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.


IT IS tempting to conclude that Britain and Germany were fated to go to war in 1914. And although, as we have seen, there were pressures pushing in that direction, in British policy-making circles there was, in fact, a serious debate about whether to contain or conciliate a rising Germany. In his famous January 1907 “German danger” memorandum, Sir Eyre Crowe, one of the Foreign Office’s senior officials, laid out the case for a hard-line policy toward Berlin. For Crowe, the fundamental question at stake was “whether Germany is, in fact, aiming at a political hegemony with the object of promoting purely German schemes of expansion, and establishing a German primacy in the world of international politics at the cost and to the detriment of other nations.”

Once established as the leading power on the Continent, Crowe argued, Berlin’s gaze had turned to acquiring overseas commerce, colonies and a big navy. Germany, in other words, was aiming to become a world power. The problem, as Crowe saw it, was that the existing international order—the Pax Britannica—would have to be altered to accommodate Germany’s ambitions. Crowe was certain that an increasingly powerful Germany was determined to overturn the prevailing status quo. “Germany,” he said, “distinctly aims at playing on the world’s political stage a much larger and much more dominant part than she finds allotted to herself under the present distribution of material power.” He believed that Berlin’s policy of Weltpolitik meant that Germany intended “ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire.” For Crowe, any expansion of German power was a menace to Britain and had to be countered.

Crowe recommended that Britain take a hard line toward Germany. At the same time, he denied that London harbored any animus toward Germany. London was perfectly willing to let Germany keep its present place in the hierarchy of status and prestige. But Britain would oppose Berlin if it sought more. In the most oft-cited passage from his memo, Crowe argued that London’s policy of conciliating Germany had only served to increase Berlin’s expansionist appetite, and as such it should be abandoned. By adopting a policy of unyielding firmness toward Germany, Crowe believed, Britain could dissuade Berlin from future challenges to the prevailing geopolitical status quo. Germany should be under no illusions about Britain’s resolve: Germany would be met “with a prompt and firm refusal to enter into any one-sided bargains or arrangements, and the most unbending determination to uphold British rights and interests in every part of the globe.” This policy, he concluded, would win Germany’s respect.

Crowe’s “German danger” memorandum reflected the prevailing outlook of the British foreign-policy establishment. However, this was not the only viewpoint held in elite circles. An alternative to Crowe’s analysis found expression in a reply memorandum written by the recently retired permanent under secretary of state in the Foreign Office, Lord Thomas Sanderson. For Sanderson, the key to understanding German diplomacy was the fact that a unified Germany was a latecomer on the world stage. “It was inevitable,” he observed, “that a nation flushed with success which had been obtained at the cost of great sacrifices, should be somewhat arrogant and over-eager, impatient to realise various long-suppressed aspirations, and to claim full recognition of its new position.” Sanderson understood the risks of refusing a rising Germany’s demands for acknowledgment of its claims for status and prestige. “A great and growing nation,” he said, “cannot be repressed.”

Unlike Crowe, who evinced only hostility toward Germany’s aspirations, Sanderson empathized with Germany’s predicament. He understood that as Germany’s power rose, Berlin inevitably would seek to restructure the international order. Britain’s choice was either to accommodate or resist German aspirations—and resistance meant a high chance of war. For Sanderson, the choice was clear: “It would be a misfortune that [Germany] should be led to believe that in whatever direction she seeks to expand she will find the British lion in her path.”

Taking issue with Crowe’s commitment to upholding the status quo, Sanderson argued that even if Crowe was correct to say that Berlin’s policy was to take advantage of every possible opportunity for self-aggrandizement and expansion, this was no worse than London’s policy of regarding every change as a threat to its interests. Sanderson understood how, given the shifting balance of power, an ascending Germany would regard Britain’s rigid attachment to maintaining a status quo—and its embedded hierarchy of status and prestige—that no longer was supported by the actual distribution of power in the international system. “It has sometimes seemed to me,” Sanderson wrote, “that to a foreigner reading our press the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.”


THE INTERNATIONAL system is in the midst of a transition away from unipolarity. As U.S. dominance wanes, the Pax Americana will give way to a new but as yet undefined international order. Historically, transitional periods marked by hegemonic decline and the simultaneous emergence of new great powers have been unstable and prone to war. It is hardly alarmist to say that today China and the United States are on a collision course, due to China’s rise—and Beijing’s accompanying ambitions—and America’s current commitment to maintaining its privileged spot atop the international pecking order. This does not mean war is imminent. But the pre–World War I Anglo-German rivalry offers a cautionary lesson.

Today, when it comes to China, the spirit of Sir Eyre Crowe pervades the American foreign-policy community. The United States professes the benevolence of its intentions toward China, even as it refuses to make any significant concessions to what China views as its vital interests. Like Crowe, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment believes that Beijing should be satisfied with what it has—or, more correctly, what Washington is willing to let China have. American analysts correctly discern that Chinese leaders view the United States as determined to block China’s rise. Yet they advocate the kind of hard-line policies that can only confirm Beijing’s perceptions.

Today’s American foreign-policy establishment needs more Lord Sandersons and fewer Crowes.

Christopher Layne is a university distinguished professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University. His next book, After the Fall: International Politics, U.S. Grand Strategy, and the End of the Pax Americana, will be published by Yale University Press. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s June 2014 symposium, “Does the Rise and Fall of Great Powers Lead to Conflict and War?”

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense