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Grand Strategy
World War Three?

Are we re-living the lead-up to World War One? Margaret MacMillan—author of the excellent Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World and more recently of The War That Ended Peace—has penned the latest Brookings Essay on the similarities between our time and the years leading up to the First World War. The piece describes these similarities—including widespread belief in the peaceful powers of globalization mixed with ineffective leaders, geopolitical grappling, rising nationalism, and instability in smaller countries that are “clients” of larger powers—and argues that a another war of global proportions could be possible if we don’t learn the lessons of 1914.

It may take a moment of real danger to force the major powers of this new world order to come together in coalitions able and willing to act. Action, if it does come, may be too little and too late, and the price we all pay for that delay may well be high. Instead of muddling along from one crisis to another, now is the time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago in the hope that our leaders, with our encouragement, will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order.

This piece dovetails nicely with one of WRM’s latest essays, “The End of History Ends,” in which he argues that the US needs to realize the time for responding to discrete “issues” is over. Geopolitics is back, and we need to re-learn how to think strategically about engaging whole nations in a global power struggle. War isn’t likely to break out tomorrow, but the US’ role in keeping international peace and stability is more crucial than ever. Wishing it was different is no substitute for a considered grand strategy.

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  • qet

    But for nuclear weapons WW3 would have been fought already. And the general characteristics of our time laid out by Via Meadia have been present since the end of the Eisenhower Administration. I think it was Max Boot who some time ago wrote an article titled “Let Them Burn” or something similar, arguing that simply allowing (meaning not trying to intervene) all of the local and regional wars, civil and otherwise, to conduct themselves to their bitter conclusions is the correct strategy for the “great” powers. I thought he was right then and I still think so. Yes, it sounds appalling, pitiless, immoral, the easy view of one fortunate enough to have been born into American’s Augustan (or maybe Antonine) Age, but all that does not make it one whit less correct (in other words, if it is incorrect, it is so for other reasons). And really, I am not going to heed cries of immorality from a society whose professional ethicists imagine that the Trolley Problem is the apex of moral reasoning.

    • shinandoah

      RE “the Trolley Problem”, I thought it was puerile the first time I heard it in early 1980’s. Modern philosophical pedants love discussing hypothetical problems that could happen but are extremely improbable and are essentially insoluble. They have no interest in developing or discovering any clear standards of morality. Professors want to get paid conducting seminars that are little more than sophomoric late night bull sessions at about the level of the trolley problem.

      What they don’t have the courage to do is dig deeply enough into moral issues to actually develop a clear simple general secular moral standard (e.g. make the Golden Rule precise) whose application in any specific situation delivers a resolution that does not contradict or conflict with the resolution it delivers in any other specific situation… because that’s very, very hard. But it is possible. And if we are to survive, necessary.

  • Anthony

    Why does alarmism work so well? See Josef Joffe @ AI for additional context to Feed (and yes, a geopolitical U.S. Grand Strategy articulated from State, Pentagon, and Executive would definitely provide policy sense…).

  • Nevis07

    I started reading the “Gun of August,” after China imposed the ADIZ in the East China Sea, last month. While I haven’t finished the book, there are indeed many eerie parallels to today. Someone asked me last week, based on what I read, if I thought the war was preventable. My answer was “yes and no.” It seems to me that most of the leaders involved in WWI wanted peace but stirred up nationalist sentiment for their own short term political gain; by the time they realized war could actually occur, they had lost control of their ability to prevent it as events took on their own energy. For example, while Germany is often colored as the aggressor in WWI, the Kaiser didn’t want to attack France after the Austro-Hungarians delivered their ultimatum to the Serbs – but the German general forced the Kaiser to accept the war plans as draw up.

    To prevent the next great war, I would think a grand strategy is necessary but clearly by itself it is not enough. Any grand strategy must remain flexible but so must strong global leaders in implementing it. Above all though, there must be a widespread grassroots level exchange between parties involved. I’m concerned that nationalism is overtaking the pace that politicians can legislate. Simply said there is huge lack of trust. Globalization has not delivered as was promised or hoped for.

    I believe the piece by MacMillan being referred to above is submitted as an Op-Ed to the NYT last week:

    • LoneStar78730

      Interesting. Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ is one of my favorite works of popular history. I wondered to myself over Thanksgiving if we would look back on these times and point to China’s recent ADIZ declaration as a ‘Tangiers incident’ of our own. Once you’re finished reading ‘Guns’, read ‘The Proud Tower’, her companion piece – also quite illuminating.

      • Nevis07

        Frankly, I have a difficult time not drawing parallels between the two events. It is not a perfect parallel but still very concerning.

        Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll be sure to add it to my reading list!

    • CiceroTheLatest

      “… but the German general forced the Kaiser to accept the war plans as draw up.”

      “Forced” is not correct. Keep in mind that this was the first war that involved massive mobilization of thew population. To make that mobilization work involved intricate scheduling of the rail system.

      The Kaiser was interested in averting a general war, and certainly a two front war. He asked the Chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, if there was any way to reverse the mobilization on the western front. Von Moltke told him that any attempt to reverse, or even slow down, the mobilization would throw the effort into chaos, leaving the country defenseless.

      (The Kaiser is reported to have sighed, and told him “Your father would have given me a different answer.”)

      • Nevis07

        Good point, forced is not the correct word, but short of writing a novella I didn’t want to complicate the point. It would be accurate to say that the Kaiser did have misgivings about launching an offensive – von Moltke was very inflexible as you pointed out. However, for an accurate understanding people should read up on the event themselves…

        The point I was trying to make (not too eloquently) was that basically all of the relevant major leaders felt that they were the victim of the other sides policies and actions – and that therefore they were really just fighting a defensive war even if that meant going on the offensive (which they all essentially did).

        I think this sounds very much like the US, Chinese and Japanese positions today. Everyone feels slighted somehow.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    One of the main causes of WWI is the same as the cause of the 2008 financial crisis: when the network of relationships between the various actors becomes so complex, and so restrictive, then minor perturbations cascade through the system and destroy it. In WWI, assassination causes Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia, causing Russia to declare war on A-H, triggering German alliance with A-H to declare war on Russia, bringing France in against Germany, bringing England in to support France. In 2008, housing market decline triggers insolvency of CDOs, triggering payments on naked credit default swaps, triggering short-selling against over-leveraged firms, triggering bankruptcies and freezing the credit market.

    Complexity evolves naturally, but the rate at which it evolves gives plenty of time for the inconsistent bits to slowly anneal out of the system. When humans create complexity, those inconsistencies just keep growing until they overwhelm the system.

    I can’t even imagine how we get a handle on the web of alliances and trading relationships that circle the globe, but you can bet that there’s something in that network that will happily tear itself to pieces given the right nudge. It’s possible to simplify and flatten these networks with multi-party treaties and universal rules governing trading relationships. We don’t have a horrible record on this score, but more should be done to simplify things. A little support from the mathematicians wouldn’t hurt, either. There might be a network theorist out there that could save the lives of millions.

    • Jim__L

      In addition to network theory, look at control system theory and the engineering definition of “stability”.

      In short, unless your system is set up to deliberately fight change — especially the sort of change that leads to more and faster change — your system can go straight to hell very, very fast.

  • RTO Dude

    I enjoyed The End of History Ends and broadly agreed with its major thesis, but after readin

  • M. Report

    Great Depression II, preceded by every nation
    using its military power before it loses it. Ugly.

    • John Stephens

      The Pearl Harbor Gambit: Do a sneak attack, grab what you can while you can, then try to negotiate. A half dozen or so of these going off at once will make for exciting reading in the history books, assuming anyone is around afterwards to write them.

      Indeed, we live in interesting times.

  • Gregale

    Perhaps my browser is malfunctioning, but I didn’t see a link to MacMillan’s actual Brookings Essay in this post. For those who are interested, the essay is at

    MacMillan’s piece includes some provocative and useful thinking, though it is marred by the type of clichés one might expect from an Oxford professor of history, such as mischaracterizing the Tea Party as a “radical right-wing” movement that provides an outlet “for the frustration and fears that many feel as the world changes around them and the jobs and security they had counted on disappear.” Bitter clingers, redux. In the next breath, she hints darkly that “certain immigrants” merely “stand in as the enemy” for groups like the Tea Party.

    Elsewhere, she gratuitously compares those who today question “the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming” to the European generals who, circa 1914, suffered from “willful blindness” towards the new facts of industrialized warfare. She also refers to American “military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan”, though a strong case can be made that the major setbacks primarily were political, rather than military.

    Such breezy assertions, taken together, cause me to wonder how much of the rest of her seemingly impressive commentary (with which I tend to agree) stands on shaky ground.

    • Andrew Allison

      In other words (with apologies to our host), her essay is typical Ivory Tower nonsense! We live in very interesting, but not historically anomalous times.

  • Terenc Blakely

    The biggest difference between now and pre WWI is China. China has imagined itself as the center of the world (thus the name “Middle Kingdom”) culturally and militarily for millennia (often with good reason). However, the past couple of centuries have been harsh for China who have suffered numerous humiliations. Now that China is finally getting its act together it wants to reassert itself, regain some of the ‘face’ it has lost and some amount of revenge. This is the driving force of instability in the Far East and since it’s essentially irrational it won’t be easily resolved.

  • Andrew Allison

    “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as
    among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana
    History suggests that remembrance lasts for, at best, two generations.

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