Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, July 2014. Photo: Oxfam via Flickr.
Who will silence the Guns of August, 2014?
6th August 2014
One hundred years ago this August, guns rang out as a Europe made unstable by hatred, nationalism and a complex web of treaties went to war. Now the entire world appears poised for conflagration, writes Guy Horton. But where are the leaders to pull us from the brink?
We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. We are all mortal.
A few months ago I was having dinner with an American friend who had just returned from Shanghai.
While recalling his girlfriend's last words, he looked suddenly troubled:
"It would only take three bombs."
"What would?" My friend had asked.
"Only three bombs", she repeated.
"What would take only three bombs?" he asked again.
"To destroy Japan", she replied.
She usually ended up talking like this after a bottle of wine, he added.
The Guns of August reverberate today
The story is not an irrelevant black anecdote. It reflects something darker. 'The Guns of August' of 1914 are echoing around the globe right now in August 2014.
Widespread irrational hatred fanned by nationalism and religious fundamentalism is inflaming a world entangled in a 1914-like web of unclear relationships and treaties.
The hope following the end of the Cold War vanished long ago, just as the brief window of opportunity at the end of World War 2 soon closed. Then on 9/11 the World split open down one of its fundamentalist fault lines.
Now, as the Middle East continues to disintegrate along historical fissures, the shifting geopolitical plates of Russian and Chinese nationalisms clash with the West in Europe and Asia.
America, weakened by hubristic wars and economic mismanagement at home, is confronted by simultaneous geopolitical challenges on three fault lines: China, Russia, and the Middle East.
This new world has an August 1914-like egg shell fragility about it. American B52 bombers 'violate' Chinese claimed air space risking 'emergency measures' over the Japanese claimed Senkaku / Daiyou islands. A Chinese vessel submerges a Vietnamese boat in the strategic international waters of the South China Sea.
A Malaysian civilian airliner is shot down in eastern Ukraine in murky circumstances - and western governments (cheered on by mainstream media) instantly heap blame, insult and sanctions on Russia and her President, Vladimir Putin.
Russia is accused of breaking a decades-old Nuclear Arms Treaty with a new ground launched cruise missile. Nuclear co-operation between Russian and American scientists is terminated. Russia intercepts a US spy plane undertaking electronic surveillance on its borders; it escapes by violating Swedish air space.
International law and the moral authority of the West lies in tatters after the Iraq war, the rise of the Islamic State, the abject failure of NATO's war in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Libyan state after NATO's illegal regime change, the chaos and terror of the vicious civil war in Syria ...
A clash of superpowers
The above are not minor incidents. They involve superpowers vulnerable to miscalculations, which as in 1914, can have catastrophic consequences. Potential disaster may also be facilitated by confusion and misinformation, as in the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident.
Is the US bound to defend the non NATO Ukraine? Would it declare war on China if Taiwan is attacked? What would happen if China evicts 17 Filipino marines from a rusting hulk on the Spratley islands it claims? Does the US-Philippines alliance protect a collection of half submerged rocks? What happens if a US drone is shot down on the Russian border?
These are a few of the known unknowns, but in this 1914 type world, there are other, potentially volcanic, unknown unknowns. Complacent rational arguments premised on economic interdependence offer no guarantee of peace.
What's new, these 1914-like nationalisms appear exacerbated by a 1939-like desire for vengeance. Putin, and some in the Chinese leadership, appear to want not just lebensraum, but redress for historical loss and humiliation as well. So what are we really facing? 1914 or 1939, or 1962, or none of them?
Is the Ukraine a 1938 Czechoslovakia which should be defended from aggression? A 1914 Serbia which should have been damped down to prevent ignition of a World War? A necessary 1962 Cold War-like confrontation of nuclear superpowers? Or the latest battleground in America's war for unfettered 'full-spectrum' global domination?
In Asia, are the Senkaku / Dayiou or the Spratley islands 21st century Asian equivalents of 1962 West Berlin, geological trip wires which must be defended in the wider strategic interest? Or are they more akin to 1936 Rhineland, the unwelcome but inevitable extension of an emerging axis power's natural hegemony that has to be accepted?
Religious fundamentalism fans the flames of war
Elsewhere religious fundamentalism compounds geopolitics as the major threat to Peace. People increasingly self-identify themselves in terms of faith-hate. Jewish Israel targets Muslim Gaza and to a lesser extent vice versa.
The Deputy Speaker of the Knesset calls for "maximum force" to be deployed against Gaza, followed by the territory's annexation to Israel and the expulsion of its people to camps in the Sinai desert.
Buddhist monks attack Muslims in Myanmar and Hindus in Sri Lanka. Hindu Modi is elected Prime Minister of India despite his apparent complicit failure to prevent attacks on Muslims in his home State of Gujarat.
Sunni and Shia Muslims assault each other in recurrent, mutual destruction in the Middle East. Christians and Muslims clash in Sudan and Nigeria. A vicious, low intensity Buddhist-Muslim conflict festers in southern Thailand. Some Christian fundamentalists demonise Islam and gays. Han Chinese oppress Buddhist Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in Xingkiang. A fanatical Caliphate is established in the Middle East.
Over the major monotheisms hangs the self-fulfilling, nihilistic prophesy of the End of Days and the hocus pocus of apocalyptic psychopathic eschatology. Meanwhile, a real physical threat, the Ebola virus, not a psychological projection, incubates and replicates in West Africa.
Democracy and human rights in retreat
In Western democracies ethnic fault lines also widen and deepen. In the US almost all African-Americans vote Democrat; almost all rural whites Republican. In Europe post War multi-racial and indigenous white communities polarise.
Many have lost faith in democracy believing it has been co-opted by, and conflated with, corporate capitalism. The bogus justifications for the Iraq war have destroyed trust in government and international law.
Meanwhile the EU, the post war successful experiment in pooled sovereignty, is foundering on an up welling of nationalism, hostility to perceived oppressive bureaucracy, and general xenophobia.
Everywhere, with the important exception of Latin America, democracy and human rights are in retreat. US Presidents violate the Constitution by supporting CIA torture and spying on Congress. The UN Charter appears as remote as Magna Carta. Truly the words of W.B. Yeats's 'Second Coming' haunt us again:
"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Obama: hopes of millions, feet of clay
President Obama practises a realpolitik apparently guided by full-blown neocon principles, and lacks all conviction. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former black community organiser masterminds drone wars and violates the Constitution. He is now apparently willing to enter a 1914-like vortex.
He has not understood that reality does not just happen: it is made. World War 1 was the product of chosen myopic nationalism.
Obama need not be a failed 1914 Woodrow Wilson, nor the appeaser Chamberlain in 1938, nor the servant of Kennedy's generals seeking Armageddon in the early sixties. He could instead affirm a vision of our common humanity based on his own humanity.
He is blessed, not undermined, by the accidents of his birth and upbringing. His multi-faceted identity could enable him to meet this global challenge. With his African surname and father; his middle name, Hussein; his anthropologist mother from Kansas; his childhood in Muslim Indonesia.
His upbringing by traditional white American grandparents in the East-West fulcrum of Hawaii, he is the first American President who could be a citizen of the World and transcend the clash of -isms. What's more, in the last two years of his Presidency, he does not have to suppress his humanity to appease domestic racism and nationalism.
He is not only the current President of the United States; he is also that future potential fellow citizen of the world Kennedy appealed to, over the Capitol Hill crowds, in his inauguration address on that cold, January morning of 1961:
"My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you, but what together we can do for the liberty of man."
The problem is Obama is not behaving like a citizen of the World but like an old fashioned geopolitical politician. He faces admittedly a sea of troubles. Current hatred knows no class, racial, religious, or educational boundaries.
The age of racial, national and religious hatred
My friend's Chinese girlfriend in the smart Shanghai restaurant, sympathetically cogitating the destruction of millions of fellow Asians, was rich, educated and attractive. Western acquaintances in the condo where I live think nothing of striking up casual conversations with opinions akin to Breivik Anders.
My friendly Japanese female neighbour casually assures me that Korean 'comfort' women were better off with their Japanese consorts than staying at home in their "poverty ridden" villages.
In short, racial, national and religious hatred is now widespread: amongst saffron robed monks, bar room bores, tech savvy facebook geeks, religious fundamentalists of all hues, friendly neighbours, rich, poor, educated and uneducated alike.
August 2014 need not repeat the mindless bellicosity of August 1914, however, or the peace of appeasement of 1938 Czechoslovakia, or the near Armageddon of Cuba 1962. Kennedy faced with his critics' death wish, "Better dead not red", chose "Neither dead nor red, but alive and free."
In 1963 he affirmed a vision of Peace based on our common humanity and revisioned Mutual Assured Destruction into a vision of Mutual Assured Survival. In his Commencement Address at the American University, he confronted the collective fatalism of annihilation and turned it round.
Kennedy chose hope over despair - now it's Obama's turn
Virtually alone, he challenged the general despair. He hailed the Russian people for their achievements; unilaterally ceased US nuclear testing; removed the threat of imminent Armageddon; took the first unilateral step toward ending The Cold War; initiated SALT 1 and affirmed Civil Rights at home.
He rebuffed both the jibes of 1938 like appeasement, and his military's 1914-like incitement to War. He was aware, almost alone amongst his Cabinet and advisers, how a minor event like the assassination of an ostrich-feathered, archduke in 1914 Sarajevo, or the bombing of a Caribbean island in 1962, could lead to global catastrophe. He understood and read "The Guns of August".
Darkness falls. In the face of it we can choose one of three options: 1914 bellicosity, 1938 appeasement, or 1963 affirmation of humanity tempered by the caution that one must never tempt enemies with weakness.
"Without vision a people perish" said the prophet and he was right on that one at least.
It is indeed time for President Obama to step up, revision realpolitik, and establish a foreign policy of our time, for our time - but not 'in our time'. It should be based not on a neocon 1914-like geopolitical dystopia, or the peace of 1938 appeasement, but on our common humanity.
Sharing our one and only planet
Nothing could be more irrational than the realistic nationalisms that lead to World War 1, which resulted in the Russian Revolution, World War 2, the Holocaust, Stalin's terror, the Cold War, the current Middle East, and now the clash of political, economic, national, tectonic plates in Asia and the return of a new Cold War based on MAD.
Because no political leader challenged the 'realism' of 1914 nationalism with the common sense of our common humanity, millions and millions of people died horrifically and unnecessarily in the 20 Century. The waves from that event are still not spent.
Now the fracturing of the World along current geopolitical and religious fault lines risks similar tragedy. America's recent wars in Indo-China, Iraq, Libya have been a disaster. President Obama must step up, speak up and revision realpolitik with a vision of interdependent humanity supported by practical proactive Strategies for Peace in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
We must remember President Kennedy appeared trapped by history and the insane reality of Mutual Assured Destruction until he stepped out on that June morning of 1963 affirming the primacy of our common humanity humanity and the strategy to defend it.
"We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. We are all mortal."
Guy Horton, known as 'The man who uncovered the truth about Burma', has worked in Burma and its border zones since 1998. From 2002-2005 he researched the violations inflicted on the eastern ethnic peoples, receiving funding from the Netherlands government.
His 2005 report Dying Alive and supporting video footage received worldwide coverage and contributed to the submission of Burma to the UN Security Council in January 2007. As result of the report, the UN Committee on the Prevention of Genocide carried out an investigation and placed Burma Myanmar on the Genocide Alert list.
Since 2005, Guy has focused on establishing a coalition of governments, funders, institutions and leading international lawyers with the aim of getting the violations objectively and authoritatively investigated and analysed so that impunity can be addressed.
He is a Research Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Unversity of London and has been affiliated to the Irish Centre for Human Rights investigating the plight of the Rohingya people in western Burma.
Also by Guy Horton: 'Aung San Suu Kyi: complicity with tyranny'.
Using this website means you agree to us using simple cookies.