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Joseph S. Nye asks whether war between China and the US is as inevitable as many believe World War I to have been. – Project Syndicate
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.
In a recent Brookings Institution essay entitled “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War,” historian Margaret Macmillan argues that there are strong and haunting parallels between today’s geopolitical landscape and Europe of 1914. Pivoting off the well-know Mark Twain adage that history does not repeat itself, but does rhyme, Macmillan suggests that the one-hundredth anniversary of World War I encourages us to reflect on the “valuable warnings” of the past. The actual and potential conflicts in the year ahead are many, and some of the same structural forces that lead to the Great War a century ago will be prevalent in 2014.
Macmillan is an eminent historian (her book, Paris 1919 is a must-read), but analogies between 1914 Europe and the world today should not be drawn hastily. World War I continues to preoccupy scholars and pundits alike, in part because it was so destructive, and in part because there is still no consensus on why exactly it occurred. With the centennial of the conflict approaching, we can expect to see 1914 references made a great deal — particularly with respect to the power transition that is currently in progress in the Pacific — but we should remain duly skeptical of this tempting parallel. Many of the conditions that were present in antebellum Europe do indeed prevail today. Whether these forces actually raise the risk of war is far from established, however, and the expectation that they do may itself increase the chance of conflict.
In her Brookings essay, Macmillan identifies several conditions that were present in Europe before the Great War that, she argues, also raise the risk of conflict today. The first of these conditions is globalization and its unintended consequences. In both 1914 and at present, there existed the common assumption that the world was becoming too interconnected to resort to war — conflict would be prohibitively costly. But, Macmillan points out, a hundred years ago as now, those who preached interdependence often ignored the fact that globalization can lead to job loss, foster intense localism and nativism, and provide a breeding ground for radical ideologies and movements (including those that employ terrorism). Globalization, Macmillan warns us, can also heighten interstate rivalries.
Related to this is a second trend — rising nationalism and sectarianism. Once trapped in interstate rivalries, leaders may seize upon nationalism and bitter historical enmity to appeal to their publics. In 1914, the predominant antagonisms were the Anglo-German and Russo-German rivalries; today they include Sino-American and Sino-Japanese competition. Third, Macmillan reminds us that tightly-knit defensive alliances may encourage conflict or cause it to spread. In 1914, Germany saw itself as inextricably bound to Austria, as France did to Russia. Today, she warns, the United States could easily be drawn into war in either the Middle East or East Asia by its alliance ties.
Finally, Macmillan warns that “World Policemen” may be forced into retirement, leaving a vacuum of instability and uncertainty. By the early 20th century, the British clearly could not sustain the demands and costs of their empire. Likewise, Macmillan avers, the United States will not be able to preserve hegemony indefinitely. Even if it its reach is primarily confined to Asia, the most obvious challenge to U.S. influence will come from a rising China, and crises or conflicts may break out unless the dominant powers can establish a stable international order.
Macmillan is hardly the first to point to these conditions as potential precursors to conflict. With respect to China’s rise, analysts have argued frequently that Washington and Beijing’s national security interests put the two countries on a collision course. Some have gone so far as to insist that this clash is inevitable. But in her comparison of the international conditions that preceded the Great War and those that prevail today, Macmillan fails to address one truly crucial question: Why did the forces of globalization, nationalism, interlocking alliances, and power transition combine to produce war in 1914 specifically?
The prevailing patterns that Macmillan identifies as historical rhymes may all be thought of as permissive conditions to conflict: these forces may have helped to pave the way to the Great War’s onset, but none alone was the immediate cause of war in 1914. Moreover, these forces were almost certainly present in Europe prior to that fateful year. Why, then, did they not combine to produce a major war when Austria annexed Bosnia in 1908? Why did they not stoke the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and produce global conflagration then? If we are to accept that any specific set of conditions caused the First World War in 1914, we must also be able to explain why those forces did not produce war earlier or later, or why conflict could not have been avoided altogether despite their prevalence.
Indeed, in the copious literature on World War I, scholars have attempted to dissect these important counterfactuals. Some argue that the structural conditions that Macmillan identifies really did make a European conflict inevitable — interlocking alliances, the Anglo-German power transition, nationalism, and other factors meant that war would have occurred in 1915 or 1916 if it did not in 1914. But other analysts insist that the Great War was the immediate result of assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. If he had not been killed in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 — or if he had been shot and lived — the great powers might have avoided war, not just in that year, but in perpetuity. If an idiosyncratic event like the Archduke’s assassination is the key to explaining the war, however, it is not clear how much credence we should give to other underlying factors. Macmillan’s background conditions for conflict may be insufficient to bring about a war, and indeed, may not even be necessary. And if this is true, then the parallels that can be drawn between the onset of the First World War and geopolitics today may be impoverished at best.
So is this a simple warning that decision makers should approach historical analogies with caution? It is that, but also more. Among the many causes of the First World War that international relations scholars have identified was the widespread belief in European capitals that a great power conflict was highly likely. Combined with prevailing military technologies and strategies of the time, this assumption led statesmen to think that they would be advantaged if they struck first, rather than waiting for an adversary attack that was sure to come in due course. By overemphasizing historical parallels, we risk convincing ourselves that conflict is imminent, when in fact it remains eminently avoidable. If we were to combine Macmillan’s warnings about economic interdependence, nationalism, alliances, and power transitions, for example, it would be tempting to flag the next fracas over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, where all of these forces are clearly present, as the new Sarajevo. Combined with great power military strategies that may be escalatory, conflict anticipation via analogy could produce disastrous results indeed.
With the one-hundredth anniversary of the First World War fast upon us, and a power transition manifestly under way, Macmillan’s essay will certainly not be the last analysis to draw connections between 1914 and present-day geopolitics. Indeed, there is surely value in paying heed to the similarities and differences between the two eras. By listening anxiously for historical rhymes that portend major conflict, however, we risk deafness to the multitude of factors that make the challenges of the present day unique, and soluble far short of war. A rhyme, after all, is a correspondence of sound, but not of meaning.
Here’s to wishing the world a 2014 that is considerably more peaceful than the centennial it will mark.