New Delhi: There is a vague but disconcerting similarity between Indo-Pak tensions and Serbia’s harrying of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which led to World War I. The red line was breached for the Austro-Hungarians when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. On the other hand, India and Pakistan’s relationship crisis is rapidly and violently building up to a point of no return. During the Great War, a manner of multi-polarity existed, and neither side was so overwhelmingly superior as to bring the conflict to a quick end. For the Germans at any rate, the war never ended; the Armistice was a pause to recoup and rearm for the Second World War. War today is inconceivable on one plane; war in the nuclear age could only mean Armageddon. At the same time, however, the world is divided into camps, and no side is overwhelmingly powerful. If Indo-Pak hostilities get out of hand, the rest of the world may not be in a position to quickly douse the fire, and if the major powers of today take sides, as they are bound to, then all bets are off.

During World War I, major powers on both sides of the conflict were battling internal deficiencies. The Tsar had been considerably weakened in Russia, the Industrial Revolution had fed into the unrest of the population, the country was poor and backward, and the Russian army was in no position to fight a world war. Its morale was busted with the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war a decade prior. On the opposite side, the Kaiser possessed zero statesmanship and the redoubtable Germany military found it finally free from the shackles placed by Otto von Bismarck. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was on its last legs and a burden on Germany. Great Britain continued with its policy of the balance of power and refused to still France’s fears concerning the German rise. The United States grew in isolation but was still a military lightweight and would not, in any case, intervene till the Lusitania was sunk.

Switch to today. The United States is without strategic direction. It has elected its worst president in history. Establishment United States opposes Donald Trump and Trump is so mired in personal scandals and the Russian election meddling outrage that the country is without effective political leadership. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin rules over a hollow military power called Russia whose economy depends on largesse from China to survive. China is the most consolidated of all the major powers today but it cannot transform the geopolitical situation to its advantage anymore than Russia or the United States can.

Several conflicting and impossible alliances exploded the crisis generated by the Archduke’s assassination into war. Russia’s commitment to Serbia to assist it at any cost made Serbia reckless. Russia could overwhelm Austro-Hungary but was no match for Imperial Germany. Similarly, France was in an impossible alliance with Russia (they were enemies during the Crimean War), and the Kaiser took his hatred of Great Britain to a personal level, blaming British doctors for the early death of his father. At the same time, he suffered from an oedipal complex with his mother, who was Queen Victoria’s daughter. That’s not all. The Kaiser and the Tsar were related by marriage. The militaries of nearly all the rival powers had advanced war preparations well beyond the imagination of their political leaders, who were powerless to call a halt to them. It some ways, World War I was a terribly non-political war, which is why it ground on and on till all sides were exhausted, and there was no more young blood left to spill.

Politics has taken a backseat today as well. Militarism is in. Dictators and demagogues strut about the national theatre. Not one of the rival powers has a grand strategy; China just demolished geopolitical commonsense by entertaining Xi Jinping as dictator-for-life. Pakistan is like Serbia. It cannot live in peace within its territory. In case Pakistan comes close to losing to India, China is bound to come to its aid, which would likely get the United States involved, which would then provoke the entry of Russia, and in Russia’s wake, Western Europe. These multiple rivalries and clashes are scarcely likely to remain conventional, and indeed, Indo-Pak tensions are definitely destined to go nuclear at a point where Pakistan fears for its continued existence. The world has to impress on India and Pakistan to talk and to return to a border ceasefire pending a settlement of the Kashmir dispute. But the world appears as weak to enforce and empower peace and goodwill among nations as it proved infirm in the years and months leading to World War I.