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Cornell scholars discuss lasting effects of WWI

Although a century has passed since the onset of World War I, the catastrophic war and its subsequent effects still resonate and provide insight to shaping modern global politics, according to two Cornell professors.

Valerie Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and professor of government, and Jonathan Kirshner, the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Government and director of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, presented a talk and Q&A Oct. 20 at the Cornell Club in New York City. Titled “World War I and Why It Still Matters,” they explored various ramifications of the war.

The human toll of the war was traumatic, and 264 Cornellians died in the war, including Willard Dickerman Straight, Class of 1901.

“WWI set in motion the world as we know it, even 100 years later,” Kirshner said. “Oftentimes, people think they have transcended the mistakes and follies of the past.” Kirshner referred to the war as “the great teacher” and outlined several key lessons, including the danger of complacency and the important roles played by leadership, psychology and civil-military relationships. He stressed that the relationship between war and politics is inseparable.

“Each side is seeing events through a distinct prism of politics,” he said. “It’s important to try and conceptualize the way that they are seeing the world.”

One of greatest tragedies from World War I was the failure of the peace that followed. “The end of the war left the victors exhausted, the vanquished embittered and Central and Eastern Europe in utter disarray,” Kirshner said.

“WWI, in short, transformed the political landscape of Eastern Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa,” areas that account for nearly one-fourth of the world’s land mass, Bunce added.

Bunce focused on the topic of innovation and the process of building new democracies and regimes, with two central questions at the crux of analyzing the years following the end of WWI: Why are states so fragile? Why are democracies fragile?

The European states formed in the wake of the war were rooted in a great deal of cultural and socio-economic diversity as a result of the dissolution of competing empires in Europe. The only new democracy to survive the inter-war years was Czechoslovakia, which had been primed for success from its origins in the Habsburg Empire.

“The key is in the details of diversity,” Bunce said. “Diversity is a problem for state strength when there is some bad luck in terms of the structure of the population – and perhaps more importantly, when bad decisions are made on how to manage diversity effectively.”

The discussion was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Kristen Tauer '10 is an editor in New York City.

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