Stephen M. Walt

Good news: World War I is over and will not happen again

Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he’s one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case ...

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images
Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images

Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he’s one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).

It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman’s recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it’s hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.

The problem lies in Rachman’s use of the World War I analogy — specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war — to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor’s War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications. 

This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman’s concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it’s not hard to see why he’s drawn to the 1914 case.

The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn’t stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come. 

As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war — something Germany’s leaders had been contemplating for some time — and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany’s leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization — as it eventually did — and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.

This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany’s leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.

But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.

The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China’s military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time — to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there — and by using its economic clout to encourage America’s current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China’s future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn’t seem likely, and especially not at the present time.

There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state’s home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other’s homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation.  That’s the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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