The Lessons of 1914 Matter Today More than Ever
A case for less imperial idealism and more realism.
This past month, Professor John Mearsheimer visited Budapest for the first time to launch the Hungarian translation of his highly-acclaimed book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. The launch could not have been better timed in light of the war in Ukraine: Mearsheimer, one of the most renowned realist thinkers, warned the world as early as 2014 that the increasingly provocative policies and confrontational actions might lead to an open armed conflict in Ukraine. Ever since, he has been advocating for leaders to return to realpolitik instead, suggesting that international politics should be built on realist principles.
The Great Delusion sheds light on a common misconception of realism: the public often considers realists to be pro-war hawks in contrast to idealists, who appear to be the only ones calling for peace, supporting a rules-based international order, and engaging in war strictly only if all other options fail. Just take the example of the movie Crimson Tide, where idealist Denzel Washington saves the world from a nuclear catastrophe by replacing the realist Gene Hackman. This paradigm has been with us for decades not only on movie screens, but in real life too. Following the Cold War, the discourse on international relations was primarily shaped by idealist leaders and experts. Yet the number of wars seems to increase rather than decrease, which makes some wonder.
In his book, Mearsheimer explains this seeming contradiction by showing that behind every principle-based foreign policy there is a universal world-changing ideology that cannot stand competition. Liberal idealism coming from the West is just as much an imperial ideology as the Russian concept of “Moscow, the third Rome” or the idea of “All Under Heaven” in China. Imperial thoughts will inevitably provoke war at some point. Realism, on the other hand, aims to preserve the status quo without the need to spread ideology, and as a consequence, it will result in less conflict. It is for this reason that one of the greatest realists of all time, Otto von Bismarck, warned Kaiser Wilhelm II about the perils Germany would face should it deviate from the Chancellor’s realpolitik. And Bismarck, just like Mearsheimer, was right—once the Reich lost the strategic vision, it ended up in one of the worst wars in history.
Many like to find historical parallels to the ongoing War in Ukraine. Today, most experts claim that we are back in 1938, the time of the Munich Congress, where we must not appease the aggressor and push back as strongly as we can to preserve freedom. Others refer to the Cold War, and predict the formation of similar blocs akin to the ones we saw between 1949 and 1991. I would argue that we are back in 1914, in the months leading up to World War I.
The First World War was preceded by the buildup of alliances and an arms race in Europe. Berlin tried to counterbalance Russian railway developments designed for faster mobilization to the West, while the British started modernizing their navy. All countries were ready to multiply the size of their military, leading to the formation of military blocs, which had their own special dynamics—one country joining a bloc led to the other bloc welcoming a new member state. The end result was that the entirety of Europe became involved in the resulting war. While one would expect a certain deterrence caused by the volume of the conflict, there was one factor that made the difference and trumped realist thinking: the idealism of imperial ideologies. Due to modern arms, strong alliances, and especially prevailing imperial ideologies suggesting that everyone is on the right side of history, leaders and everyday people alike believed that this would be a quick and decisive war. But they were wrong. What one thought would be a conflict from which the “boys would be back by the autumn” turned out to be one of the bloodiest carnages of European history.
Over a hundred years later, the ghosts of 1914 haunt us once again, as Europe is sleepwalking into a conflict it cannot possibly win. Russia started an ideological war with the West, while the West in turn sees itself as the guardian of the liberal world order. Both parties are giving wrong answers to the wrong questions, as they are equally kept hostage to their imperial ideologies and narrow-minded thinking. Over the past few months, it has become obvious that all sides have massively misjudged the situation. Europe, an energy dwarf, is trying to put pressure on Russia, an energy titan, with sanctions. The attempt is clearly in vain, and is visibly ruining the economies of EU Member States. The warring parties also attack each other’s critical infrastructure, with an ever-growing number of civilian casualties along the way. The mobilization of the Russian army implies a deepening of the conflict, and at this dangerous moment, an increasing number of voices call upon the West to become directly involved, even if that means a possible escalation over the nuclear threshold. Western Europeans are perhaps only trigger-happy now because the younger, more recent generations do not remember the reality of war anymore, and the kind of suffering it brings to the everyday citizen.
In 1914, we Hungarians were the loudest critics of the war, and we are committed to upholding this position a century later. Count István Tisza, then prime minister of Hungary was the first to point out that the war would have no winners. Today, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is doing the same, becoming the loudest critic of the war by stressing that we need to call for an immediate ceasefire, for otherwise, the war has no end in sight. The Hungarian commitment to realist foreign policy, free from world-altering ideologies along with a strong focus on our interest in the Carpathian Basin, is there for a reason. The past 1,100 years, defending ourselves against external forces, fighting for sovereignty, and our few unsuccessful attempts at conquest outside the Carpathian Basin have taught us to be realists by instinct. However, if we want to overcome the current crisis, it is time for all of us to become both practitioners and theorists of realism—with Mearsheimer’s Great Delusion offering us guidance in the process.
Balázs Orbán is a Hungarian lawyer, political scientist, and Member of Parliament, serving as Political Director to Prime Minister Viktor Orban (to whom he's unrelated) since 2021. He is the Chairman of the Board of Hungary's leading talent management institution, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) and of the Advisory Board of the National University of Public Service. He is currently pursuing his PhD. His latest book is The Hungarian Way of Strategy (MCC Press 2021).