Multi-national alliances, a century after the great war

Jesse Carey

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has taken several dramatic turn in recent days. On Aug. 25, Russia quietly sent troops across the border into Ukraine, a clear escalation of the ongoing crisis.

On Sept. 5, a ceasefire was signed between the Pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government.

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More importantly, that same day saw a promise from President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking for NATO: NATO would dispatch 4,000 troops as a “quick response force” in the region to counterbalance Russia.

Much of the agitation for this policy shift came not from the U.S and Britain, but rather from members of NATO in Poland and the Baltic regions, concerned with Russia’s movements in the Ukraine.

Last July marked the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, which swallowed up Europe. A dense web of alliances dragged many European countries, one after another, into the quagmire.

Failure to act responsibly at war’s end ensured that a second World War was a matter of inevitability. At the end of World War II, the U.S. and her allies set up the United Nations, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as a response to the Soviet Union, but also in order to prevent the outbreak of another general conflict in Europe.

These institutions, have, in the intervening 70 years, spun complex webs of mutual interest across the globe, from Beijing to Washington, D.C. This makes the outbreak of general wars less and less likely, but the specter of war is never entirely eliminated, and sometimes the very system put in place to stop these wars from happening is what causes the wars to be much worse.

One hundred years ago, men saw the alliance system that was to be their downfall as a deterrent and a protective agent against war.  

NATO is often a stabilizing force around the globe, but article 5 of the charter dictates that, “An attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all.” Echoing the talk of 1914, NATO’s secretary general made the following statement following the announcement of the rapid-response force, “This decision sends a clear message to any potential aggressor: should you even think of attacking an ally, you will be facing the whole alliance.”

Much like the years directly before World War I, this notion of interlocking alliances is seen as a deterrent against war, rather than an escalation, an assumption that could prove very much mistaken.

Additionally, while the U.S. and Britain are right to honor their commitments to NATO, the agitation for the troop build up comes from much smaller countries, similar to how the great powers’ commitment to the alliances with the smaller powers dragged them the first World War.

While it is likely that a version of the cease-fire hold, that diplomacy will win the day and that Russia will step back from the edge, the move by NATO is an escalation of the crisis, and the consequences could be huge.

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All of this took on a slightly more urgent turn as reports started to come in late on Sept. 7 that Pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian soldiers were fighting each other in the city of Mariupol, effectively violating the cease-fire.

In short, institutions like the U.N. and NATO serve in large part to prevent the outbreak of large scale wars, but ultimately, the connections fostered by these institutions can still drag all of the participants into the fire, in much the same way that the alliance system in Europe a century ago dragged all comers into the mess that was the Great War.

The biggest difference between now and then is that the U.S. took the leap onto the world stage only at the end of the first World War, and didn’t become a superpower until after the second World War. In other words, unlike a century ago, should this situation deteriorate, it will be the U.S. who would bear the weight of this war.

Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at @junotbend