President Woodrow Wilson called it “the most terrible and disastrous of all wars.” Winston Churchill described it as the moment when “all the horrors of all the ages were brought together.” H.G. Wells labeled it “the war that will end war.”
None of them was correct. A more terrible, more disastrous war followed a generation later. Humanity mixed old hatreds and new technologies to produce unspeakable horrors after the Great War, and the war to end all wars spawned a second global war.
Yet a century after the Great War’s end, we still have much to learn from its lessons and still wrestle with its consequences and leftovers.
A first lesson relates to the years leading up to the war: trade and globalization are not failsafe inoculations against war.
On the eve of the Great War, as Niall Ferguson writes, “the world had been economically integrated in a way never seen before.” Rail lines, shipping, and telegraphs “shrank the world.” Ocean freight costs fell by a third between 1870 and 1910. Labor was flowing across borders. This was “the first globalization,” Ferguson explains.[i]
Iron ore imports from France to Germany grew 60-fold in the 13 years before the Great War. In 1914, Britain accounted for more than 14 percent of Germany’s exports. British exports to continental Europe swelled by 88 percent between 1900 and 1913; German exports to Britain grew by 69 percent.[ii] Total US trade with what would become the Central powers increased 41 percent between 1908 and 1913.[iii]
Many believed such trade linkages made war unthinkable—then came the summer of 1914.
Trade between nations is an inherently good thing, but those who assure us America and China could never go to war because of trade linkages ignore what happened in 1914. Annual US-China trade is more than $635 billion. The value of trade between the two economic giants jumped 65 percent between 2007 and 2017.[iv] As historian Robert Kagan warns, “the United States and China are no more dependent on each other’s economies today than were Great Britain and Germany before World War I.”
A second lesson relates to the heady and hopeful years following the war. Treaties are not enough to keep the peace or protect US interests. “In time of crises,” President Theodore Roosevelt concluded in 1914, “peace treaties are worthless.” He hammered that point repeatedly during the war, pointing out the “utter worthlessness of treaties” and how they “offer not even the smallest protection against such disasters.”
These words come from a man who believed in diplomacy, a man who negotiated treaties that staved off and ended wars in Europe, Africa, and Asia, a man who earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts. Yet years of experience taught him that “diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.”
Wilson came to this realization far too late. It pays to recall that when German submarines began attacking merchant ships, Wilson vowed to hold the kaiser to “strict accountability.” Yet after Americans were killed aboard the Falaba, Gulflight, Arabic, and Lusitania, he responded by writing letters and holding to his pledge that America would remain “neutral in fact as well as in name.”[v]
A century later, Roosevelt’s assessment of the connection between diplomacy and force remains unchanged because man’s nature remains unchanged. Treaties are only as good as the character of the governments that sign them. This should give us pause in our dealings with Putin’s Russia, the business-suit autocrats of China, and totalitarian North Korea. Bad guys do bad things. Treaties, UN resolutions, and strongly worded letters seldom correct or prevent bad behavior. None of these stopped Putin from annexing Crimea, China from building illegal islands in international waters, North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal, jihadists from maiming Manhattan, Iran from destabilizing its neighbors, or Assad from bludgeoning his people.
However, there are actions and tools that can help prevent bad behavior—or at least limit its effects. That brings us to a third lesson of the Great War: military preparedness helps keep the peace, while unpreparedness invites danger.
America was woefully ill-prepared in 1914. “Our navy is lamentably short in many different material directions. There is actually but one torpedo for each torpedo tube,” Teddy Roosevelt wrote. “For nearly two years, there has been no fleet maneuvering.”
Being prepared for war, as Roosevelt understood, is one of the best ways to prevent war. “The United States has never once suffered harm because of preparation for war,” he explained. “But we have suffered incalculable harm, again and again, from a foolish failure to prepare for war.”
Moreover, being prepared for war is far less costly than waging war—in both blood and treasure. In the eight years before World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, America expended 16 percent of GDP on defense and sacrificed 116,516 lives—in just 503 days of combat. Indeed, the war was staggering in its totality and lethality. The Great War was romanticized when the guns thundered to life in 1914, but those who survived the trenches knew it was more apocalyptic than romantic. Like Revelation’s Four Horsemen, it brought conflict (28 nations were engaged), famine (Belgium starved; Germany survived on turnips), death (10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians died), and pestilence (the 1918–19 influenza pandemic claimed 50 million people). The mating of industrialized twentieth-century empires with nineteenth-century conceptions of warfare yielded an unprecedented level of killing: Anglo-French forces lost 600,000 men during the Battle of the Somme—to nudge the front seven miles. In just 52 months, the Great War claimed more lives than all the wars in the preceding century combined.
Yet America reverted to its old ways after the war. In the 1930s, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense annually. Then came a day of infamy. The US diverted an average of 27 percent of GDP to defense after Pearl Harbor—and lost 405,399 lives defeating the Axis powers.
Recognizing that it’s wiser to make the relatively small investments necessary to deter war than to expend enormous amounts of wealth and human life to wage war, Americans spent an average of seven percent of GDP on defense during the Cold War to keep the Red Army at bay. It worked.
Regrettably, Washington abandoned that proven approach and instead engaged in a bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, which slashed defense spending—in a time of war and instability—from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent by 2016.[vi] Measured in constant dollars, defense spending fell by nearly one-fourth between 2010 and 2015.[vii] These cuts might make sense if peace were breaking out. But we know China has annexed and militarized the South China Sea; Russia has assaulted Georgia and Ukraine; North Korea is fielding long-range nukes; Iran is spreading its malign influence across the Middle East; and Russia’s military outlays have jumped 125 percent since 2006, while China’s have increased 190 percent since 2008.[viii]
Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military, but as Defense Secretary James Mattis concludes, “it took us years to get into this situation. It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.” America and its allies may not have years to dig out of sequestration’s hole.
The benefits and wisdom of deterrence are not only proven by history; they are validated by scripture. Recall that the Lord directed Moses and Aaron to count “all the men in Israel who are 20 years old or more and able to serve in the army.” This ancient selective-service system is a form of military preparedness.
King Jehoshaphat built forts, maintained armories in strategically located cities, and fielded an army of more than a million men “armed for battle.” Not surprisingly, “the fear of the Lord fell on all the kingdoms of the lands surrounding Judah, so that they did not go to war against Jehoshaphat.”
To explain the importance of considering the costs of following him, Jesus asks, “What king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his 10,000 soldiers could go up against the 20,000 coming against him? And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off.”
Both kings are wise—one because he recognizes he’s outnumbered and the other because he makes sure he’s not—and both understand deterrence.
Discussing military deterrence in the context of Christianity may seem incongruent to some readers. But it is not incongruent if we understand deterrence as a way to prevent the kind of war that kills by the millions—the kind humanity first endured in 1914–18.
We will not know the biblical notion of peace until Christ makes all things new. In the interim, in a broken world crammed full of broken nations led by broken men, there isn’t a viable alternative to deterrence, as the disaster that followed the Great War underscores. However, the deterrent strength that helps prevent great-power war must be paired with clarity of intent and clarity of commitment, as the disaster that preceded the Great War underscores.
A common refrain is that Europe’s arms race triggered the Great War. To be sure, German military expenditures more than doubled between 1910 and 1914.[ix] In the 14 years before the war, Russia’s army grew 16 percent, and France’s grew 27 percent. Britain’s warship tonnage almost tripled.[x] But if arms races cause war, then a) there shouldn’t have been a World War II, since the Allies allowed their arsenals to atrophy after World War I, and b) there should have been a World War III, since Washington and Moscow engaged in a massive arms race after World War II.
The reality is that miscalculation lit the fuse of World War I. The antidote, as we learned in the intervening century, is clarity plus strength. Arms alone aren’t enough to deter war. The great powers were armed to the teeth in 1914. But since they weren’t clear about their treaty commitments, a small crisis on the fringes of Europe mushroomed into a worldwide war. Nor is clarity alone enough to deter war. Wilson’s words to the kaiser were clear, but America lacked the military strength to bolster those words. The men who crafted the West’s post-World War II blueprint applied the clarity-plus-strength model. But with America’s words during the Trump administration doing more to worry allies than reassure them—and America’s deterrent strength whittled away during the Obama administration—Washington has abandoned that blueprint.
A fourth lesson is that free government takes time, effort, and outside assistance to grow.
As historians Felix Gilbert and David Large note in their history of modern Europe, “after 15 years, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, not one of the states created or reorganized at the Paris Peace Conference remained a democracy.” In fact, some pieces of postwar Europe became virulently anti-democratic. As for Czechoslovakia, its sovereignty and democracy were sacrificed on the altar of “peace in our time.”
Wilson believed that a world torn between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he said that “the world must be made safe for democracy” and that “its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty,” he wasn’t talking about a utopian crusade. He was talking about building a safer world for America’s democracy. Wilson seemed to recognize this would be an ongoing process.
Regrettably, the world’s democracies are demoralized a century after the Great War and the Versailles peace. Calling democracy “battered and weakened,” Freedom House concludes that “acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.”[xi]
America’s retrenchment has contributed to democracy’s retreat.
In 2002, 70 percent of Americans said “the United States should be promoting its ideas about democracy…to the rest of the world.” By 2013, just 18 percent of Americans said the United States should “promote democracy in other nations.”[xii] Today, 57 percent of Americans say the US should “deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can.”
Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama focused on “nation-building here at home,” left proto-democracies in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine to fend for themselves, and shrank the reach, role, and resources of democracy’s greatest defender—the US military. In a surprising echo of Obama, President Donald Trump argues that “we have to build our own nation.” He endorses an “America First” foreign policy evoking pre-World War II isolationism. He describes “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he means dictators in Iraq and Libya—as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.”
“After eight years as president,” Freedom House concludes, “Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.” Trump, Freedom House worries, will prolong democracy’s doldrums by pursuing “a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights and the rules-based international order.”
Like landmines and unexploded shells scattered along the Western Front, the war’s leftovers remain strewn across the world.
Chief among those leftover landmines is the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination.
In his war message, Wilson committed America to fight for “the rights of nations great and small…to choose their way of life.” He argued that “peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent” and that “self-determination is…an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”[xiii]
Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, called it “a phrase loaded with dynamite” that would “cost thousands of lives.”[xiv] He wondered about the phrase’s exact meaning: “When the president talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit does he have in mind…a race, or a territorial area, or a community? Without a definite unit that is practical, application of this principle is dangerous to peace and stability.”[xv]
Wilson may have sensed the tides of history carrying humanity toward decentralization, but Lansing’s instincts were right. In 1900, there were 57 independent countries. Today, there are nearly 200. Many of them came into existence through wars of self-determination; many of those wars triggered other wars. Consider the UN’s newest member, South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan and is now in the midst of a fight that could further divide the country; or Kosovo, which cut itself away from Serbia and is now dealing with a Serbian enclave that wants to cut itself away from Kosovo;[xvi] or Ukraine, where Moscow wrapped its annexation of Crimea in the blanket of self-determination; or the Kurds of Iraq, who want to turn their autonomy into independence. The list goes on, just as Lansing feared.
“What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered,” Lansing wrote as he contemplated where Wilson’s promise of self-determination would lead.[xvii]
Wilson’s defenders countered that he and his Fourteen Points were so visionary that the world was not ready to embrace them in 1919, and there’s some truth to this.
Wilson envisioned “a partnership of democratic nations,” “open covenants…openly arrived at,” “freedom of navigation upon the seas,” lower trade barriers, “impartial adjustment of all colonial claims,” borders based on “recognizable lines of nationality,” “autonomous development” for national minorities—all undergirded by a “general association of nations.”[xviii]
These concepts speak to the great sweep of Wilson’s vision. Indeed, much of what Wilson advocated served as the foundation of the liberal order Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill began building a generation later. Moreover, although he is often criticized for being overly idealistic, Wilson realized that “a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.”
There was hope after the war that nations might begin solving disputes through international conferences and international organizations. Hence the flurry of postwar summits, treaties, and pacts. The Versailles Peace Conference officially ended the war, midwifed the League of Nations, saddled Germany with war guilt and reparations, disarmed Germany, and redrew borders in Europe. The Washington Conference yielded the Nine-Power Treaty, which guaranteed the independence of China; the Five-Power Treaty, which established limits on the number and tonnage of ships America, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy could maintain; and the Four-Power Pact, which required America, Britain, France, and Japan to respect one another’s island possessions in the Pacific. The Kellogg-Briand Pact attempted to outlaw war. Sixty-two nations signed the treaty, but there were no real enforcement measures.
That was true of all of these well-intentioned efforts. Thus, Hitler’s Germany rearmed and again reredrew Europe’s borders; Tojo’s Japan used naval power to plunder China and attack possessions of Britain, France, and America; Japan, Germany, and Italy—original signatories of the Kellogg-Briand Pact—attacked most of the other original signatories; and the League of Nations failed to stop aggressor nations from brutalizing Ethiopia, Spain, and China.
Like the League, the United Nations has proven unable to keep the peace or maintain order. Consider Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea, Libya, Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Yugoslavia. This is partly a function of systemic shortcomings within these man-made institutions and partly a function of humanity’s unwillingness to engage in the sort of tradeoffs necessary “to make the world safe for federalism,” to borrow John Lewis Gaddis’ phrase. But the real cause of mankind’s inability to build what Churchill called “a true temple of peace” is mankind’s brokenness. That will not be corrected until, as Isaiah explained some 2,800 years ago, “all nations” agree to let the Lord “teach us His ways,” “judge between the nations,” and “settle disputes among the nations.” Then, and only then, “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
This is not to succumb to fatalism or to suggest that we wash our hands of the messiness of the world. Rather, it’s a reminder that we must deal with the world as it is and fashion practical solutions to protect innocents and maintain some semblance of order. For nearly a century, international bodies—first the League of Nations and then the United Nations—have failed to reach that rather low bar.
Even as international bodies fail to live up to their mission statements, America is increasingly unwilling to serve as civilization’s last line of defense, let alone civilization’s first-responder. Both the idealism of Wilson and the realism of Theodore Roosevelt—which when mixed together in the right proportions served as the cement for the liberal international order America began building after World War II—have been replaced by inward-looking promises to focus on nation-building at home and put America first. This inward turn serves neither the national interest nor the interest of international order (which is very much in the national interest).
We sometimes forget that the God of the Bible is deeply interested in order. Genesis tells us God brought order out of chaos. Jeremiah says God “made the earth…and gave it order.” Paul urges us to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” The implication is that legitimate governments exist to promote order within and between nations.
The natural order of the world is not orderly. At the international level, there are no police or judges to enforce norms of behavior, settle disputes, or maintain order. Those tasks fall to responsible powers like the United States. When America and its allies fail to carry out those tasks, those tasks are left undone.
We can virtually plot recent US military interventions by glancing at the maps drawn after the Great War.
Consider the postwar creation known as Yugoslavia. The wars that dismembered Yugoslavia in the 1990s claimed 250,000 lives—drawing in America and NATO, nearly triggering military hostilities between Russia and America, and spawning seven countries.
The League of Nations entrusted much of the Ottoman Empire’s wreckage to Britain and France. Those two powers would haphazardly stitch together or tear apart ethno-religious groupings that should have been handled with more care—Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis crammed together in Iraq and Syria; Lebanon separated from Syria; promises of a Jewish homeland in the middle of an Arab-dominated Palestine were made. Not surprisingly, the region has barely seen a moment’s peace. There have been four major Arab-Israeli wars, countless uprisings, and numerous civil wars. Lebanon’s civil war claimed 120,000, and Syria’s has claimed 500,000 (and counting). The slow-motion disintegration of Iraq (and recently Syria) has prompted repeated US interventions. To hold Iraq together, Saddam Hussein murdered 600,000 of his subjects, and he launched wars against four of his neighbors. In the 16 years since his ouster, Iraq’s Sunni-Shia war has claimed upward of 200,000 lives.[xix]
“They turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons,” Churchill wrote. “Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.” Russia, Europe, and the world would never be the same.
The immediate effect was exactly what Germany desired: Lenin’s revolution felled the Russian Empire and took Russia out of the war. But there were far more lasting consequences. Lenin’s totalitarian state would become one of the greatest enemies of the individual, of freedom, of peace, and of faith the world has ever known.
To build his workers’ paradise, Lenin murdered some 4 million people. Many others would embrace his methods. The Black Book of Communism catalogs the “wholesale repression,” “state-sponsored reign of terror,” and “multitude of crimes…against individual human beings…world civilization and national cultures” that communism spawned. The book estimates the Soviet state murdered 20 million of its subjects; the People’s Republic of China, 65 million; North Korea, 2 million; Kampuchea/Cambodia, 2 million; Vietnam, 1 million. Communist regimes in Africa, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and Latin America also learned Lenin’s ways of mass murder on an industrial scale.
All told, Lenin and his heirs altered the world’s very ethnic composition, a legacy that will scar humanity forever. Lenin’s victims were of every creed, every color, and every race. They died on nearly every continent. And with communist regimes still in power in certain corners of the earth, Lenin’s toll stretches across a full century.
Lenin and his heirs also laid siege to the soul. By the end of 1918, Lenin had nationalized all church property. By 1926, Lenin’s regime had murdered 1,200 bishops and priests, shuttered most seminaries, closed down all but a handful of parishes, and banned the publication of religious material.[xx] Virtually the entire clergy corps of the Russian Orthodox Church was liquidated or sent to labor camps in the 1920s and 1930s. In various ways, North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Cuba continue Lenin’s war on religion.
A revolution to topple the decaying czarist regime may have been inevitable in 1918, but it didn’t have to be a Leninist revolution. The fact that it was made all the difference.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
In the today’s chaos and cacophony, we hear echoes of the world before the Great War and between the wars.
Like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, there’s a dying empire in today’s Europe (Russia). Like Imperial Germany, there’s a rising autocracy on the world stage, with outsized designs and demands (China). Both dying and rising states are disruptive to global order, as we are relearning.
As in the interwar years, Western resolve is ebbing, and the US is increasingly disengaged. The evidence stretches from Obama’s massive cuts in defense spending to Trump’s undermining of NATO and toppling of trade norms. Indeed, as in the interwar years, we’ve seen the opening skirmishes of what could mushroom into a full-blown trade war.
As before both wars, around the world there are lots of dry kindling and plenty of sparks: Iran and its Sunni-Arab foes; Iran and Israel; Russia and Eastern Europe; North Korea and its neighbors; China and Taiwan; China and anyone else with claims or interests in the South China Sea.
As before the Great War, the likelihood of miscalculation is growing. On the heels of Obama’s defense cuts, Trump’s caginess about NATO’s Article V raises questions in Europe—and Moscow. As a consequence, vulnerable states are bracing for war. Sweden, Lithuania, and Estonia are distributing pamphlets informing citizens how to respond to a military attack. In the not-so-pacific Pacific, Japan has revised civil-defense guidelines to gird citizens for a North Korean missile salvo. In the Middle East, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reports the country is preparing for war on six fronts.[xxi]
If nothing else, this litany serves as evidence of the growing doubts about America’s commitment to defending the liberal order America began building in 1945—after refusing the mantle of leadership in 1919.
“It has been said that the United States never learns by experience, but only by disaster,” Theodore Roosevelt observed, ominously adding that “such method of education may at times prove costly.”
[i] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 218-219.
[ii] United Nations, International Trade Statistics 1900-1960, May 1962, unstats.un.org.
[iii] Mark Jefferson, “Our Trade in the Great War,” Geographical Review 3, no. 6 (June, 1917), 474-480,
[iv] US Census Bureau, Trade in Goods with China, census.gov.
[v] Woodrow Wilson Address, August 20, 1914.
[vi] Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2014 Historical Tables, 2014, whitehouse.gov.
[vii] Hal Brands and Eric Edelman, “Avoiding a Strategy of Bluff, Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017.
[viii]Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power, 2017; CSIS, “What does China really spend on its military?” chinapower.csis.org, as of August 1, 2018.
[ix] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage, 1989), 210-212.
[x] Kennedy 203.
[xi] Arch Puddington, “Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist,” Freedom House, 2015; Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2018, 2018.
[xii] Pew Research Center, “What the World Thinks in 2002,” December 4, 2002; Pew Research Center, “Public Sees US Power Declining as Support for Global Engagement Slips,” December 3, 2013.
[xiii] Woodrow Wilson’s Address to Congress, February 11, 1918.
[xiv] Cited in Norman Graebner and Edward Bennet, The Versailles Treaty and its Legacy: The Failure of the Wilsonian Vision (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 50.
[xv] Cited in Abdelhamid El Ouail, Territorial Integrity in a Globalizing World, (Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2012).
[xvi] Matthew Brunwasser, “Kosovo’s Serbs Pressed to End Autonomy Push,” New York Times, September 29, 2011.
[xvii] Graebner and Bennet.
[xviii] Woodrow Wilson’s Address to Congress, April 2, 1917; Wilson’s Address to Congress, January 8, 1918.
[xix] Stephen Cass, “In Iraq, Civilian Deaths Have Fallen Since the Start of the War,” Global Business Network, April 2003; Patrick Brogan, World Conflicts: Where and Why They Are Happening (New York: Bloomsbury, 1998), 342; Der Spiegel, “The Aftermath of World War I in the Middle East,” January 31, 2014; Iraq Body Count Database, “Documented Civilian Deaths from Violence,” iraqbodycount.org, as of August 1, 2018.
[xx] Glenn E. Curtis, ed., Russia: A Country Study, Library of Congress, July 1996, cdn.loc.gov.
[xxi] Middle East Monitor, “Official: Israel army preparing for war on six fronts,” March 9, 2018.