Are We Sleepwalking Towards War? Interview with Chris Clark

“Looking at the current crisis in Crimea, there is only one sleepwalker—Vladimir Putin,” said Chris Clark, referring to his bestselling book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which describes how leaders during the First World War made decisions without thinking of the larger consequences. In 1914, he said, all five major powers were sleepwalking towards war.

Mr. Clark, Professor in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. Catharine’s College, was interviewed while in Vienna to receive the 2014 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Political Literature.  

The interview was conducted by Walter Kemp, Senior Director for Europe and Central Asia, and Maximilian M. Meduna, Policy Analyst, both based at the International Peace Institute’s Vienna office. 

In your book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, you meticulously examine the complex developments that led the leaders of 1914 to a calamity, the First World War. One hundred years later, are the leaders of today sleepwalking into something unpredictable?

First, we have to clarify what we mean by “sleepwalking.” In my book, I argue that the leaders of 1914 were not acting in an unconscious way as the analogy might suggest. It would be a mistake to attribute no responsibility or guilt to these leaders and the decisions they made. I don’t think that in 1914 the “nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay,” as Lloyd George put it. World War I was not an accident; we must understand the complex web of effects of agency that pushed Europe into the catastrophe. “Sleepwalking” in this context means that despite the rational and—within their subjective logic—intelligent decisions they made, the leaders of 1914 had a limited awareness of the larger consequences of their decisions—the systemic outcome of individual, rational decisions was irrational and not induced by any single one of them.

Today, the world is different—modern democracies tend to have transparent and well-considered decision-making mechanisms. Looking at the current crisis in Crimea, there is only one actor prepared to escalate the situation—Vladimir Putin. Yes, the European Union could have integrated Russia more into its policy making in early phases of its bilateral relations with Ukraine, as the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently conceded. But right now it is important to exercise caution to avoid a further escalation. What is needed is the rhetoric of restraint. The Western powers have options for maintaining the pressure on Russia in the medium term, but for the moment leaders must uphold efforts to keep available channels of exchange open. In any case, a system-wide escalation like a hundred years ago is highly improbable with only one “sleepwalker” on the stage. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango,” and in 1914 there were five powers eager to hit the dance floor.

But surely being cautious or not opposing Russia more vehemently is almost tantamount to appeasement, like Chamberlain’s approach to Hitler before World War II? And doesn’t Putin’s justification of protecting Russian “compatriots” abroad sound hauntingly familiar to Hitler’s policy of “Schutzmacht” to protect the German “Volk”?

Putin’s understanding of politics is quite different from Hitler’s in the 1930s; the comparison is problematic and gets us nowhere in terms of finding solutions to the crisis. For Hitler and the Nazis, politics evolved around the idea of “Lebensraum,” a term inherited from cellular biology. Hitler basically perceived Europe as a petri dish of different bacteria—some superior, some to be eradicated. Putin, on the other hand, seems to have a very 19th-century understanding of power politics, with geopolitical influence being at the core. Another essential difference is that today we are not in a position of weakness vis-à-vis the “aggressor.” In fact, Putin represents a country on the defensive. He has limited cards to play in his game against the West.

Don’t you think it is the other way around? Is it not that Putin is holding most of the cards, and the West is in a weak position? Obama said there was a “red line” with chemical weapons in Syria, but it was crossed with no consequences. And now in Ukraine, Putin can see that the West will not fight for Crimea. And many countries of Western Europe rely on Russian gas. 

No, I don’t see it that way. Despite the public image of strength he is trying to project—physically and politically—Putin is actually in a weak position on the international stage. Leading a country that has yet to find its new role, where memories of times past often seem to dominate politics both abroad and at home. He is dreaming up his own version of politics and walking in his sleep. He is picking fights.  Putin needs a major éclat to consolidate domestic leadership. The strength of the West, on the other hand, is in taking a measured, inclusive approach, and staying united. This is our lesson learned from the past, and we must stay aware of it.

In your book, you say that many of the leaders of 1914—all of whom were men—faced a “crisis of masculinity.” When you see the pictures of Putin with his shirt off, shooting tigers and striking other manly poses, and when President Obama is accused of being a “wimp,” would you say some of today’s leaders are also demonstrating a “crisis of masculinity”?   

Yes indeed, it is astounding, almost nostalgic, to see Putin sitting astride a horse or shooting a tiger, albeit with a tranquilizer dart. He has rehabilitated a form of “Wild West” masculinity in politics that we thought was part of history. But I don’t think leaders like Obama or Merkel should be considered weak just because they don’t act as forcefully as Putin. In fact, I think Merkel is a very strong leader. And one has to be careful with expectations of “tough” politics, be it from Obama or others. History teaches us that it’s usually the “tough guys” who caused all the trouble, not the “wimps.” Yes, sometimes it is necessary to make hard and courageous decisions—the British and French response to the invasion of Poland by Hitler in 1939 is an example—but this is not the same as a constantly aggressive and flamboyant posture. Western leaders are right in being prudent and conciliatory.

True, but it is perceived as weakness. That is why Putin thinks that he can get away with taking Crimea. 

Crimea is special for Russia. The peninsula has been culturally and politically influenced by Russians since the reign of Peter the Great. It was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. It was only amalgamated with the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. It has been an autonomous republic within Ukraine since 1991.  

Is Eastern Ukraine also “special,” or other places in Russia’s neighborhood where there are ethnic Russians? 

A Russian foothold on Eastern Ukraine would be destabilizing for the entire region, and I think the result would be painful, cutting Russia out from the very fabric of the international community. The decision to exclude Russia from the G8 would be a mere cosmetic measure in comparison. The West’s response to Crimea is not the same as it would be, for example, in regards to Poland or the Baltic States. Were these to come under threat, NATO security guarantees would be implemented in the most decisive way. It would be a mistake by Putin to assume otherwise, but my hunch is that he understands that. 

You write, in the conclusion of your book, that in 1914 there were “rapid-fire interactions among heavily armed autonomous power-centers confronting different and swiftly changing threats and operating under conditions of high risk and low trust and transparency.” That sounds like the world of today. 

Indeed, today we have, as in 1914, an unpredictable, multipolar world with chronic crisis areas, and several unstable interlocking situations in which the great powers are entangled, most notably in the Middle East. Certainly, we live in a dangerous world, and there is urgent need for vigilance. I think that in such an environment, it is crucial that the EU and US stick together. This is the core foundation of a shared-value alliance that provides us with stability and allows to project security within and without. 

In your book you talk about the “mental maps” of the decision makers in 1914. One of their mental maps was based on a century of peace. Have we also become complacent because of a long period of relative stability?

First of all, I don’t think it is accurate to characterize the period between 1814 and 1914 as a century of peace. There were plenty of nasty wars in the nineteenth century. But yes, we have enjoyed relative peace since the Second World War. Why is that? Well, one technological development changed the rules of the game. Martin van Creveld has argued that we owe this era of great-power stability to the existence of nuclear arsenals. In this sense, he has suggested, “nuclear arms are the most beautiful gift mankind could have made to itself.” Conflict was limited to local proxy wars in colonial and post-colonial territories, because direct confrontation between major powers—heightening the risk of system-wide disaster as in 1914—was too dangerous.

Because our globalized world is so interconnected, does that make us more or less stable? 

Before the First World War, there were many—especially in the worlds of banking, industry, and finance—who argued that interdependence would make wars between key states in Europe impossible. It would be too dangerous and too costly. It would ruin national economies. And yet it happened. So I think we should not be lulled into the false security of thinking that interdependence can completely eliminate the risk of war. Of course, the big difference between today and a century ago is nuclear weapons.  

Do you see any parallels between the extreme nationalism of the early twentieth century—with groups like the Black Hand in Serbia—and terrorism, like Salafist jihadism, today?

I was very careful in choosing my words when describing the young men in Bosnia, like Gavrilo Princip, involved in the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yes, they were radical nationalists and assassins ready to commit suicide attacks, and indeed they were labeled as terrorists at the time. But their actions were very clearly targeting the state and following a political agenda. We must be careful not to conflate the understanding of “terrorism” in 1914 with what we mean by it today. Unlike the Black Hand a century ago, Islamist terrorists of our time launch indiscriminate attacks on citizens in markets, restaurants, hotels, and churches. Their objective is to intimidate entire populations. This is a very different form of terror. 

What would you say is the main “take away” from your book for the leaders of today?

I would urge today’s leaders to think hard about 1914 and the events and decisions that led up to the outbreak of the First World War. They should be aware of how complex patterns of interaction produced an unforeseen and uncontrollable disaster. Regional crises will always happen. There will always be a South Sudan; there will always be a Libya or Ukraine. But the real danger is when escalatory mechanisms fall into place and set the international system on fire. We saw it in the Balkans a century ago, and the inter-locking system of alliances that created a trajectory towards conflict. The chain-reaction of mobilizations and declarations of war following the summer crisis of 1914 was the result of mutually reinforcing threats and contingency planning, if you will. The paradox was that, by preparing for the worst, they helped to make the worst happen. And this holds true today as well. So when crises erupt, it is vital to have resilience mechanisms in place to reduce tensions. This is an important lesson learned.

Will there be a Russian translation of your book? 

Good question (laughs). The Sleepwalkers has been published in more than twenty languages, and is selling well. There is a Serbian version and a Japanese in progress. But I don’t think there is a Russian version. That would be a good idea.