The world is commemorating the centenary of the First World War, a conflict that claimed millions of lives, in an attempt to make sense of the fateful decisions that led to that war. The superpowers of the day sent their soldiers to fight in the belief that they would return in a few months’ time—only to realize that the war had descended into a quagmire of static trench warfare and chemical weapons that was to result in four years of horror.
At the beginning of the 20th century the world was in a state of turbulence, marked by a heated struggle over colonies and resources, growing tensions, and the emergence of new states with disputed borders. Tensions grew until the explosion came: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at the hands of a Serbian nationalist extremist on June 28, 1914.
The irony is that 100 years after the First World War began, the world is now once again going through a turbulent era reminiscent of that of the early 20th century, as if the beginning of every century has to be a time of instability. Not only is the Middle East in turmoil, there is the Ukrainian–Russian crisis, which has turned out to be the most serious crisis facing Europe since the collapse and disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The consequences of the Ukrainian crisis may be more serious, with Russia, a great military power, being at the forefront of the confrontation. There are also tensions between the two Asian giants, Japan and China, not to mention the North Korean crisis. Added to this is the wave of extremist–terrorist ideology that poses a serious threat to states at the hands of armed groups as opposed to regular armies and other state-affiliated groups.
Could it be possible that what we are witnessing is a prelude to a third world war, and that the world has not learned the lessons of the first two? The hypothetical answer that everyone seems to agree on is that this is unthinkable, because a war on such a scale would leave nothing intact and could destroy the whole of humanity, thanks to the superpowers’ arsenals of nuclear weapons. The reality is, however, such a war could take different forms and still cause unprecedented global tensions by means of small-scale conflicts and turmoil, as well as information and cyber warfare.
The end of the First World War came with the Treaty of Versailles, which produced a fragile peace. A new world order based on the League of the Nations was also established. But the fragile peace did not hold, and the heavy financial sanctions imposed by the League of Nations on Germany caused the eruption of a more destructive Second World War less than 20 years later. It has to be noted that the two world wars led to the emergence of some positive phenomena, such as the gains women achieved after joining the job market to make up for the shortage of male workers and the emergence of new social ideas.
Like the First World War, the Second World War produced a new world order based on the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreement that established a number of international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as a system overseen by the five major nuclear superpowers who are now the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The current world order seems to be in need of renewal, or to have reached the end of its useful life. The tensions and conflicts we are witnessing are signs of a need for new arrangements that suit the demands of the 21st century and include the emerging powers, some of whom are global economic giants or ones in the making. The world does not want a new war, but rather new settlements in order to stop superpowers from exploiting regional conflicts in order to settle scores at the expense of others.