The Great War’s legacy on the international system

Photo © UK Official War Photographs/
King George V inspecting members of the South African Native Labour Corps during World War 1 [date unknown].

Over the European summer the world will witness several centennial commemorations of the first World War. One hundred years ago today, on 23 July 1914, Austria-Hungary presented an ultimatum to Serbia, and on 28 July, war was declared on Serbia.

Although a century has passed, views on the First World War’s causes still divide. Its participants and theatres of conflict spanned the globe, with the protagonist emperors declaring war on behalf of all their ‘subjects’. It was a war of the established, declining and aspiring powers of the time – the Austro-Hungarian, the nascent German, the Ottoman, the Russian, and the British. With the exception of Britain’s George V, by 1918 the potentates of all these autocracies had been deposed or violently killed and their continental empires in Europe and the Middle East dismembered.

The war only partially masked the gathering domestic storm in these countries which followed its end – growing social upheavals, calls for the emancipation of women, mobilisation of workers, and the rise of communism and national-socialism. These tensions would play themselves out in the decades to follow. It would take another world war for the death knell of colonialism to sound and for the European colonies to make way for independent, sovereign states in Asia and Africa.

When the Great War broke out, Africa was a patchwork of imperial possessions. The conflict was largely a European civil war, but the colonies provided resources, labour and soldiers. South Africa, only recently created as a Union of the British colonies and the Afrikaner republics, joined the fray amid dissension among Afrikaners (to be repeated at the outbreak of the Second World War).

South African troops saw combat in German South West Africa, German East Africa and in Europe. Some 146,000 whites volunteered, while 83,000 blacks and 2,000 coloureds served in non-combatant capacities. The battle of Delville Wood in France was by far the most costly for South African troops, becoming the grave of more than three quarters of the men who began the offensive against the German positions there in July 1916. Other Africans also saw service in the war, both on the front line and in auxiliary roles. A comprehensive history of their contribution still has to be written a hundred years later.

However, the Great War’s impact on Africa is not limited to the experiences and sacrifices of troops who served in its various theatres across three continents or the social effects on their communities.

In accelerating the destruction of the tottering empire of the Romanovs, the Great War provided an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to grab power and create the first state bent on world revolution. After the war, the USSR became a magnet for revolutionary forces everywhere. Hobsbawm’s book, Age of Extremes, describes the October revolution as producing ‘the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history’ with a global footprint only rivalled by the Islamic conquests. Although the USSR did not survive the end of the Cold War, its ardent support for the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia was a significant factor in many of these movements’ success.

Perhaps the greater legacy of the war lies in its post-war settlement that sowed the seeds that would see African states later emerge as independent sovereign entities. The war precipitated the unravelling of ‘Empire’; its economic costs would deal a fatal blow to the European powers’ dominance of global affairs and signal the rise of the United States.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 US President Wilson encouraged the inclusion in the Versailles Treaty of his Fourteen Points. Three in particular were seminal for the subsequent course of 20th century history and the international state system. The first was the right to self-determination.  Although limited in its scope, Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination as the guiding principle for reconfiguring the map of Europe and the Middle East was a harbinger of the decolonisation that ensued in earnest after the Second World War. In February 1918 Wilson had declared to a joint session of Congress that ‘National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.’ By the end of the 1940s this could no longer be denied to Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia.

The second was Wilson’s vision to form ‘a general association of nations […] under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike’. This was to become the League of Nations, which although unable to prevent the Second World War, paved the way for the United Nations’ establishment in 1944. Not without its own limitations, the UN has nevertheless, been able to mitigate some of the system’s worst excesses through its myriad diplomatic, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. It has also provided a ‘parliament’ for the nations of the world both big and small. The UN sits at the apex of a system of collective security, which has its origins in the Treaty of Versailles that committed all signatories ‘to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing independence’ of all states.

So, although the commemorations on the fields of Flanders and France this year are distant in space and time from many of us, the war and its outcome defined the trajectory of the international state system and the institutions of global governance. Some argue that the system as it has evolved today is open enough to allow for rising powers to be accommodated. Rising powers and regions that have previously felt marginalised may not necessarily agree.

The challenge for all states today is to confront the new power shifts not by exacerbating competitive, nationalistic rivalries but through a commitment to reform (and in some case transform) the institutions of global governance. Reform-mindedness among the powers-that-be is the best means to accommodate the major power shifts of our current age.

23 Jul 2014