Just How Likely Is Another World War?

In 2014, what for most Americans is our natural, God-given position as “Number One” is being challenged by an emerging China on track to surpass the United States in the next decade as the world’s largest economy. As China has grown more powerful, it has become more active and even aggressive in its neighborhood, particularly in what it believes are the rightly named “China” seas to its east and south. Fearful neighbors from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam naturally look to the U.S. for support in its role as the guardian of what since World War II has been an American Pax Pacifica.

2. The virtual inconceivability of “total” war.

In 1914, aside from occasional small wars and colonial smackdowns, war was “out of fashion.” The best-selling book of the era by Norman Angell argued that war was a “great illusion,” since the nominal winner would certainly lose more than it could possibly gain.

In 2014, the “long peace” since World War II, reinforced by nuclear weapons and economic globalization, makes all-out war between great powers so obviously self-defeating that it seems unthinkable.

3. Thick interdependence: economic, social, and political.

In 1914, the U.K. and Germany were each other’s major European trading partner and principal foreign investor. King George and Kaiser Wilhelm were first cousins, the latter having sat by the deathbed of his grandmother, Queen Victoria, in 1901, and marched as second only to George at the funeral of George’s father, King Edward VII, in 1910. Elites of both societies studied at each other’s major universities, were partners in business, and socialized together.

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.

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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