Just How Likely Is Another World War?

In 2014, China is the United States’ second-largest trading partner, the U.S. the largest buyer of Chinese exports, and China the largest foreign holder of American debt. A quarter of a million Chinese students study annually in American universities, including most recently Chinese President Xi Jinping’s only daughter.

4. Rising nationalism that accentuates territorial disputes.

In 1914, as the Ottoman Empire unraveled, Serbian nationalists aspired to create a greater Serbia, and Russia and Austria-Hungary competed for influence among the Ottoman successor states in the Balkans. Meanwhile, resurgent Germans planned for a larger Germany and French patriots dreamed about recapturing Alsace-Lorraine, provinces taken by Germany from France after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.

In 2014, China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan in the last China Sea, and the “9-dash line” by which it asserts ownership of the entire South China Sea, are reflections of ambitions that are defining new facts in the surrounding waters, exciting nationalism among its neighbors and in its own population.

5. Powerful military establishments focused on a primary enemy for the purposes of planning and buying (and justifying defense budgets).

In 1914, Britain and Germany’s militaries viewed each other as major threats, Germany and Russia saw the other as major rivals, and France was focused on the danger posed by Germany.  In 1907, as Germany’s naval expansion approached the point at which it could challenge British naval primacy, the British prime minister asked the leading analyst in the foreign ministry for a memorandum “on the present State of British relations with France and Germany.” That now-famous document written by Eyre Crowe predicted that Germany would not only establish the strongest army on the continent, but also “build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” Germany’s pursuit of what the memorandum called “political hegemony and maritime ascendency” would pose a threat to the “independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England.”

Today, the U.S. Department of Defense plans against something it calls the “Anti-Access/Area Denial threat,” a thinly veiled “you know who” for China. Since its humiliation in 1996, when it was forced to back down from threats to Taiwan after the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to support Taiwan, China has planned, built, and trained to push U.S. naval forces back beyond Taiwan to the first island chain and eventually to the second.

6. Entangling alliances that create what Henry Kissinger has called a “diplomatic doomsday machine.”

In 1914, a web of complex alliance commitments threatened rapid escalation into Great Power war. After unifying Germany in the late nineteenth century, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck constructed a network of alliances that would keep the peace in Europe while isolating Germany’s principal enemy, France. Kaiser Wilhelm wrecked Bismarck’s finely tuned alliance structure by refusing to extend Germany’s alliance with Russia in 1890. Two years later, Russia allied with France. This led Germany to strengthen its ties to Austria-Hungary, and Britain to entertain deeper entanglement with both France and Russia.

In 2014, in East Asia, the United States has many allies, China few. American obligations and operational plans cover a spectrum from the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which obligates the U.S. to regard any attack upon Japan as an attack on the U.S., to agreements with the Philippines and others that require only consultation and support. As an assertive China defines air identification zones, drills for oil and gas in contested areas, excludes other states’ ships from waters around disputed islands, and operates ships and aircraft to redraw “rules of the road,” it becomes easier to imagine scenarios in which mistakes or miscalculation lead to results no one would have chosen.

7. Temptation of a coup de main to radically improve power and prestige.

In 1914, a declining Austria-Hungary faced rising, Russian-backed Pan-Slavism in the Balkans. Seeing Serbia as the epicenter of Pan-Slavism, Emperor Franz Joseph imagined that this menace could be contained by a decisive defeat of Serbia. The assassination of his heir, Franz Ferdinand, provided an opportunity.

In 2014, Shinzo Abe seeks to reverse Japan’s “lost decades.” A quarter-century ago, Japan appeared to be on the threshold of becoming “Number One.” Since then, it has stagnated economically and become almost irrelevant in international politics. Abe’s program for revival thus includes not only “Abenomics,” but also restoration of Japanese influence in the world, including revision of the constitution and expansion of Japan’s military forces to meet what he explicitly calls the “China threat.”

 In sum, those who see reminders of events a century ago in developments today are not deluded. But as Professor May would remind us, on the other hand, there are significant differences as well.  

A Chinese surveillance vessel passes a Japanese Coast Guard ship near the contested Senkakuku Islands (Kyodo/Reuters)


1. Clash of civilizations: As argued by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations, deep differences in values and worldviews between civilizations are a significant systemic factor favoring conflict. On this dimension, 2014 is more dangerous than a century ago.

In 1914, Europe was the epicenter of civilization and its leaders masters of the universe. Most of the crowned heads of Europe—from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean—were blood relatives, with the tsar and the kaiser addressing each other as Nicky and Willy. Nonetheless, as Huntington noted, a fault line between Western Civilization and Eastern Orthodoxy ran right through the Balkans.

In 2014, China and the United States are separated by more than just the Pacific Ocean. Significant differences between values in Beijing and Washington include hierarchical harmony vs. freedom; communal values vs. individualism; and the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power vs. democracy.

2. Financial foundations of hegemonic power.

In 1914, Great Britain was the world’s largest creditor.

In 2014, the United States is the largest debtor in the world. As a result of a combination of low taxes and high spending, Washington has borrowed more than $17 trillion. Much of this comes from foreign lenders, with the largest share held by China. America’s position as both a debtor and as the major market for Chinese products, matched by China’s position as America’s banker and major supplier of consumer goods, create conditions that have been called MADE (Mutual Assured Destruction of Economies).

3. Shared geography.

In 1914, the European competitors had contiguous physical borders. This created incentives for rapid mobilization, accelerating the pace of decision-making in crisis.

In 2014, the U.S. and China are oceans and even hemispheres apart. Nonetheless, as a Pacific power with alliances and bases throughout Asia, the U.S. is a constant presence in the seas adjacent to China. Moreover, as a result of advances in technology, there are no borders in space and cyberspace. In these realms, the possibility that rapid advances could achieve (or be imagined to have achieved) decisive advantages raises the specter of “crisis instability,” reminiscent of Europe in the early twentieth century.

4. Nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

In 1914, the thought that a Pan-European war could be so devastating that it would end a millennium in which European leaders ruled the world was almost inconceivable.

In 2014, nuclear weapons have a “crystal-ball effect” that allows leaders to see clearly that escalation to a nuclear war could erase their nations from the map.

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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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