Charles Emmerson: 2013 Eerily Similar to 1913





Charles Emmerson is the author of the forthcoming 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War and is a senior research fellow at Chatham House.

The leading power of the age is in relative decline, beset by political crisis at home and by steadily eroding economic prowess. Rising powers are jostling for position in the four corners of the world, some seeking a new place for themselves within the current global order, others questioning its very legitimacy. Democracy and despotism are locked in uneasy competition. A world economy is interconnected as never before by flows of money, trade, and people, and by the unprecedented spread of new, distance-destroying technologies. A global society, perhaps even a global moral consciousness, is emerging as a result. Small-town America rails at the excessive power of Wall Street. Asia is rising once again. And, yes, there's trouble in the Middle East.

Sound familiar?

In many ways, the world of 1913, the last year before the Great War, seems not so much the world of 100 years ago as the world of today, curiously refracted through time. It is impossible to look at it without an uncanny feeling of recognition, telescoping a century into the blink of an eye. But can peering back into the world of our great-grandparents really help us understand the world we live in today?

Let's get the caveats out of the way upfront. History does not repeat itself -- at least not exactly. Analogies from one period to another are never perfect. However tempting it may be to view China in 2013 as an exact parallel to Germany in 1913 (the disruptive rising power of its age) or to view the contemporary United States as going through the exact same experience as Britain a century ago (a "weary titan staggering under the too vast orb of its fate," as Joseph Chamberlain put it), things are never quite that straightforward. Whereas Germany in 1913 explicitly sought a foreign empire, China in 2013 publicly eschews the idea that it is an expansionist power (though it is perfectly clear about protecting its interests around the world). Whereas the German empire in 1913 had barely 40 years of history as a unified state behind it and was only slightly more populous that Britain or France, China in 2013 can look back on centuries of continuous history as a player in world affairs, and it now boasts one-fifth of the world's population. Whereas Germany's rise was a genuinely new geopolitical phenomenon in 1913, the rise of China today is more of a return to historical normality. These differences matter.

Similarly, the strengths and weaknesses of the United States in 2013 are not quite the same as those of Britain 100 years ago...



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