Why America and China Today Are Like Pre–World War I Europe

September 7, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: HistoryWorld War IEuropeDefenseForeign Policy

Why America and China Today Are Like Pre–World War I Europe

The international system is gradually moving toward the prewar era's instability.

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