The significance of the two World Wars tends to get lost as time passes. Historically speaking
both are important because they each authored a dramatic change in international
relationships. Our significant take is that businesses, too, have a history to draw on and similar
lessons to learn.
World War I: Over the centuries, wars have been about jockeying for power. If one nation appears too
strong and begins to push its way around, a few of the others combine forces to keep the big guy in check.
The reason given for the first war (assassination in Sarajevo in 1914) was merely an excuse to tend to the
obvious; Britain was the big guy so Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empires decided they would keep
the British power and its partners (including Russia and France) in check. What neither side realized was
that technology had changed the rules of the game. For the first time in human history, it was significant
technology against significant technology along with the manufacturing might behind those technologies.
The result was a stalemate. Neither side could advance upon the other. Previously, the outcome of wars was
decided by one army outmaneuvering the other. One big battle would be the decisive one, and it was all
over in a few weeks and sometimes in one day.
However, the technology of distant cannons kept the maneuvering of the troops themselves to a minimum.
In fact, the soldiers had to dig in to protect themselves from the explosive environments and hence trench
warfare was created. One side would attack the other, win, and gain a hundred meters of ground with
a terrible loss of life. The next day the other side would attack to recover the ground lost, again at high
losses to themselves. Britain invented another technological advantage to get over those trenches, the tank.
However, Germany was not far behind in copying the new machinery.
What could decide such a war’s outcome then? First, money. When one side ran out of the financial
wherewithal to keep up the carnage, that side could no longer continue. Essentially both sides were
bankrupt at the end of the WW I. Secondly, people would no longer stand for the leaders bringing the
masses to the brink with the terrible deaths of the nations’ young manhood, the devastating destruction of
land, and financial collapse of their economies. So the people revolted; the German empire, the AustroHungarian Empire, and the Russian empire collapsed at war’s end along with their emperors. Britain too
was on the political brink but, as the ‘winner’, Royalty did manage to survive.
Significance of the War: Out of this fiasco came a lesson for humankind: We learned that modern
technology ensured that when major powers were involved, war was a losing game for both sides.
Global Action on Lesson Learned: Therefore, it was imperative to stop all great nations from deciding to
attack one another. Thus was created The League of Nations – an objective watchdog over the world to
stop any of the big boys from getting into wars again. While Canada was instrumental is setting up the
League of Nations, Canada’s leader, Mackenzie King, was equally instrumental in sabotaging it by creating
a clause for Canada (which then applied to all nations) of being able to choose not to participate in policing
action against an identified hostile nation. Hence, without any teeth, The League of Nations was a sham that
could do nothing about the outbreak of World War II.
Looking at Canada: Because of Canada’s huge contribution to the winning side of the World War I,
Canada became a significant world nation for the first time in its history. (Canada had lost 3 times as many
personnel in WW I as the United States. Britain was bankrupt, while Canada was stronger financially.)
Canada also learned at that time that it could not automatically get a thank you from, or even trust, either
Britain or the United States. United States for its part did not want Canada in on the World War I treaty
negotiations. Further, Canada learned subsequently that in the event that should the U.S. ever decide to
attack Canada (as Canada had only one border in the world and that was with the U.S.), Britain secretly
documented an official policy that it would not come to Canada’s aid.
World War II: This war, too, started off attempting to keep things in check globally. Firstly, Hitler wanted
to undo the horrible punishment inflicted on Germany by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I.
Today, politically savvy people agree that the Versailles Treaty created a time bomb that would explode
again as soon as Germany recovered from the World War I mess, regardless of who would be its leader.
Besides, then Hitler, who was fond of Britain, wanted an alliance with Britain and called Britain one of the
two greatest stabilizing forces in the world (along with the Roman Catholic church). Hitler gambled that
upon his attacking Poland to regain previous German land, Britain would do nothing. He lost his gamble,
because Britain’s treaty with Poland was one that Britain followed through with. Thus began World War II
in 1939. There was no significant trench warfare because another technology moved to the forefront:
air bombing. Canada’s troops sat in England for four years until the Normandy invasion was mapped out.
Five years after it had begun, the war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Significance of the War: The learning from World War II was the knowledge that the atomic deterrent
(then, in the hands only of U.S., Britain and Canada) could blow any aggressor apart in an instant. Russia,
recognizing its vulnerability, developed its own nuclear weapons to have a balance of power. It took
30 years to sort out that balance, but by then all nations acknowledged that any major country that would go
to war would not only be signing its own death warrant, but that of the entire world.
Global Action: Accepting the past failure of The League of Nations, Canada was instrumental in setting up
an improved world body, called the United Nations. Russia scuttled the new world ship by insisting on two
structural faults: the creation of the Security Council with only a few members monopolizing power, and the
veto in the Security Council which ensured that a spoiled boy would get his way.
Canadian Viewpoint: The end of World War II saw Canada as an atomic power, a country with the 3rd
largest navy in the world and the 4th largest armed forces in the world. Fortunately, Canada had suffered
only 1/3 of the manpower losses in World War II versus World War I. Canada’s economy had blossomed
with war production to put Canada among the top five or six nations economically. Canada, recognizing the
futility of the toothless United Nations, put the U.N. to use by creating an international police force for
minor wars (for which, its author, Lester Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize).
The Business Lesson: One business lesson coming from modern war, is that both sides lose even when one
side is declared the winner. Businesses that “go to war” (usually through lawyers) to resolve an issue will
end up with both losing, even if one is nominally declared the winner. Far better to negotiate a settlement
that, while usually felt to be unfair by each of them, will be far easier on them than any “war” would have
been. A second lesson is that the combatting companies should get a third party involved; their “UN” would
be a professional conflict mediator. And lesson three is to ensure the mediator has decision-making power.