Some weeks ago President Carter, contemplating his response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, was reported to be reading Winston Churchill's account of World War II's origins. While the value of the 1930s experience should not be forgotten, recent developments in the Middle East render increasingly pertinent the origins of this century's other cataclysmic conflict, World War I.
The lessons of this earlier war are many. Foremost among them is that the world can plummet into conflict more by accident than by design. In 1914 the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the Balkans set off a series of responses and counterresponses which culminated in a world war none of the major powers had sought.
Parallels with 1914 become ever more worrisome. The Middle East is today's Balkans: an extremely volatile area in whose future the major powers view their vital interests to be inextricably woven. Even now the Balkanization of the Middle East continues: witness the Iraqi and Iranian hostilities.In the two years prior to 1914 there were two Balkan wars as the major powers proved incapable of achieving stability there. Woodrow Wilson lamented the international anarchy of 1914; that state is to be lamented today.
Present also is the example of irresponsible elements testing the ability of others to act responsibly. Serbian nationalists resorted to assassination in the conviction that the war they were tempting would wrest from Austria territory necessary for the creation of a large South Slav state -- which we now have in the form of Yugoslavia. Their hopes that their despicable deed would goad the Austrian regime into irresponsible behavior were amply fulfilled.
In 1980 a band of Iranian militants goads the United States. While these militants may not seek war, they obviously do not shirk from that risk in their effort to obtain revenge. Once again, a small group with far less to lose pulls the major powers closer to world conflict.
Frustation becomes responsibility's opponent in such cases. Obsessed with their little Serbian neighbor after years of harassment, Austrian officials decided to end that harassment once and for all. Their response was an ultimatum backed by threat of military force. This ultimatum was countered by other ultimatums, placing each state in the position where it believed preservation of its national honor and credibility required that it not back down. Inept diplomacy's logical consequence followed: each power resorted to the threatened military actions. It may also be worth noting that the less restrained Austria became, the more it alienated an international community originally sympathetic to its plight.
Frustration is understandably present in the Carter administration today. Repeated attempts at nogotiation have failed to end a flagrant and unprecedented violation of international law. Especially gnawing is the fact that a determined few can so long succeed against so great a power as the United States. Yet, as trying as this situation is for the hostages, their families, and our nation as a whole, it is the government's clear responsibility to keep the matter in perspective and not allow it to become an obsession.
In 1921 Jaroslav Hasek, a Czech writer who was himself a veteran, wrote to illustrate the Great War's absurdities. The power alignment of 1914 he considered to be one such absurdity, and in his novel. "The Good Soldier Schweik," he built a thought-provoking case for Austria and Serbia entering the war as allies. Hasek's case may have been hypothetical, but in point of fact less than 30 years earlier Austria and Serbia had been comrades in arms.
The irony underlying today's crisis is that America's long-term interests and Iran's appear to be compatible. Iran's abundant oil supplies, its need to import food, and the Soviet presence on its northern frontier all suggest that we be friends rather than adversaries.There are signs the Iranian government understands this and tries to act accordingly -- to the extent the militants allow. If we regret that the Iranian government's attempts at responsible conduct are susceptible to being thwarted by strident militants in an emotion-charged Tehran, certainly form our more remote position we should not succumb to the small tail-jerking.
Nothing is forever in diplomatic history. This can also prove true of the current US- Iranian animosity resulting from our past ties to the Shah and the present hostage crisis. The less hostilely the two nations behave toward each other now, the sooner their common interests can prevail.
It would be a serious mistake to conclude that the world will not go to war over what is, in the annals of time, a small incident. That belief lulled Europeans in the pleasant summer months of 1914 -- until it was too late.
The vile act of taking Americans hostage and the continued provocation from Tehran do not make patience easy. Nor did the assassination of an archduke render it easy for Vienna to act with wisdom and restraint. Austria failed its test . . . and the world went to war.