World War I’s Depressing Lessons for Asia

Trade is no guarantee of peace, and Xi's China is looking worryingly like the Kaiser's Germany.

A postcard from World War I shows Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Paul Hauke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A postcard from World War I shows Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Paul Hauke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

World War I is almost forgotten in America. And that’s a shame. Mark Twain once wisecracked, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” America’s greatest humorist didn’t live to comment when the German Army barged into Belgium in August 1914 or to decry the bloodletting that followed. But Twain’s ghost must be hearing clear rhymes from the Great War a century after the guns of August fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918.

Among them, new great powers unbalancing an established balance of geopolitical power and a running debate over whether globalization begets peace. These both matter today, and nowhere more than in the rapidly accelerating strategic struggle between the United States and China.

Let’s start with the geopolitics. World War I is a font of insight into today’s return to “great-power competition,” as U.S. Defense Department officials call this age of Russian and Chinese power and belligerence.

The Great War punched a hole in Europe’s century of relative calm. A balance of power among five roughly equal powers—France, Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia—had kept the peace (with a couple of exceptions fought mostly far from Europe, such as the Crimean War) for nearly a century since the overthrow of Napoleonic France at Waterloo in 1815. Starting in the 1860s, though, one of those powers—Prussia—waged a series of limited wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Prussian armies wrested away the territory needed to constitute a united Germany. Unification followed after the German Army crushed its French counterpart in 1871.

An ambitious great power arose and upset a long-standing balance of power. Sound familiar? China’s communist leadership thinks so. So sharp is the rhyme between China’s rise and imperial Germany’s that Beijing commissioned a team of writers and filmmakers to make a study of German history (along with other past empires). The team compiled a series of books and a companion China Central Television series titled The Rise of Great Powers.

This inquiry into imperial history commanded more than antiquarian interest. Its chief goal was to learn from the past, helping China emulate the great powers of yesteryear to aid the country’s rise while avoiding their foibles and miscues.

Yet the series also served messaging and branding purposes. Westerners commonly liken China to imperial Germany, but this comparison is too blunt. In reality, the late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed two Germanies. Founding Chancellor Otto von Bismarck presided over the first from 1871-1890 and Kaiser Wilhelm II over the second from 1890-1918. Berlin comported itself quite differently under different overseers.

China’s leadership is content for outsiders to associate China with the Bismarck years. Nicknamed the “Iron Chancellor,” Bismarck exercised restraint when masterminding German foreign policy and strategy. He expertly branded Germany as a “sated” power. Berlin had everything it wanted after the wars of unification. It entertained no further dreams of territorial conquest. The Reich was the brawny neighbor Europeans could live with, not an aggressor they needed to fear and ally against.

Wilhelm assumed direct stewardship of German policy after dismissing Bismarck in 1890. The erratic monarch alternately conciliated and blustered against Europeans rather than reassure them in Bismarckian style. Meanwhile, Wilhelm presided over the construction of a High Seas Fleet that appeared designed to sink Great Britain’s Royal Navy in the North Sea. The naval arms race was on and helped bring about the Great War.

So there’s a historical rhyme that supplies a way to chart China’s trajectory. Is China’s leadership conducting itself more like Bismarck’s Germany or Wilhelm’s? Up until recently, it certainly tried to portray itself as Bismarckian, canny and statesmanlike. But the growing jingoism in the mainland, and the disregard for the opinions of its neighbors, is worryingly Wilhelmine.

Some point to trade as the key factor that will help keep the peace between the United States and China. A few years ago, the historian Niall Ferguson tried to make “Chimerica” the new buzzword, based largely on the mutual dependence of the two powers. But the Great War sheds light on the weakness of economic interdependence as a peacekeeping tool. The European maelstrom collapsed the first age of globalization, an age when the world was more globalized—certainly more borderless—in some ways than it is today.

In the years leading up to 1914, historians and diplomats debated the impact of economic interconnectedness on geopolitical competition and strife. Before the war, in a treatise titled War and Waste, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan proclaimed that Europe would never fight a great war. It would be foolhardy to fight a trading partner or resource supplier—or to do anything else that would imperil safe use of the seas, railways, and other conveyances to carry on international trade and commerce.

War, Jordan insisted, would shatter the global supply chain of production, distribution, and consumption. All mercantile peoples would suffer.

More famously, the English intellectual Norman Angell published a treatise titled The Great Illusion. Angell trod much the same ground as Jordan, but his book was more an elegy and a warning than a prophecy of perpetual peace. Wrongly lampooned for prophesying an end to armed conflict, The Great Illusion maintained that everyone from fire-breathing militarists to ardent pacifists remained in thrall to a false consciousness concerning the use of force. That governments could advance strategic aims by force of arms was graven on their worldview and assumptions.

Angell insisted that the logic of economic interdependence should have rendered war moot and would have if enlightened folk embraced peaceful trade and commerce. But few did. Governments and societies accepted frightful if not self-defeating costs in their quests for power, interest, and international standing.

So there’s the second rhyme. The economic ties between the United States and China are stronger than ever, but is that actually a meaningful disincentive? The folly of fin de siècle Europe suggests otherwise.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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