Constructed trials of strength, obsession with prestige (“credibility”), emerging multipolarity and strengthened alliance blocs today are gradually moving the international system towards the instability of the pre–World War I era. The creation of new flashpoints in the East and South China Seas is the first stage in this process; this has already happened. Strengthened anti-China groupings (both military and economic) are the second stage; this is currently under way. An intensified arms race with China and simultaneous constructed crises, typically over “alliance credibility,” are the third stage. Cumulative radicalization, following the peaceful resolution of a few crises, is the fourth stage. It’s here that the system becomes “Galloping Gertie” and statesmen insist on “firmly” defending “present-day interests, having no fear of the specter of war.” The conflict of 1914 was the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. There is no reason to suppose the Sino-American conflict of a decade hence would not be the seminal catastrophe of the twenty-first.
Jared McKinney is a Non-Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a double degree Msc. candidate at Peking University (School of International Studies) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (Department of International History).
Image: The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington conducts a vertical replenishment at sea in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. Flickr/U.S. Navy