This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on January 6, 2020 and is posted here with kind permission.
In the aftermath of the U.S. killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani last week, the past, as so often, seemed to offer a tempting parallel of the present, with the hashtags #WWIII and #FranzFerdinand flourishing on Twitter. It's unsurprising that such memories haunt the collective consciousness at times like this. Western narratives of conflict turn around the world wars. Hawks see enemies as nascent Hitlers, who must be crushed before they are given space to expand. Doves see a world ready to repeat the catastrophic errors of 1914, when Europe destroyed itself.
To be sure, there are genuine echoes of European imperialism's first crisis in the situation today. As the co-screenwriter of the new World War I-set film 1917 Krysty Wilson-Cairns explains, "with the First World War, the motivations are obscure. It was partly for profiteering, partly because empires were starting to lose their stakes abroad." Global and regional powers face similar issues in the modern Middle East. The Pax Americana is in doubt as the United States' superpower influence is stretched thin after almost 30 years of near-continuous war. The U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia against Iran increasingly resembles war profiteering.
Russia hangs on to one of the last vestiges of Soviet imperial influence in Syria and is spending blood and treasure abroad despite facing more critical challenges at home as its economy sputters and government budgets are pressured. Turkey is deploying troops to fight a war in Libya in an effort to resurrect the glory of the Ottoman Empire that perished in World War I, and it's carving out lost territory from the ruins of Syria. And like Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Suleimani was a symbolically significant leader who was killed by an adversary entangled with the interests of major powers, though the U.S. military is a considerably different entity in scale and organization than Serbian nationalist terrorists.
But that should also offer hope because the world has a range of diplomatic tools and options that were simply unavailable to the leaders of 1914. Without question, there has already been diplomatic blundering; the Trump administration's failure to keep the commitments to the Iran nuclear deal is in part responsible for the rapid escalation of the crisis in the Middle East. But opponents of conflict must look to the tools the world has to resolve the crisis that it did not have then. Instead of fatalistic cries of World War III, Americans and Iranians must remind their leaders of the need to go back to the negotiating table.
Perhaps the most important lesson of World War I is the value of diplomacy—of going to the table and making agreements, committing to them via signature and ratification, and adhering to them because those commitments matter regardless of political expediency.
The decades leading up to World War I saw advanced new weapons and the formation of alliances calculated to achieve a balance of power in Europe (and by extension to colonial empires and the world). The risk of war—and the devastation that new weapons such as gas, bombers, and battleships might cause—was not lost on world leaders. But addressing this on a large scale was virtually impossible, as diplomacy suffered from a lack of infrastructure to facilitate international agreements.
Before World War I, most countries viewed diplomacy as ad hoc, narrow in scope, and tailored to achieve specific objectives when the opportunity arose. Diplomatic outreach was viewed with suspicion, in many cases simply because it was not the norm. Governments communicated at the most senior levels to form alliances and address trade, but there were few full-time diplomats and even fewer venues through which multilateral negotiations could be facilitated. Due to the lack of communication technology, inability to travel, and norms prohibiting meddling in domestic affairs, diplomacy was made less viable, as accurate information was unavailable and prone to miscalculation.
Major international negotiations, especially those that sought to develop consensus about the formation of international law, were conducted at sporadic summits such as the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907. There being no universally respected objective entity that could be trusted to facilitate negotiations, initiatives languished under little continuity of effort and spasmodic focus. Negotiations were conducted by appointed subject-matter experts and government officials who often had not dealt with their counterparties before and therefore did not trust them. Even where agreements were struck, there were no respected third-party organizations that could be trusted to verify compliance.
One hundred years later, Americans and Iranians must drive their leaders to the table to resolve their differences in ways in which the leaders of World War I could not, and using the tools they lacked. Modern world leaders, including those of the United States and Iran, have a far more robust diplomatic toolbox informed by regularized diplomacy, as well as the means to support it. The nature of diplomacy is far more advanced, with numerous venues, willing partners, and back channels through which Washington and Tehran can communicate with words rather than missiles.
There are numerous precedents, from the regular negotiations between the Koreas to the Cuban missile crisis itself, for how the United States and Iran might design a negotiation, build confidence, address very significant differences, and reach an agreement that at least prevents further escalation even if it fails to resolve their differences over nuclear weapons, terrorism, and proxy wars. They have, after all, already done so once. Leaders in both countries benefit from access to virtually infinite information about each other, as they oversee vast intelligence organizations and access global media reporting, making miscalculation less likely.
The lack of formal diplomatic relations, which are more important between enemies than they are between allies, remains absurd. But having relied on third parties such as Switzerland and back channels in Iraq to communicate diplomatically for years, the United States and Iran are still more than capable of exchanging messages with words rather than missiles. And even if only the most basic of agreements is struck, both countries can leverage internal intelligence and third parties such as the United Nations or nongovernmental organizations to verify compliance by the other side on, for example, troop movements, weapons shipments, and missile launches.
Diplomatic engagement between the two is burdened by destabilizing factors—domestic political unrest, leaks, misinformation campaigns, the reach of social media, and climate change, to name a few—that make the formation of viable international agreements difficult. But cutting across those factors are the infinitely worse possible outcomes of another war in the Middle East.
U.S. President Donald Trump's latest tweets bring further bloodshed closer, but even the latest barrage of bellicose rhetoric does not make war a foregone conclusion. Though the Trump administration has disengaged from the world's institutions, even eschewing and defunding some of them, it is not too late to adopt serious confidence-building measures to get back to the negotiating table, even if it does not satisfy retaliatory urges and requires alleviating some of the maximum pressure applied via the Trump administration's Iran policy. Iran is equally capable of resisting the forces driving it toward destabilizing activities and active plans to attack Israel, Saudi Arabia, U.S. forces, and others. Iran cannot win a war against the United States, nor can the United States afford to fight one.