THE ESCALATING strategic rivalry between the United States and China represents the greatest foreign policy challenge that President Joe Biden’s administration faces today. The growing confrontation over the South China Sea (SCS) and China’s increasing threats towards Taiwan have left many fearing that war could erupt due to crisis miscalculation. Experts warn, however, that the risk of war between the two powers will remain high, regardless of whether the situation in the SCS improves, due to the structural tensions caused by China’s rise. This rise, in the long term, could potentially set off a global war for the dominance of the international system.
The new Biden administration is thus faced with two difficult tasks—tempering the immediate risk of conflict in the SCS and reducing the probability of hegemonic war triggered by China’s rising power.
IN HIS book Destined for War, Graham Allison argues that the greatest threat of hegemonic war occurs when rising powers attempt to overturn an established global order. These challenges in turn trigger a “Thucydides Trap” like that which sparked twelve hegemonic wars over the past five hundred years. The increasingly heated confrontation between the United States and China coupled with the growing sense that Beijing aspires to replace the United States at the apex of global power, has led many scholars to join Allison and argue that conflict between these two powers may also be inevitable.
However, beginning with the industrial era, not all hegemonic challenges have led to war, even among rising powers eager to overthrow the existing established orders. During the nineteenth century, Great Britain faced fundamental challenges from a rising, democratic United States bent on reforming a world dominated by great power aristocracies. From 1815–1900, the United States was one of the fastest developing nations in the world—a continental-sized nation with vast resources, a rapidly growing population, and the champion of an economic and political model that by century’s end positioned it as the world’s leading economy and democratic inspiration. However, despite numerous diplomatic confrontations throughout the century, the two nations remained at peace.
The reason is that the United States chose not to threaten the key source of Britain’s hegemony, its naval and financial dominance of the world. The United States would only emerge as a challenger to the British during the twentieth century, after the rise of Germany forced the United States to build a “navy second to none” while World War I left Great Britain heavily indebted to American financiers, alarming London of America’s growing influence. While the nations remained rivals, the potential for confrontation was muted by the economic upheaval of the Great Depression and the revived German threat under Adolf Hitler. Eventually, the United States would surpass Great Britain on the high seas during World War II and become the dominant power in the new postwar world.
Under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany also managed to rise to power without triggering a war with Great Britain, though power transition theory would have suggested such a war inevitable. Following the wars of German Unification, which culminated with Prussia’s shocking victory over France in 1871, Bismarck moved aggressively to establish the German Empire as the dominant power on the European continent, fundamentally reshaping the balance of power system first established by the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Yet he did so while also deferring to Britain’s global leadership, arguing in 1889 that the Pax Britannica represented “the greatest force for peace in the world.” Rather, Bismarck planned Germany to become the most powerful “second-tier” state, a decision that instead put it on a collision course with the United States. While Britain watched growing German industrial capabilities with increasing wariness and recognized the impact of German economic competition on Britain’s dominance of the economic system, Bismarck’s Germany did not pose an existential threat to Great Britain.
However, by the late 1880s, a new generation of leaders emerged who believed that Bismarck’s restraint prevented Germany from achieving its “place in the sun” and rightful standing as a world leader. They influenced the young and increasingly ambitious new Kaiser Wilhelm II to abandon Bismarck’s moderation in lieu of a “New Course” which saw Germany aggressively expand its influence in Asia, Africa, and South America well beyond the boundaries the “continentalist” Bismarck had envisioned. The most famous of these new counselors, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, recognized that Berlin’s new Weltpolitik required a powerful navy that could match British power and coerce London into recognizing Berlin as its global equal.
Tirpitz’s massive naval buildup embodied the very threat centuries of British policymakers had sought to neutralize: a rival with the ability to invade or blockade the British Isles. The “Tirpitz plan” posed an existential threat to more than just Britain’s geopolitical supremacy, but to its survival as a nation. Britain responded with its own massive naval buildup, including the creation of the revolutionary Dreadnought battleship and Invincible-class battlecruiser that rendered the world’s existing navies obsolete. Rather than Berlin forcing London to concede to its demands, Britain would triumph in the ensuing naval arms race while resolving its age-old rivalries with France and Russia, ultimately joining both powers in World War I. Ironically, the wars resulting from the Anglo-German rivalry would ensconce the United States as the world’s dominant power several decades later.
FOLLOWING WORLD War II, the newly minted American hegemon faced two distinctly different challenges to its world leadership: The Soviet Union which aimed to replace American liberalism with Soviet Marxism, and Japan, whose state-centric capitalist model sparked one of the most dramatic economic ascendancies in history, leading many Americans to fear that Japan was destined to supplant the United States as the new leader of the postwar world order.
In 1945, the power of the United States was so vastly superior to all other nations that the world was far more unipolar than bipolar. The U.S. economy totaled nearly 50 percent of the world’s GDP, U.S. finance kept the global economy functioning, and U.S. humanitarian assistance fed a war-ravaged world. America was in sole possession of the atomic bomb and its global power-projection capability allowed it to intervene in every corner of the world if needed. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was a powerful but ultimately regional actor with large conventional forces that, due to its size, threatened three key theaters: Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This forced the United States to end its historic isolationism and create a system of global alliances to deter Soviet expansion.
While Soviet conventional military power and political warfare capabilities endangered American interests, they did not represent an existential threat to America’s newfound ascendance. U.S. strategists were convinced that these new alliances did not require the deployment of American military power overseas—indeed, the United States would demobilize most of its conventional capabilities shortly after World War II. During his Senate testimony in defense of the NATO treaty, Secretary of State Dean Acheson repeatedly assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the treaty required no permanent American military presence in Europe. Consequently, America had no need to expand its military capabilities following the creation of NATO in May 1949, nor even establish a military command system in Europe.
That changed, however, with the Kremlin’s acquisition of the atomic bomb that September, which gave the Soviet Union the ability to directly attack the continental United States. U.S. strategic planners warned that because of the nation’s high concentrations of economic and military power, the Soviet Union could launch a war-winning nuclear first strike by the mid-1950s. The Soviet atomic bomb negated the once decisive economic power of the United States, meaning it no longer had the luxury of waiting for war to mobilize its industries and rebuild its military.
The North Korean invasion confirmed the bellicose intentions of the Soviet Union, leading President Harry Truman to authorize a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear capabilities and implement increasingly aggressive military and political warfare strategies to destabilize the Soviet system and preempt a Soviet nuclear first strike. The risk of war between the two powers reached a fever pitch as the crisis over Berlin escalated, which in turn lead directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Many analysts believed that the nuclear arms race made war inevitable, arguing that the rapid increase in nuclear stockpiles incentivized nuclear first strikes. The United States’ test of a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb in 1952, nearly a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, magnified these fears: everyone understood that when the Soviets developed their own bomb (which they did in 1955), the very survival of the United States would be at stake.
The world did survive this incredibly dangerous era. The expansion of survivable nuclear forces, including the dispersal of Strategic Air Command bomber bases and the construction of ballistic missile submarines, ameliorated these first-strike pressures, laying the foundation for the nuclear revolution which in turn stabilized the global strategic environment. Deterrence was further strengthened by the ideological faith both sides shared of the eventual demise of their opponent’s political and economic system, which finally occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.