2014 and 1914



Historian Nicholas Boyle (in ‘2014, How to Survive the Next World Crisis‘) foresees a big event happening this decade that will define the global geopolitical environment this century, much as World War 1 created the politics of the 20th century. (See the geopolitical section of my musings about speculation earlier this year.) Sadly, we remain generally ignorant of the causes and consequences of that massive and brutal conflict, WW1, which began precisely 100 years ago.

Indeed Boyle sees WW1 as having set the seeds both the 21st century political order and that order’s ultimate demise. The Wilsonian settlement defined a geopolitical world of autonomous nation states, with the American nation state being by presumption both the liberal-democratic model for others to follow, and the hegemonic force that would see the project through. The contemporary nation state could be understood as a politico-cultural gift of President Woodrow Wilson to the world, a process of Americanisation extended later by Hollywood, Coca Cola and Microsoft.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1991 represented the final phase of a process of nation-state creation that began with the WW1 collapse of the Austrian and Turkish empires, and partial collapse of the Russian empire. In between, and during the mid‑century apotheosis of Soviet-American rivalry, new nation states formed from the breakup of the British, French and Dutch empires.

The End of History, proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992 (having raised the question in 1989), was really a belief in the final triumph of the Wilsonian nation state as the central institution of a liberal-democratic world order; an order in which the anarchy that exists between nation states would self-resolve through the geopolitical equivalent of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, with just a touch of help from the visible hand of the Uncle Sam.

Instead, forces were unleased which we can now see are unravelling rather than consolidating this Wilsonian world order.

In 2014 the unravelling of the nation-state system is gathering momentum. Professor Boyle noted that the process may prove to be peaceful or violent. One example of this unstitching through violence is the emergence in the Levant (greater Syria) of the Islamic State, alongside the increased assertiveness of Hamas in Gaza and the emergence of trans-national Islamic forces in East and West Africa.

The other critical example is Ukraine, effectively the pivot of Halford Mackinder’s strategic ‘heartland’. (Mackinder’s ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ thesis was widely subscribed to in the early decades of the twentieth century.)

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The way that western nation-state leaders have sought to make political capital out of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 tragedy over Eastern Ukraine could become a trigger event that increases the likelihood of a violent unravelling of the world order that most of us now take for granted.

Our nation states are economically weak, thanks to three decades of public austerity in rhetoric, and increasingly in reality. Our naïve (indeed willful) blindness and intellectual apathy, our unsustainable economic practices, and our drawing the wrong lessons from the financial and economic crises of the early and late 1990s and 2008-12; all of these have made us hopelessly unprepared for the economic and political challenges of the twenty-first century. Our opinion-managers are like the World War 1 generals; quite out of their depth.

I will comment here on the cynicism towards human life that is increasingly apparent, in Gaza, Ukraine and the Levant. As the geopolitical world enters a new critical state, not dissimilar to the critical state of 1914, small events can have huge consequences. When MH17 crashed, my first thoughts turned to the June 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Joseph’s Austrian throne.

We need a new truth and reconciliation process, in Ukraine. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was not cynical. He understood that the emergence from the violence of the Apartheid system depended on a process of truth-telling and reconciliation. Sadly, the rest of us have learned little from Mandela’s example. Even in South Africa the momentum has been lost as its political reconciliation has not been able to transition into an economic phase. South Africa remains, arguably, the most unequal nation state in the world.

When Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot out of the sky on 17 July, it was most probably (eg 99% certain) that this was a tragic mistake. If there was any time when we should have withheld presumptions of blame for the sake of getting at the truth, this was it.

Probably we can be 80% sure that it was mistakenly shot down by ethnic Russian militias fighting a civil war in the failed Ukrainian nation state; a nation that has arbitrary borders and a very weak economy. Per capita GDP in Ukraine is one-third of that in Russia, and shrinking fast.

There was no way that either the pro-Russian Ukranians or the Russians themselves could gain any kind of political capital from an event such as MH17. So, if they caused this tragedy, it was unintentional. Western nations need to give these dissident people the opportunity and incentive to fess up. Like the South African miscreants from the Apartheid era, they will tell us what they know, so long as we make it possible for them to tell.

I remain uneasy, however, about this presumption of guilt. Many civilian aircraft flew high over Ukraine every day. It was implausible that anti-Kiev rebels would think that any one of these aircraft was a Ukrainian military airplane. My uneasiness is compounded by the precipitous and seemingly blatant attempts by the western-backed Kiev government to claim the moral high ground; and how this government has now used the confusion on the ground in Eastern Ukraine to take military advantage of the situation.

The other possibility (probably about 20% likely) is that MH17 was shot-down (again, almost certainly without intent) by a pro-Kiev force, and that decisions have been taken in Kiev to gain political capital by shifting the blame to the other side. (We known how the American government took advantage of 9/11 to gain massive sympathy and the political capital to wage war in the wake of that event.) We know that the Ukrainian conflict is quite vicious, could be pivotal to twenty-first century geopolitics, and yet has not been well reported. The lack of good journalism about Ukraine stems in large part (but not only) because, before MH17, that conflict was overshadowed by the less complex and even more brutal rise of ISIS in greater Syria.

Before leaving Ukraine, I would like to note that both the Russian President (Vladimir Putin) and the Indian Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) were flying over Eastern Europe at the time, returning from the BRICS economic summit in Brazil. Indeed, if the MH17 event was a random pot-shot at a passing airplane, then Modi’s aircraft was just as likely to have been hit as the hapless Malaysian flight. In commenting about whether someone might have been targeting Putin’s aircraft (with similar livery to that of Malaysian Airlines), Putin was reported as saying he never flies over Ukrainian air space. (Indeed Putin’s plane flew over Poland.) That is telling; at least someone thought Ukrainian airspace was too dangerous. Some Ukrainians may not have known that Putin never flies over Ukraine, and probably most people in Ukraine would be familiar with the paint-job of the Russian presidential jet. While it’s unlikely that Putin’s plane was the intended target, all other motives for shooting down an airliner are also unlikely.

When we reflect on geopolitical ruthlessness, we have no shortage of material to draw on in the last 100 years. One fictional event that comes to my mind is the CIA master‑minded street bombing in Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American‘, set in French Indo-China. This was a cynical crime of terror that presented the “communist” post-colonial insurgents as the perpetrators.

This takes me to Gaza. Now Israel is a nation state that sees itself as a qualitatively different from other nations. And certainly the colonisation of the ‘West-Bank’ of Palestine by Israeli settlers has been and continues to be a wantonly provocative process.

Nevertheless, the latest and most bloody outburst of military violence in the region – possibly triggered by unfortunate tit-for-tat crimes in the West Bank – appears to be mostly a result of cynical decisions made by the political leaders of Gaza itself. Everyone knows – not least the Gazans – precisely what the Israeli military response is to missile (or other) attacks. If you put your head in a shark’s mouth, you expect to have it bitten off.

The Israelis usually admit to their ‘collateral damage’, justifying brutal civilian casualties on the grounds of the evident truth that indeed the civilians of Gaza are being used as ‘human shields’. So when the Israeli military claim that some of the tragic deaths did not result from Israeli military activities, I am included to believe them. This leads me to conclude that some of the children of Gaza are victims of “friendly fire”; maybe from misfired rockets stored in and launched from places like schools and hospitals.

Hamas, a Sunni faction, is presumably sympathetic to IS, the newly proclaimed Islamic State that controls much of what we call Iraq and Syria. The geopolitics in this whole region is unsympathetic to individual human life in ways that we in New Zealand just cannot grasp. We should try – and try hard – to understand what is really happening in these pivotal conflicts.

What is happening is nothing less than an unpicking of the façade of the twentieth century world order; the system dominated by a deep and abiding faith in the sanctity and autonomy of the nation state. We need to take up Nicholas Boyle’s challenge, to look for alternative visions of twenty-first century geopolitics, and to advancing peaceful means to bring to fruition viable new forms of regional and global governance.


  1. “So when the Israeli military claim that some of the tragic deaths did not result from Israeli military activities, I am included [sic] to believe them.” Freudian slip? Israeli jingoistic propaganda is inclined to include us all.
    The maxim that we should learn from history to avoid repeating its mistakes seems not to occur to our dear leader; it’s left [sic] to people like this columnist, Chris Trotter, Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky to remind us of our horrendous, historical mistakes.

    • So home made bombs, and home made rock fuel. High density housing. Chance of mistake by people making and using said weapons – in your eyes Yogibare, zero.

      When you make mistakes while making weapons or using them, they have a tendency to go boom. But, no blame the Israelis how could the Palestine make mistakes and kill there own, they are the good guys right, right…

      • There are no good or bad guys in this conflict, Adam, although Israel seems to think their might is right.
        No doubt there will be another independent report once both sides stop killing each other over there, as there was after Operation Cast Lead. Unfortunately Israel choose to deny the findings of the Goldstone Report on their conduct during that conflict, as they have ignored international law rulings in the past.

  2. How did you come by the 20 % likelihood ? What is the percentage likelihood that the rebels shot the plane down?

    • Gosman. When you refer to ‘rebels’ are you talking about the Russian-speaking people who are being attacked by fascists installed in Kiev by Washington?

      One should never forget that Ukrainian fascists fought alongside SS units against Russians, and the mob that the US has installed in Kiev have close association with the WW2 fascists.

  3. You had me, especially with the bit about Putin’s plane, right up till “friendly fire”. Using this term as an adjunct to killing children is an abomination.

  4. With the US economy collapsing and massive stock market and housing bubbles, Obama needs to start a war to be able to default on US treasury notes and provide a distraction from the domestic woes. Also, a major conflict will provide cover for further trashing of the US Constitution and further restrictions of citizens’ freedoms, perhaps even confiscation of gold, as happened under FDR in the 1930s, which can be shared amongst his criminal fiends on Wall St. as civil unrest burgeons. US police departments are already being armed with heavy vehicles for use against civilians.

    Meanwhile, the corrupt Wall St bankers and their friends in government are looking to profit from shady deals in the energy sector in Ukraine (check Joe Biden’s son’s connection with all this), and would just love to topple Russia and get their hands on Russia’s energy reserves to prop up their Ponzi schemes just a little longer.

    It has always been about taking control of Russia’s and bringing Russia under control of corrupt western banking systems. Well, since the Crimean War it has.

    Obviously the US does not want to be seen to overtly start yet another war, so it will attempt to do so surreptitiously via yet another false flag incident, just as occurred on 9/11, and will try to drag every other western nation down with them via unwinnable conflicts. Or the maniacs in Washington will become so desperate they will attempt a ‘pre-emptive’ nuclear strike and destroy most life on this planet quickly, rather than slowly, as is happening via globalisation of the ‘American Dream’.

  5. ‘When MH17 crashed, my first thoughts turned to the June 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Joseph’s Austrian throne.’

    By the way, that assassination had little to do with it (though it did provide a convenient cover for the real reason).

    Germany was building the Berlin to Baghdad railway, and if it was allowed to complete the railway it would have provided Germany with access to Mesopotamian oil, and further degraded Britain’s ‘top dog’ position. Hence, the British attacked Turkey and attempted to invade Mesopotamia (unsuccessfully). However, once the fighting on the western front was over Britain and France did manage to carve up the Middle East and secure the oil.

    • Sadly, we remain generally ignorant of the causes and consequences of that massive and brutal conflict, WW1, which began precisely 100 years ago.
      Could that be because the actors, nay overall benefactors, prefer it that way?

      Indeed @AFEWKNOWTHETRUTH, not the cause of WWI that we got told at school or read in most textbooks – but in fact an Oil War.
      Entertainingly outlined by Robert Newman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSTuMqVK7P4

  6. Yes it is very disturbing that those in the west that have the “black boxes” that supposedly contain all the important evidence we are continually told have yet to fess up and tell us what actually happened.

    Should have by now?

    Looks as if they are finding it difficult to explain that it was not shot down but blown up maybe by anti gay folks since a majority were folks going to an aids convention?

    Their silence is deafening………………………………

  7. 2014 and 1914? What about 1812-1814?

    That is, you forgot to mention the preceding century. Stick on Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” to remind yourself that history repeats itself, at least in in Europe, pretty much every century. Thats about every 3 or 4 generations, give or take a year or two.

    (1712 to 1716 is a little more problematic. Could perhaps some well-informed historian complete the picture for us, if there is any picture to be completed, please??).

  8. The other possibility (probably about 20% likely) is that MH17 was shot-down (again, almost certainly without intent) by a pro-Kiev force, and that decisions have been taken in Kiev to gain political capital by shifting the blame to the other side.
    That 20% may prove to be a bit higher – http://www.globalresearch.ca/german-pilot-speaks-out-shocking-analysis-of-the-shooting-down-of-malaysian-mh17/5394111

  9. There are manic groups in this world who would not care about the collateral damage taking the lives of a plane load of people for their selfish ends. Not a mistake at all.

  10. Eric Hobsbaum’s thesis of the ‘short 20th century’ is the best so far. The 20th century starts with an imperialist war for redivision of the world to access oil etc, but throws up the Bolshevik revolution, which more or less leads to a third of the world, the ‘Soviet world’, becoming independent of the dominant capitalist nations. The period of 1989-93 marks the end of that ‘short century’. The Soviet world collapses back into capitalism allowing the process of imperialist repartition to be completed – except, not quite on the terms of the early 20th century balance of powers. Thus the ironic Fukuyama ‘end of history’ thesis is a double edged sword. The 21st century begins with Russia and China surviving their soviet collapse and reviving their aborted capitalist history as great powers and now the big rivals to the declining Western powers. So the dynamic that explains the crises and revolutions of the “21st century” is the endgame of capitalist destruction as the giants battle to control the diminishing base for capitalist growth, confronted by the rise of the global peoples who do not choose to be the ‘collateral’ of the end of society and human civilisation. The 21st century belongs to those who win – the barbarians or the socialists.

  11. I will have a read whilst in Unity (now there is a great bookstore). From a hundred years view WW1 seems to me to be the confluence of a perfect storm of opposing and contradictory currents. From this distance they are all so obvious that you wonder the blindness of people of the time to them.

    Today is not much different: who in power considers resource depletion and global warming to be historic currents that will drive our future? If we really think the voodoo economics of finance works we have to be mad: at present to say this would be met with the stonewalling of a heretic.

    We read the past to perhaps enlighten us on the future: I suspect we prefer today to much to contemplate reading at all.

  12. Keith, i find you have many fine ideas presented within this post. However, i find their overall presentation confused by a deluge of subjective ideas. It needs a common thread which unifies in an objective manner. I suggest a dialectic analysis.
    I find this Marxist analysis more objective. I hope you enjoy it.

  13. Jeez Keith,
    you really counted among the redefinition of work when first advancing the Universal Basic Income idea which you have steadily retreated from, even here on The Daily Blog.

    So really you deserve the consideration time on some 21st century “big bang” prediction of the time it takes to read it imo.

  14. Jesus Christ ! I want to get off this stupid , cruel , insane , hellish , fucked up planet . And it’s not just us humans shitting where we eat . While I was away a stray cat brought in one of the wee sparrows I’d been feeding . Once inside , the fucking cat tortured it until the little birds feathers fell out and in the ensuing horror , the bird crashed around in my house , knocking over valuable glass ware and ornaments . Then I found the little things face print on a pane of glass , such was its terror and reckless determination to escape a ghastly creature with needles for teeth who can lick its own arse hole . If you like cats , best check this out by the way . Toxoplasmosis is a charmer of a parasite . http://youtu.be/CfqO1U6lfDs
    While making coffee I saw a spider gleefully wrap up a dopy winter fly , puncture it with its fangs then hung there as it liquified it into soup to be sucked up like a milk shake .
    TV is where the real terror lies . ‘ Nature Documentaries ‘ showing creatures eating other creatures who would in turn eat others still given the chance . And in the most awful ways imaginable . Ripping , tearing , lapping up blood , pulling out guts and organs while the loser flails about in its own horrible juices before merciful death levels the playing field .
    I watch Aljazeera .
    I see babies with shrapnel imbedded in their tiny little bodies , I see men with legs torn off . I see wailing mothers cradling dead little things in childrens clothing , ripped to bits by adult explosions . I see us humans , like animals , tearing at each other . Fiendish horrors too awful to watch being gleefully commited by us . To each other .
    It’s in the blood I’m afraid . We’re doomed to be our own worst enemy . It’s my view that this is our lot on this Earth . In this Universe . This is our place . And it’s to this monstrous chaos that we’re committed to once born here from God only knows where else .
    While we pray to our pathetic little gods , our good earth gets soiled with our stains . We go to ugly buildings to worship dieties that clearly don’t exist otherwise they’d be here in this shit fight with us showing us clearly how we just fuck things up time and again . But all those god botherers , the more distant they get from their invisible wizards , the more determined they become that they must be out there somewhere . Stupid cunts .
    The thing that gives me the real creeps . The thing that keeps me awake sometimes is that we should know better and yet look at what we do ? Look at what we pretend isn’t happening while we buy into it like mice drawn to the cat . This is our Hell . We are in fact in the God botherers hopeful version of Hell .

  15. The “nation state” is a concept that is often misinterpreted or even abused. There have been and are very few such nation states, and I cannot understand how the US can be called a “nation state”, as very few US Americans will see themselves as belonging to one “nation”, they either rather identify with the local regional state they live in, or with the cultural or ethnic group they may belong to.

    South Africa is certainly not a “nation state”, as there are many “nations” living within that post colonial state with borders drawn up by Dutch and British colonialists. It was even attempted to see it as the “rainbow nation”, which though does not seem to fit the realities.

    As for reading so much into history, there are many interpretations of events, and I can only agree with some serious reservations with what Keith writes here. The situation in Syria and Iraq is much more complex as described, so is it in other parts of the globe. Isis are just one “player” in the Levant, they will not last, nor will other forces.

    What is happening is a deterioration of past administrations and order, where economic, social and other frictions come to the surface, and as people tend to identify with cultural, ethnic and religious groups they may belong to (due to birth and “heritage”), we have new borderlines being drawn. This is nothing new at all, and will persist in many parts on the planet.

    The big development will rather be the economic collapse of the world economic system as we have it, and the interrelationship between Mainland China (holding massive amounts of US bonds) and the US (suffering trade imbalances and owing much to China that makes things) will break down, and likely lead to a major war, into which other countries will be drawn into.

    Russia will see its interests served better by aligning with China, and Japan rather with the US, and Europe will reluctantly be sitting in the centre, trying to stay out of it, but will be dragged into WW3 by the strategic dependence and established treaties and loyalties with the US.

    What is happening in Ukraine is indeed extremely volatile, and taking sides is foolish, as the truth has long become victim to the war that is going on. Actually Ukraine is internally breaking to bits, and Russia can simply wait for it to collapse totally, and it will have its interests served.

    New Zealanders and Australians will have heaps to worry about the future, as the resources and vast land areas here will be of interest to East Asian powers, more so than the US or Europe.

    This part of the globe is likely to change very much over coming decades, and better start learning Mandarin, dear friends.

  16. “Hamas, a Sunni faction, is presumably sympathetic to IS, the newly proclaimed Islamic State that controls much of what we call Iraq and Syria. The geopolitics in this whole region is unsympathetic to individual human life in ways that we in New Zealand just cannot grasp”

    It seems like you Mr Rankin are using history-babble and pseudo-political analysis to promote the idea that Gazan people are massacring themselves by putting their head in the sharks mouth! A deeper analysis of how the nation states were created after WW1 gives a clearer picture of why Palestinians are fighting for survival and the right to exist. Don’t assume for a moment that the death of a child, sibling or parent is any less terrible, any less traumatic for people there than it is if we lose someone we love in New Zealand. Those who are most ‘unsympathetic to human life’ are those who are too far away to understand the magnitude of the trauma and devastation. These people have lived on that land and shared it with others who also lived on that land for a very long time before the ‘nation state’ came into existence. It is because the leaders are so very sympathetic to the human lives of their people that they are fighting with what they have for the right to exist.

    The situation is complex and it would be best to not assume anything about whether Hamas are sympathetic to the Islamic State or not (unless you actually know this to be true, or are you just throwing it in there to support the Israeli propaganda effort?). Their only commonality at this point is that they are Sunni, but then so are most of Malaysia and Indonesia. Being Sunni does not make you sympathetic to IS. Quite the opposite from my experience.

  17. You nailed it with:

    Everyone knows – not least the Gazans – precisely what the Israeli military response is to missile (or other) attacks. If you put your head in a shark’s mouth, you expect to have it bitten off.

    The problem for the poor residents of Gaza is that now they’ve let Hamas in, they can’t get rid of them. They torture & execute anyone they think is against them and they operate the schools as propaganda machines to pollute even tiny children with hatred.

    Thus it is an endless loop of violence.

  18. […] As I noted last week, the twentieth century world order, or at least the order arising from World War 1, puts all its governance eggs in the ‘nation-state’ basket. This storybook system of self‑determining sovereign nation states is now undergoing an unravelling that will probably take many decades, and will most probably include many seriously violent episodes. Prior to World War 1, the political world was dominated by empires. Immediately before that war, these empires were becoming anachronisms, in large part because each was controlled by a central hegemon. […]

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