As 2013 comes to a close, a tide of books has already come in, to mark the coming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Christopher Cook’s The Sleepwalkers, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe, and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace are all monumental retellings of the slide into a worldwide cataclysm in August 1914.

McMillan’s title is a reminder of the naïve optimism in the air that affected men like Andrew Carnegie, who in 1910 founded our institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Edwin Ginn, the book publisher who founded the World Peace Foundation in the same year. They believed that world peace was just around the corner and that the institutions they founded would just put the finishing touches to the picture.

Well, Carnegie and Ginn got it wrong then. And we should have no illusions about the dangers facing the world now. The big powers of the world still have the technology to bring about the Apocalypse.

Yet there is a lot of peace about it—even if it does not make such good headlines. It is worth taking a pause for breath to consider that, by pretty much any historical standards, the wider Europe at the dawn of 2014 is incredibly peaceful.

Consider that 2013 was the year in which the western Balkans took a big stride back toward rejoining Europe. Kosovo and Serbia made a deal that few were anticipating, while Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union.

It was also the year of a potentially historic ceasefire between the Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish government. That process came to a halt later in the year, but the guns are still silent. Both sides still need peace, even if they cannot agree on the details.

Other conflicts are fading into oblivion. The Northern Ireland conflict is so dormant now that the former paramilitaries are reduced to haggling over flags and the routing of marches. The ceasefire in Spain’s Basque country has entered its third year.

The protracted conflicts in Cyprus and Transnistria are no nearer to full resolution but no one expects them to reignite either. Non-resolution matters rather less than it used to ordinary people on the ground who can move back and forward freely across disputed boundaries.

The Caucasus is still Europe’s main locus of unresolved conflict. New border fences went up along the border of South Ossetia this year. Abkhazia is still in siege mode. Still, the rapprochement between the new Georgian government and Moscow had some modest dividends in 2013. Actual levels of violence have gone way down.

Europe’s main candidate for a 1914-style tinderbox is still Nagorny Karabakh. The armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan still face off across a dangerous ceasefire line. Even here, the mood is better than it was a year ago. Following the first meeting in almost two years between Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in Vienna in November, bellicose rhetoric has cooled noticeably—again a development mostly unrecorded by the media because it does not make a snappy headline.

When it comes to actual fighting, the North Caucasus is undoubtedly Europe’s darkest corner—although it is far from being full-scale warfare. Here the story is getting worse, just as the Sochi Olympics are due to take place on the other, western, side of the North Caucasus region.

Overall however, it is fair to say that a citizen of 1914 would be astonished to see the levels of peace Europe is inheriting in 2014.

Again, this is not an argument for complacency. Not far away is a still-continuing and horrific conflict in Syria. And in a recent essay Margaret MacMillan warns us to keep asking what underpins the status quo. She reminds us that a bestseller of 1909, entitled The Great Illusion, explained to grateful readers why a world of great economic interdependence could no longer descend into conflict.

MacMillan writes of the “intense localism and nativism” which is also evident in contemporary Europe. Globalization cultivates not only interconnectedness but those who would defy it.

So peace in Europe should be a signal not for Panglossian optimism but for redoubled Europeans to be vigilant against the risk of new conflicts, large and small.

All the same, Pyotr Stolypin’s famous observation, “Give Russia 20 years of peace” (and so much is possible) is ever more prescient. Peace—the absence of conflict—is the foundation on which all healthy progress in society is based.

Happy Christmas. Et in terra pax.

By:
  • Thomas de Waal