Just How Likely Is Another World War?

Assessing the similarities and differences between 1914 and 2014
James Vaughan/Flickr

A century ago this month, Europeans stood on the brink of a war so devastating that it forced historians to create a new category: “World War.” None of the leaders at the time could imagine the wasteland they would inhabit four years later. By 1918, each had lost what he cherished most: the kaiser dismissed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of the flower of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which European leaders had been masters of the globe came to a crashing halt.

What caused this catastrophe? President John F. Kennedy enjoyed needling colleagues with that question. He would then remind them of his favorite answer, quoting German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg: “Ah, if we only knew.” When, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Kennedy found himself “eyeball to eyeball” with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, making decisions that he knew could mean quick death to 100 million people, he reflected on the lessons of 1914. At several decision points, he adjusted what he was inclined to do in an effort to avoid repeating those leaders’ mistakes.

As they were choosing to fulfill commitments, or not, to mobilize forces sooner or later, the participants in the First World War were simultaneously seeking to frame public perceptions of the crisis. Each sought to blame its adversary. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the victors took considerable liberty with the facts to justify punishing the vanquished. The Treaty of Versailles imposed such draconian penalties that it created conditions in which, just two decades later, the Second World War erupted. This larger drama has understandably shaped historians’ accounts of the causes of the war. But as the best of the new books on this conflict, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, concludes forthrightly, the available evidence can be marshaled to support an array of competing claims. “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol,” Clark writes. “There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.”

In this centennial of what participants named the “Great War,” many have recalled Mark Twain’s observation that while history never repeats itself, it does sometimes rhyme. As a rising China claims islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea, or controlled by neighbors in the South China Sea, many hear echoes of events in the Balkans a century earlier. Could an incident between Chinese and Japanese naval or air forces lead to the sinking of a ship or downing of a plane? If so, would the U.S. meet its treaty commitment to stand with Japan, even if that meant firing on Chinese ships or planes? If it did so, could events escalate to a larger war between the U.S. and China? It seems (and I believe, in fact, is) unlikely. But according to a recent Pew poll, large majorities of citizens in nations throughout Asia believe China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors will lead to war.

Historical analogies like 1914 can be fertile sources of insights about contemporary challenges. One danger, however, is that people can find an analogy so compelling that they conclude that current conditions are “just like” 1914. My late, great colleague Ernest May provided an appropriate antidote. He noted that as a matter of fact, the most common form of analysis used by leaders in crises is historical reasoning from analogies. He urged both analysts and policymakers to be more systematic about the effort. In a legendary course taught at Harvard for many years, he challenged students attracted by a historical analogy to follow a simple procedure: put the analogy as the headline on a sheet of paper; then draw a straight line down the middle of the page and write “similar” at the top of one column and “different” at the top of the other. Under each column, list at least three points that capture similarities and three that note differences between the analog and the current case.

This essay attempts to use the “May Method” to highlight seven salient similarities and seven instructive differences between the challenges confronting Chinese and American leaders today and those facing world leaders in 1914. While most of the similarities make the possibility of conflict today more plausible that it might otherwise seem, and most of the differences make conflict seem less plausible, instructively, some have the opposite effect.

The USS Arizona returns to New York after escorting Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference, in 1918. (Wikimedia Commons)


1. “Thucydides’s Trap”: structural stress that inevitably occurs when a rapidly rising power rivals a ruling power. As Thucydides observed about ancient Greece, an ascendant Athens naturally became more ambitious, assertive, arrogant, and even hubristic. Predictably, this instilled fear, anxiety, and defensiveness among the leaders of Sparta.

Accustomed to economic primacy, naval dominance, and an empire on which the sun never set, Britain in 1914 viewed with alarm the unified German Reich that had overtaken it in industrial production and research, that was demanding a greater sphere of influence, and that was expanding its military capability to include a navy that could challenge Britain’s control of the seas. In the decade before the war, this led Britain to abandon a century of “splendid isolation” to tighten entanglements with France and then Russia. During the same period, German military planners watched with alarm as Russia rushed to complete railways that could allow it to move forces rapidly to the borders of Germany and its faltering Austro-Hungarian ally.

Presented by

Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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