August 4th marked the hundredth anniversary of the day that Britain, in response to the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, declared war on Germany and the First World War—what George Kennan once called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the century—began. The various causes of this war remain a matter of debate today, but there is general agreement on one point: everyone who fought in the war lost, including the supposed “victors.”
It is troubling, therefore, that commentators today increasingly see parallels between Europe in 1914 and East Asia in 2014. Writing in The Atlantic, distinguished Harvard professor Graham Allison has eloquently outlined seven similarities and seven differences between the two. In the same spirit, this article proposes seven ways to decrease the (mostly) ominous similarities and increase the (mostly) positive differences today.
1. End America’s Entangling Alliances
The “great rule” of American foreign policy, inaugurated by George Washington (in an address drafted by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton), was to avoid the controversies of other nations. Thomas Jefferson rephrased this in his 1801 Inaugural Address as “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” Washington’s great rule guided American policy until the ambition of Wilson, the aggression of Hitler, and the power of Stalin forced the U.S. to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Happily, the U.S. exists today in an era not endangered by figures analogous to Hitler or Stalin. Yet, because of the influence of Wilsonians (and their cousins the Neoconservatives), the U.S. continues to maintain its anti-Hitler, anti-Stalin, global defender-of-freedom posture, a position that currently requires some 500 foreign military installations, 175,000 American soldiers stationed all across the world (not counting those currently deployed in Afghanistan), and, most important for this current discussion, a panoply of entangling alliances.
The calamitous consequence of Europe’s complex system of alliances—which turned the lowly Balkans into the “powder keg” of Europe—reminds us today that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson were not simply naïve when they cautioned against such entanglements. Indeed, President Obama’s recent commitment to go to war with China over rocks in the East China Sea should force Americans to confront the logic of 1914: alliances do not come cost free, and occasionally, when deterrence fails, result in the death of tens of millions. The raison d’être for America’s system of alliances is no more. Keeping them anyway places the U.S. in a position where, like those nations of 1914, it could be pulled into an irrational conflict. Maintaining the status quo chalks up a point in the corner of 1914-2014 similarities. Boldly returning to the great rule of American foreign policy would do the opposite.
2. Restrain Allies
Because Wilsonians dominate the foreign policy establishment, it is exceedingly unlikely the U.S. will alter its current system of global alliances. Given this reality, leveraging national power to restrain our allies is a good second-best option. As Allison warns in his article, there is some possibility that Japan could seek a conflict with a rising China in the near future, before it becomes too powerful. While this is unlikely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historical revisionism and nationalist provocations have had the effect of intensifying regional rivalries and heightening Chinese and South Korean threat perception. The toxic effects of Abe’s visit to Yasakuni Shrine in December 2013, for instance, continue to reverberate across the region, and the Chinese now insist Abe must commit not to visit the shrine again before any high-level talks between the two nations can proceed. South Korea concurs with China’s grievances, indicating the problem does indeed lie largely with Japanese actions.
If the U.S. is going to restrain Japan’s leaders from further nationalist escalations, it must move beyond rhetoric, as Vice President Biden’s December 2013 futile hour on the phone trying to persuade Abe not to visit Yasakuni Shrine demonstrates. The U.S. has the tools to pressure Japanese leaders to make more prudent decisions. In a region where allies are pining for reassurance and affirmation, strong pressure (from public diplomacy at the low end to threatening to step back intelligence and military cooperation at the high end) would likely have a decisive outcome. A strategy of preventing further escalation rather than a strategy of resolving the issues in contention (something that the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans must willingly do themselves) would be a tangible way the U.S. could promote regional stability, decrease the risk of a regional conflagration, and differentiate 2014 from 1914.
3. Stop Thinking in False Analogies
It is in vogue to liken China to Nazi Germany. In 2011 then-Senator Jim Webb proclaimed, “We are approaching a Munich moment with China.” President Aquino of the Philippines has recently concurred. Munich is shorthand for “appeasement,” and the supposed lesson of Munich is that compromise leads to aggression. But to universalize this rule is to obliterate the very possibility of diplomacy, which is the art of achieving objectives by means short of war. If you remove compromise from the toolbox of the statesman, only deterrence is left. But one of the great lessons of WWI is that deterrence fails. Policymakers in 1914 needed to compromise more, not less. Appeasement could have prevented the outbreak of the First World War (particularly British appeasement of Germany), which, in turn, would likely have prevented Hitler’s rise to power and the Bolshevik revolution: both WWII and the Cold War. But appeasement was never attempted and instead a localized dispute blossomed into a global confrontation that facilitated the tragedy of the short twentieth century (1914-1989).
Appeasement and deterrence are the two great tools of international relations. It is the ideologues, the pacifist on the one hand and the neoconservative on the other, who insist there is only one tool.
4. Be Willing to Accommodate China
Growing Chinese power and regional assertiveness are running up against the U.S.-led global order. China’s recently declared Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea and confrontational tactics in the South China Sea exemplify this clash but they are not the clash itself. Rather, they are a signal of a dangerous future in which, to modify Thucydides, the rise of China and the fear this inspires in the U.S. makes war inevitable. Swarthmore Professor James Kurth has eloquently likened the situation to the metaphor of the unstoppable force—a growing and committed China—meeting the immovable object—America’s system of East Asian alliances.
If peace is to be maintained, either the force or the object must give (to what extent is uncertain); yet such accommodation is highly unlikely. As Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army recently stated, “There is little chance that the current negative tone between Beijing and Washington will change much. … I don’t think either side has the intention of reversing the trends.” In this game of chicken, neither side is willing to concede because each considers itself exceptional. And if you’re the exception, it’s the other power that must adjust to your reality and swerve to avoid a head-on collision.
Yet the U.S. still has a choice, the “China Choice” as Australian strategist Hugh White has put it. The U.S. can choose to alter the only variable it controls, its own actions (and reactions). An audacious accommodation of China’s interests would end the game of chicken. This would not come cost free. But it is likely America’s only way to avoid the Thucydidean trap of “inevitable” great power conflict. Doing so could make China’s rise more analogous to that of America in the 1890s than Germany in 1914.
If accommodation were to prove unsuccessful due to overweening Chinese ambition to Napoleonic grandeur, the U.S. could fall back to a strategy of deterrence. Of course, where accommodation should end and deterrence begin is a weighty question worthy of public consideration and debate. But if deterrence were to fail at this point (wherever, exactly, the American nation decides to say thus far and no further) at least the nation would be fighting for a vital interest, i.e., something actually worth fighting for.
5. Don’t Be Nationalistic
George Kennan once called nationalism “the greatest emotional-political force of the age.” The great historian John Lukacs, himself a friend of Kennan, spent much of his career reflecting on this force. His conclusion was the same as Kennan’s: in the twentieth century, of all the isms (including communism), nationalism was the most odious.
It is accordingly with much dismay that Americans should observe the rise of the four horsemen of nationalism: Japan’s Shinzo Abe, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and India’s Narendra Modi. The U.S., of course, cannot control the decisions of these leaders. It can, however, choose not to be itself defined by nationalism. That would mean abandoning the four great vices of statecraft: fear, honor, glory, and hubris. Fear makes the world seem more dangerous than it is (and engenders overreaction: read, most recently, Iraq). Honor requires an obsession over “credibility” (and accordingly an unwillingness to back down in a crisis). Glory insists that the U.S. remain “number one” (and therefore makes it unwilling to cede that title to another, come what may). And hubris proclaims the U.S. to be the exceptional nation (and consequently frees America from the fate of previous hegemons). All four are pathological, inspire belligerence, and make 2014 more likely to look like 1914.
6. Don’t Fight Foolish Wars
The maxim of the Romans, si vis pacem para bellum—if you wish for peace, prepare for war—is timeless. But by choosing to fight reckless wars of choice, particularly in Iraq and in the occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. has exhausted its military and made its public war-weary. The costs to the U.S. (not to mention the Iraqis and Afghans) are simply astounding: 7,000 dead, 50,000 wounded, 100,000 diagnosed with PTSD, and 200,000 with some level of traumatic brain injury. The financial cost of both wars will likely total $4 trillion or more. It should not be surprising that a recent poll found that, for the first time since Pew started asking the question forty years ago, the majority of Americans think the nation should primarily “mind its own business internationally.
Allison warns that such sentiments may embolden the Chinese and make them doubt the credibility of U.S. deterrence. This is a plausible argument. Strangely, however, the cause of America’s weakness is not that it hasn’t prepared enough for war—for the past decade the U.S. spent almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined—but because it has squandered its resources in places of little importance to the vital interests of the American nation.
Those who call for American military activity in Syria, Ukraine, or the world’s next hot spot should take note: fighting wars of choice is the best way to waste resources and put the U.S. in the position of France and England during the late 1930s: too cowed to consider fighting again. Poignantly, the war of choice that wrecked England’s resolve was (you guessed it) World War I.
7. Decline Gracefully
The structure of world politics, Allison warns, is shifting as relative American power declines and other entities—notably China, and perhaps someday India and Europe—rise. Miscalculation is most likely during such transitions. America’s declining share of world GDP and increasing national debt, when combined with the strong likelihood that the dollar will gradually lose its reserve currency status, indicate weakness in the foundation of America’s power—its economic might.
As Christopher Layne has long argued, the U.S. could shepherd American strength by gradually shifting burdens and helping other nations transition to taking responsibility for their own defense. Or it could insist on continuing to shoulder its global military burdens, pleading for protected nations (like those in NATO) to invest more in their militaries. These nations will not invest substantially more, because free riding is a good deal for those along for the ride. The potential long-term result is that when the U.S., obliged by financial realities, finally does suddenly pull back, a vacuum of power will likely be created. What may step into this vacuum is unknown, but it would be surely better not to find out. Burden shifting can prolong American strength and help maintain stability in an era of transition while merely insisting on the status quo will likely create the very instability that proponents of American “leadership” decry.
Ensuring the U.S. doesn’t end up holding a smoking gun—like, as Allison notes, every participant in WWI—wouldn’t necessarily prevent a disaster on the scale of that first cataclysm. But, assuming similar causes create similar effects, and acknowledging the falsity of mechanical theories of historical causation, it surely would make it less likely. That is the best the U.S. can do to ensure 2014 isn’t 1914.
Jared McKinney received his M.S. (with Distinction) in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University (Fairfax, VA) in May 2014.