Will the United States and China go to war? The recent centenary of World War I’s beginning has elicited much speculation about whether they are fated to be the 21st-century equivalent of Britain and Germany.
Considering the history of great powers and their challengers, one cannot rule out the possibility. The U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue is limited; territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, some of whom are in treaty alliances with the U.S., are heating up; there are uncertainties in the U.S. about the nature and scope of China’s vital national interests; and neither country is sure about the extent to which it can challenge the other’s strategic imperatives without risking unacceptable damage to its economy and security. It is not difficult, as such, to imagine a scenario in which a downward spiral of miscalculations could overwhelm the better judgment of policymakers in both countries. In the long run, moreover, should strategic distrust between the U.S. and China clear a certain threshold, one or both countries might conclude that the costs of economic interdependence outweigh the benefits.
The good news is that many factors beyond that interdependence reduce the likelihood of a U.S.-China war. For starters, they are oceans apart, and each possesses nuclear weapons. China is neither engaged in an ideological competition with the U.S. nor intent on mounting an existential challenge to today’s liberal international system. Already at odds with many of its neighbors, it recognizes that a war with the U.S. would sabotage its attempt to achieve a “peaceful rise” in the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps irreversibly. Despite their cultural differences, China has a strong interest in America’s educational system: It sends more students to U.S. colleges and universities than any other country. Nor should one forget the countless dialogues between the two countries, both official and track-two: While some observers find these exchanges to be superficial, any communication between potential antagonists is welcome.
Given how devastating a war between the U.S. and China would be to global order, observers should undertake a serious examination of the merits and demerits of the 1914 analogy. It is important, though, to appreciate the limitations of the undertaking itself: By focusing on the extent to which the geopolitical conditions of 2014 resemble or differ from those of a century ago, we make great-power conflict our frame of reference, thereby neglecting the more likely long-term challenges to global order.
If one ignores the realm of non-state actors, today’s system seems more vulnerable to incremental decay than violent disintegration. While rising powers—China, in particular—have benefited considerably by participating in it, they will continue to chip away at its norms, arrangements, and institutions, slowly developing alternatives along the way (the BRICS’ development bank is a good example). The merits of a U.S.-led order may be self-evident to most Americans, but “the rest” generally regard it as an imposition that they played little role in designing initially or shaping subsequently. Meanwhile, unless—and perhaps even if—the U.S. is able to reverse its protracted economic stagnation, Americans will increasingly ask why their country invests so heavily in enabling free-riders. The U.S. Navy, for instance, plays the overwhelming role in safeguarding the global maritime commons, through which an estimated 90 percent of global trade passes, and the U.S. government underwrites the security of dozens of countries around the world through collective defense arrangements.
Should relative U.S. decline and piecemeal revisionism by other countries continue, global order may eventually lose its anchor. There is no other country or coalition, after all, that has the will and capacity to serve as its guarantor. Studying the precursors to World War I illuminates the mentality of countries that seek to overturn the prevailing order through aggression; it tells us less about modernizing an order that is threatened by gradual erosion.
If one includes non-state actors in the picture, one quickly identifies challenges that seemed inconceivable a century earlier—beginning with the nature of conflict. Whether one considers the havoc the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is wreaking in Iraq (and, increasingly, Syria) or the tensions pro-Russian separatists are fomenting in Ukraine, adaptive and technically sophisticated non-state actors—some operating with government support, others without it—are increasingly stoking armed confrontations across Eurasia. As the Center for a New American Security’s David Barno observed last month, “shadowy hybrid conflicts fought by warriors without obvious national attribution” pose “near unresolvable challenges to legacy 20th century models and norms of international conflict and behavior.”
Policymakers a century ago did not have to worry that a rogue actor or terrorist organization might steal fissile material or weaponize a pathogen. Nor did they have to contend with the myriad economic and security risks that cyberspace has either introduced or compounded. And while they were concerned with the environmental ramifications of the Second Industrial Revolution, they did not have to grapple with the possibility that climate change could pose a serious long-term challenge to Europe’s welfare.
Analogies to past catastrophes present a paradox. On the one hand they sow dread: We grow alarmed when we think we are witnessing the emergence of circumstances similar to those that presaged earlier disasters. On the other hand they provide comfort (of a strange kind, to be sure): Unlike our predecessors, who could scarcely have imagined that their actions would culminate in the deaths of some 20 million people and the destruction of three empires, we are aware of the devastation our follies could produce. The less we can analogize the present to the past, the more we must rely on good fortune and our own creativity—scarcely a reassuring conclusion.
Mathew Burrows, principal author of the National Intelligence Council’s past three Global Trends reports, explains in his forthcoming book that “globalization, greater interconnectedness, new extreme weather patterns, and dynamic new technologies” are creating “a new era that we are only just beginning to understand.” A century after the destruction of European order, the more pressing fear is not that the U.S. and China are falling into history’s snare—sobering as that fear is—but rather, that our world is heading into uncharted territory.