A Historical Perspective on Avoiding World War Three
by Carl J. Ciovacco
The theory of power transition states that war results when great powers surpass one another. With China’s GDP doubling every eight years and the US’ every twenty-four years, China is poised to pass the US in 2033. As China continues to buy up US debt and the demand for fossil fuels intensifies, both countries appear to be on a collision course. By outlining factors that have led to past world wars and by providing examples of how major wars have been avoided, this paper offers recommendations for the US to deter a potential world war with China. The five major problems that must be addressed are: the public goods problem, poor domestic/economic conditions in China, an offensive military mindset that trumps the defensive, non-optimal diplomatic relationships, and a poorly managed rise of China.
A Historical Perspective on Avoiding World War III
Historian Ernest May has stated, “while history never repeats itself, it sometimes rhymes.” This deep understanding of history may hold the key to preventing major war between the great powers of the US and China. Achieving this peaceful future will be based on our ability to understand how the future is likely to “rhyme” with the past and then to apply lessons learned to prevent the adverse set-up factors of war.
Changes in the relative standing of great powers throughout history have led to a proclivity for war. The theory of power transition states that war results when great powers surpass one another in economic and military might. War is likely as the rising power desires a greater stake in the world and the waning power attempts to stave off decline. Examples of such rising power initiated great wars are Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Rome in the Punic Wars, and Germany in WWI and WWII. War between the US and ascending China therefore appears likely under this framework due to competition over resources and spheres of influence. As China continues to purchase US debt and the demand for fossil fuels intensifies, both countries appear to be on a collision course with each other.
The US could counter this precedent by orchestrating a peaceful co-existence strategy with China since it is the most capable nation to execute such a plan. A proactive US is also vital to its future because it has the most to lose in the global community in the event of major war. The strategy must be comprehensive and address leadership issues, domestic politics, economics, and military considerations. If the US can deter potentially toxic set-up factors, war with China will be avoided.
This paper will outline the factors that led to major war in the past. It will also discuss examples of how and why major war has been avoided or de-escalated. Finally, it will discuss recommendations for the US to deter potential war with China.
Origins of WWI and WWII
The three primary areas that dictate great power wars are domestic politics, leadership, and system factors. When the dynamics of these three areas align in just the right manner, war, rather than peace, tends to result. The most volatile situation is when domestic politics is characterized by unrest, leadership is irrational, and offensive military strategy is favored over a defensive mindset.
The set-up conditions in domestic politics that are most likely to precipitate war are public discontent coupled with nationalism. Leaders faced with domestic unrest often attempt aggressive nationalistic policies to allay discontent and unify the nation. From an outsider’s point of view, the leader’s actions may appear irrational when viewed without domestic context.
In WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm II pursued war in order to consolidate nationalism in his fracturing country. Domestic politics played such a large role for Wilhelm because his traditional support base, the landowning Junkers, were being challenged by the middle class’ desire to reduce aristocratic power. Domestic unrest in Germany led to Wilhelm’s strategy of deflecting attention to a common enemy. Similarly, Tsar Nikolous’ fear of a revolt led his rallying of Russia around the common enemy of Austria and Germany.
In WWII, domestic politics contributed to war in Japan partly because of the exorbitant power of cartels that supported irrational goals of conquest. Prospect Theory is relevant here in explaining the Japanese Army and Navy’s bid to risk more in order to prevent losses. Domestic politics in the 1920s and 1930s also pushed Germany to war because of the fact that Hitler’s support stemmed from his promise to deal with high unemployment, starvation, and the desire for revenge. War was critical to achieving the nationalist mandate that had brought him to power: return Germany to glory.
The impact of leadership in determining whether a nation will go to war is based on the latitude that the leader has in steering his nation’s course. While leadership could be thought of as an offshoot of domestic politics, it is distinct because not all leaders act the same way under similar systemic or domestic parameters. Irrational leadership is a primary cause of war and can be defined as decision making that contradicts a rational view of facts and goes against the best interest of the country. Furthermore, authoritarian regimes are more predisposed to irrational leadership because of the lack of countering democratic mechanisms.
Hitler is perhaps the strongest example of irrational leadership because of the sheer confidence he possessed in the face of overwhelming facts that should have deterred his actions. His war against the US and the USSR, two countries with the highest GDP in the world, would appear absurd to a rational actor. Hitler’s ideology, however, proved stronger than rationality.
Isolated leaders tend to exhibit greater levels of irrationality. This can be seen in Iran’s Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, and Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro. The authoritarian nature of their leadership isolates them from domestic pressures and ostracization by the international community aids in their retaliatory irrationality. Internal consolidation of power, while rational for a ruler, can be irrational for a leader if it runs contrary to the best interest of his country.
War is most likely to occur when the military strategy of offense is deemed more successful than defense. In WWI, all five powers (Germany, Austria, France, Russia, and England) promoted the advantages of the offense to one degree or another. In WWII, Germany and Japan toted the advantages of offense while England and France maintained the primacy of defense. Whereas in WWI where all states collided in the “cult of the offensive,” the offensive strategy of Germany and Japan in WWII took advantage of the Allies’ defensive posture—at least in the short term. Thus, either unanimous support for the offensive or an imbalance where one side favors the offense can lead to war. The most stable solution to preventing a major war is when the defensive military strategy is favored by all powers.
Broadly painting the origins of WWI and WWII, one would have to show the confluence of domestic discontent, irrational leadership, and the elevation of offense over defense in military strategy. Interestingly enough, only one great power must exhibit these characteristics for large-scale war to begin (i.e. Germany). Fortunately, some would-be aggressors in the past were deterred even before war broke out. The balance of this paper will examine cases in which great powers were dissuaded from starting war or warring factions deescalated tensions during a conflict.
England-US: Late 19th/Early 20th Centuries
Even more so than Germany, the US was Britain’s rival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The US advanced on Britain’s position by threatening Britain over the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela, rivaling the British Navy with its accelerated fleet build-up, renouncing treaties with Britain over the building of a canal in Central America, and suing for the surrender of gold-rich Canadian territory. Time and again the US thumbed its nose at England, and England appeased. The British adopted American friendship as a “cardinal policy” because the cost of resisting the US was too high. War was therefore avoided because England appeased the US. Herein lies the difficulty in knowing
how much does one appease and who can one appease. Leadership plays a critical role in determining these policy implications because of the long-sighted nature of national benefits.
Otto von Bismarck established a complex web of alliances that prevented major war in Europe from 1860 until WWI. While three small wars occurred between Prussia and Denmark, Austria, and France, none were on the scale of a world war. Bismarck orchestrated an alliance system that precluded nations from starting war before truly understanding the consequences of their actions. Bismarckian diplomacy set up the Treaty of Vienna with Austria, the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, and the Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy, and the Three Emperors’ League (Dreikaiserbund) with Austria and Russia. Since England opted out of the system and with France hopelessly sidelined, Bismarck ensured peace by maintaining the alliances. Defensive diplomacy and overwhelming power consolidation helped to avert war by providing a stable system. Important lessons from Bismarck are the advantages of aligning with countries that may not want to align with each other, and the critical importance of understanding other powers’ domestic politics regarding what agreements they can or cannot enter into.
US-USSR: Late 1960s
The Détente period of the Cold War from the late 1960s until the early 1980s demonstrates how great powers decreased tension during a conflict. While it does not show war avoidance, it demonstrates how reducing tension could be beneficial to understanding post-facto great power conflict amelioration. To begin with, both the US and the USSR desired a better relationship. The nuclear arms race was self-defeating since the best case scenario was that both countries would end up bankrupt. A rational discovery followed that both countries could do better through a series of cooperative agreements, namely the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Helsinki Accords. Détente furthered the move from “bad” to “good” nuclear weapons. This manifested itself in the reduction of offensive capabilities (i.e. nuclear weapons in highly visible silos) to a more covert force (i.e. nuclear submarines). These changes helped to change the guise of nuclear war from offensive to defensive in nature.
Recommendations: Application of lessons learned to the US and China
To prevent major war, the US must establish a coherent strategy using the lessons learned from both the failures of WWI and WWII and the cases where war was avoided or détente occurred.
The five major problems that must be addressed in order to mitigate the likelihood of war with China are: the public goods problem, poor domestic/economic conditions, offense > defense, non-optimal diplomatic relationships, and poorly managing the rise of China. The balance of this paper attempts to address these problems using lessons from the past.
Solve the Public Goods Problem
In WWII, Allied powers individually avoided war with Germany because they all wanted someone else to first absorb the brunt of the German attack. Their mutual, although incoherent, strategy was that once Germany was weakened by the unlucky “first mover,” then the others would reap the benefits of the last man standing. The more optimal payoff for this classic prisoner’s dilemma would have been for all of the Allies to have fought Germany together initially.
One solution for the public goods problem would be to increase economic interdependence and persuade countries to proactively manage a situation where much of their resources are at stake. Greenfield investments—investments in foreign countries by private groups—should be encouraged by both the US and China in order to ensure a greater intermingling of wealth. Whereas in the 1930s when many nations adopted protectionist policies (tariffs nearing 60%) and isolationist investment strategies, today considerable overlap exists in countries investing in one another. This increased economic interdependence has diminished the likelihood for war by rational actors and increased all actors’ interest in managing a peaceful settlement to a potential crisis.
Manage Domestic Politics/Economics
Domestic politics and economics in China are inherently joined. Currently, a great portion of the Chinese population is not experiencing the benefits of a growing and successful economy due to the government’s storage of its foreign trade surplus. This could lead to both public discontent and even the rise of radical sentiment. Growing nationalist fervor in urban China could merge with economic discontent in a Nazi-esque manner. The government should mitigate this by distributing a greater portion of the foreign trade surplus to its citizens and thereby increase consumption and satisfaction.
China owes its current economic success to export-led growth. The problem with this model is that it may not be sustainable in the future due to the likely emergence of new low-cost producers (Bangladesh, Cambodia). China must learn from Japan’s errors and shift to domestic demand-led growth in order to diversify its economy. Domestic demand-led growth can only be achieved if the people enjoy a greater share of its foreign trade surplus in order to buy more goods. The US and the international community must work with China to help it understand and implement this change. It behooves both nations for this transition to occur, and now is the time to avoid these hardships and fix the policy roof “when the sun is shining.”
Promote Defense over Offense
When offensive military strategy is favored over a defensive strategy, military action is more likely. As seen in WWI and WWII, perceived offensive advantages contribute to pushing nations into war. In the same light, perceived defensive advantages can have the opposite effect by helping to keep nations currently at peace out of war and nations currently at war in a more amenable relationship (Détente).
Détente had incredible effects during the Cold War in decreasing armaments, reducing offensive capabilities, and establishing a level of trust between the US and USSR. Because of its success, it follows that a modern-day détente with China could have huge military dividends by decreasing perceived offensive military capabilities. We could make the first move and re-designate a portion of our planned 75,000 combat troop increase scheduled for 2012 to Stabilization and Reconstruction (peacekeeping) troops in order to decrease the appearance of our offensive buildup. After all, peacekeeping troops are also necessary for dealing with natural disasters. Regarding our nuclear arsenal, a further push from bad to good nuclear weapons would help to promote the defensive military posture. China could then follow suit by slowing expansion on naval and missile capabilities and by reducing its enormous troop capacity.
A modern-day détente would also promote a cultural understanding. Similar to how Nixon and Kissinger opened up China in the early 1970s, a re-invigorated policy should be attempted today. Cultural and educational exchanges should increase according to the idea that the better we understand each other, the better we’ll like each other. Furthermore, there is something to be said of The New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea in February, 2008 and its “violin diplomacy” that initiated a level of goodwill. Additional “Track Two” diplomacy would have immense payoffs in encouraging China to embrace not only the US but also globalization as a concept.
Optimal Diplomatic Relationships
Why can’t the US be as adept as Bismarck in creating diplomatic relationships that secure peace? While Kissinger blames WWI on Bismarck for relying on the next generation to produce a similar genius to maintain alliances, the substance behind this genius is not lost. As Bismarck created relations with both Russia and Austria to improve the standing of Prussia, the United States should build a congruent system by forging positive relationships with China and Russia (and/or India and Taiwan) to approximate this diplomacy. Granted the secrecy that Bismarck wove through his alliance web would be difficult to emulate today, it still has the underpinning of making both countries amenable to the US even if there are problems between one another.
If Bismarckian diplomacy however does present implementation problems, another approach could be the formation of an alliance that could, simply by its overwhelming power, preclude China from daring to attack the US. This idea is based on the idea of mergers in the international community similar to that in the business world. Just as companies merge to improve their cost curve, countries could merge with other countries that complement their resource and production capabilities. This would be the underlying principle for the possible merger between the US and EU (and possibly Japan). The US and EU complement each other extremely well as the US is a buying nation and the EU is a selling power. If this were to happen, China would be hopelessly sidelined, similar to France in the 1870s, and it would actually be attracted to the possible US-EU-Japan merger.
Managing China’s rise
With China’s GDP doubling every eight years and the US’ every twenty-four years, China is poised to pass the US in 2033. The US cannot pretend that this fact does not exist and should acknowledge it by paying China its just dues. The US should engage China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. By increasing its standing in international organizations like the WTO, World Bank, IMF, WHO, etc, it will start to feel more like a team player. Furthermore, the member-states of these organizations will help to moderate China’s actions. China will want to be part of the “club” and will be more willing to make concessions in order to become a full member of the community.
Inclusion in the international community is critical to preventing irrational actors from leading China. The more contact that Chinese elites have with their counterparts in other nations, the more moderate they will become. The most ostracized modern leaders (Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong-il) by the international community also appear the most irrational by American standards. Part of this isolation can be attributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy from our sanction policies and their retaliatory, apparently radical, actions. It is critical that we do not fall into this trap with China.
To a certain degree, the US should adopt Britain’s foreign policy of the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century vis-à-vis the US. Friendship should be the ultimate goal of the US towards China even to the point of conceding certain interests. These concessions could begin with elevated positions in trade and the international order. Similar to Britain regarding the US, China is geographically distanced from the US and thus concessions could be viewed in a more regional scope.
Managing China’s rise is perhaps the most difficult challenge to successfully execute. While bringing China into the fold and appeasing it on certain issues, the US must be cognizant of devolving too much power and regional influence. If the right-hand parameter (too much) is the 1938 appeasement of Germany, then the left-hand parameter (too little) is America’s historical stubbornness against any appeasement. The US has never made noteworthy concessions to any country since it achieved great power status in the late 1800s. This is also not a functional stance since we are increasingly moving from a unipolar to multipolar world once again.
As we move to a more unbalanced multipolar world, some experts believe that it is the most unstable of all possible world orders. China is unquestionably increasing in power and thus the US should understand its role in managing China’s rise. By heeding this advice, the US will do better in the long run and avoid a major war. Only through a comprehensive lessons learned approach – utilizing those learned too late from past great wars and those learned in deterring wars – can we take advantage of this unique opportunity to proactively evade WWIII.
Show Footnotes and
. Ernest May, Some Background, Aspen Institute Paper (China), August 2006.
. Dale Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Cornell Press 2000).
. J. Bryan Hehir, Lecture at Harvard University, Politics and Ethics of Statecraft, Kennedy School, December 2007.
. Stephan Van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security, 9/1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58-107.
. May, pp. 6-7.
. Hehir, Lecture at Harvard, April 2008.
. Roger Porter, Lecture at Harvard University, Kennedy School, 6 December 2007.
. Lawrence Summers, “History Holds Lessons for China and Its Partners,” Financial Times, February 26, 2007, pp. 17.
. Lawrence Summer, Lecture at Harvard University on China, Kennedy School, November 2007.
. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (N.Y.: Simon and Shuster, 1994) pp. 169-200.
. Richard Rosecrance, Mergers in the International Politics: States and Firms (Manuscript), November 2007, Forthcoming.
. Ashton Carter and William Perry, China’s Rise in American Military Strategy, (Cambridge, 2006) p. 1.
. Rosecrance, Lecture at Harvard, November 2007.
. Rosecrance, Interview conducted at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA on November 19, 2007.
Copyright © 2009 Carl J. Ciovacco
Written by Carl J. Ciovacco. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Carl J. Ciovacco at:
About the author:
Mr. Ciovacco just completed his Masters in International Security and Political Economy at
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and has a BS from West Point (2000).
His focus at Harvard was counterterrorism and al Qaeda. He worked with the Combating Terrorism
Center at West Point for his thesis on al Qaeda's media strategy.
His article entitled "The Erosion of Noncombatant Immunity within Al Qaeda" was just published in Small Wars Journal.
Published online: 08/31/2009.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.