TIME conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the Effects of World War I Persist

We still live in the long shadow of a war that began a century ago

It was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1914, the European war that began in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand drew great armies into the fields, launched ships of war upon the seas and engaged imperial ambitions and fears. There was, however, a sense of optimism among several of the combatants, an expectation that victory would be quick. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August.

Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.

To understand the madness of the moment, then, one needs to take a long view–one that begins in 1914 and not, as many Democrats would have it, with the election of George W. Bush or, as many Republicans think, with the election of Barack Obama. The spectrum of political conversation in our time is, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, inadequate to the stormy present.

The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). As the news of this summer reminds us, we are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.

Americans who grew accustomed to a largely static balance of power during the Cold War must teach themselves to think in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones. Our national imagination is still partly shaped by the FDR-JFK rhetoric of American responsibility and the idea that we are capable of bearing any burden and paying any price to bend the world to our purposes. Yet we must be realistic–not defeatist but realistic–about our power. While we should never give up the conviction that we can effectively exert our will around the globe, we should also appreciate that any undertaking is inherently limited, a point supported by the experience of the American President of the 1914–18 era, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the war of that age would end all wars. He was wrong–woefully so. The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about “working the problem,” not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions.

And those questions today remain urgent and dangerous. In his insightful book Europe’s Last Summer, Fromkin writes that “it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war … An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace–unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.” To think of another conventional conflict on the scale of the Great War–16 million dead, 20 million more wounded–stretches credulity. Still, the forces of ambition, greed and pride are perennial in the lives of men and of nations, and wars of any size bring with them large and unintended consequences.

Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.” We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.

TIME In the Arena

In Gaza, a Just but Bloody War

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed by Israeli naval bombardment, mourn during their funeral in Gaza City, on July 16, 2014. . ALESSIO ROMENZI
Relatives of four boys from the Bakr family, mourning at their funeral in Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Hamas provoked this round, and Israel had no choice but to respond

Clarification appended July 27, 2014

Ori Nir is a man of Peace. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, spent many years as a prominent journalist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s finest newspaper, and is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. He is not shy about disagreeing with the Israeli government, especially when it comes to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the general bellicosity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime. But he hasn’t protested the current Israeli incursion into Gaza. “It is a just war,” he told me, “carried out with a great deal of care.”

This may seem surprising to people who don’t follow the Middle East as closely as Nir does, and you might rightly ask, Why is this incursion different from all other Israeli incursions? Because Hamas, which was in an existential jam this spring, needed a new strategy. It had lost its prime ally in the region when the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is the official Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) It also alienated another of its supporters, Iran, when it sided with the Brotherhood against Bashar Assad in Syria. Opposition within Gaza to Hamas’ corruption and misrule was also on the rise. What to do?

Provoke Israel. It had worked in the past. A kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on the northern border had led to Israel’s less-than-discriminate assault on Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006. Rocket attacks had provoked Israel’s two previous Gaza incursions, in 2008 and 2012. Hamas and Hizballah had “won” those wars because their fighters resisted the Israelis more effectively than conventional Arab armies had done in the past but also because the images of collapsed buildings and blood-soaked children had bolstered Israel’s growing reputation as an oppressor and a bully in the eyes of the world.

This time is different, however, for several reasons. The initial provocation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, was indefensible, as was a retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teen. In a moment of moral clarity, Hamas lauded its kidnappers, while a furious Netanyahu called the retaliation “reprehensible.” Indeed, Israel’s actions have been more prudent across the board. It confined its bombing at first to Hamas’ military facilities and leaders. Civilians were killed in the process–as was Hamas’ intent–but these were targeted strikes, not the free-range assault on Gaza City that had occurred in Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The ground campaign that followed was limited as well, confined to Shejaiya, a neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City that was a warren of Palestinian fighters and the launch point for a very elaborate tunnel system from Gaza to Israel. The fighting has been brutal, to be sure. More than 500 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But it was not an indiscriminate massacre. Israel was protecting its border, the right of any sovereign nation; its citizens were threatened by Palestinian assaults at the receiving end of the tunnels (several of which were attempted, and foiled, during the fighting). “I don’t like the civilian casualties that result from bombing the homes of the Hamas leaders,” Nir says. “And what’s happening in Shejaiya is horrible, but I think it falls within the normal rules of war. The moral bottom line seems clear.” And then, semi-amazed to be doing so, he quoted Netanyahu: “‘We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.’”

There have been the predictable anti-Israel riots in Europe, mostly populated by Islamic groups; the parlor left has been appalled, on cue, by the alleged Israeli brutality–without questioning the deadly cynicism of Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas has been outfoxed diplomatically: it opposed the cease-fire agreement proposed by Egypt, which Israel–and the Arab League–supported. If you’re really the aggrieved party, it’s not easy to explain why you won’t accept peace. By now, in a reasonable world, Hamas would have lost all remaining shreds of its tenuous moral credibility.

A cease-fire will be negotiated sooner or later, perhaps even by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It is likely that nothing good will come of it. But Hamas’ weakness, its inability to dictate terms, does leave a tiny possibility for peace. The first step is to restore legal order in Gaza by returning the Palestinian Authority–ousted by Hamas in a 2007 coup–to power and bringing in the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces who have done such an excellent job of bringing law and order to the West Bank. The next step is free elections in Gaza, which, given Hamas’ current unpopularity, might be won by more moderate factions, perhaps even Fatah.

This is the Middle East, of course. Israel remains intransigent on a West Bank agreement. Peace is a chimera; only the dead bodies are real.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

Clarification: The views expressed by Ori Nir in this column are his own and not those of Americans for Peace Now.

TIME Viewpoint

Modi and the World

Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara
PM-designate Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara, Gujarat, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections on Friday, May 16, 2014. The India Today Group—India Today Group/Getty Images

A crisis could force the hand of India’s new leader as he navigates Asia’s shifting geopolitics

Often fiery and intermittently reasonable, sometimes banal but occasionally innovative, Narendra Modi’s statements on foreign policy over the past few years have been so meager and uneven that they cannot readily serve as a guide for how he will act as India’s Prime Minister. Wonks call him a realist. Political admirers and critics both say he’s hard-line. But the specifics of what he might do in office are unclear.

In the past, Modi has berated the Manmohan Singh government for being weak in its dealings with Pakistan and China, two of India’s most important neighbors. During the election campaign, however, he was careful not to paint himself into a corner. In his first major foreign policy speech, he gave pride of place to a corny slogan—“Terrorism divides, tourism unites”—but also showed a capacity for out-of-the-box thinking, saying India should convene a global summit with countries interested in developing solar power as a major source of future energy.

While there is likely to be continuity in many aspects of India’s foreign policy—its stand on major international issues, its bilateral and multilateral partnerships—Modi’s tenure will be defined by how he responds to four specific challenges.

The first is economic, where everything depends on his ability to boost growth. Besides strengthening India’s economic partnerships with the U.S., Europe and Asia, a stronger economy will give the country the heft it needs to play a larger role on the world stage.

Politically, the big challenge for Modi will be to move away from his Bharatiya Janata Party’s rhetoric of “Hindu nationalism” and find ways of forging closer ties with India’s two Islamic neighbors, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In opposition, the BJP attacked Singh for his initiatives on this front. During the campaign, Modi played on the sentiment of Hindus living near Bangladesh, describing Muslim migrants as “infiltrators” out to destroy India. The reality is more complex. While there are large numbers of Bangladeshi migrants in India, many Indians work in Bangladesh and send back nearly two-thirds of the amount of money that Bangladeshis in India transmit out of the country every year, according to the World Bank. Closer ties with Dhaka, and Islamabad, are clearly in New Delhi’s interest. Inviting neighboring leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration is a good first step by Modi.

On the strategic front, the shifting geopolitics of the wider Asian region will present Modi with difficult choices. His instincts may lead him to seek closer ties with a more assertive Japan and a U.S. officially committed to the Asia “pivot.” But the economic pragmatist in him will be wary of fanning Chinese fears about encirclement. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited China several times, and China’s President Xi Jinping is due to visit New Delhi in the fall. The Shinzo Abe government is keen for Modi to visit Tokyo before that, and the new PM will meet with President Barack Obama in New York City in September. Striking a balance between the three will require great dexterity.

When it comes to Washington, much has been made of the denial of a U.S. visa to Modi when he was chief minister. In campaign interviews, the Prime Minister–elect chose to strike a philosophical tone, saying one should look forward and not back. And although the chances that Modi and Obama will hit it off are close to zero, both leaders know the stakes are too high to let feelings come in the way.

The greatest—and most immediate—foreign policy challenge for Modi is likely to be on the crisis-management front. What happens if Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda or other Pakistan-based terrorist outfits stage an attack against India? Modi would come under enormous pressure from his party’s rank and file to react in a muscular manner, though the country’s diplomatic and security establishment is likely to drive home the absence of any neat military options. A crisis may also come up on the Chinese side if there is a repeat of the kind of intrusions Chinese military patrols have engaged in along the yet-to-be-settled international boundary between the two countries. Vague as Modi’s positions have been thus far, he will have to get very specific, very quickly. n

Varadarajan is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at New Delhi’s Shiv Nadar University

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