Slide 1

Dr Malcolm Cooper, Z/Yen Associate

Two great powers stand at the cross-roads.  Their economies are still growing, their political institutions are well imbedded and challenged only by a minority of discontents, their populations are growing, and individual citizens are getting progressively better fed and healthier.  Their trade networks span the globe, all connected by a communications system which allows decisions in the capital to be implemented almost immediately on the other side of the globe.  Everything should be wonderful, but policy makers are worried about the future.

Both powers are heavily dependent on imports – imports which they are now struggling to pay for as their own exports are squeezed by import substitution abroad – and the balance of payments seems to be heading inexorably in the wrong direction.  The tax burden continues to move up, partially because popular expectations of state provision of services are more and more demanding, and partially because the defence systems required to protect the realm are becoming more complex, expensive and vulnerable to early obsolescence.  Worst of all, two new economic powerhouses are pressing relentlessly forward on the other side of the world, supported by rates of economic and population growth far higher than those of the established powers.  If these latter are to maintain their primacy, decisive action is required across the policy spectrum.

This all sounds very familiar.  There are just three problems: the two established powers are not the United States and the European Union, the emerging competitors are not China and India, and the date is not 2007.  I am actually talking about Britain and Germany in the first instance, and the United States and Japan in the second – and the dateline is the summer of 1914.  A tubercular assassin was about to fire the “shots heard round the world” in Sarajevo, and precipitate a rapid, and all but incontrollable slide into war.

At this point, the author needs to step from behind the curtain and admit that he is a professional historian by training.  This said, the aim of this article is not to trot out the old truism that failure to understand the mistakes of the past results in the same mistakes being made again in the future.  Rather it seeks only to illustrate that globalization is not a recent phenomenon, and suggest that the “global” challenges of today can best be understood and handled by seeing them as accelerations of long-term trends rather than as an entirely new sets of paradigms.  History does not repeat itself, but futurists would do well to study it before constructing brave new worlds.  Notwithstanding the blurring of the past by conflicting or missing evidence, the big picture for the 20th century is pretty clear, and will re-pay careful study as we face the 21st.

This point can be illustrated by a quick survey of the global stage on which Herbert Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Tirpitz commenced their deadly waltz in the late summer of 1914.

Britain was importing 4 million carcasses of refrigerated beef and 13 million carcasses of refrigerated sheep or lambs, most of them from New Zealand, Australia or South America.  She was also importing 10 million tons of cereals, half of it from North America; and Minnesota wheat could be delivered to Liverpool for only five shillings a ton more than that grown in Yorkshire.  A million European emigrants were crossing the Atlantic every year to North America alone.  British tramp steamers were carrying 77 million tons of coal abroad per annum, two thirds of it to fuel fires and factories from Capetown to Colombo, and from Callao to Constantinople; and a third of it for a global network of coaling stations which held the world economy together.

The industrial and military might of Germany was supported by food imports equivalent to 25% of domestic consumption, including one and a half million tons of wheat from North America to feed the human population and three million tons of barley from Russia to feed farm animals.  The USA supplied all of Germany’s cotton and 60% of her sugar, while 50% of the potash, phosphates and nitrates necessary to grow 40 million tons of potatoes in the sandy soil of Saxony came from the west coast of South America.

Foreign, mostly British, capital had financed large rail networks across the Americas, India and from the Cape to Cairo in Africa.  The Panama Canal was about to open, cutting 23 days off a steam-driven passage from Cardiff to Valparaiso.  The whole trading network was held together by long deep-sea cables which could allow a ship-owner in Bremen to send a ship from Australia to Hong Kong, or from Yokohama to Seattle as quickly as increasingly mechanized loading facilities could get the coal into her holds and bunkers.  The same network allowed the British and German Admiralties to move their warships around the seven seas like chess pieces.

This must surely have been a global economy and a global world.  While there is a trend among modern historians to re-classify the First World War as a largely a European event, it is important to understand the wider context.  On the declaration of war in August 1914, the Royal Navy immediately dredged up and cut Germany’s three long-distance undersea cables where they passed under the English Channel.  At the same time, the British army, simultaneously calling up its reservists and raising a vast New Army of volunteers from mines, shipyards, shops and farmers’ fields, was embarrassed to discover that its sole source of khaki dye for uniforms was a large German chemicals producer.

The first British shots of the Great War were not actually fired in Europe but in the German colony of Togo by a black regimental sergeant-major of the West African Frontier Force.  As the business of mass slaughter got underway on the Western Front, a large Russian army was cut to pieces in Eastern Europe, the Japanese laid siege to and captured a major German naval base in North China, while in East Africa a German-led corps of African soldiers repulsed an attempted landing by British-led battalions of Indian soldiers.  Before 1914 was out, the Royal Navy had suffered its first major defeat in more than a century off Coronel in Chile, and had avenged it just south of the Falkland Islands.  In the Indian Ocean, two German cruisers had set fire to oil storage facilities at Madras and sunk a Russian cruiser in Penang harbour and a British one at Zanzibar, before one was blockaded in the Rufiji Delta and the other run aground, a blazing wreck on the Cocos Islands.

Before the Great War ended, British soldiers had fought and died in Italy, Turkey, Russia, Palestine, and modern-day Macedonia, Iraq and Tanzania.  The last shots, like the first, were fired in Africa.  And even before one global crisis had ended, another of a quite different sort was sweeping away millions more lives.  In a chilling echo of today’s fears of a global pandemic, “Spanish Influenza” killed more people than the war itself, ranging from the author’s great aunt, a military nurse in Tottenham, to at least 160,000 inhabitants of the Protectorate of British East Africa.

To put it crudely, war and death took place across the globe because the world of 1914 was connected on a global scale in both political and economic terms.  Even these connections were not new arrivals, but the product of trends stretching along trade routes, colonial wars and journeys of exploration into the post-medieval world.  Arguably, it was advances in technology, the technology of communication and travel as well as the technology of mass industrial and agricultural production, which provided the real burst of acceleration in the 19th century.

The only major elements missing from the 1914 global equation were oil, air travel, and digital communication.  Even these, however, are not quite the novelties they are often portrayed to be.  The foundations of the international oil trade were already in place in the early 20th century, but more importantly, the world economy already depended on the mass extraction, transportation and consumption of another hydrocarbon – coal.  On the travel front, tourism was by train to a seaside resort rather than charter jet to Ibiza, and a transatlantic journey on the Mauritania would take as many days as Virgin Atlantic now takes hours, but the mass movement of people and of goods had been a 19th century innovation.  Finally, there was no real equivalent to the internet or to the satellite, but at the state or corporate level, long-distance communication was already a given – business empires were built and military campaigns directed by telegraph.

Arguably, there is less difference between the world today and that which went to war in 1914 than there was between the latter and its predecessor a hundred years before.  Rather than consign the world of our grandparents to pre-globalization obscurity, it would surely be better to study its global dimensions, stresses and strains.  Doing so can only illuminate our understanding of our own “global” future.


Dr Malcolm Cooper spent 20 years in the City managing research projects for an accountancy professional body, three investment banks and finally the City of London Corporation.  His academic background is in the field of history: he holds a DPhil from Oxford University and was a Research Fellow at Cambridge University.  He has published across a wide spectrum of subjects, running from maritime history to international relations.  His current work relates mostly to the use of historical analysis to provide fresh insight into major contemporary issues such as globalization, the energy debate and regulation.