In 1914 the Houses of Hapsburg and Romanov sat transfixed, mesmerized by the central question: which would win this latest round in their old quarrel? But the paradigm had changed and both would lose, while the winners would be a distant American republic and a guy named Ulyanov sitting in a café in Zurich.

States, all states, now find themselves in a similar situation. The rise of Fourth Generation war, war waged outside the state framework, puts the state system itself in jeopardy. When one state fights another, the most likely outcome is that the loser disintegrates into another stateless region. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya offer painful examples.

But the governments of states don’t get it. They continue to act within the old paradigm of state vs. state even as doing so feeds the new post-state order. As Martin van Creveld—whose books The Transformation of War and The Rise and Decline of the State define the new paradigm—said to me, “Everyone can see it except the people in the capital cities.”

Exhibits A and B are two white papers issued by the U.S. government in January, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices.” The first, the strategic guidance paper, acknowledges the failure of George W. Bush’s revived Wilsonianism:

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means … to address instability … U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.

Instead, we will prepare for war with China.

President Obama’s letter introducing the strategic guidance make it plain: “as we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.” The paper itself says:

We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region … the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region. The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely.

In a column in the New York Times, James Traub simplifies the message: “This is bureaucratic code for ‘we will stand up to China,’ which, the Obama administration has concluded, has superceded Al Qaeda as the chief future threat to American national security.”

In the February 13 Financial Times, Raoul Heinrichs, a scholar at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, wrote, “what the U.S. is saying is that it wants to deny China the ability to control even its own maritime approaches.”

The parallel with the Romanovs is uncanny. After Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905, St. Petersburg reoriented its expansionism toward the Balkans. We know how that ended.

The Pentagon needs an enemy to keep the money flowing, and after two failed land wars a confrontation with China promises a naval and air conflict. The “Defense Budget Priorities and Choices” paper states, “The focus on the Asia-Pacific region places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces.” The thinking is that we can easily beat the Chinese in the skies and at sea.

That confidence may prove misplaced. At sea, China has an asymmetrical advantage if it goes nuclear. (After the Cold War, the U.S. Navy discovered that the Soviets had planned to go nuclear at sea at the outset of a superpower conflict, a nasty surprise.) If the Chinese nuke a carrier battle group, possibly with a ballistic missile attack, what do we do in response? China has no carrier task forces we can nuke. If we hit a naval base on the Chinese mainland, goodbye San Diego.

More fundamentally, what might happen if we won an air-sea war with China? A defeat would de-legitimize the none-too-stable government in Beijing. Upheaval within its borders could bring a breakup of the Chinese state and a new period of warring states; so China’s history suggests. No outcome could possibly be worse for American interests. The replacement of a unified China by a vast stateless region would be a victory beyond imagining for the Fourth Generation. The state would be shaken to its core.

Here we see the price of failing to grasp the coming paradigm and acting as if the old one were still in place. If the Washington Establishment had the slightest comprehension of grand strategy it would realize that the rise of Fourth Generation war demands an alliance of all states against non-state forces, just as in 1914 the rise of democracy and socialism demanded an alliance of all the European monarchies, especially the three strongest, Germany, Austria, and Russia. By fighting each other, they destroyed themselves. Today, when states fight other states the winners are non-state elements. As monarchy was at stake then, so the state system is at stake now. Everyone can see it, except the people in the capital cities.

Wlliam S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.