I was interested to read the Margaret MacMillan essay Rod Dreher linked to earlier, but the decision to emphasize comparisons between pre-WWI history and current events creates a number of jarring distractions. For example, she likens Russia role as patron to Syria today with its role as Serbia’s ally a century ago:
While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then. A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the U.S., Turkey, Russia, and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients. Will Russia feel it has to support Syria, the same way it once felt it had to support its client Serbia, and Germany felt it had to support Austria-Hungary? We must hope that Russia will have more control over the Damascus government than it had over Serbia in 1914. But so far international efforts to defuse the Syria crisis have been complicated by Russia’s investment in the survival of the Assad regime in the face of the threat of U.S. military action.
This is the sort of thing that gives these broad historical comparisons a bad name. Syria is a client of Moscow in that it buys Russian weapons and receives diplomatic backing at the U.N., but Russia isn’t bound by treaty to defend Syria and wouldn’t go to war for Assad under any circumstances. The trouble with the relationship between Russia and Serbia in 1914 wasn’t that St. Petersburg was unable to “control” Serbia, but that the Russian government felt compelled to come to its defense when it was threatened with attack. It is fortunate that the U.S. didn’t attack Syria, but even if the U.S. had attacked that would not have triggered a Russian military response. Russia has shown repeatedly over the last twenty years that it won’t go to war on behalf of its clients when the latter are under attack from Western governments. If there was a danger that an attack on Syria could trigger a larger regional war, this had to do with the possibility of Iranian retaliation against U.S. and allied targets.
MacMillan is correct that great powers’ “support for smaller ones encourages their clients to be reckless,” as we have seen on more than one occasion in the last decade, but the real blunder of the great powers in 1914 was that governments on both sides involved themselves in a conflict that could have remained a local and relatively contained war. Given our tendency over the last twenty years to enter into foreign conflicts where we have little or nothing at stake, the bad habit of trying to turn every local or internal conflict into a cause for international war is the one that should give us pause as we remember how disastrously that has turned out in the past.