Originally published in Les Echos.
PARIS - While the world came together in a sincere and legitimate emotion in memory of Nelson Mandela, there is another historical figure - his absolute opposite - whose absence is cruelly felt, at least from Moscow to Beijing. Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, the man who achieved the unification of Germany around Prussia, is the statesman who knew how to preserve peace in Europe for several decades thanks to a wise policy of restraint. His dismissal by Wilhelm II, who considered him too reasonable, opened the gates of hell.
In her latest book, devoted to the origins of the World War I, "The War That Ended Peace," Margaret MacMillan chooses not to offer conclusions on the ultimate causes of the conflict. For the historian, the only certain thing we can say is that great statesmen like Otto von Bismarck in Germany were badly missing in the Europe of 1914. Nobody really wanted to go on war, but nobody knew how to avoid it.
Political and military leaders were unable to understand that in the midst of the industrial and transportation revolutions, impending war could not longer be "the continuation of politics by other means," as Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote.
At the beginning of 2014, neither Vladimir Putin in Moscow nor Xi Jinping in Beijing seem to have learned the lessons of Bismarck. For the Russian leader regarding his country's relationship with Ukraine, and for the latter concerning his government's policy in the China Sea.
In Ukraine, Russia has to choose the kind of relationship it wishes to settle with Europe. Shall Russia emphasize its nationalism and quest for identity, at the expense of any consideration for the European balance of power? If Kiev winds up back in the lap of Moscow, Russia will almost automatically and mechanically risk repeating what France from 1643 to 1815 and Germany from 1870 to 1945 represented: the "European problem." It is that problematic condition when a country that is both too present and not present enough for its neighbors to achieve its ambitions.
Ukraine, with its 45 million inhabitants and a territory as large as France, is indeed the key that holds Europe in the balance. We cannot divide it, as it happened three times to Poland in the late 18th century: the western region joining Poland, the eastern region being annexed to Russia. Still, the Ukrainians are facing a "civilization choice" between the democratic European Union and the autocratic Russia, which portends major geopolitical implications for the future of the European continent.
"Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far." The formula of Jean Cocteau applies equally well to Russia as to China. Both in the waters and the skies over the China Sea, Beijing seems to gradually be losing its sense of proportion, displaying an impatience that seems to cut against China long-term interests. The regional status of the Middle Kingdom is inevitable, obvious and recognized by everyone. But where is the great peaceful power, confident in the superiority of its civilization, convinced in its bright future and "letting time take its course?"
History's unlearned lessons
Showing off quite openly - not to say brutally - its regional hegemonic ambitions, China manages to unite against itself such disparate nations as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. These countries more than ever are looking to keep the United States as the greatest power in Asia, going beyond their historical disputes with Japan. They seem to be more tolerant of the perennial discrepancies with Tokyo than to the deterrent effects of Beijing.
For skeptics, history teaches nothing because it contains everything. The only lesson that could be drawn was that it is not good to invade Russia at the end of the summer, and yet Hitler chose not to learn from Napoleon's experience.
Still, the teachings of traditional diplomacy are probably more useful now than they could have been in the 20th century. If the era of global ideologies is over, the one of national interests is back. In fact, war has changed more than diplomacy and, undoubtedly, for the worse. The destructive power of weapons has grown exponentially, even though the enemy has become more diffuse.
Even as the transportation and information revolutions have transformed the function of diplomats, the rules of diplomacy remain basically the same. They presuppose the understanding and consideration of the interests and perceptions of the other. They require the kind of innate sense of proportion and restraint that both Russia and China clearly lack today.