China and America: Sleepwalking to War?

History suggests that great-power transitions often lead to war.

May-June 2015

THE CAUSE of the Great War, as it used to be known, has never settled into received wisdom. Unlike World War II, where Nazi Germany was clearly the culprit, World War I remains a more mysterious affair, with various candidates continuing to be offered up by historians as the guilty party, ranging from Wilhelmine Germany to the Habsburg monarchy or even Russia, as a recent book by Sean McMeekin would have it. But though controversy continues to swirl around the origins of the war—and probably always will—this doesn’t mean that there are no lessons to be drawn from the conflict. It doesn’t require perfect knowledge to grasp the outlines of what went wrong. The losses were so immense and the consequences so perilous that it would be reckless not to try to divine some warning signals from what occurred to the statesmen who ended up plunging the globe into a malignant cataclysm.

Accordingly, much contemporary commentary points to direct parallels between today’s events in East Asia and those that led to the outbreak of World War I in Europe one hundred years ago. Just as the ascent of Wilhelmine Germany unsettled pre-1914 Europe, so, we are told, a rising China is roiling East Asia. The Economist thus noted “the parallel between China’s rise and that of imperial Germany over a century ago.” And “even if history never repeats itself,” it wrote on another occasion, “the past likes to have a try.”

If the past is “having a try” in East Asia, it is because there are several important—and unsettling—parallels between the Anglo-German relationship during the run-up to 1914 and the unfolding Sino-American relationship. First, both relationships involve power transitions, two aspects of which have not received the attention they deserve. Although Britain and Germany were competing for power and security, they were also—just as importantly—competing for status and prestige, which made the competition between them pretty much intractable. Germany’s rise also posed a challenge to the existing international order, the Pax Britannica. Second, in Britain, liberal ideology contributed to what might be called a “perception spiral,” which fostered in policy makers and citizens an image of Germany as an implacably hostile and dangerous rival. Viewed through the lens of the perception spiral, the potential threat posed by a rising Germany to the geopolitical position of a declining Britain was magnified and, possibly, distorted. Perception-spiral dynamics go a long way toward explaining why Britain was not able to accommodate a rising Germany before 1914—and why the United States is unlikely to accede to China’s claim to equal status.


CHINA’S LEADERS like to talk of a “peaceful rise,” and have spent considerable time pondering the “lessons of the past” so as to avoid the alleged foreign-policy blunders of Wilhelmine Germany, not to mention Imperial Japan. The past century, however, provides scant reason to believe that China’s rise will be peaceful. Quite the contrary. Since the beginning of the modern international state system, there have been many examples of an ascending power challenging the position of the dominant power. These challenges usually have culminated in war.

The dynamics of the relationships between dominant powers in decline and the challengers who seek to displace them are defined by competition and instability. This is because they pose one of the foundational questions of great-power relations: When the distribution of power is in flux, how can the aims of the status quo power be reconciled with those of a revisionist power that seeks to change the international order to reflect the ongoing shift in the balance of power? Accommodation is difficult because the declining dominant power wishes to preserve its leading place in the international system, while the rising challenger wants its growing power satisfactorily acknowledged. The historical example that offers the most insight into the likely course of Sino-American relations is the Anglo-German rivalry before World War I.

As the historian Zara Steiner has observed, the absence of tangible conflicts of interests between Germany and Britain creates a puzzle for historians seeking to explain why Berlin and London found themselves at war in 1914. Margaret MacMillan makes a similar point. Noting the ties linking Germany and Britain—among business and social elites, as well as their respective royal dynasties—and the mutual cultural admiration between the two countries, she asks, “Why did Germany and Britain become such antagonists?”

Why indeed? In The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914, Paul Kennedy provides a good starting place to answer this question. He reminds us that the causes of great-power wars are a complex mix of geopolitical and domestic political factors. Most historians point to Germany’s bid for world-power status (Weltpolitik)—especially Berlin’s decision to embark on a major program of naval expansion—as the primary driver of the pre-1914 Anglo-German rivalry. And, certainly, for Britain the German naval buildup did pose a threat to core British interests. As an island nation completely dependent on overseas trade for its prosperity, Britain could not be indifferent to the rapid growth of German naval power just across the North Sea. On the other hand, it is also true that by 1912 the Anglo-German naval race was essentially over because Germany simply could not afford to keep up its end of the battleship-building competition.