CAMBRIDGE – This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a transformative event of modern history. World War I killed some 20 million people and ground up a generation of Europe’s youth. It also fundamentally changed the international order in Europe and beyond.
Indeed, WWI destroyed not only lives, but also three empires in Europe – those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – and, with the collapse of Ottoman rule, a fourth on its fringe. Until the Great War, the global balance of power was centered in Europe; after it, the United States and Japan emerged as great powers. The war also ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prepared the way for fascism, and intensified and broadened the ideological battles that wracked the twentieth century.
How could such a catastrophe happen? Shortly after the war broke out, when German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was asked to explain what happened, he answered, “Oh, if I only knew!” Perhaps in the interest of self-exoneration, he came to regard the war as inevitable. Similarly, the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, argued that he had “come to think that no human individual could have prevented it.”
The question we face today is whether it could happen again. Margaret MacMillan, author of the interesting new book The War that Ended Peace, argues that, “it is tempting – and sobering – to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and Britain a century ago.” After drawing a similar comparison, The Economist concludes that “the most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.” And some political scientists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have argued that, “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.”
But historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. WWI was not inevitable. It was made more probable by Germany’s rising power and the fear that this created in Great Britain. But it was also made more probable by Germany’s fearful response to Russia’s rising power, as well as myriad other factors, including human errors. But the gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914.
Drawing contemporary lessons from 1914 requires dispelling the many myths have been created about WWI. For example, the claim that it was a deliberate preventive war by Germany is belied by the evidence showing that key elites did not believe this. Nor was WWI a purely accidental war, as others maintain: Austria went to war deliberately, to fend off the threat of rising Slavic nationalism. There were miscalculations over the war’s length and depth, but that is not the same as an accidental war.
It is also said that the war was caused by an uncontrolled arms race in Europe. But the naval arms race was over by 1912, and Britain had won. While there was concern in Europe about the growing strength of armies, the view that the war was precipitated directly by the arms race is facile.
Today’s world is different from the world of 1914 in several important ways. One is that nuclear weapons give political leaders the equivalent of a crystal ball that shows what their world would look like after escalation. Perhaps if the Emperor, the Kaiser, and the Czar had had a crystal ball showing their empires destroyed and their thrones lost in 1918, they would have been more prudent in 1914. Certainly, the crystal-ball effect had a strong influence on US and Soviet leaders during the Cuban missile crisis. It would likely have a similar influence on US and Chinese leaders today.
Another difference is that the ideology of war is much weaker nowadays. In 1914, war really was thought to be inevitable, a fatalistic view reinforced by the Social Darwinist argument that war should be welcomed, because it would “clear the air” like a good summer storm. As Winston Churchill wrote in The World Crisis:
“There was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity, the nations turned fiercely toward strife, internal or external. National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce, if shrouded, fires. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare.”
To be sure, nationalism is growing in China today, while the US launched two wars after the September 11, 2001, attacks. But neither country is bellicose or complacent about a limited war. China aspires to play a larger role in its region, and the US has regional allies to whose defense it is committed. Miscalculations are always possible, but the risk can be minimized by the right policy choices. Indeed, on many issues – for example, energy, climate change, and financial stability – China and the US have strong incentives to cooperate.
Moreover, whereas Germany in 1914 was pressing hard on Britain’s heels (and had surpassed it in terms of industrial strength), the US remains decades ahead of China in overall military, economic, and soft-power resources. Too adventuresome a policy would jeopardize China’s gains at home and abroad.
In other words, the US has more time to manage its relations with a rising power than Britain did a century ago. Too much fear can be self-fulfilling. Whether the US and China will manage their relationship well is another question. But how they do so will be dictated by human choice, not some ironclad historical law.
Among the lessons to be learned from the events of 1914 is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability. War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.