It's 1914 all over again

March 10, 1994|By Jim Hougan

SOMEWHERE between the end of the Cold War and the arrest last month of an alleged Russian mole in the Operations Directorate of the CIA, I began to hear the hinky leitmotif that used to accompany the weirdest segues on ''The Twilight Zone:''

Germany reunites. Russia flies apart. The Balkans cannibalize one another. Refugees surge from one European border to another, fleeing genocide at home. In Moscow and Leningrad (I mean, St. Petersburg), ultra-nationalists have begun to rail against the Jews while, in Germany, the extreme right is beginning to hold regular practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Haven't we been through this all before?

It seems almost as if we've strapped ourselves into a geopolitical time-machine that rushes away from the future, and back to the century's beginning. The maps dissolve and reform, re-animating the world as it was in 1914. And while there are those who think that the century began at midnight on Jan. 1, 1900, most historians would agree that it was in fact born on a summer afternoon in Sarajevo -- on June 28, 1914, to be exact. It was then and there that a cabal of tubercular Slav students assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, plunging Europe into its first world war.

It was the end not only of Ferdinand but of the 19th century and the dynasties that ruled it. As historian Edmond Taylor wrote more than 20 years ago: ''All the convulsions of the last half-century stem back to Sarajevo: the two world wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise and fall of Hitler, the continuing turmoil in the Far and Near East, the power struggle between the communist world and our own. More than 23 million deaths can be traced to one or another of these upheavals; all of us who survive have been scarred, at least emotionally, by them.''

And so the deja vu that one feels upon reading the morning paper is accompanied by a sense of trepidation and foreboding. As the Chinese curse would have it, we live in interesting times -- an espionage-intensive era in which war is awaited with the resignation and certainty that is usually reserved for the contemplation of old age. You can feel it coming.

For the first time in my life -- but not for the first time in this century -- Russia is threatened by communism. Armenia is back, and suddenly there is a Belarus. A Georgia. A Kazakstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Azerbaijan are once again masters of their own destinies, if they ever were.

The number of intelligence targets proliferates precisely because the Cold War is over. The Kremlin is busted. The spooks and the military have spent it into oblivion, destabilizing not only the Soviet Union, but the longest peace of the 20th century -- a fragile peace that everyone called the Cold War. The result is that we now live in one of the most dangerous times in history.

What makes it so dangerous, of course, is not that we've returned to 1914 -- but that we haven't. It's still 1994. What makes our time particularly perilous is not merely that the balance of power has been upset but that a terrible democratization has taken place in the decades since poor Ferdinand lay bleeding -- the democratization of Armageddon.

Today, perhaps as many as a dozen countries have nuclear arsenals, while an undetermined number of other nations conspire to acquire them. Meanwhile, cash-strapped Russia hemhorrages nuclear scientists and materiel that turn up in places they were never meant to be -- places like Baghdad and Ljubljana.

What makes all this even worse is that it doesn't take an American war to start a nuclear winter: a Chinese, Israeli or Pakistani slugfest will do just as well.

I'm not sure quite how this situation is to be defused, but if there is ''a peace dividend'' to be paid, we would do well to re-invest at least a part of it in the espionage bazaars of Europe and the Middle East, because it is there that the future is being played out. If the 20th century has taught us nothing else, it is that peace is only an interregnum between wars.

Jim Hougan writes from Takoma Park. A former Washington editor of Harper's magazine, he is author of "Spooks: The Private Use of Secret Agents." He is currently working on a book about the intelligence wars in Beirut between 1983 and 1985.

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