One of the most remarkable characteristics of Barbara Tuchman’s gripping and fascinating account of the world’s drift into the First World War, The Guns of August, is the apparent contingency in the unfolding drama.

On every page, one has the sense that a small turn here, a minor deviation there, would have led to a very different outcome. And yet, contemplate the scope of the events in their totality and what strikes you is that the world was caught in a fearful riptide in which small perturbations would have had little influence on the ultimate trajectory.

The day before Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, offered his opinion that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” He, of course, was a mere 24 hours from a fateful and momentous decision, so he had the benefit of some preview of what was to occur. Had action been taken earlier, perhaps the tide that so consumed humanity could have been averted.


We find ourselves here again. A lack of collective leadership has slowly allowed currents to accumulate from different directions. Beneath us, a powerful whirlpool is swelling and threatening to drag the whole of civilization into war.

These tides have increased in intensity largely because we failed to block them when they were in a weaker state.

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Ten years ago, the news that North Korea had supplied ballistic missiles to Russia with an unambiguous intention to flatten the cities of a European nation would have been a matter of international shock, a reverberation of extraordinary magnitude. Today, it is met with statements of “concern” and an almost bland disinterest in the consequences.

The propitious conditions for widespread war are not so much caused by specific geopolitical arrangements. At any point in human history, one could take a map of the globe and imagine alliances and axes through which a world conflagration could materialize. What brings these alignments into practical reality instead seems to be a psychological collapse, a resigned torpidity and lethargy in swimming against the current.


When dictators perceive frailty and act, others are emboldened to do so, and eventually the number of actors overwhelms any capacity to control the tide of events. An effort in one place seems only to stimulate unwanted action elsewhere. Through this instability, the entire world order dissolves into mayhem.

In essence, the drift towards world war has feedback within it. The greater the number of conflicts that emerge, the more each of these fights, and other ones besides, become diminutive events in the broader disruption. Thus, each turn of the handle encourages others to take their chance and slowly but surely, we are sucked into a terrific maelstrom.

These are the arresting lessons in Tuchman’s account and, similarly, in Churchill’s description of the beginning of the second world war in The Gathering Storm. Even if war can be averted, it may not prevent a sudden instability and rupture in the balance of power, which, when restabilized, may favor a global system of autocracy over democracy.


Let us take stock of the potentialities.

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Those who oppose the West have been given long enough to arrange their military and political capabilities, and their supply networks, towards war. North Korea, Iran, and others are supplying Russia. An axis of autocracies has congealed which perhaps could have been forestalled if Ukraine had been vigorously defended earlier. This growing level of organization represents a machine whose dismemberment becomes more difficult by the day and whose internal workings give it an escalating and inexorable momentum.

The sleepy response of the West has provided a plain lesson to authoritarians around the world. Venezuela has watched keenly. If Europe cannot halt war on its own continent and the US cannot pluck up the decisiveness to act, what’s to stop the subjugation of Guyana?

We do not know what lessons are being learned in China with respect to Taiwan, but the lack of resolve and paralysis with respect to Ukraine cannot but have made that enterprise seem more plausible.

In the Middle East, the violence there too is a symptom of the West’s infirmity. The Houthis could not have dreamt of challenging the security of the Red Sea unless they believed that the West lacked the will to secure that trade route. The world sees weakness.


To turn to a Churchillian analogy, around the world are a growing number of storms that threaten to join into one enormous tempest, the scope and scale of which is quite beyond any nation to confront. Ukraine is central to this situation today because it is the exemplary storm, against which we must stand to provide an indefeasible demonstration that imperial adventures will lead to catastrophe. It is there that we have had the possibility to quell the ongoing disturbance that can act as the catalyst for mightier disorders.

Thrown into this dangerous mix are the motivations of those for whom a more expansive war would be beneficial. The drawn-out disaster for Russian forces in Ukraine is why it would be a situation of great convenience for a larger war to erupt, distracting from the situation in Ukraine and turning it into a local set-back in a wider effort to destabilize the West. So too, any broader war would shield attacks on Guyana, Taiwan, or any number of other land-grabs, which on their own, in more peaceful times, would be situations of great gravity.

The only positive thing that one can say about the time we find ourselves in is that no declaration of war between two major powers in East and West has yet occurred.

Despite the feedback effect of which I have spoken, one should not be lulled into a despondent and debilitating mood that war, or a great calamitous overturn of the world order, is inevitable. It can be stopped. But it cannot be stopped by hoping that holding back for long enough will cause the storms to naturally die back to flurries, leaving peace and quiet. We are quite beyond that stage. It can only be halted by clear leadership from the West.


It seems an absurdity that with a $842 billion defense budget this year in the US, a mere 0.05% of that has been allocated to prevent a war in a country whose fate could determine whether the world disintegrates into global war. A greater commitment of this immense capability to end the attacks on Ukraine will help ensure that this budget does not have to be increased by orders of magnitude when the US finds itself as the lynch pin of a planetary scale conflict.

Finally, need it be pointed out that a third world war has the potential to degenerate into a nuclear exchange. The stakes in nipping the growing ravages of tyranny in the bud could not be higher.

It would be an error of inestimable cost to let the lights go out again over Europe and the world. But with every day of lassitude, they will grow dimmer.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

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