S well that we contemplate the abyss, if only to avoid it. This year we particularly remember the ghastly disaster of 100 years ago, when an almost unfathomable complacency shared by the European elite threw a generation into the fire of the First World War, almost as an afterthought. A century on from the fields of Waterloo, statesmen then assumed a general peace to be the rule, rather than a miraculous exception.
This overly sanguine state of mind seems to be every bit as present today as it was in the fateful year of 1914. Everyone knows that tensions are brewing in the seas around China, as Beijing claims the rights to territorial waters at the expense of most of its worried neighbours. But, says conventional wisdom, “So what? A little muscle flexing is to be expected, given the meteoric rise of Beijing, and its understandable determination to safeguard the sea-based trade routes around its shores. A little sabre rattling is all this amounts to.”
For many analysts, last week’s most recent dust-up – this time between Beijing and Vietnam in the South China Sea – is simply more of the same. A flotilla of Chinese ships have been ramming into and firing water cannon at Vietnamese government vessels trying to stop Beijing from constructing an oil rig 140 miles off the Vietnamese coast. Yes, the Chinese are playing hardball and it’s not very nice, say the gormless analytical descendants of 1914. But after all, Beijing wouldn’t jeopardise the present world order, particularly as they are doing so well by it.
Much the same was said after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, that a rising Germany surely wouldn’t risk its improving global standing over an unpleasant – but seemingly peripheral – incident. But if history teaches us anything, it is that states and especially statesmen do not always act in their best interests. 1914 reminds us that sometimes mini-crises ignite powder kegs beneath them.
Perhaps most hauntingly, the outline of the present order in Asia that surrounds these events resembles nothing so much as the supposedly “unsinkable” pre-1914 world. Barack Obama’s America is Edwardian Britain incarnate. For their time, both were easily the most powerful country in the world, while both being in relative decline. Alone among the great powers, Britain and America were omnipresent – both economically and in terms of their first-class navies – while not being omnipotent. Nothing could be done without them, but they alone did not possess enough power to guarantee the global international order on their own.
China fits the bill as the Kaiser’s Germany, a rising economic and military power bristling with nationalist indignation at perceived slights – both real and imagined – and increasingly believing its rise cannot be accommodated by the present order.
If Beijing makes for a worryingly effective Germany, Prime Minister Abe’s Japan is Third Republic France to a tee. As declining regional powers – beset by economic torpor and falling relatively further behind strategically – they were both directly threatened by aggressive neighbours. Both placed their hopes in alliances with the declining hegemon, respectively the UK and the US.
Even the milieu in which the 1914 analogy operates is strikingly similar. Currently, China is exploiting incidents in the seas around it to test the willingness of the US to stand behind its treaty commitments to allies like Japan and the Philippines, just as in the decade before the Great War the Kaiser provoked a series of international crises to see if Britain would really come to the defence of France under the gun. Ironically in both cases, the rising power miscalculated, making a general war far more likely as arms races broke out, wherein Japan/East Asia and France quickly armed themselves to the teeth in response to their menacing foes.
Given the almost exact correlation between the structural worlds of 1914 and 2014, alarm bells really ought to be ringing. It is far too early to give up on the notion of accommodating China’s peaceful rise. However, at the same time as Washington tries to bind China into the present order, it must hedge against Beijing following the Kaiser’s disastrous path. Instead, America must link India, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the other East Asian states into a more cohesive system, through free trade or military ties, making the price for China bucking the present order ever higher.
By pursuing this dual strategy, the US can improve the chances that the apocalyptic 1914 analogy fails to come to pass.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.