In 1913, the world was experiencing one of the greatest moments of relative peace in recorded history. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, the victorious European powers had convened the historic Congress of Vienna and devised an amicable balance of power that was meant to end great power conflict.
Writing the year before the outbreak of World War I, Sir Norman Angell famously prophesied that the two great powers at the time—the British Empire and the German Empire—would never dare wage war upon each other because both sides, despite their differences, were far too invested in the prosperity that emerged from their friendly trade. Angell, much like another failed academic prophet generations later, Francis Fukuyama, envisioned his own “end of history,” based on much the same set of assumptions that Fukuyama would use to formulate his work in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Of course, mere months after Angell’s book, The Great Illusion, became a popular international bestseller, the trenches had been dug and the Germans were goose-stepping into battle against their tired French rivals. What started as a minor crisis in the Balkans cascaded quickly until it engulfed the world.
At each moment, men who styled themselves as foreign policy “experts” in Europe’s great capitals made severe miscalculations trying to avert the war. They embraced assumptions based on the last great power conflict and applied them to a world that was as foreign to the Europe of the emerging 20th century as horse-and-buggy laws are to Americans today.
To compound matters, the processes and means of conducting diplomacy among the great powers had been surpassed by the great advances in military technology. Everything from machine guns to chemical warfare to the advent of the airplane (just a few short years before the Great War) made obsolete the strategies and war plans of most of the major powers.
World War I likely was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history because Europe’s “best-and-brightest” viewed the world through a set of false and outmoded assumptions. The peace forged at the Congress of Vienna—the combined fruits of industrialization and global “free” trade—managed not to make war obsolete, but to make it more lethal than ever. This led to what the great historian Niall Ferguson has called the “descent of the West.”
Great Power Conflict Returns
A similar descent is in store for the United States today—though very few recognize it. Just as the airy assumptions of the last world order (the European-led one) came crashing down on the heads of those who believed them the most, so today are the assumptions about our current world order about to come caving in on us.
Think about it: at the end of World War II, a new international peace was formulated and, it was believed, it would last indefinitely. Now, 70 years later, much like the peace forged at the Congress of Vienna, the post-1945 peace is no longer applicable in today’s world.
Even so, today’s “wise men” refuse to acknowledge how radically the world has changed since 1945. In 2011, I had an interesting exchange with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Standard Club of Chicago. Gates insisted that there would never again be a great power conflict. When I demanded to know his reasoning, he argued that only an insane leader would seek such a conflict. OK. And? We’ve never seen that before?
These experts miss the lessons of history. Sir Norman Angell disbelieved—even mocked—those few who attempted to warn of the dangers Europe faced heading into 1914. After all, such a great power war would both be destructive and self-defeating, because it would drastically reduce trade and weaken the regimes of the European powers engaged in the conflict (which it did). Yet, Europe giddily marched headlong into global conflict nonetheless.
Radical Changes in Technology Means a Horrific War
Today, China appears ready for war. President Xi Jinping with his copious investments in Chinese military modernization issues continual threats against his neighbors—whether it be over small islands in the South and East China Seas, or the existence of Taiwan itself. Beijing even threatens American forces.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have made drastic advancements into becoming a leader—potentially the leader—in the development of advanced technologies. KPMG assesses that Shanghai, not Silicon Valley, will be the world’s leading tech innovation hub by 2020.
China is making significant headway in the race for Artificial Intelligence technology. Also, in biotechnology, China is gaining on the United States. Recent reports suggest that China’s cyberwar capability is great—and that the Chinese have taken advantage of their role as the world’s assembly line, by installing hardware hacks physically into computers bound to end up in sensitive U.S. government and American corporate facilities.
American tech companies, like Google and Apple, are poised to expand their presence in China—and hand over their deepest corporate secrets to the Chinese government as buy-in. Further, China has the world’s only working quantum internet satellite; their investments in quantum technology have given Beijing the edge in what many believe will be the next great computing revolution.
Given this competitive edge, however, China still must face down certain realities similar to those the German Empire was facing back in the days leading up to the First World War: they are fiercely nationalistic and suffer from an inferiority complex. China also faces a declining fertility problem and a slowing economy (though certainly not a collapsing one). In other words, China has a finite amount of time to make bold geopolitical moves in order to alter fundamentally the international system in its direction. If it is to move boldly, China must necessarily risk a great power conflict.
These trends mirror what occurred in Europe leading up to the Great War between Germany and Great Britain. On this anniversary of the end of World War I, let us remember this basic truth: whatever economic damage may be incurred, man’s desire to make war upon his neighbors in order to enhance his own position cannot be rooted out of him, certainly not by the science of economics. The West’s talent for deluding itself into believing no one seeks war for material gain is as great today as it was in Sir Norman Angell’s time.
History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Unfortunately, we are no more ready this time than we were the last time. One hopes we can rally as we have done in the past.
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