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The China Sleepwalking Syndrome

If the Sino-American relationship were a hand of poker, Americans would recognize that they have been dealt a good hand and avoid succumbing to fear or belief in the decline of the US. But even a good hand can lose if it is played badly.

CAMBRIDGE – As US President Joe Biden’s administration implements its strategy of great power competition with China, analysts seek historical metaphors to explain the deepening rivalry. But while many invoke the onset of the Cold War, a more worrisome historical metaphor is the start of World War I. In 1914, all the great powers expected a short third Balkan War. Instead, as the British historian Christopher Clark has shown, they sleepwalked into a conflagration that lasted four years, destroyed four empires, and killed millions.

Back then, leaders paid insufficient attention to the changes in the international order that had once been called the “concert of Europe.” An important change was the growing strength of nationalism. In Eastern Europe, pan-Slavism threatened both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, which had large Slavic populations. German authors wrote about the inevitability of Teutonic-Slavic battles, and schoolbooks inflamed nationalist passions. Nationalism proved to be a stronger bond than socialism for Europe’s working classes, and a stronger bond than capitalism for Europe’s bankers.

Moreover, there was a rising complacency about peace. The great powers had not been involved in a war in Europe for 40 years. Of course, there had been crises – in Morocco in 1905-06, in Bosnia in 1908, in Morocco again in 1911, and the Balkan wars in 1912-13 – but they had all been manageable. The diplomatic compromises that resolved these conflicts, however, stoked frustration and growing support for revisionism. Many leaders came to believe that a short decisive war won by the strong would be a welcome change.

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