The Next Great War: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict
MIT Press, 2015, 320 pp.
The Improbable War: China, the United States, and the Logic of Great Power Conflict
Oxford University Press, 2015, 240 pp.
In June the U.S. government accused the Chinese government of hacking into OPM’s personnel files and vacuuming up data on millions of employees and contractors, a charge repudiated by Chinese authorities. China’s efforts to create islands of dredged sand in the South China Sea prompted public rebuke from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, including a public warning that the United States and its allies “would not be deterred” from exercising rights of sovereignty and freedom of transit. The Deputy Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, compared China’s efforts to pursue territory in the South China Sea with Russia’s territorial aggression against Ukraine, a rather forced comparison given that sand bars in the middle of the ocean are not member states of the United Nations, and that China is not the only country in Asia trying to create facts on the (newly dredged) ground. Thankfully, there was one bit of levity about the story. The very week that Blinken excoriated the Chinese for their island-making aggression, CCCC Dredging, the Chinese company that built the islands and is quite proud of its technology, announced that it would soon go public, which means we could all have a piece of the new island market in the Pacific.
Whatever you might think about China’s sandy archipelago, the Chinese are up to their eyeballs in global trade and finance and fully integrated into today’s globalized world, while the Russians pursue an economic policy that skitters between mercantilism and crony capitalism. The Chinese have slowly acknowledged that their security and prosperity are interdependent with those of other nations; the Russians under Putin still seem to believe that somehow they are not a part of the globalized world and that their irresponsibility will not affect their bottom line.
This matters for thinking about China as a rising power and what kind of threat it may pose to international order. In the literature on Great Power relations, it matters greatly whether a rising challenger is a reformer that accepts the status quo but wants greater influence and benefits from it, or is a revolutionary that wants to overturn the existing order. If you want a rule of thumb for thinking about rising powers today, it is this: Governments that understand that their security, prosperity, and most importantly, their governmental legitimacy are interdependent with other nations’ will be status quo powers.
Robert Peston, Economics Editor for the BBC, tells a story about interviewing Hank Paulson for a documentary on China. Paulson was recounting his experience of working with China during the 2008 financial crisis. Foreigners held $1.7 trillion in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities, and it was crucial that they didn’t begin to dump them on the market while he was trying to cajole Congress to come to the rescue. China held the biggest amount of the securities along with $1.1 trillion in U.S. Treasuries and paper. Paulson worked the phones daily, reassuring the Chinese and asking that they give him time. The Chinese pledged that they would work with him. The next week, they shared some disturbing news with Paulson: The Russians had proposed to the Chinese that they sell their holdings in Fannie and Freddie together. The Russians hoped to tank the market and escalate the crisis. The Chinese declined.
Paulson retells the story in his new book, Dealing with China, in a chapter that reveals the lengths to which he went to coordinate his actions with the Chinese.1 The book should leave no doubts about the importance of Chinese actions in saving the global economy in 2008, and should impress upon anyone that Beijing’s role in the current world order is huge. For the Chinese in 2008, “responsible stakeholder” was not a slogan, but an essential role to fulfill through deliberate policy decisions.
Although China’s island creation set off alarm bells and contributed to a growing China-is-the-enemy chorus, Beijing’s actions regarding food, energy, and currency are much more crucial to the question of whether its rise will be peaceful. In those areas, China is coming to grips with the fact that the wild economic success it has enjoyed over the past two decades means that its survival, and the survival of the Communist Party that leads it, are interdependent with the fate of others. China has awakened from a dream of self-sufficiency to recognize this fact of life. Its very ability to stoke its economy and feed its people depends on others, the inevitable result of choices it made to embrace international trade and finance and to use economic growth as a springboard to major power status.
As it happens, these commitments to globalization are deeply unsettling and a source of great insecurity for much of the party. Perhaps the current senior leadership regrets the path that China has taken, but it cannot do much about it now without wreaking vast damage upon itself. Nor do I mean to suggest that the U.S. relationship with China is without tension, competition, and rivalry. China may have an enormous stake in sustaining the international order, but the United States has a history of searching for enemies, with its media often obliging by holding the spotlight. The major U.S. outlets, including the New York Times in particular, have presumed the worst of every Chinese policy directive of the past year. One need only compare the coverage of the Financial Times and the New York Times on China’s efforts to stabilize its currency while taking baby steps to liberalize it to see that the American paper envisions hostility and chicanery behind every policy. Just recently at the UN’s special session on peacekeeping, chaired by President Obama, Xi Jinping pledged a new $100 million stand-by force for the UN and African Union. Jane Perlez, the New York Times reporter, tweeted that the new force “offered by Xi for African Union can help protect China’s resources on the continent.”
Scholars of foreign policy have long warned against the dangers of historical analogy in decision-making. Analogies provide an escape from thinking hard about what to do in a complex current situation. They instead substitute lessons derived from another historical context usually only superficially similar to the one confronting policymakers in the here and now. The choice of analogy is often driven by what psychologists call an availability heuristic; policymakers often reach for the analogy that is closest on the shelf in terms of personal and national history, or recent experience. Policymakers may also choose the analogy that recommends the policy response they want. For much of the past forty years Vietnam stands as an analogy for anyone who opposes U.S. military intervention anywhere. Likewise, Munich, the 1930s, and British appeasement still stand as the analogy of choice for those who advocate strong military response in any situation, or simply want to taint leaders with the folly of weakness. A hilarious piece in New York magazine earlier this year revealed that William Kristol has invoked Hitler, Churchill, Chamberlain and variations on the theme of appeasement no less than 42 times in his writings since President Obama’s election in 2008.
The past 18 months prove that historical centennials increase the popularity of certain analogies. The run up to August 2014 produced a smattering of editorials and articles discussing the relevance of the origins of World War I for today. Recently, commentators have appropriated the analogy of sleepwalking and 1914 from Christopher Clark’s excellent book, The Sleepwalkers, and applied it to any kind of potential catastrophe. Within a two-week span in June, Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers both invoked the folly of 1914 to warn European policymakers against the exit of Greece from the Eurozone. This October it was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s turn. He gratuitously prefaced an otherwise smart take on Russia and the United States in Syria with a shout out to the strategic errors of 1914.
If you are a fan of prudence in diplomacy, 1914 is your analogy. Who doesn’t enjoy warning leaders of the dangers of hubris, risk-taking, bellicosity, and the belief in the inevitability of war? The most frequent use of the claim that “we could only be a Sarajevo away from World War III” has cast the South or East China Sea in the role of Sarajevo. In this version, China plays the German role of the rising power challenger and the United States plays Britain as the upholder of the international order. Many, if not all, follow the same trope: “Little did the leaders know as they enjoyed the summer’s halcyon days that the world was going to erupt in a violent cataclysm that would destroy empires and forever change the world…”
All of this strikes me as a wee bit silly. Whatever you think of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party today, they are not buffoons in plumed haberdashery who enjoy playing soldiers, as most of Europe’s aristocracy was in 1914. And the structure of rivalries and alliances in today’s Asia doesn’t resemble Europe’s interlocking, unstable, and uncertain alliances of the 1900s. If anything, scholars today believe that the great power/rising challenger dynamic at play at the outbreak of World War I involved a settled Germany fearful of a rising Russia.Which leaves today’s China and the United States where exactly in the historical comparison?
The year 1914 may offer general lessons for good diplomacy, but it has little to say about today’s international order and the challenge that China poses. The year’s lessons are generic and timeless; they are the diplomatic equivalent of “don’t drop a hammer on your toe”, “don’t let children play with guns”, and “don’t let your friends get you into trouble.” World War I more broadly, stretched out to November 11, 1918, supplies an endless amount of such nuggets, too: “don’t let the military dominate politics”, “don’t let your allies do harmful things to your interests”, and “beware the cult of the offensive.”
There is, however, one dangerous pseudo-lesson from World War I. Some international relations scholars believe that August 1914 is simply another piece of data confirming the inevitability of war between established great powers and rising challengers.
The Next Great War, an edited collection by Richard Rosecrance, a long-time international relations scholar, and Steven Miller, the director of the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School at Harvard, takes aim at this pseudo-lesson. The book takes advantage of the interest in the centennial of 1914 to explore the utility of the World War I analogy in understanding China’s rise and the challenges it poses for the United States. It asks whether we are truly in a 1914 moment today and whether war between China and the United States is inevitable. The answers, thankfully, are no and no.
Chapters in the book explore the origins of World War I and speculate on the relevance of the historical analogy to today. Several are terrific. Jack Snyder reprises earlier work of his on the importance of beliefs, especially the cult of the offensive, in structuring the deadly interactions of 1914. T. G. Otte, author of one of the best of the recent books on 1914, provides an impressive survey of the role that domestic politics played in driving the August crisis, and Etol Solingen carefully outlines the major differences in the international economic systems of 1914 and today, showing that the Chinese government and important domestic coalitions are much more invested in economic interdependence than their German or Russian counterparts of a century ago. Joseph Nye, in his typical clear, eloquent style, warns that a belief in inevitability was an important factor in driving the governments of 1914 to war. His warning rings loud and clear: “Among the lessons that scholars and policymakers should take away from this history of a century ago is to beware of Greeks, Europeans, or analysts bearing analogical gifts, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability.”
The Next Great War gets a little wobbly in a middle section, “Debating the Thucydides Trap”, when it veers off historical course and travels from Sarajevo to ancient Greece. The authors intend it to address the belief in the inevitability of war during transitions of international power. Former international relations majors may relish the opportunity to ponder what amounts to an “Intro to International Politics” final exam question: “Thucydides stated that what made war between Athens and Sparta inevitable was Sparta’s rise and the fear it provoked in Athens. Does this mean that war between China and the United States is inevitable?” Others will scratch their heads at the ahistorical nature of the exercise and wonder whether anyone really believes such truisms can travel so lightly across the millennia.
Graham Allison’s contribution to the section is exemplary of what used to be called a “gentleman’s C” (although it’s probably a B+ at Harvard now). His chapter dutifully repeats the exam question and states that in 15 major power transitions in world history, 11 have ended in war. He provides no list or table of the cases, and no citation for the evidence; perhaps the reader is supposed to take it as a challenge to figure out all of the major power transitions in history and which ones ended peacefully. Or perhaps Allison has reached the status where he is beyond having to provide evidence. In any case, having suitably alarmed us, Alison asks whether China and the United States will end up in a war. He answers the question by seeking Lee Kuan Yew’s opinion. In a page of quotes from Lee one finds such gems as: “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance in 30–40 years. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”
After revealing that Lee expects China to bide its time until it is stronger, at which time it will challenge the United States, Allison justifies this rather strange approach to answering the question: “Lee’s judgments and forecasts may be right or they may be wrong. At a minimum, they are bracing and almost certainly closer to the mark than the judgments and forecasts of others.”
The chapter borders on editorial and scholarly malpractice. Publishing the section, however, does allow for the inclusion of a no-holds-barred takedown of the misuse of Thucydides by David K. Richards. Richards, who passed away this past spring, was an investment fund manager who served on many Harvard committees and the Board of the RAND Corporation, and perhaps only someone who was not a member of the international relations professoriate would seek to demolish the belief that Thucydides’s insights are fundamental to all of international relations for all time:
In fourth-century B.C.E. Greece, war was, if not continual, almost an annual occurrence. The political and economic dynamics of ancient Greece were fundamentally unstable and considered as such by those then living. Thucydides’ idea that war was inevitable was not terribly profound.
The Next Great War has a tacit theory about the value of historical analogies for policymakers, which would have made the book stronger had the editors stated it explicitly: The relevance of and guidance received from any historical analogy for policymakers should rest on similarity in context. In applying the lessons of past episodes of power transition to today, three similarities should matter most: The international power structure, norms, and institutions then should be roughly the same as now; the Great Powers in the analogy should roughly have the same capacities, constraints, and goals as the ones they are being compared with today; and there should be rough confidence that the process of action and response that held in the historical case will likely obtain today.
When so considered, the 1914 analogy’s relevance for today falls apart. Today’s international system differs from that of a century ago in key ways. First, as Richard Cooper points out in his chapter, today’s globalized order is much more economically interdependent than it was in 1914, and such interdependence creates great disincentives to war. Cooper resurrects Norman Angell, who warned in 1912 that economic interdependence would make war catastrophically costly and therefore should dissuade leaders from choosing war. But as Cooper notes, Angell was primarily writing about England and Germany. Russia, which many scholars now contend was instrumental in starting the war, was much less engaged economically with other Great Powers; its economy was still largely self-sufficient.
Second, today’s economic interdependence is institutionalized to a historically unprecedented level. International rules and institutions on trade, banking, finance, and movement of goods and persons create formal channels and procedures for international cooperation. These institutions in turn demand domestic legislation and legal frameworks that serve to lock in international commitments and strengthen the hand of domestic constituencies for globalization. Arrangements such as the G-7 and the G-20 create forums for financial coordination. If anyone doubts the importance of these institutions for global order, they should read Daniel Drezner’s recent book, The System Worked.
Third, as Nye points out, nuclear weapons matter. An international system where security is obtained through nuclear deterrence is different from one where the Great Powers can engage in fantasies of short wars with low costs, or major wars in which triumph will have meaning. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and the risk that any Great Power war could put planetary survival at risk, creates a calculus of war much worse than the most pessimistic strategist could have imagined in 1914.
And what of China as the prototypical rising power? Here one wishes that The Next Great War said more. The domestic coalitions for globalization in today’s China are dramatically stronger than those coalitions in 1914 Germany or Russia; the Chinese military does not have the political decision-making weight that the Prussian or Russian military had in 1914. China’s economic fate depends on the overall global economy in ways that make it a strong benefactor of the globalized order. One piece that would have been useful is a comparison of the demographic profiles of China with that of Germany and Russia in 1914. By 2050 or about the time that Lee Kuan Yew predicts that China will challenge America, its median age will be about 55, and Chinese octogenarians will outnumber the current population of Germany. No rising power in history has the demographic profile that China currently does, and it is not a threatening one. Indeed, as China grows more prosperous and older, its stake as a status-quo power will increase, not decrease.
If war does break out between China and the United States this century, it will be all Steven Pinker’s fault. This is the underlying argument of Christopher Coker’s The Improbable War: China, The United States, and the Logic of Great Power Conflict. According to Coker, Normal Angell’s argument about the economic irrationality of war was a primary cause of World War I. If the diplomats of 1914 were sleepwalkers, it is because Angell lulled them to sleep with his dreamy talk of the impossibility of war. Since Coker believes that Steven Pinker and his ilk are doing the same now, he writes in order to sound the alarm.
This is either one of the worst books on war published in the past several years or it is one of the greatest parodies about war and peace since The Good Soldier Svejk. Coker admittedly is an expert neither on World War I nor on China. Despite the title of the book, he does not seem to be a logician either. He claims to be a political scientist, but most of those include data in their books these days. Coker seems to believe that if you quote enough people, then whatever you say must be true. Almost every paragraph contains at least one sentence of the “as so and so asserts (writes, acknowledges, shows, observes)” variety. The author projects a donnish authenticity, which one must, I suppose, if there are no footnotes or page references in your book.
The problems with Coker’s book begin with the title. It refers to a book edited several years ago by Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson, well-known historians of World War I. That book, An Improbable War, looks to European culture before 1914 to balance the interpretation that structural conflict dynamics had over-determined the outbreak of war. The Afflerbach and Stevenson book is a serious academic study, but it and Coker’s book suffer from the ambiguity of the title word. Improbable is not a scientific term in the sense that it is clear what degree of unlikelihood we are discussing. Does it mean a 20 percent chance of war, a 2 percent chance of war, or less? If there were a specific value attributed to the word, we might be able to have a meaningful conversation about the likelihood of war in 1914 versus the likelihood of war today, although it turns out that policymakers and regular citizens don’t understand objective probabilities very well. It’s worse, though, when there is no objective marker. A famous study of NATO officers asked them to assign objective probabilities to subjective assessments such as unlikely, likely, very good chance, probably, almost certainly, and so on. “Improbable” elicited from the officers a range of certainty between 2 and 40 percent. “Probable” was worse: The officers’ beliefs on its meaning ranged from 25 to 90 percent likely to happen.2
Regardless of the cultural forces that made war in Europe improbable, politics and the use of coercive diplomacy in the decade before World War I did feature conflict-escalatory dynamics. The fact that crises had not produced a general war may have generated false confidence among some statesmen that brinksmanship would not result in war, but at the same time the losers of these limited conflicts quietly seethed and promised that in the future they would not back down. 1914 may have been about diplomatic sleepwalking, but what it made it such a debacle is that they had all pitched their beds on a 20,000-foot cliff.
So we have a deeply unsatisfying word—improbable—which, because of the lack of objective referent, can easily be a weasel word, a subjective evaluation dressed up in scientific garb. Coker lapses into scientific irresponsibility early on: “If a Sino-American war were to break out, I would estimate that it would do so within the next ten years. But it is also entirely possible that such an event will be avoided.” I would estimate that the author has no objective basis for this pseudo-scientific pseudo-certainty.
Perhaps Coker’s initial assertion that Norman Angell helped cause World War I tainted my interpretation of everything that follows. Since general readers may not know the current historiography of the causes of the war, it might help to have a scorecard. Three of the most widely praised recent books by academic historians seeking to explain the origins of the World War—Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark; July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914 by T.G. Otte; and Sean McMeekin’s July 1914—reference Norman Angell a total of zero times in books that are more than 1,200 pages combined. The standard text on 1914, Hew Strachan’s 1914: To Arms (2003), also does not reference Angell at all. Afflerbach and Stevenson’s book, discussed above, does not mention Angell either, despite its focus on European political and intellectual culture and its relationship to the war. In other words, Coker, the non-historian of World War I, has a truly exceptional explanation of the war’s origins.
If you believe that reading about a war that happened a hundred years ago will help you understand the likelihood of whether the United States and China will fight a horrendous war in the next thirty years, then choose the Next Great War. Unlike with Coker’s book, one can read chapters written by individuals who are actually experts on World War I and experts on China, as well as by former policymakers who have had to grapple with the challenges of sustaining the current international order. But you might also marvel that so many experts went through such trouble to disprove the claim that war between China and the United States is inevitable. It seems like an enormous effort to discredit several international relations scholars who have no compunction about wildly speculating about real world problems without any understanding of context or environment, except for maybe counting on their fingers how many great powers there are.
But why dilute potential insight with an historical detour that can obfuscate as much as illustrate? If you really want to understand the likely trajectory of U.S.-China relations and the potential for war, take your insight neat and read Thomas Christensen’s The China Challenge, or Henry Paulson’s Dealing with China. You may still be confused about the U.S.-China relationship, but you will have read experts with real knowledge of and experience with what makes China tick, how the United States can best compete with China while seeking its cooperation on a host of tough problems, and why at the end of the day the Chinese are unlikely to overthrow the current international order. And you won’t have to put up with a lot of wooly nonsense about the origins of World War I.
1Henry M. Paulson, Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (Grand Central Publishing, 2015).
2Katherine Hibbs Pherson and Randolph H. Pherson, Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence (Sage and Congressional Quarterly Press, 2013), p. 187.