Will 2014 See a Repeat of 1914?

Will 2014 see a repeat of 1914?

That's the provocative question asked in a penetrating essay by Oxford don Margaret MacMillan that is causing quite a stir around the world since it first appeared on the Brookings Institution's  website on December 14. 

Here's the question that Professor MacMillan addresses: does China's re-emergence as a dominant economy and world power for the first time since the 1400s threaten a new world war?  MacMillan's conclusion?

Quite possibly.  Even more startling, the lead editorial in the year-end double issue of The Economist reaches the same conclusion.

And foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Meade of Bard College addresses the same topic in his own online essay, entitled "The End of the End of History."

All told, they constitute a year-end triptych of essential foreign policy reading.  For, remarkably in the Age of Obama, all these liberal writers condemn the dangerous foreign  policies of not only the current administration in Washington, but also the leaders of the Western alliance, including Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Cold War historian Anne Applebaum on Thursday added her own take in the Washington Post.  Applebaum wrote that, while no renewal of the Cold War is in prospect, China and Russia are plainly probing U.S. alliances and defenses for weaknesses -- and exploiting those weaknesses when they find them.

As 2013 ends, it turns out that much-reviled former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was right.  Weakness is provocative.  And, as Anne Applebaum wrote this week, the Obama administration's weakness abroad is showing.

So, are China, Japan, and the United States inevitably headed for a world-ending collision like that among Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany in the First World War?  There's probably no more important question in the world today.  And, as our authors all note, that question is not receiving anywhere near the attention it deserves.

Besides the current shoving match in East Asia, it's the 2014 centennial commemoration of the beginning of the Great War that is prompting this new scholarship.  MacMillan's essay -- and her new book, from which it proceeds, The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914 (2013) -- are only part of it.  Yet her personal and academic background give Margaret MacMillan's argument special force.

A Canadian, MacMillan is the granddaughter of the late British Prime Minister Lloyd George.  As a historian, she's the author of the best-selling -- and highly recommended -- Paris 1919 (2003) on the Versailles Peace Conference.  After writing about the treaty that ended the First World War (and largely led to the second one), it was natural to turn to the causes of that war.

The Guns of  August, as Barbara Tuchman titled her 1962 study of WWI's outbreak, aborted the world's first economic globalization.  Do developments in Asia and elsewhere threaten to do so again today?

MacMillan's short answer is taken from Mark Twain.  History doesn't repeat itself, Twain said.  "But it does rhyme."

Then she turns to the evidence.  She notes, drawing on her new book, the disquieting parallels between 2014 and 1914.  Here they are in brief, using the names of the players in 1914:

* A globalized economy in which Germany and the United Kingdom were each other's largest trading partners.  A smug belief, among the intelligentsia and national leaders of the day, that this fact made war impossible.  Also a belief that existing international arrangements will be able to prevent an outbreak of mass warfare.

* An arms race, especially at sea.

* A revolution in communications, science, and technology, making possible a new paradigm for violence and ways of killing.  A military not facing the consequences of the new technology of human killing for strategy, tactics, and casualty rates.

* A rising Germany seeking an equal "place in the sun" with the British Empire, control of sea lanes to overseas colonies, and sources of raw materials and living space for its soaring population.  A fading France, once already beaten by Germany, now outnumbered and outgunned by Germany and fearful of the future.

* Not least, weak, indecisive, and inexperienced leadership on the British and French side (not to mention Imperial Russia) and a thrusting, hot-tempered, and dominating kaiser on the other.

Then there occurred, as Bismarck predicted, "some damn thing in the Balkans."  The Economist's leader identifies the modern counterparts to these players (and places) of 100 years ago.  Regular readers of American Thinker won't need it.

Thus, Professor Margaret MacMillan's take.  Now, a little context.

Unsurprisingly, it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who first noted the new American foreign policy challenge posed by the rise of China.  It was, after all, President Richard Nixon and his then-national security advisor Kissinger who ended Red China's isolation from the Western nation-state system in 1972.

In On China (2011), Kissinger wrote that the Chinese leadership itself has been keenly aware of whether China's rise in the 21st century will parallel that of Germany in the 20th.  And they are also keenly anxious to refute that comparison.  Kissinger devoted the last section of his book to the famous 1907 Crowe Memorandum.

That key British Foreign Office document assured Great Britain's leaders that confrontation with Imperial Germany was inevitable and recommended a hard line by the British government against future German demands.  The result, seven years later, was World War I.

Kissinger's conclusion in 2011, however, was that a benign debut of China on the world stage is both desirable and possible -- but that the relationship needs constant managing.  You might call Kissinger's prescription "the Gulliver Strategy."  China, Kissinger argued, needs to be enmeshed, as a player but not a prisoner, within the existing structure of international agreements and organizations.

It's far from clear, however, that that's what the new Chinese leadership wants.

In particular, rather like the Imperial Chinese government's reaction to the first European ambassadors in the late 1700s, a Chinese leader in 2014 might well ask himself why his ancient nation should buy into a Westphalian world system that China did not help create.  All the lines on the map were drawn by the European powers (and the U.S.) when China was on its knees!  America's insistence that China stay within those lines -- not to mention the U.S. Navy's insistence on steaming 5,000 miles from their own home and only 100 miles off the Chinese coast -- looks remarkably like, in Chinese eyes, a re-run of "containment."

That's especially the case given China's historical perception of itself as the center of the world and of its culture and nationality as superior to all others.

There is simply no evidence that those fundamental Chinese attitudes -- noted as well by Teddy White in his memoir, In Search of History (1978) -- have changed since the coming of Mao and his Communists (whom White knew as a Chinese-speaking correspondent in China) to power in 1949.  To the contrary, White (who traveled with Nixon back to China in 1973) found them still very much present.  Nor has the current Chinese leadership's belief -- accurate, unfortunately -- that China was victimized, dismembered, exploited, and oppressed by the European powers in a series of wars and "unequal treaties" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Japan's brutal occupation, war, and crimes against humanity in China during the Second World War has not been forgotten, either.  Prime Minister Abe's visit this week to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo has only  rubbed this wound raw again.

Yet "peaceful rise" has been the by-word in Beijing's public statements for some years.  The problem is that the Chinese leadership's actions -- at least in the eyes of China's neighbors -- do not match their words.

Indeed, in the last month, we have seen a series of actions by the Chinese government in the East and South China Seas.  First, on November 23, Beijing unilaterally proclaimed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea overlapping islands claimed by both China and Japan.  That's made Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines distinctly more belligerent towards the Chinese.

Second, three weeks ago, an American guided-missile frigate and the Chinese naval vessels escorting China's new aircraft carrier came within two hundred yards of a high seas collision.  The U.S. says the confrontation occurred in international waters.  China's account as to what transpired on December 5 differs radically from the U.S. Navy's account.

Pretty clearly, the USS Cowpens was shadowing the new Chinese carrier.  And, pretty clearly, the Chinese admiral didn't like it.

Why should they?  Once again, China has history -- and more than a little merit (in terms of foreign policy realism) -- on its side.  Imperial China, centuries ago, controlled all these disputed areas.  Ming China also ruled large parts of what is now Russian Asia.

Thus, it can be argued that, from a great power perspective, all China is seeking in its nearby territorial space is what the United States has possessed in the Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere since its unilateral proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s and America's building of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s.

So, what's the real game here, as what Walter Russell Meade has labeled "the Game of Thrones in Asia" continues to build?  As Anne Applebaum writes, China surely doesn't want (another) war with the United States.  What is Beijing after?

One distinct possibility is that China's island disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam  and its proclamation of an ADIZ in the East China Sea -- especially if that move is followed with the proclamation of an ADIZ in the South China Sea -- are all merely markers to be traded away by Beijing in a high-stakes game whose real objective (and ultimate prize for China) is the recovery of Taiwan.  The loss of what General Douglas MacArthur called "an unsinkable aircraft carrier" off the Chinese coast would set the United States' presence in East Asia back significantly.

Beijing may even be ultimately seeking something larger: a grand bargain with the United States to remake Asia.  China and the United States, after all, fought a conventional war against each other in Korea from 1950 to 1953.  At least 33,000 Americans died and at least 150,000 Chinese in a two-and-a-half-year war.  Very few Americans remember this.  Almost all Chinese do.

China's insistence today on the so-called nine-dotted line, the first and second island chains, the string of pearls, and all the rest needs to be evaluated in the light of that history as well.

If the negotiated restoration to Beijing of Taiwan (say, after a plebiscite) could be made part of a "Grand Bargain" between China and Washington that also addresses the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea in the context of solving the problem of a nuclear (and unstable, not to mention a humanitarian disaster) North Korea, the United States, in my judgment, might find the Chinese well-disposed to deal.

But such a grand bargain would upend the existing post-WWII security arrangements in East Asia.  It would also greatly discomfort America's allies in the region.  It might destroy ASEAN and the American-Japanese mutual security treaty.  A nuclear-armed Japan would be only one short-term result.

And such discussions could certainly not be undertaken by the current administration.  Yet, such a grand bargain with America -- which would restore China to its historical position in Asia -- may very well be what the new Chinese leadership wants.

What must be faced, therefore -- Barack Obama's much-hyped "pivot" to Asia notwithstanding -- is that we are now in danger of a repeat of experiencing, with China, Bismarck's "some damned thing in the Balkans": an international incident triggering a shooting war.  Such a causus belli is most likely to occur not between us and the Chinese, but between China and Japan or China and South Korea.

As the Economist said this week, unless all the pushing and shoving is brought under control, the risk to peace in Asia is high.  And, it should be noted,  there is yet another potential major actor in this mix.  India -- like China, a rising nation of over a billion people -- is also building a blue-water navy, including aircraft carriers.  The Indian and Japanese navies held joint maneuvers last week.

Barring a grand bargain between Washington and Beijing, the ultimate stakes, of course, are control of the Straits of Malacca (through which most of the world's oil passes) and the Indian Ocean -- including the entrance to the Persian Gulf.  Existing international law and United States foreign policy, enforced by the U.S. Navy, are to regard these bodies as part of the "global commons."

It is far from clear that China -- which is totally dependent, at the moment on Middle East oil (hence its covetousness of the undersea petroleum riches of the China Seas) -- agrees.

As Stratfor's Robert D. Kaplan wrote three years ago in Monsoon: the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2011), there is a major arms race underway -- and it is in Asia.  Without a deal resulting in changes to the post-Korean, post-Vietnam status quo, the pressure cooker there of rising nationalism, historic enmities, economic need, and decreasing elbow room will only continue to build.

What can be done in the interim -- at least until there can be a change in administrations in Washington -- is the subject of the lead editorial in this week's  Economist.  The piece is entitled "Look Back in Angst."  Without mentioning Professor Margaret MacMillan by name, the Economist notes the same similarities (and differences) between 1914 and 2014 which her Brookings Institution essay notes.

Their prescription for today, which assumes (contrary to Beijing's apparent intentions, it should be noted) a continuation of the current status quo, is twofold:

- arrangements should be put in place between China and the United States on how to address a military outbreak or political implosion in nuclear-armed North Korea; and

- the United States should get back in the game of being the essential global player.

The Economist statement on the latter point is a remarkable condemnation of current American diplomacy.  They write (emphasis in original):

The second precaution that would make the world safer is a more active American foreign policy. Despite forging an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, Barack Obama has pulled back in the Middle East-witness his unwillingness to use force in Syria. He has also done little to bring the new emerging giants-India, Indonesia, Brazil and, above all, China-into the global system. This betrays both a lack of ambition and an ignorance of history. Thanks to its military, economic and soft power, America is still indispensable, particularly in dealing with threats like climate change and terror, which cross borders. But unless America behaves as a leader and the guarantor of the world order, it will be inviting regional powers to test their strength by bullying neighbouring countries.

The Economist's views, thus, dovetail neatly with those expressed by Anne Applebaum.

Finally, we have Walter Russell Meade.  In a provocative essay of his own in the current issue of The American Interest entitled "The End of History Ends," Meade builds on many of the insights which Stratfor's Robert D. Kaplan offered on the impact of geography on world history and foreign and military policy in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2013).

Kaplan's point, argued con brio, was that "geopolitics" and the need for geopolitical thinking have returned to American foreign and military policy with a vengeance.  And the future cockpit of conflict for geopolitics, he says, is certain to be Eurasia ("the World Island" or "the Pivot," in the words of earlier thinks) and the Indian Ocean.  The Indian Ocean littoral was the subject of Robert Kaplan's previous book, Monsoon.

Meade has plainly read Kaplan (and, no doubt, the earlier thinkers on geopolitics whom Kaplan discusses).  Meade's piece, like his online blog, calls for a new U.S. grand strategy -- particularly in Asia -- to replace the Euro-centric one put in place by the Truman administration after the end of the Second World War.

In short, the challenge for the next American president may be to remake American foreign policy to reflect a new geopolitical reality.  How this was done the last time was described by Truman's former secretary of state, Dean Acheson, in his aptly titled Present at the Creation (1970).

All in all, it's been a rich harvest this year in writing about geopolitics and grand strategy.  Hard questions are being asked.  With the shoving match underway in, under, and above the East and South China Seas, the ferment among defense experts and geopolitical thinkers is sure to continue.

Is anyone in the White House and at the top of the U.S. State Department listening?

On the evidence, probably not.

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