone died on the battlefields in Africa and Europe. Countless suffered, were marred for life. The “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, as George Kennan called it.
Throughout this year, leaders from France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Germany and many other countries met continuously to commemorate together the outbreak of WW I — “la Grande Guerre”.
Today, comprehension, understanding, communication characterise modern Europe on fundamental issues. A sharp contrast to the then rulers in Vienna, Paris, London, Moscow, Berlin: “sleepwalkers”, as Christopher Clark calls them, stumbling blindly into war. No comprehension, understanding, communication. No viable institutions to settle disputes through dialogue and negotiation. But deep mutual mistrust and political shortsightedness, following the template of power and might. In Berlin (and elsewhere), instead of de-escalation, escalation prevailed. A strikingly disturbing tale of how, across Europe, the elites in politics, military and, yes, diplomacy, failed. The dramatic consequences are well known.
When, in 1989, the Berlin Wall finally came down, it brought about the peaceful reunification of Europe and — so we thought — the end of all block confrontation. Some already proclaimed the “end of history”. We all believed wars in Europe had become impossible.
Prematurely. The ghosts of the past returned. The Balkan wars in the 1990s brought bloodshed and streams of refugees right to the doorstep of the EU. And who would have imagined, just half a year ago, the worst confrontation with Moscow since the Cold War over the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea?
I spent many years working in zones of conflict, especially in the Balkans, first as principal deputy high representative in Sarajevo, later as special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of UNMIK in Kosovo, and — prior to my India posting — as special representative of the German government for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
My experience in all scenarios was threefold. First, conflicting societies are not necessarily driven by hatred, but by primordial fear. Fear of the other. Deep mistrust. Even a solid web of diplomatic mechanisms or strong mutual economic ties may not hold. In 1914, Europe’s economies and cultures were so closely intertwined that many deemed war in Europe simply irrational and against countries’ own interests. Virtually impossible. And yet, whole societies collectively plunged into the darkness of war.
Second, if you come from the outside to mediate between conflicting parties, you need to be trustworthy and credible. All conflict zones have one thing in common: a vacuum continued…