Some of the stated goals of Christmas seem absurd when applied to the international relations forum. Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, unless you’re locked in a zero-sum struggle for finite resources, have historical antipathies dating back millennia, or simply have worldviews that are irreconcilable. You’ll have to forgive me for today, however. Today we sit with family and friends recounting times long gone while Christmas music reminds us explicitly to do just that. It’s a strange syrup for the soul, and I simply can’t help myself.
Of course, even when you’re wearing glasses rosier than Santa’s cheeks, one must still acknowledge that there are Christmases that were less than merry. Englishmen probably do not remember the coronation of William-who-conquered-them fondly, and Koreans would probably prefer that their old relations with Emperor Hirohito, who ascended the throne on Christmas, be forgot and never brought to mind. I think we all would like to imagine what the world would have been like if the The Little (War) Drummer Boy wasn’t pa rum pum pum pum-ing in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Like seemingly any other calendar day, one can find events that reshaped the world, for better or for worse. Today, though, we look at the brighter side.
Although it is difficult to imagine that any event during the ramp-up of the First World War could be considered positive, today we celebrate the 99th anniversary of the unofficial Christmas Truce between French and German soldiers. No man’s land became spontaneously populated with soldiers exchanging gifts and harmonizing carols. For a time, at least, “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”) mingled with “Minuit, Chrétiens” (“O Holy Night”) and soccer was the only pitched battle taking place. It’s maybe the most famous of the events that happened on Christmas, and likely only could have occurred in 1914. At this point, the only poison gas that had been used was tear gas, Verdun had yet to become a killing field, and “shell shock” was not yet a phrase with any meaning in English. One could argue that the August Madness had not yet dissipated and both sides still were overly optimistic about the realities of war. This would belittle the true power of the event though. It takes a sort of monomaniacal madness to propel towards war, and that Christmas offered a context that reminded the soldiers of their duty to common humanity. It did not stop the war, but it did offer a very powerful reminder that, with deference to Hobbes, man’s natural state is not one of war, but rather community and association.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s Resignation as President of USSR
I admit that I may have more enthusiasm about this one as somebody with an American perspective, but there is no doubt that the globe has benefited immensely from the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union. While sitting around the dinner table this past week, the geopolitical jokes that I heard often involved communists and East German spies. Apart from dating some individuals in my family, it truly made me appreciate what a different world we live in. The US no longer has to seriously worry about entering state-on-state total war and developing nations are no longer subjected to open conflict induced by “Great Game” machinations of a bi-polar world. US foreign policy is free to focus on trumpeting human rights and holding allies and aid recipients accountable (alas, not perfectly, of course). Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and, indeed, Russia itself still have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of the road that Gorbachev laid before them, but if the current situation in Ukraine can be read the way I think it should, then they are much closer today than they were in 1991.
First Successful Trial Run of the World Wide Web
I was actually alive for this event. Given how much the interconnectivity has taken over our lives, it’s difficult to imagine how the world operated prior to the Internet’s inception. I admit, this one is a little more light-hearted geopolitically than the previous two, but it has no doubt made the world a better place to exist. Apart from allowing us to order our gadgets, boost work productivity immensely, and, most importantly, read this article, it has also brought us closer and made us more aware of the world and each other. Mohamed Bouazizi would have been a tragic story known by few, rather than a symbol of oppression that ignited a region and defined an era; MOOC would be a silly acronym understood by nobody rather than a revolution in education that have the potential to eliminate barriers to access for a real education; and we never would have known the biting social critique that is Gangnam Style or had space to wonder what the fox says.
Who knows whether this Christmas will live up to the others? Probably not, but it’s tough to argue with hot apple cider flowing freely. We here at The Korbel Report hope you’ve had time to step away from the Foreign Affairs, spend time with friends and family over the past month, and recharge for 2014. We’re sure there will be plenty to discuss.