Sleepwalking Toward War

In The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914, the British historian Paul Kennedy explained how two traditionally friendly peoples ended up in a downward spiral of mutual hostility that led to World War I. Major structural forces drove the competition between Germany and Britain: economic imperatives, geography, and ideology. Germany’s rapid economic rise shifted the balance of power and enabled Berlin to expand its strategic reach. Some of this expansion—especially at sea—took place in areas in which Britain had profound and established strategic interests. The two powers increasingly viewed each other as ideological opposites, wildly exaggerating their differences. The Germans caricatured the British as moneygrubbing exploiters of the world, and the British portrayed the Germans as authoritarian malefactors bent on expansion and repression.

The two countries appeared to be on a collision course, destined for war. But it wasn’t structural pressures, important as they were, that sparked World War I. War broke out thanks to the contingent decisions of individuals and a profound lack of imagination on both sides. To be sure, war was always likely. But it was unavoidable only if one subscribes to the deeply ahistorical view that compromise between Germany and Britain was impossible.

The war might not have come to pass had Germany’s leaders after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck not been so brazen about altering the naval balance of power. Germany celebrated its dominance in Europe and insisted on its rights as a great power, dismissing concerns about rules and norms of international behavior. That posture alarmed other countries, not just Britain. And it was difficult for Germany to claim, as it did, that it wanted to make a new, more just and inclusive world order while it threatened its neighbors and allied with a decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire that was hard at work denying the national aspirations of the peoples on its borders.

A similar tunnel vision prevailed on the other side. Winston Churchill, the British naval chief, concluded in 1913 that Britain’s preeminent global position “often seems less reasonable to others than to us.” British views of others tended to lack that self-awareness. Officials and commentators spewed vitriol about Germany, inveighing particularly against unfair German trade practices. London eyed Berlin warily, interpreting all its actions as evidence of aggressive intentions and failing to understand Germany’s fears for its own security on a continent where it was surrounded by potential foes. British hostility, of course, only deepened German fears and stoked German ambitions. “Few seem to have possessed the generosity or the perspicacity to seek a large-scale improvement in Anglo-German relations,” Kennedy lamented.

Such generosity or perspicacity is also sorely missing in relations between China and the United States today. Like Germany and Britain before World War I, China and the United States seem to be locked in a downward spiral, one that may end in disaster for both countries and for the world at large. Similar to the situation a century ago, profound structural factors fuel the antagonism. Economic competition, geopolitical fears, and deep mistrust work to make conflict more likely.

But structure is not destiny. The decisions that leaders make can prevent war and better manage the tensions that invariably rise from great-power competition. As with Germany and Britain, structural forces may push events to a head, but it takes human avarice and ineptitude on a colossal scale for disaster to ensue. Likewise, sound judgment and competence can prevent the worst-case scenarios.

Much like the hostility between Germany and Britain over a century ago, the antagonism between China and the United States has deep structural roots. It can be traced to the end of the Cold War. In the latter stages of that great conflict, Beijing and Washington had been allies of sorts, since both feared the power of the Soviet Union more than they feared each other. But the collapse of the Soviet state, their common enemy, almost immediately meant that policymakers fixated more on what separated Beijing and Washington than what united them. The United States increasingly deplored China’s repressive government. China resented the United States’ meddlesome global hegemony.

But this sharpening of views did not lead to an immediate decline in U.S.-Chinese relations. In the decade and a half that followed the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations believed they had a lot to gain from facilitating China’s modernization and economic growth. Much like the British, who had initially embraced the unification of Germany in 1870 and German economic expansion after that, the Americans were motivated by self-interest to abet Beijing’s rise. China was an enormous market for U.S. goods and capital, and, moreover, it seemed intent on doing business the American way, importing American consumer habits and ideas about how markets should function as readily as it embraced American styles and brands.

Germany and Britain were on a collision course—but World War I was not inevitable.
At the level of geopolitics, however, China was considerably more wary of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union shocked China’s leaders, and the U.S. military success in the 1991 Gulf War brought home to them that China now existed in a unipolar world in which the United States could deploy its power almost at will. In Washington, many were repelled by China’s use of force against its own population at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and elsewhere. Much like Germany and Britain in the 1880s and 1890s, China and the United States began to view each other with greater hostility even as their economic exchanges expanded.

What really changed the dynamic between the two countries was China’s unrivaled economic success. As late as 1995, China’s GDP was around ten percent of U.S. GDP. By 2021, it had grown to around 75 percent of U.S. GDP. In 1995, the United States produced around 25 percent of the world’s manufacturing output, and China produced less than five percent. But now China has surged past the United States. Last year, China produced close to 30 percent of the world’s manufacturing output, and the United States produced just 17 percent. These are not the only figures that reflect a country’s economic importance, but they give a sense of a country’s heft in the world and indicate where the capacity to make things, including military hardware, resides.

At the geopolitical level, China’s view of the United States began to darken in 2003 with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. China opposed the U.S.-led attack, even if Beijing cared little for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime. More than the United States’ devastating military capabilities, what really shocked leaders in Beijing was the ease with which Washington could dismiss matters of sovereignty and nonintervention, notions that were staples of the very international order the Americans had coaxed China to join. Chinese policymakers worried that if the United States could so readily flout the same norms it expected others to uphold, little would constrain its future behavior. China’s military budget doubled from 2000 to 2005 and then doubled again by 2009. Beijing also launched programs to better train its military, improve its efficiency, and invest in new technology. It revolutionized its naval and missile forces. Sometime between 2015 and 2020, the number of ships in the Chinese navy surpassed that in the U.S. Navy.

Some argue that China would have dramatically expanded its military capabilities no matter what the United States did two decades ago. After all, that is what major rising powers do as their economic clout increases. That may be true, but the specific timing of Beijing’s expansion was clearly linked to its fear that the global hegemon had both the will and the capacity to contain China’s rise if it so chose. Iraq’s yesterday could be China’s tomorrow, as one Chinese military planner put it, somewhat melodramatically, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Just as Germany began fearing that it would be hemmed in both economically and strategically in the 1890s and the early 1900s—exactly when Germany’s economy was growing at its fastest clip—China began fearing it would be contained by the United States just as its own economy was soaring.

If there was ever an example of hubris and fear coexisting within the same leadership, it was provided by Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germany believed both that it was ineluctably on the rise and that Britain represented an existential threat to its ascent. German newspapers were full of postulations about their country’s economic, technological, and military advances, prophesying a future when Germany would overtake everyone else. According to many Germans (and some non-Germans, too), their model of government, with its efficient mix of democracy and authoritarianism, was the envy of the world. Britain was not really a European power, they claimed, insisting that Germany was now the strongest power on the continent and that it should be left free to rationally reorder the region according to the reality of its might. And indeed, it would be able to do just that if not for British meddling and the possibility that Britain could team up with France and Russia to contain Germany’s success.

Nationalist passions surged in both countries from the 1890s onward, as did darker notions of the malevolence of the other. The fear grew in Berlin that its neighbors and Britain were set on derailing Germany’s natural development on its own continent and preventing its future predominance. Mostly oblivious to how their own aggressive rhetoric affected others, German leaders began viewing British interference as the root cause of their country’s problems, both at home and abroad. They saw British rearmament and more restrictive trade policies as signs of aggressive intent. “So the celebrated encirclement of Germany has finally become an accomplished fact,” Wilhelm sighed, as war was brewing in 1914. “The net has suddenly been closed over our head, and the purely anti-German policy which England has been scornfully pursuing all over the world has won the most spectacular victory.” On their side, British leaders imagined that Germany was largely responsible for the relative decline of the British Empire, even though many other powers were rising at Britain’s expense.

China today shows many of the same signs of hubris and fear that Germany exhibited after the 1890s. Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took immense pride in navigating their country through the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath more adeptly than did their Western counterparts. Many Chinese officials saw the global recession of that era not only as a calamity made in the United States but also as a symbol of the transition of the world economy from American to Chinese leadership. Chinese leaders, including those in the business sector, spent a great deal of time explaining to others that China’s inexorable rise had become the defining trend in international affairs. In its regional policies, China started behaving more assertively toward its neighbors. It also crushed movements for self-determination in Tibet and Xinjiang and undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy. And in recent years, it has more frequently insisted on its right to take over Taiwan, by force if necessary, and has begun to intensify its preparations for such a conquest.

Together, growing Chinese hubris and rising nationalism in the United States helped hand the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016, after he appealed to voters by conjuring China as a malign force on the international stage. In office, Trump began a military buildup directed against China and launched a trade war to reinforce U.S. commercial supremacy, marking a clear break from the less hostile policies pursued by his predecessor, Barack Obama. When Joe Biden replaced Trump in 2021, he maintained many of Trump’s policies that targeted China—buoyed by a bipartisan consensus that sees China as a major threat to U.S. interests—and has since imposed further trade restrictions intended to make it more difficult for Chinese firms to acquire sophisticated technology.

Beijing has responded to this hard-line shift in Washington by showing as much ambition as insecurity in its dealings with others. Some of its complaints about American behavior are strikingly similar to those that Germany lodged against Britain in the early twentieth century. Beijing has accused Washington of trying to maintain a world order that is inherently unjust—the same accusation Berlin leveled at London. “What the United States has constantly vowed to preserve is a so-called international order designed to serve the United States’ own interests and perpetuate its hegemony,” a white paper published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in June 2022. “The United States itself is the largest source of disruption to the actual world order.”

The United States, meanwhile, has been trying to develop a China policy that combines deterrence with limited cooperation, similar to what Britain did when developing policy toward Germany in the early twentieth century. According to the Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy, “The People’s Republic of China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.” Although opposed to such a reshaping, the administration stressed that it will “always be willing to work with the PRC where our interests align.” To reinforce the point, the administration declared, “We can’t let the disagreements that divide us stop us from moving forward on the priorities that demand that we work together.” The problem now is—as it was in the years before 1914—that any opening for cooperation, even on key issues, gets lost in mutual recriminations, petty irritations, and deepening strategic mistrust.

In the British-German relationship, three main conditions led from rising antagonism to war. The first was that the Germans became increasingly convinced that Britain would not allow Germany to rise under any circumstances. At the same time, German leaders seemed incapable of defining to the British or anyone else how, in concrete terms, their country’s rise would or would not remake the world. The second was that both sides feared a weakening of their future positions. This view, ironically, encouraged some leaders to believe that they should fight a war sooner rather than later. The third was an almost total lack of strategic communication. In 1905, Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff, proposed a battle plan that would secure a swift victory on the continent, where Germany had to reckon with both France and Russia. Crucially, the plan involved the invasion of Belgium, an act that gave Britain an immediate cause to join the war against Germany. As Kennedy put it, “The antagonism between the two countries had emerged well before the Schlieffen Plan was made the only German military strategy; but it took the sublime genius of the Prussian General Staff to provide the occasion for turning that antagonism into war.”

All these conditions now seem to be in place in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership are convinced the United States’ main objective is to prevent China’s rise no matter what. China’s own statements regarding its international ambitions are so bland as to be next to meaningless. Internally, Chinese leaders are seriously concerned about the country’s slowing economy and about the loyalty of their own people. Meanwhile, the United States is so politically divided that effective long-term governance is becoming almost impossible. The potential for strategic miscommunication between China and the United States is rife because of the limited interaction between the two sides. All current evidence points toward China making military plans to one day invade Taiwan, producing a war between China and the United States just as the Schlieffen Plan helped produce a war between Germany and Britain.

The striking similarities with the early twentieth century, a period that witnessed the ultimate disaster, point to a gloomy future of escalating confrontation. But conflict can be avoided. If the United States wants to prevent a war, it has to convince Chinese leaders that it is not hell-bent on preventing China’s future economic development. China is an enormous country. It has industries that are on par with those in the United States. But like Germany in 1900, it also has regions that are poor and undeveloped. The United States cannot, through its words or actions, repeat to the Chinese what the Germans understood the British to be telling them a century ago: if you only stopped growing, there would not be a problem.

At the same time, China’s industries cannot keep growing unrestricted at the expense of everyone else. The smartest move China could make on trade is to agree to regulate its exports in such a way that they do not make it impossible for other countries’ domestic industries to compete in important areas such as electric vehicles or solar panels and other equipment necessary for decarbonization. If China continues to flood other markets with its cheap versions of these products, a lot of countries, including some that have not been overly concerned by China’s growth, will begin to unilaterally restrict market access to Chinese goods.

Beijing accuses Washington of maintaining a world order that is inherently unjust.
Unrestricted trade wars are not in anyone’s interest. Countries are increasingly imposing higher tariffs on imports and limiting trade and the movement of capital. But if this trend turns into a deluge of tariffs, then the world is in trouble, in economic as well as political terms. Ironically, China and the United States would probably both be net losers if protectionist policies took hold everywhere. As a German trade association warned in 1903, the domestic gains of protectionist policies “would be of no account in comparison with the incalculable harm which such a tariff war would cause to the economical interests of both countries.” The trade wars also contributed significantly to the outbreak of a real war in 1914.

Containing trade wars is a start, but Beijing and Washington should also work to end or at least contain hot wars that could trigger a much wider conflagration. During intense great-power competition, even small conflicts could easily have disastrous consequences, as the lead-up to World War I showed. Take, for instance, Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine. Last year’s offensives and counteroffensives did not change the frontlines a great deal; Western countries hope to work toward a cease-fire in Ukraine under the best conditions that Ukrainian valor and Western weapons can achieve. For now, a Ukrainian victory would consist of the repulsion of the initial all-out 2022 Russian offensive as well as terms that end the killing of Ukrainians, fast-track the country’s accession into the EU, and obtain Kyiv security guarantees from the West in case of Russian cease-fire violations. Many in the Western camp hope that China could play a constructive role in such negotiations, since Beijing has stressed “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” China should remember that one of Germany’s major mistakes before World War I was to stand by as Austria-Hungary harassed its neighbors in the Balkans even as German leaders appealed to the high principles of international justice. This hypocrisy helped produce war in 1914. Right now, China is repeating that mistake with its treatment of Russia.

Although the war in Ukraine is now causing the most tension, it is Taiwan that could be the Balkans of the 2020s. Both China and the United States seem to be sleepwalking toward a cross-strait confrontation at some point within the next decade. An increasing number of China’s foreign policy experts now think that war over Taiwan is more likely than not, and U.S. policymakers are preoccupied with the question of how best to support the island. What is remarkable about the Taiwan situation is that it is clear to all involved—except, perhaps, to the Taiwanese most fixed on achieving formal independence—that only one possible compromise can likely help avoid disaster. In the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the United States acknowledged that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. Beijing has repeatedly stated that it seeks an eventual peaceful unification with Taiwan. A restatement of these principles today would help prevent a conflict: Washington could say that it will under no circumstances support Taiwan’s independence, and Beijing could declare that it will not use force unless Taiwan formally takes steps toward becoming independent. Such a compromise would not make all the problems related to Taiwan go away. But it would make a great-power war over Taiwan much less likely.

Reining in economic confrontation and dampening potential regional flash points are essential for avoiding a repeat of the British-German scenario, but the rise of hostility between China and the United States has also made many other issues urgent. There is a desperate need for arms control initiatives and for dealing with other conflicts, such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is a demand for signs of mutual respect. When, in 1972, Soviet and U.S. leaders agreed to a set of “Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” the joint declaration achieved almost nothing concrete. But it built a modicum of trust between both sides and helped convince Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that the Americans were not out to get him. If Xi, like Brezhnev, intends to remain leader for life, that is an investment worth making.

The rise of great-power tensions also creates the need to maintain believable deterrence. There is a persistent myth that alliance systems led to war in 1914 and that a web of mutual defense treaties ensnared governments in a conflict that became impossible to contain. In fact, what made war almost a certainty after the European powers started mobilizing against one another in July 1914 was Germany’s ill-considered hope that Britain might not, after all, come to the assistance of its friends and allies. For the United States, it is essential not to provide any cause for such mistakes in the decade ahead. It should concentrate its military power in the Indo-Pacific, making that force an effective deterrent against Chinese aggression. And it should reinvigorate NATO, with Europe carrying a much greater share of the burden of its own defense.

Leaders can learn from the past in both positive and negative ways, about what to do and what not to do. But they have to learn the big lessons first, and the most important of all is how to avoid horrendous wars that reduce generations of achievements to rubble.

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