Books – recent titles reviewed

Sleepwalking into a world war

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

Christopher Clark, Penguin, London, 2013, 736pp ISBN 978-0141027821 

Imagine, for a moment, that a terrorist group enjoys the support of a country’s intelligence services, its army, its popular press, and even – tacitly – the Prime Minister himself. Imagine, then, that this group dispatches not one but six assassins to kill a senior politician from a neighbouring country, and succeeds in doing so. The targeted state is outraged and demands that the terrorist’s home nation does everything to root out the conspiracy and co-operate with the insurgency, but its demands are stonewalled. Tensions rise and war breaks out. Which side would the international community support? 

In this post-9/11 age, the analogy appears simple to the point of caricature. But, a century on from the outbreak of the World War I in Europe in 1914, public opinion increasingly paints the state sponsors of terrorism – then, Serbia – as the victims of the crisis, and the aggrieved party – Austria-Hungary – and its allies as warmongers. We are told that a belligerent Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of that tragic conflict and that Britain had no choice but to fight in defence of European liberty. Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, has attacked both his colleagues in the Conservative controlled Department for Culture, Media and Sport and left-wingers for their supposed reticence in recognising the righteousness of the anti-German cause and celebrating British victory. 

Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, an account of the decades and hours preceding the outbreak of war, is a bracing anecdote to this jingoistic flattening of narratives that will surely intensify as we approach the August centenary. Clark resuscitates and animates the view that prevailed immediately after the war – that, as Lloyd George famously put it, “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”, rather than being pushed over the precipice by the malevolence of Germany and its Austro-Hungarian ally. In a year in which a glut of World War I books is certain, why should Clark’s long and sometimes difficult book occupy your time? Many reasons come to mind. 

First, he refocuses attention on neglected parts of the pre-war history and tackles several myths. Consider his superb opening chapter on Serbia, which in Clark’s evocative telling comes across remarkably like modern-day Pakistan: a coup-prone republic with shadowy, irredentist networks in the intelligence services and army providing covert support for armed, nationalist groups across neighbouring borders. The parallels with modern South Asia could not be starker. Serbia stands at the heart of Clark’s story and, therefore, so too does its patron, Tsarist Russia, and Russia’s often belligerent ally, France. 

Yes, German leaders and generals often talked glibly of war in the years before 1914. But so too did their counterparts in St Petersburg and, particularly, France. 

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the edges, France egged on Russia to take an aggressive position in the Balkans against German interests and treated Germany’s interests in North Africa with contempt. When a German military mission was sent to the Ottoman Empire in 1913, France threw a fit and proposed ‘joint military measures’ – despite the fact that a British admiral already controlled the Ottoman fleet. Even German investment in the Ottoman lands – far less than that of France and Britain – was blocked. In Clark’s telling, the established European powers were unable to, or uninterested in, accommodating a rising Germany whose behaviour was little different to that of its peers. 

What other myths does Clark crack open? The Austro-Hungarian empire was not the sick man of Europe, as per the received wisdom, but “a vibrant entity commanding strong attachments” between its many ethnic groups, operating “a relatively fair and efficient administration”. It needn’t have collapsed – how different European history might have been had this powerful dual monarchy remained as a buffer between Western Europe and Russia. 

Clark also questions the popular understanding of the rivalry between Britain and Germany. Yes, competition was growing. But it was actually fear of a deepening Anglo-German friendship that pushed Russia, competing with Britain as far away as Tibet and Persia, into France’s arms in the early years of the century. Likewise the famous Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, which was more about British fear of Russia than Germany. Today, alliance blocs tend to be stable. Changes occur suddenly and drastically – think of the West’s rapprochement with Colonel Gaddafi around 2003. 

Then, alliances were fluid. It is not hard to imagine a world in which the Triple Entente (Britain, Russia and France) never came about, and a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would therefore remain localised rather than the world war it became. Sleepwalkers is a fine piece of history. Its writing is taut and cerebral, and Clark is able to handle a daunting number of moving parts with great skill. The book has already irked those who wish the blame for the World War I to be laid at Germany’s door, but its core argument – that all sides bear culpability and collectively sleepwalked into the tragedy of 1914 – is compelling. Among the phalanx of commemorative books on offer this year, Clark’s should sit at the top of the pile. 

Shashank Joshi, research fellow, Royal United Services Institute


Britain navigates its way in a new international landscape

Old Links and New Ties – Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks

David Howell, I. B. Tauris, London, 2013, 256pp, ISBN 978-1780768151 

The suggestion that the world is entering a new phase of globalisation, a so-called digital age, is not a new viewpoint. Digital technologies are increasingly intermingled in almost all aspects of life. Perhaps the most notable transformation is the emergence of social media – itself often in the news for both the positive and negative consequences of its reach – but the effect of modern technologies extends far beyond this realm. 

Computers and networks have enabled almost instant global communication, changing the machinery of society, politics and the economy. This has resulted in a widespread shift in the way that people think, exchange knowledge and access information. In the digital age, new forces are making a practical impact on events. 

Old Links and New Ties focuses on the effect that the digital age has had both on the international landscape and Britain’s shifting position in the world. It serves up a renewal of arguments that were laid out in a pamphlet entitled ‘New Networks’, published by the Globalisation Institute in 2007, and advances David Howell’s appeal for “fresh realism as the starting point for Britain’s repositioning in the global network”. 

According to Howell, the USA, once a global giant dominating international relations, no longer holds the position of the most powerful nation on earth. Howell argues that, instead, the digital web, which serves to link billions of people every minute of every day, should be seen as the most powerful ‘nation’. 

Howell explores Britain’s place in this new international landscape focusing, in particular, on how the country’s presence at the head of the Commonwealth has given it new international significance – a subject in which the author is very well informed, having stood as Minister of State at the Foreign Office with responsibility for the Commonwealth until 2012. Howell suggests that the Commonwealth holds new opportunities for Britain to assume an important global role and that the geographical blocs of the last century serve only to hold the country back. 

The emergence of new economies, which increasingly rely on fluid connections, gives a whole new role to the Commonwealth, he says. 

Howell’s argument draws on the words of Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day speech of 2009, when she declared that the Commonwealth is the “face of the future” standing as a “necessary network of the 21st century”. As an organisation, the Commonwealth encompasses diverse people from small and large states serving to create a sphere in which such diversity can communication freely and equally. 

Howell’s proposal, therefore, is that Britain should “re-join” this organisation that has served to unite many of the newcomers to the global market, including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. Britain’s global links with the Commonwealth put it far ahead of its neighbours, leaving it promisingly placed for the future and far away from the label of the ‘sick man of Europe’. 

Britain is surrounded by potential allies and prosperous consumer markets, which are “ready and receptive for a rendezvous with the British”. Indeed, recent history is rife with examples of countries bidding for Commonwealth membership – there have been attempts from South Sudan, Suriname, Angola and even Ireland. 

Howell’s message to policy-makers is that they must begin thinking in terms of the real and the virtual all at once. The networked age has brought with it new threats and opportunities and the guiding ‘geist’, as Howell puts it, is the importance of interdependence, not independence. To this effect, he speaks of the importance of ‘soft power’ – that is, power through attraction and co-operation rather than coercion, force or bribery – in place of traditional perceptions of power dynamics. 

Old Links and New Ties is an innovative book, drawing on important topical debates without bogging the reader down with excessive jargon and complicated wording. Howell is able to make the book readable and entertaining by drawing on interesting anecdotes from his somewhat colourful career. He adds further to the book by including several thought-provoking annexes, including his departure letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, after being asked to step down as Minister of State at the Foreign Office. In this very personal letter, Howell suggests that Cameron take heed of this. 

Jade Fell reviews books on her blog at:


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