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.
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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 of trust. The mediator must not have her own agenda. Otherwise, outside engagement is bound to fail.
Third, to overcome conflicts, not only do you need a powerful and convincing vision that counters mistrust and fear. Not only do you need an organised dialogue. You need more. The real challenge is to break away from one’s own reduced perspective, to go beyond entrenched interests, to leave behind the usual zero-sum game, to be ready to pay a price for peace.
This is a fundamental lesson of 1914: No side was either a hundred per cent right or a hundred per cent wrong. All were prisoners of circumstance, trapped in their own perspective. No one had the vision or the courage to break away from the patterns of the past and invest instead in understanding the position and motives of the other. Europe sleepwalked collectively and individually towards destruction.
If you want to overcome conflicts, hot or frozen, you need to reach out, think out of the box; you need to be ready to take political risks. A lesson applicable to many hot spots in the world. Also to South Asia. It was indeed a bold gesture by the new Indian prime minister to invite his Pakistani counterpart to his swearing-in in Delhi. And it was an equally bold gesture by the Pakistani prime minister to accept the invitation.
Today, we are more interconnected than ever. In an increasingly complex international environment, bold diplomatic craftsmanship is vital for peace and stability. Sometimes, risks have to be taken. Foreign policy actors need a sober view not only of their own interests, but also of those of their neighbours and partners. In today’s world, we need to invest in building mutual trust and comprehension.
Globalisation forces us to take on responsibilities, sometimes beyond our narrow interests. Even if they are outside our usual comfort zone. June 28, 1914, is a chilling reminder of what happens when we ignore these principles.
The writer is the German ambassador to India