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Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Saudi Arabia: Beseiged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

“Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful”

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

The kingdom was organized in religious terms by a version of Sunni Islam called Wahabism (or Salafism). Wahabism is a very strict puritanical doctrine that was notably intolerant not only of religions other than Islam but of other versions of Islam itself.

The discovery of oil would transform the geopolitical role of Saudi Arabia. It was an American firm, later called Aramco – not a British firm – that succeeded in getting the rights for prospection in 1938. Aramco sought assistance from the U.S. government to exploit the fields.

One consequence of Aramco’s interest combined with President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of the geopolitical future of the United States was a now famous, then little noticed, meeting of Roosevelt and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on Feb. 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. Despite Roosevelt’s grave illness (he was to die two months later) and Ibn Saud’s lack of any previous experience with Western culture and technology, the two leaders managed to forge a genuine mutual respect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempt to undo this in a meeting he immediately arranged soon after that turned out to be quite counter-productive, as he was seen as “arrogant” by Ibn Saud.

While much of the five-hour private discussion between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was devoted to the question of Zionism and Palestine – about which they had quite different views – the longer-run real consequence was a de facto arrangement in which Saudi Arabia coordinated and controlled world oil production policies to the benefit of the United States, in return for which the United States offered long-term guarantees of military security for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia became a de facto paracolonial dependency of the United States, which however permitted the very extensive royal family to grow wealthy and “modernize” – not only in their ability to use technology but even in a cultural sense, bending in their own lives many of the restrictions of Wahabite Islam. It was an arrangement both sides appreciated and nourished. It worked well until the latter half of the first decade of 2000. Two major events upset the arrangement. One was the geopolitical decline of the United States. The second was the so-called Arab spring and what the Saudis regarded as its negative consequences throughout the Arab world.

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the relationship with the United States soured for a number of reasons. First, the Saudis felt that the announced “Asia/Pacific” reorientation of the United States, replacing the long-dominant “Europe/Atlantic” orientation, implied a withdrawal from active involvement in the politics of the Middle East.

The Saudis saw further evidence of this reorientation in the willingness of the United States to enter into negotiations with both the Syrian and the Iranian governments. Similarly, they were dismayed by the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the clear reluctance to engage in another “war” in the Middle East. They felt they could no longer count on U.S. military protection, should it be needed. They therefore decided to play their cards independently of the United States and indeed against U.S. preferences.

Meanwhile, their relations with other Islamic groups became more and more difficult. They were extremely wary of any groups linked to al-Qaeda. And for good reason, since al-Qaeda had long made it clear that it sought the overthrow of the existing Saudi regime. One thing that worried them especially was the Saudi citizens who went to Syria to engage in jihad. They feared, remembering past history, that these individuals would return to Saudi Arabia, ready to subvert it from within. Indeed, on February 3, by royal decree of the monarch himself (a rare occurrence), the Saudis ordered all their citizens to return. They sought to control how they returned, and intended to disperse them along the frontlines, to minimize their ability to create internal organizations. It seems doubtful that these jihadis will obey. They consider this edict an abandonment by the Saudi regime.

In addition to the potential adherents of al-Qaeda, the Saudi regime has long had a difficult relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter’s version of Islam is also Salafist, and in many ways similar to Wahabism, there have been two crucial differences. The Muslim Brotherhood’s principal base has been in Egypt whereas the Wahabite base has been in Saudi Arabia. So this has always been in part a contest as to the locale of the dominant geopolitical force in the Middle East.

There is a second difference. Because of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has always regarded monarchs with a jaundiced eye whereas Wahabism has been tied closely to the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi regime does not welcome therefore the spread of a movement that wouldn’t care if the Saudi monarchy were overturned.

Whereas once they had good relations with the Baathist regime in Syria, this is now impossible because of the intensified Sunni-Shi’ite polarization in the Middle East.

The Saudi lack of appreciation for secularists, sympathizers of al-Qaeda, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite Baathist regime does not leave any obvious group to support in Syria today. But supporting no one does not project an image of leadership. So the Saudi regime sends some arms to a few groups and pretends to do much more.

Is the great enemy really Iran? Yes and no. But to limit the damage, the Saudi regime is secretly engaged in talks with the Iranians, talks whose outcome is very uncertain, since the Saudis believe that the Iranians want to encourage the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to erupt. While the total number of Shi’ites inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain (probably circa 20 percent), they are concentrated in the southeastern corner, precisely the area of largest oil production.

About the only regime with whom the Saudis are on good terms today is the Israelis. They share the sense of being besieged and fearful. And they both engage in the same short-run political tactics.

The fact is that the Saudi regime has internal feet of clay. The inner elite is now shifting from the so-called second generation, the sons of Ibn Saud (the few surviving sons being quite aged), to the grandsons. They are a large and untested group who might help to bring the house down in their competition to get their hands on the spoils, which are still considerable.

The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful.

 

by Immanuel Wallerstein

 

Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Saudi Arabia: Beseiged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

“Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful”

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

The kingdom was organized in religious terms by a version of Sunni Islam called Wahabism (or Salafism). Wahabism is a very strict puritanical doctrine that was notably intolerant not only of religions other than Islam but of other versions of Islam itself.

The discovery of oil would transform the geopolitical role of Saudi Arabia. It was an American firm, later called Aramco – not a British firm – that succeeded in getting the rights for prospection in 1938. Aramco sought assistance from the U.S. government to exploit the fields.

One consequence of Aramco’s interest combined with President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of the geopolitical future of the United States was a now famous, then little noticed, meeting of Roosevelt and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on Feb. 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. Despite Roosevelt’s grave illness (he was to die two months later) and Ibn Saud’s lack of any previous experience with Western culture and technology, the two leaders managed to forge a genuine mutual respect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempt to undo this in a meeting he immediately arranged soon after that turned out to be quite counter-productive, as he was seen as “arrogant” by Ibn Saud.

While much of the five-hour private discussion between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was devoted to the question of Zionism and Palestine – about which they had quite different views – the longer-run real consequence was a de facto arrangement in which Saudi Arabia coordinated and controlled world oil production policies to the benefit of the United States, in return for which the United States offered long-term guarantees of military security for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia became a de facto paracolonial dependency of the United States, which however permitted the very extensive royal family to grow wealthy and “modernize” – not only in their ability to use technology but even in a cultural sense, bending in their own lives many of the restrictions of Wahabite Islam. It was an arrangement both sides appreciated and nourished. It worked well until the latter half of the first decade of 2000. Two major events upset the arrangement. One was the geopolitical decline of the United States. The second was the so-called Arab spring and what the Saudis regarded as its negative consequences throughout the Arab world.

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the relationship with the United States soured for a number of reasons. First, the Saudis felt that the announced “Asia/Pacific” reorientation of the United States, replacing the long-dominant “Europe/Atlantic” orientation, implied a withdrawal from active involvement in the politics of the Middle East.

The Saudis saw further evidence of this reorientation in the willingness of the United States to enter into negotiations with both the Syrian and the Iranian governments. Similarly, they were dismayed by the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the clear reluctance to engage in another “war” in the Middle East. They felt they could no longer count on U.S. military protection, should it be needed. They therefore decided to play their cards independently of the United States and indeed against U.S. preferences.

Meanwhile, their relations with other Islamic groups became more and more difficult. They were extremely wary of any groups linked to al-Qaeda. And for good reason, since al-Qaeda had long made it clear that it sought the overthrow of the existing Saudi regime. One thing that worried them especially was the Saudi citizens who went to Syria to engage in jihad. They feared, remembering past history, that these individuals would return to Saudi Arabia, ready to subvert it from within. Indeed, on February 3, by royal decree of the monarch himself (a rare occurrence), the Saudis ordered all their citizens to return. They sought to control how they returned, and intended to disperse them along the frontlines, to minimize their ability to create internal organizations. It seems doubtful that these jihadis will obey. They consider this edict an abandonment by the Saudi regime.

In addition to the potential adherents of al-Qaeda, the Saudi regime has long had a difficult relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter’s version of Islam is also Salafist, and in many ways similar to Wahabism, there have been two crucial differences. The Muslim Brotherhood’s principal base has been in Egypt whereas the Wahabite base has been in Saudi Arabia. So this has always been in part a contest as to the locale of the dominant geopolitical force in the Middle East.

There is a second difference. Because of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has always regarded monarchs with a jaundiced eye whereas Wahabism has been tied closely to the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi regime does not welcome therefore the spread of a movement that wouldn’t care if the Saudi monarchy were overturned.

Whereas once they had good relations with the Baathist regime in Syria, this is now impossible because of the intensified Sunni-Shi’ite polarization in the Middle East.

The Saudi lack of appreciation for secularists, sympathizers of al-Qaeda, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite Baathist regime does not leave any obvious group to support in Syria today. But supporting no one does not project an image of leadership. So the Saudi regime sends some arms to a few groups and pretends to do much more.

Is the great enemy really Iran? Yes and no. But to limit the damage, the Saudi regime is secretly engaged in talks with the Iranians, talks whose outcome is very uncertain, since the Saudis believe that the Iranians want to encourage the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to erupt. While the total number of Shi’ites inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain (probably circa 20 percent), they are concentrated in the southeastern corner, precisely the area of largest oil production.

About the only regime with whom the Saudis are on good terms today is the Israelis. They share the sense of being besieged and fearful. And they both engage in the same short-run political tactics.

The fact is that the Saudi regime has internal feet of clay. The inner elite is now shifting from the so-called second generation, the sons of Ibn Saud (the few surviving sons being quite aged), to the grandsons. They are a large and untested group who might help to bring the house down in their competition to get their hands on the spoils, which are still considerable.

The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful.

 

by Immanuel Wallerstein

 

Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Saudi Arabia: Beseiged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

“Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful”

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

The kingdom was organized in religious terms by a version of Sunni Islam called Wahabism (or Salafism). Wahabism is a very strict puritanical doctrine that was notably intolerant not only of religions other than Islam but of other versions of Islam itself.

The discovery of oil would transform the geopolitical role of Saudi Arabia. It was an American firm, later called Aramco – not a British firm – that succeeded in getting the rights for prospection in 1938. Aramco sought assistance from the U.S. government to exploit the fields.

One consequence of Aramco’s interest combined with President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of the geopolitical future of the United States was a now famous, then little noticed, meeting of Roosevelt and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on Feb. 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. Despite Roosevelt’s grave illness (he was to die two months later) and Ibn Saud’s lack of any previous experience with Western culture and technology, the two leaders managed to forge a genuine mutual respect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempt to undo this in a meeting he immediately arranged soon after that turned out to be quite counter-productive, as he was seen as “arrogant” by Ibn Saud.

While much of the five-hour private discussion between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was devoted to the question of Zionism and Palestine – about which they had quite different views – the longer-run real consequence was a de facto arrangement in which Saudi Arabia coordinated and controlled world oil production policies to the benefit of the United States, in return for which the United States offered long-term guarantees of military security for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia became a de facto paracolonial dependency of the United States, which however permitted the very extensive royal family to grow wealthy and “modernize” – not only in their ability to use technology but even in a cultural sense, bending in their own lives many of the restrictions of Wahabite Islam. It was an arrangement both sides appreciated and nourished. It worked well until the latter half of the first decade of 2000. Two major events upset the arrangement. One was the geopolitical decline of the United States. The second was the so-called Arab spring and what the Saudis regarded as its negative consequences throughout the Arab world.

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the relationship with the United States soured for a number of reasons. First, the Saudis felt that the announced “Asia/Pacific” reorientation of the United States, replacing the long-dominant “Europe/Atlantic” orientation, implied a withdrawal from active involvement in the politics of the Middle East.

The Saudis saw further evidence of this reorientation in the willingness of the United States to enter into negotiations with both the Syrian and the Iranian governments. Similarly, they were dismayed by the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the clear reluctance to engage in another “war” in the Middle East. They felt they could no longer count on U.S. military protection, should it be needed. They therefore decided to play their cards independently of the United States and indeed against U.S. preferences.

Meanwhile, their relations with other Islamic groups became more and more difficult. They were extremely wary of any groups linked to al-Qaeda. And for good reason, since al-Qaeda had long made it clear that it sought the overthrow of the existing Saudi regime. One thing that worried them especially was the Saudi citizens who went to Syria to engage in jihad. They feared, remembering past history, that these individuals would return to Saudi Arabia, ready to subvert it from within. Indeed, on February 3, by royal decree of the monarch himself (a rare occurrence), the Saudis ordered all their citizens to return. They sought to control how they returned, and intended to disperse them along the frontlines, to minimize their ability to create internal organizations. It seems doubtful that these jihadis will obey. They consider this edict an abandonment by the Saudi regime.

In addition to the potential adherents of al-Qaeda, the Saudi regime has long had a difficult relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter’s version of Islam is also Salafist, and in many ways similar to Wahabism, there have been two crucial differences. The Muslim Brotherhood’s principal base has been in Egypt whereas the Wahabite base has been in Saudi Arabia. So this has always been in part a contest as to the locale of the dominant geopolitical force in the Middle East.

There is a second difference. Because of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has always regarded monarchs with a jaundiced eye whereas Wahabism has been tied closely to the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi regime does not welcome therefore the spread of a movement that wouldn’t care if the Saudi monarchy were overturned.

Whereas once they had good relations with the Baathist regime in Syria, this is now impossible because of the intensified Sunni-Shi’ite polarization in the Middle East.

The Saudi lack of appreciation for secularists, sympathizers of al-Qaeda, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite Baathist regime does not leave any obvious group to support in Syria today. But supporting no one does not project an image of leadership. So the Saudi regime sends some arms to a few groups and pretends to do much more.

Is the great enemy really Iran? Yes and no. But to limit the damage, the Saudi regime is secretly engaged in talks with the Iranians, talks whose outcome is very uncertain, since the Saudis believe that the Iranians want to encourage the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to erupt. While the total number of Shi’ites inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain (probably circa 20 percent), they are concentrated in the southeastern corner, precisely the area of largest oil production.

About the only regime with whom the Saudis are on good terms today is the Israelis. They share the sense of being besieged and fearful. And they both engage in the same short-run political tactics.

The fact is that the Saudi regime has internal feet of clay. The inner elite is now shifting from the so-called second generation, the sons of Ibn Saud (the few surviving sons being quite aged), to the grandsons. They are a large and untested group who might help to bring the house down in their competition to get their hands on the spoils, which are still considerable.

The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful.

 

by Immanuel Wallerstein

 

Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Saudi Arabia: Beseiged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

“Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful”

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

The kingdom was organized in religious terms by a version of Sunni Islam called Wahabism (or Salafism). Wahabism is a very strict puritanical doctrine that was notably intolerant not only of religions other than Islam but of other versions of Islam itself.

The discovery of oil would transform the geopolitical role of Saudi Arabia. It was an American firm, later called Aramco – not a British firm – that succeeded in getting the rights for prospection in 1938. Aramco sought assistance from the U.S. government to exploit the fields.

One consequence of Aramco’s interest combined with President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of the geopolitical future of the United States was a now famous, then little noticed, meeting of Roosevelt and the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, on Feb. 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea. Despite Roosevelt’s grave illness (he was to die two months later) and Ibn Saud’s lack of any previous experience with Western culture and technology, the two leaders managed to forge a genuine mutual respect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempt to undo this in a meeting he immediately arranged soon after that turned out to be quite counter-productive, as he was seen as “arrogant” by Ibn Saud.

While much of the five-hour private discussion between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was devoted to the question of Zionism and Palestine – about which they had quite different views – the longer-run real consequence was a de facto arrangement in which Saudi Arabia coordinated and controlled world oil production policies to the benefit of the United States, in return for which the United States offered long-term guarantees of military security for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia became a de facto paracolonial dependency of the United States, which however permitted the very extensive royal family to grow wealthy and “modernize” – not only in their ability to use technology but even in a cultural sense, bending in their own lives many of the restrictions of Wahabite Islam. It was an arrangement both sides appreciated and nourished. It worked well until the latter half of the first decade of 2000. Two major events upset the arrangement. One was the geopolitical decline of the United States. The second was the so-called Arab spring and what the Saudis regarded as its negative consequences throughout the Arab world.

From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the relationship with the United States soured for a number of reasons. First, the Saudis felt that the announced “Asia/Pacific” reorientation of the United States, replacing the long-dominant “Europe/Atlantic” orientation, implied a withdrawal from active involvement in the politics of the Middle East.

The Saudis saw further evidence of this reorientation in the willingness of the United States to enter into negotiations with both the Syrian and the Iranian governments. Similarly, they were dismayed by the announced troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the clear reluctance to engage in another “war” in the Middle East. They felt they could no longer count on U.S. military protection, should it be needed. They therefore decided to play their cards independently of the United States and indeed against U.S. preferences.

Meanwhile, their relations with other Islamic groups became more and more difficult. They were extremely wary of any groups linked to al-Qaeda. And for good reason, since al-Qaeda had long made it clear that it sought the overthrow of the existing Saudi regime. One thing that worried them especially was the Saudi citizens who went to Syria to engage in jihad. They feared, remembering past history, that these individuals would return to Saudi Arabia, ready to subvert it from within. Indeed, on February 3, by royal decree of the monarch himself (a rare occurrence), the Saudis ordered all their citizens to return. They sought to control how they returned, and intended to disperse them along the frontlines, to minimize their ability to create internal organizations. It seems doubtful that these jihadis will obey. They consider this edict an abandonment by the Saudi regime.

In addition to the potential adherents of al-Qaeda, the Saudi regime has long had a difficult relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter’s version of Islam is also Salafist, and in many ways similar to Wahabism, there have been two crucial differences. The Muslim Brotherhood’s principal base has been in Egypt whereas the Wahabite base has been in Saudi Arabia. So this has always been in part a contest as to the locale of the dominant geopolitical force in the Middle East.

There is a second difference. Because of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has always regarded monarchs with a jaundiced eye whereas Wahabism has been tied closely to the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi regime does not welcome therefore the spread of a movement that wouldn’t care if the Saudi monarchy were overturned.

Whereas once they had good relations with the Baathist regime in Syria, this is now impossible because of the intensified Sunni-Shi’ite polarization in the Middle East.

The Saudi lack of appreciation for secularists, sympathizers of al-Qaeda, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite Baathist regime does not leave any obvious group to support in Syria today. But supporting no one does not project an image of leadership. So the Saudi regime sends some arms to a few groups and pretends to do much more.

Is the great enemy really Iran? Yes and no. But to limit the damage, the Saudi regime is secretly engaged in talks with the Iranians, talks whose outcome is very uncertain, since the Saudis believe that the Iranians want to encourage the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia to erupt. While the total number of Shi’ites inside Saudi Arabia is uncertain (probably circa 20 percent), they are concentrated in the southeastern corner, precisely the area of largest oil production.

About the only regime with whom the Saudis are on good terms today is the Israelis. They share the sense of being besieged and fearful. And they both engage in the same short-run political tactics.

The fact is that the Saudi regime has internal feet of clay. The inner elite is now shifting from the so-called second generation, the sons of Ibn Saud (the few surviving sons being quite aged), to the grandsons. They are a large and untested group who might help to bring the house down in their competition to get their hands on the spoils, which are still considerable.

The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful.

 

by Immanuel Wallerstein

 

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

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 Peaceargues 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.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/joseph-s–nye-asks-whether-war-between-china-and-the-us-is-as-inevitable-as-many-believe-world-war-i-to-have-been#FTTehJIsCzqkHKMX.99

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