The Ghost of Christmas Past

24 January 2017

Author: Kun Yang | English Year 1

In light of recent world events, I thought it might be interesting to look at certain historical parallels with our present time …

1914: The German Empire is the rising power that seeks to displace the dominant power of the time, the UK, investing heavily in naval armaments to challenge the might of the British navy, then the best in the world, spurring an arms race. Diplomatically, it formed an alliance of what would become the Central Powers against the Western Allies, including the UK, France and later the US. World War 1 erupts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.

A poster from the period that reflects the reality of the naval arms race as a risky game of cards.


1939: A resurgent Germany seeks to recreate the German Reich, or empire, bringing it into conflict with the UK and eventually the United States, taking advantage of the US retreat into isolationism. With Germany hungry for lebensraum, or living space, and natural resources, and seeking to avenge the humiliation of the treaty of Versailles, it joins hands with Japan, and Italy, which share the same concerns to form the Axis. World War 2 erupts with the invasion of Poland by Germany, triggering a French and British declaration of war.

An illustration of how Germany felt threatened and vulnerable after the humiliation of Versailles, which limited its army to 100,000 men.


2016: A rising China seeks to challenge American global dominance, investing heavily in regions like Southeast Asia and Africa, and even in Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine (enshrining US dominance and resistance to outside intervention in the Americas since 1823) is losing relevance as America turns inward. China seeks to dominate the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea, with regional players like Duterte’s Philippines openly pivoting towards China, upending the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States.

From Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song, published in the New York Times.


Russia seeks to reassert itself on the global stage, to regain some of the ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s own words, the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’. To that end, it is intervening directly and indirectly in Syria, the Baltics, and Ukraine, taking advantage of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with a US that is retreating into isolationism. Russian maneuvering in the Baltics, which are NATO members, ratchets up tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War, increasing the risk of a spark that could lead to global war, as an attack on one member of NATO will be treated as an attack on all.

The Russian bear turns towards the Baltic states. Interestingly, the tank that is supposed to demonstrate NATO protection is merely a picture with civilians cowering behind it.

With liberal democracy in retreat in most of the Western world this year, as demonstrated by Brexit, the shock election of Donald Trump, and perhaps the election of Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultraconservative Front National in France, the era of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism as described by the noted scholar Francis Fukuyama after the Cold War seems to be coming to an end. Indeed, it seems to be a redux of the 1930s prior to World War 2, where far-right parties captured power in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. The potent combination of old powers seeking a return to the limelight, and new powers seeking to displace the old, shows how ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. (Mark Twain)


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