mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
the new world disorder
1914 Redux? WRM on Great War Parallels to the Present

One century and one week after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Walter Russell Mead examines the parallels between the start of the Great War and the geopolitical situation today for The World Post. Using the crisis that lead to the Guns of August as a lens, he assesses the “powder keg” of the Middle East, the rise of China, the current system of global alliances, and the role of the United States in underwriting global security.

Without overextending the analogy, WRM analyzes the war’s outbreak and provides a useful—and alarming—survey of global challenges today. Read the whole thing.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Kevin

    You write that Germany was surrounded by declining powers including Russia. But this us not what the Germans of 1914 thought.

    • Pete

      Do you all know what nuclear first strike capability is?

      Well, relative to China, the U.S. has it and the Chinamen don’t.

      • Kevin

        That makes the situation much less stable under some circumstances. Once China (without a second strike capability as you posit) becomes convinced the US is likely to use it’s first strike capacity to disarm them they might be sorely tempted to use it before they lose it.

        In some ways oddly parallel to Germany -Russia in 1914 where the Germans felt they could not afford to delay once the zrussians began their partial mobilization.

        • Pete

          That’s what missile defense is for. Block the shot and then annihilate.

        • B-Sabre

          If I remember right, there were French generals who were telling the politicians “Each day we delay mobilization, we lose 30 km of French territory to the Boche when the war starts.” Which is sort of a slow-motion version of the current nuclear “use it or lose it” dilemma.

        • lukelea

          I cannot imagine China and US using their strategic nuclear weapons against each other. Who would fire first? We are not that ruthless. China is not that foolish.

          • B-Sabre

            It could proceed out of a series of mistakes. If there is a naval war against China, and a Chinese SSBN blunders into the path of a US attack sub, will the attack sub give it a free pass, or sink it? If the Chinese start losing their “boomers” will they see it as part of a US strategy of general war at sea, or as a directed attempt to weaken the Chinese nuclear deterrent?
            There’s also the issue that the same Army unit that manages their conventional ballistic missile (including their anti-carrier missiles) also manages and operates their nuclear deterrent. Seeing as how the current Air-Sea doctrine calls for the neutralization of the conventional ballistic missile threat so US forces can operate closer to the Chinese mainland, what happens if a strike accidentally hits a nuclear-armed unit? Will the Chinese accept that as an “accident” or the first shot in an attempt to decapitate their nuclear capability?

  • lukelea

    WRM is always interesting on subjects like this.

    If China does go to war I predict it will not be at sea but over land, and not to the south or the east but to the north and the west. We may think that the days of massed infantry invasions are a thing of the past, but that ain’t necessarily so. China has the manpower required, in the form of tens of millions of un-marriageable young men. Who could stand up against them and how would they do it?

    War at sea, on the other hand, would be far more risky. It would not play to China’s strengths, would disrupt the global economy, and not solve the problem of those unmarriageable young men.

    Just a crazy hunch.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The problem is that the potential cost of a war in the north or west is much higher, and the potential gain is much lower. In the north there is the potential of grabbing much of Siberia, but the potential cost of engaging in a very ugly fight with a nuclear-armed power that dares not lose. In the West, the territory to be gained isn’t worth much, and the potential of angering a nuclear-armed India is considerable. As for the South and East, the payoff is considerable in most cases, the risk is low (the ‘on-site’ powers are for the most part weak and divided, and the only serious threat – from the US – is not particularly credible at this time.
      More to the point, however, the North and West don’t fit in well with Chinas preferred tactics, i.e. bullying and salami-slicing. Both India and Russia (despite the miserable state of much of their military establishment) are quite capable of putting up a nasty fight if the Chinese attempt a limited territory grab, and can withstand general bullying, something that is not necessarily true for Vietnam, the Phillipines, or even Japan. The risk of a limited grab getting out of hand in the North or West would be considerable, and the consequences horrific, whereas the risk is much lower in the South or East.
      China has been working of late to establish useful economic ties with Russia and India (the natgas deal with Russia is an obvious example) which would increase the price to China of any adventurism. In the South or East, there is much less risk, as the benefits (the Scarborough Shoals, for instance) far outweigh the likely costs.
      Finally, whole ‘horde of unmarried men’ thing really doesn’t hold much water. Most of those unmarried men are also the sole sons of families, and thus privileged and coddled. The ‘little prince’ syndrome in China is well known, and such special snowflakes typically make very poor soldiers. This isn’t Korea, and the PLA has acknowledged that the tactics of that era aren’t likely to work out well for them.

      • lukelea

        By west I meant the stans, not India, which lies to the south. I would imagine an invasion of Siberia would be fought under a nuclear umbrella and would be semi-stealth. Battle-field nuclear weapons are good against armor but not widely dispersed infantry. But, hey, I am the opposite of an expert. This is just my imagination running wild.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Actually the Chinese refer to India as “the West”, which is what prompted my comment. The ‘stans are outside of the existing Chinese logistics net (and there is no effort underway to remedy that), which makes them essentially unreachable to anything other than a very small army. Hence they would be unlikely targets, as the potential protectors (the US or Russia) would have far easier access.
          Siberia would be more problematic. Russia simply cannot afford to lose Siberia as it contains a huge proportion of their natural resources, the only serious economic capacity that they have. This would be something worth fighting for, so a stealth war (salami-slicing, etc.) would be unlikely, or at least very, very risky indeed. If it went into an open war, the potential for escalation (including nuclear) is terrifying, and the spillover would be horrific. Given the essentially conservative and risk-averse nature of the currently Chinese leadership, it is difficult to see why they would engage in such behavior, especially as they already are creating economic links with the Russians to exploit those very resources. Why not take it with trade?
          As for tac nukes (and please note that the Russians don’t even accept the idea of such weapons…they use nukes operationally or strategically…only the Americans ever had that concept), they are MORE effective against infantry than armor. Infantry is useless is too widely dispersed, and even with quite advanced (and expensive) protective gear, they are frighteningly vulnerable to even small yield nuclear weapons. Tanks, on the other hand, enjoy an inherently greater degree of protection, and are in fact designed to operate in such environments. Much more to the point, secondary effects from the use of nukes (fallout, contamination, EMP, etc.) would have much greater impact on infantry (especially dispersed infantry, which would be far harder to coordinate) than armor.
          As I mentioned earlier though, the notion of the PLA as a mass infantry army is badly out of date, and completely inconsistent with what the Chinese have been doing for the last quarter century. In some ways they are moving towards a truly “Western” model far more aggressively than the Russians.

  • Andrew Allison

    Don’t forget nuclear weapons indeed, specifically, those in India, Pakistan (known to have provided technology to other Muslim countries) Israel and, unless the world wakes up soon or Israel gets tired of waiting for it to do so, coming shortly to Iran. MAD is irrelevant in these countries. As WRM posits, the 2014 powder-keg is the Middle-East. As the Chinese curse has it, we live in interesting times

  • Curious Mayhem

    The duns of August.

    Yes, Germany did view France and Britain as declining powers, or at least “status quo” powers unwilling to let Germany have its “day in the sun.” But the German General Staff (which was largely responsible for World War One) definitely did not view Russia as declining. They saw Russia’s potential, in spite of its incompetent and corrupt czarist regime, and wanted a preventive war to defeat Russia before it could get too strong. A weakened Russia that could be dismembered, much as China was dismembered, was even more attractive. Hence, their later decision to send Lenin back to Russia to foment revolution and take Russia out of the war, and the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

    That German General Staff has a lot on its head.

    China today is, in some ways, like pre-1914 Germany, but in other ways, not at all. It has no threatening land neighbors. Its population is leveling off and starting to age. China today is able to feed itself and needs no “granary of Ukraine.” China in some ways reminds me of Italy. Unlike Germany, Italy could look back to the past imperial glories of Rome. Rather than behave like a modern nation-state, Mussolini proposed that Italy should recapture its past glory as a retread empire. China too feels it has not yet regained its position as the Middle Kingdom, with everyone around it kowtowing. Of course, that era is gone, and China’s imperial dream is more of a fantasy. Given the CCP’s declining legitimacy and the faltering economic boom, dreams of renewed imperial glory seem attractive.

    (And please don’t call it “nationalism” — it’s imperial ambition and nostalgia.)

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service