Thursday, April 24, 2014
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1914 Revisited?

CAMBRIDGE – This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a transformative event of modern history. World War I killed some 20 million people and ground up a generation of Europe’s youth. It also fundamentally changed the international order in Europe and beyond.

Indeed, WWI destroyed not only lives, but also three empires in Europe – those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – and, with the collapse of Ottoman rule, a fourth on its fringe. Until the Great War, the global balance of power was centered in Europe; after it, the United States and Japan emerged as great powers. The war also ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prepared the way for fascism, and intensified and broadened the ideological battles that wracked the twentieth century.

How could such a catastrophe happen? Shortly after the war broke out, when German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was asked to explain what happened, he answered, “Oh, if I only knew!” Perhaps in the interest of self-exoneration, he came to regard the war as inevitable. Similarly, the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, argued that he had “come to think that no human individual could have prevented it.”

The question we face today is whether it could happen again. Margaret MacMillan, author of the interesting new book The War that Ended Peace, argues that, “it is tempting – and sobering – to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and Britain a century ago.” After drawing a similar comparison, The Economist concludes that “the most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.” And some political scientists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have argued that, “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.”

But historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. WWI was not inevitable. It was made more probable by Germany’s rising power and the fear that this created in Great Britain. But it was also made more probable by Germany’s fearful response to Russia’s rising power, as well as myriad other factors, including human errors. But the gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914.

Drawing contemporary lessons from 1914 requires dispelling the many myths have been created about WWI. For example, the claim that it was a deliberate preventive war by Germany is belied by the evidence showing that key elites did not believe this. Nor was WWI a purely accidental war, as others maintain: Austria went to war deliberately, to fend off the threat of rising Slavic nationalism. There were miscalculations over the war’s length and depth, but that is not the same as an accidental war.

It is also said that the war was caused by an uncontrolled arms race in Europe. But the naval arms race was over by 1912, and Britain had won. While there was concern in Europe about the growing strength of armies, the view that the war was precipitated directly by the arms race is facile.

Today’s world is different from the world of 1914 in several important ways. One is that nuclear weapons give political leaders the equivalent of a crystal ball that shows what their world would look like after escalation. Perhaps if the Emperor, the Kaiser, and the Czar had had a crystal ball showing their empires destroyed and their thrones lost in 1918, they would have been more prudent in 1914. Certainly, the crystal-ball effect had a strong influence on US and Soviet leaders during the Cuban missile crisis. It would likely have a similar influence on US and Chinese leaders today.

Another difference is that the ideology of war is much weaker nowadays. In 1914, war really was thought to be inevitable, a fatalistic view reinforced by the Social Darwinist argument that war should be welcomed, because it would “clear the air” like a good summer storm. As Winston Churchill wrote in The World Crisis:

“There was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity, the nations turned fiercely toward strife, internal or external. National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce, if shrouded, fires. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer. Certainly men were everywhere eager to dare.”

To be sure, nationalism is growing in China today, while the US launched two wars after the September 11, 2001, attacks. But neither country is bellicose or complacent about a limited war. China aspires to play a larger role in its region, and the US has regional allies to whose defense it is committed. Miscalculations are always possible, but the risk can be minimized by the right policy choices. Indeed, on many issues – for example, energy, climate change, and financial stability – China and the US have strong incentives to cooperate.

Moreover, whereas Germany in 1914 was pressing hard on Britain’s heels (and had surpassed it in terms of industrial strength), the US remains decades ahead of China in overall military, economic, and soft-power resources. Too adventuresome a policy would jeopardize China’s gains at home and abroad.

In other words, the US has more time to manage its relations with a rising power than Britain did a century ago. Too much fear can be self-fulfilling. Whether the US and China will manage their relationship well is another question. But how they do so will be dictated by human choice, not some ironclad historical law.

Among the lessons to be learned from the events of 1914 is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability. War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.

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  1. CommentedMarc Freed

    any analysis of the causes of WWI must include the relative position of each of the players in amassing colonial empires. Despite surpassing the rest of Europe in industrial strength, Germany lagged badly behind not only Britain and France, but even Portugal, Belgium and Holland in its access to colonial assets. Even Spain which had lost is colonies to the US fifteen years earlier, retained privileged access to Latin America. Changing the balance of power in Europe would have improved Germany's access to the colonial world.

    The situation that the US and China face today bears no resemblance to that world. We compete much more for access to new market economies, and much less for control over their resources that in any event they are all happy to sell to the highest bidder. It seem far more likely that we will compete with them for the loyalty of our most talented individuals, our most creative companies, and our most innovative financiers. A "war" would be lost without a shot fired if our most talented entrepreneurs relocated from the US to a more commercially friendly environment. People can be made to do manual labor at the end of a gun, but no one invents an iPod like that.

  2. CommentedCam Jennings

    Nye does raise some interesting points in his article 1914 revisited and one thing that has not been mentioned in the flurry of responses from readers is that we all jumped on our keyboards. After reading all of the comments posted here it appears that we are all trying to be heard, at times expressing who is right and who is wrong and the reasons behind these thoughts.
    May I say that I have found this an entertaining and educational experience.
    In closing may I remind everyone that the welfare of man is in a state of eternal conflict and that the human species is only ever two things - constructive & destructive.

  3. Commentedtemesgen abate

    Had this ``crystal ball`` was owned hypothetically by Saddam Hussein! even if an oppressive regime,it may have precluded the now evident implosion.i surmise from the article a subtext that a controlled proliferation of nuclear weapons is a ``blessing`` in the fury of great powers to its proliferation a deliberate design to maintain this warring postures among second tiered nations?

  4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    There was no particular need for Abe to have made the visit to the shrine in December. He should have refrained from it. He has a lot more important things to do.

    Tojo and others were enshrined in October, 1978 and the news came out in March (April?) in 1979, but no protests came from Beijing. No protests from Seol. No protests from any other country.

    After March 1979 until August 1985 when the second largest Japanese newspaper, Asahi, made complaint, three Japanese prime ministers had made twenty visits to the shrine, and no protests had been filed either by Beijing or by Seol or by any other country.

    Here is a little need for knowing a little bit about Asahi. Prof. Edwin O. Reischaur of Harvard University was appointed by President Kennedy ambassador to Japan. While in Tokyo serving as ambassador, he said publicly that there was communits' infiltration within Asahi.
    Richard Sorge sent the top-secret information of inestimable value to Stalin in summer 1941 that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union. (Hitler attacked Russia in June.) Sorge had got that tip from a Japanese, H. Ozaki, who had affiliation with the newspaper.

    As usual with the cases of comfort women and school history books, all started with Asahi; it was as if the newspaper was telling Beijing and Seol to start a boxing match with Japan, where to hit and when to hit and how to hit.
    Both China and South Korea and only these two countries started to make a great deal of fuss without remembering their six years' 'guilty negligence.'

    There were no anti-Japanese feelings at all in China in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Instead, you had anti-American and/or anti-Russian sentiments. For this, if intersted, read my comments to project-syndicate, Ian Buruma/East Asia's sins of the fathers.

    P.S. There is in my list of comments one that was posted on January 15, which says "The British have been revising WWII..." This is not my comment but someone else's.

    1. CommentedSean Mac

      YOSHIMICHI MORIYAMA you are wrong by saying "There were no anti-Japanese feelings at all in China in the 1950s, 60s and 70s." The anti-Japanese feelings originated since Japan's invasion to other asian countries have not faded because Japanese government's coward attitude towards historical records. The Japanese history books whitewash the Japanese invasion during the World War II and Japanese government hesitated to publicly apologize their war crime, considering Germany government had officially apologized to Jewish people for their suffering during the WWII.

  5. Commentedhari naidu

    History is full of revisionists - and you're surely the one trying to revise historical events of Japanese imperialism and occupation of mainland China and exploitation of its natural resources.

    Chinese are up in arms against Abe because of his false pretense and revisiting the horrid historical temple of Japanese fascism.

    IMO Japanese-Chinese relations will become normal once Tokyo stops its revisionist historical stuff and recognizes the evolving asymmetry in power relation with PRC.

  6. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    @ Mr. Myers and Mr. Naidu,
    David J. Lu/From the Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor will give you a brief account of Japanese diplomacy from 1937 to 1941. This is an old book and I am sorry I cannot suggest any up-to-date books, but I think its oulined story is correct.

  7. CommentedSean Mac

    To exaggerate the danger of China's rising power sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy trumpeted by westerners, considering how much domestic problems are encountered by Chinese leaders.

  8. Commentedhari naidu

    The British have been revisiting WWII...and Nye is writing from Cambridge.

    It appears Beltway thinking is revisiting a lot of paranoiac subjects - Iran WMD - and end of Empires. Recall GWB was singularly vitriolic about American Exceptionalism after fall of Communism and emergence of USA as hegemonic global power. Result: Invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic aftermath, including Afghanistan (today).

    Mainland China is not a good analogy for Nye to pick up to revisit 1914. Because Beijing has no strategic interest in international conflict; its focus is principally on domestic politics and uplifting millions still in rural poverty.

    However Japanese imperialism practiced on mainland China rings historical memory of foreign occupation and colonization by foreign powers including Europeans. Precisely reason why China (PLA) will never allow such foreign subjugation of its ancient culture and civilization again.

    1. CommentedSean Mac

      Yoshimichi Moriyama,

      I am glad that you noticed below that “I know this is no place for talking about Japanese imperialism and China.”

      As a Japanese, you tried to promote your national agenda, but unfortunately by doing so you distorted the fact.

      Japan had had a long record of imperialism, just like Great Britain, because as Island Nation, Japan needed to expand for natural resources, economic growth and population growth. Japanese invasion to other Asian nations during the World War II is the reason Japan is not loved by its neighbors in Asia. Furthermore, its unapologetic stand (unlike Germany’s apology towards Jewish people) and attempt to distort history has made him despised among its neighbors.

      But China, as Continent Nation, there has never a need for imperialism, thus never a track record of expansion or invasion to other Asian nations.

    2. CommentedSean Mac

      Yoshimichi Moriyama,

      I am glad that you noticed that “I know this is no place for talking about Japanese imperialism and China.”

      As a Japanese, you tried to promote your national agenda, but unfortunately by doing so you distorted the fact.

      Japan had had a long record of imperialism, just like Great Britain, because as Island Nation, Japan needed to expand for natural resources, economic growth and population growth. Japanese invasion to other Asian nations during the World War II is the reason Japan is not loved by its neighbors in Asia. Furthermore, its unapologetic stand (unlike Germany’s apology towards Jewish people) and attempt to distort history has made him despised among its neighbors.

      But China, as Continent Nation, there has never a need for imperialism, thus a track record of expansion or invasion to other Asian nations.

    3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      @ Mr. Myers and Mr. Naidu,
      I know this is no place for talking about Japanese imperialism and China, but only a few words about it.
      China has been both imperialistic and imperial, and has concerned itself, as it has had to, with playing international politics perhaps because it was a continental power exposed to foreign tribes, while Japan had been an insular country, virtually, though not literally, enjoying a very long history of isolated peace until it was suddenly forced into inescapable contact with the West in the 19th century. I do not intend at all to pretend that Japan did not have an imperialistic policy since then, but it needs to be remembered what sort of the world Japan was suddenly brought in to live. Japan, China and Korea all found themselves in the same situation. That Japan alone emerged as a successful modern nation-state, fending off the danger of being colonized, should not be taken to mean that China or Korea was a pacifist country adamantly refusing to play power politcs. Believe it or not, Japanese foreign policy since 1868 had been to cultivate, grow and maintain good relationship with the two Anglo-Saxon countries, Great Britain and the United States. The present trans-Pacific partership between the United States and Japan is simply the extention of the prewar days. Of course the question would arise here: Didn't Japan's challenge to the Wester hegemony cause the big East Asian war? The answer is no. I do not know yet how I can make this fairly long story short. Some other time for this.

      We should concer ourselves here instead with 1914 Revisited.

  9. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Normally I find Josephy Nye wise and insightful, but he seems slightly askew with his analysis of a potential Chrina-US rivalry.

    First off, China for about 10,000 years has stuck to its sense of its own territory (per a course in the political science of China I took many years ago at UCSB). So China most likely is not an externally aggressive nation bent on expansionism. The island controversy probably from a Chinese perspective reflects a push-back on a leftover artifact from a century of exceptionally brutal Japanese imperialism. So China is not Germany; that analogy travels very, very badly.

    Undoubtedly there are elements in both countries who want to use rivalry as a rationale for increased military spending and to boost the prestige of their military as the indispensable tool for future security and defense of national interests. These basically jingo interests need to be kept in a box.

    The real parallel is between Serbia and Russia and Israel and the US where a client state eggs on and gets its much larger principal into a large-scale conflict because of irredentist interests about a Greater Serbia or a Greater Israel encompassing long lost lands that they regard as their patrimony.

    One hopes that the government in Washington DC is able to manage its relationship with its reckless client state much better than Vienna (capital of Austro-Hungary) was able to manage its conflict with Serbia and the patron that stands behind it.

    If you want to look for a spark plug to regional conflagration, then you need look no further than Pakistan and Israel, both renegade nuclear states lusting for goals beyond their reach. China is the wrong straw man to set up; the jingoists will have to do better.


    China can rise peacefully so long as the benefits of peace exceed the benefits of war. For almost fifty years, that sort of inequality sustained peace between the soviet Union and NATO.


    The simple example of game theory called the Prisoners Dilema seems to explain how to fit together all of these facts about WWI. The Prisioner’s Dilema illustrates that two parties to a situation can end up choosing a competitive and mutually harmful alternative because they cannot execute a mutually beneficial cooperative resolution to their joint and conflicting interests. The key to such dilemmas is always a combination of two considerations: 1.) The subjective probabilities the players assign to each other’s’ behavior; and 2.) The expected gains or losses each player assigns to the various joint outcomes. In the context of Europe in 1914, the arms buildup seems to have changed each countries subjective probabilities of victory and defeat. Economic growth and industrialization persistently increased the potential payoffs for victory and the losses of defeat.

    At some point around the time of Sarajevo, the various parties’ decision calculus boiled down to the probabilities of who would go first and who would gain the most by striking first. When the Archduke died and Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, all of the probabilities shifted only slightly, but every country involved determined that it was best to seize the advantage of being preemptive and going to war first. After that, it was time to kill everybody and let God to sort them out.

    I have harbored these ideas for quite a while, but I have no idea if they are original and claim no credit for them as I think they are pretty much obvious to anyone who knows game theory.

  12. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Nye makes the point that there is a huge different betwen international politics today and 100 years ago. It would be rash to draw parallels too quickly. China can not be compared with Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany. At least President Xi Jinping has more political acumen than the Kaiser himself.
    Mr. Nye says, "Among the lessons to be learned from the events of 1914 is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies.... War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes." Indeed, a century ago, it was difficult for citizens to travel abroad. It was easy to foster nationalism and spark xenophobia. War was a means to stave off popular discontent with autocratic rule and social grievances. Today Chinese and Russians cooperate with Americans on many levels, that are not affected by fraught ties between their governments.
    The war that was thought to be over by Christmas dragged on for four long years of bloody stalemate. Yet the events of 1914-18 did not just butcher a generation on the battlefields, nor did they only become synonymous with mud and murder. World War One was also central to the democratisation process in Europe and the introduction of a welfare system.
    Social mobility was improved and pacifism had become a legitimate protest movement. The postwar years saw social unreast following mass unemployment and inflation.
    What is more significant and still has an impact on our world today was that British and French colonial powers had redrawn the international map in a way which makes it impossible to understand recent history in the Balkans and Middle East without understanding the consequences of World War One.
    This is the bitter pill we have to swallow as its aftermath - sectarian violence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. All three artificial states whose borders arbitrarily drawn, were a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which ignored the ethnic and sectarian divide of the region. Today the Islamists take advantage of the turmoil to reshape the Middle East - an Islamist State of Iraq and Syria.

  13. CommentedMartin Erlic

    "Though the belief that it is can become one of its causes." Precisely why historical laws are permissible. There's nothing unnatural about self-fulfilling prophecies, or of cascading social influences. This is the very stuff of history. Perhaps some particular set of initial conditions, when met, years in advance of possible critical dates, contribute invariably to war or to peace. Is it not realistic to assume that if you were transported to that very day before the advent of the First War, that no amount of screaming and personal conflagration could stop it (almost regardless of your status and location, of course)? How about 2 days? What could you do with a week? Perhaps some progress here. A few weeks? A month? The further and further back one travels with full knowledge of the proceeding events, the more and more power one may possibly possess to subvert its actual occurence. This simple thought experiment very clearly suggests that peaceful institutions, including the warnings advanced in this article, must be given ample room to grow and to propogate before any such war comes close to occurring. Now this is tricky because we will never know when such a date could conceivably come about. If it were to break out tomorrow, then this article is already too late.

  14. CommentedEpicuro Samos

    Every time have his end. First we had the power of barbarian european empires, then the power of colonies of that european empires. Now we see that power go away too. Today we have another big change: the market and the way of life the market produce is a old story, expired the validity. XX century begun with the destruction of old empires (based in monarchy systems) then went to war between different ways of organize the market (left and right - communism vs capitalism). USA collapsed in 30's but got the jackpot of ww2 (passed from huge unemployment to full employment) so he was saved by the european war, not by any economical support of capitalism. Since of that USA are living mostly by producing paper money. Communism collapsed in 90's. So today we have two collapsed systems, and a "communist country" supporting the USA money value (if China put half of his dollars in market again, the dollar will lost all value). One supposed capitalist country is supported by a "communist" country is a funny situation.
    But XX century showed that no one of the systems have economical support. It is the market that is in crisis. The collapse of the colony is a consequence of the collapse of european way of market. China don't have any way of life to show to world, he want have european life (USA is a copy of industrial way of life invented in europe. American dream is a european emigrant dream).
    So the point is what is the next way of living, after market? And that means renascence, something that south-europe should reborn. Because nobody else have something to reborn.