China and America: Sleepwalking to War?

April 21, 2015 Topic: Security Region: AsiaUnited States Tags: HistoryChinaGreat Powers

China and America: Sleepwalking to War?

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

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.

Measured by pure strategic logic, Germany’s battleship-building policy was a major blunder because it provoked Britain’s hostility. But strategic logic was not the primary driver of German naval policy. Great powers want not only security; they also want recognition of their role in the international system. They crave status and prestige. Along with the acquisition of colonies, the construction of Germany’s “luxury fleet” (as First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill described it) was part of Berlin’s strategy to gain equal status with London in the international system, and to match it in prestige. Germany built battleships because they “were understood at the time to be emblematic of great power status,” as Bard College political scientist Michelle Murray put it.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg asserted that to be a “really Great Power,” Germany “must have a fleet, and a strong one . . . not merely for the purpose of defending her commerce but for the general purpose of her greatness.” It was Germany’s hope to be recognized as Britain’s equal that ramped up the intensity of the Anglo-German rivalry. Status and prestige are “positional goods,” the competition for which tends to be zero-sum. Status inconsistency—the disjuncture between what Robert Gilpin calls the international system’s hierarchy of prestige and the underlying distribution of power—is a potent generator of conflict as rising powers strive to reshape the international system to reflect (and gain recognition of) their increasing power.

There was also an important domestic dimension. British policy makers and elites viewed Germany through a classic liberal lens. Economic rivalry and ideological antipathy disposed Britain to regard Germany as a threat. Looking first at the economic aspect, although Britain and Germany were important trading partners, they were also economic competitors, and over time Britain came to regard Germany’s economic growth as a dangerous geopolitical menace. Guided by the doctrine of economic nationalism, Germany prospered mightily during the 1880s and 1890s, and narrowed the gap between itself and Britain in key metrics of national power. This caused widespread apprehension among British elites. Many in the British commercial and political establishments blamed Britain’s relative decline on unfair German trade and industrial policies: tariffs, state-sanctioned cartels and state subsidies of export industries. Although the commercial competition between the two nations did not cause the rising enmity between Britain and Germany in the years preceding 1914, it did contribute importantly, if subtly, to injecting hostility and distrust into the prewar Anglo-German relationship. In addition to economic rivalry, in the decades before 1914, ideology became for the British an increasingly salient factor driving the Anglo-German antagonism. During the “long” nineteenth century (from 1789 to 1914), Britain was both the cradle and acme of liberalism as a political philosophy and economic doctrine. British elites viewed Wilhelmine Germany’s political culture—which emphasized deference to authority, a large role for the state in politics and economics, and the individual’s subordination to the overarching interests of the national community—as fundamentally antithetical to their own liberal values.


THE INTENSIFYING Sino-American rivalry looks an awful lot like the pre-1914 Anglo-German antagonism. Like that earlier struggle, the Sino-American standoff is the product of changes in the distribution of power as well as economic and ideological factors. At the systemic level, just as their British counterparts worried about the dramatic shift in relative power between Germany and Britain, so American policy elites are now apprehensive about the shifting distribution of relative power between the United States and China. And, as was true for British policy makers contemplating Germany’s rise before 1914, American policy makers are unsettled not only by the fact of China’s economic growth but also by its velocity. In the last four years, China has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading manufacturing state, the leading trading state and the leading exporter. According to the World Bank, measured by purchasing-power parity, China already has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy.