Book Chapter

The Sarajevo Centenary—1914 and the Rise of China

| December 2014



Steven E. Miller's introduction to The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict appears below in an excerpted version.

The drama of 1914 draws our gaze backward, but an equally haunting question arises if we look ahead: Could 1914 happen again? Could the forces and factors that put the great powers on what turned out to be an unstoppable path to war operate in our own time? If there is to be a great power conflict in the era ahead, it seems most likely that this will involve a rising China challenging a predominant America. Could there be a 1914 redux between these two powerful states?

The analyses that follow highlight or reveal at least as many differences as similarities; 2014 does not wholly resemble 1914. Many of the factors that are thought to have contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914 do not exist today. In particular, many of the intellectual and internal pathologies that made war more likely and made the crisis difficult to resolve peacefully are absent from the current environment. Put simply, many of those making fateful choices in 1914 (as well as the elites around them and the publics they governed) were influenced by a toxic stew of pernicious beliefs. Bad ideas fed bad decisions, which led to war in 1914. The bad ideas flourished in various domestic settings and were incorporated into the worldview of dominant domestic coalitions in several key countries.

The 1914 analogy is clearly an imperfect framework for assessing U.S.-China relations, but nevertheless war between Washington and Beijing remains possible. Full recreation of the environment of 1914 is not a prerequisite for war. Further, some lessons from the outbreak of World War I do seem at least potentially relevant today and identify sources of worry and grounds for vigilance. On the international level, the stage is clearly set for rivalry. If U.S.-China relations turn significantly more hostile and competitive, there is a clear potential for arms racing, for destructive diplomatic maneuvering, for Cold War, and for conflict. In a more toxic environment, one of Asia’s many potential flash points could ignite a war; the United States’ alliances make it likely that Washington will be involved.

As the years leading up to 1914 demonstrate, adapting to shifts in the balance of power is difficult and can lead to a pattern of repeated crises as challengers seek to upend the status quo and claim a larger role in international politics while the dominant powers act to protect their place in the international hierarchy. Managing relations between rising and declining powers is particularly fraught with risk and danger.

It is not hard to see how U.S.-China relations could go badly wrong: the potential for much more intense hostility and military competition clearly exists. These considerations imply that particular care should be taken in tending this relationship and that every effort should be made to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of the past.

One of the most troublesome aspects of the international order in 1914 is partially reproduced today. If there is one warning that particularly leaps out from the pages of this volume, it is the danger of entrapping alliances. The most likely route to war with China is via a dispute involving one or more of the United States' Asian allies. This is not a purely hypothetical danger. Asia's many territorial disputes, on both land and sea, are potential flash points. Japan and China are feuding over disputed North Pacific islands. Taiwan and China remain stalemated. Confrontations and crises have already happened and more are likely. There could well emerge a pattern of recurrent crises, as was true in the decade before 1914. If crises are handled without escalation, complacency could set in. But if such crises gradually grown more malignant, more difficult to handle; mistakes could be made; and complacency could turn out to be a glide path to war.

Many of the factors that seem in retrospect to have facilitated war in 1914 had been present for years or decades without producing war, so the war that came was in some sense a surprise, was in some sense unexpected. In a similar manner, war with China seems unlikely. There are strong arguments (economic and otherwise) for preserving the peace. The relationship between Washington and Beijing has its ups and downs, but overall relations are not that bad and contain some reassuring elements of consultation and cooperation. There are occasional crises in Asia (involving sovereignty over island and maritime boundary disputes, for example) but these are handled without recourse to war. As was true in the first half of 1914, one could justify the conclusion that we should expect some "unremarkable years" ahead. But corrosive factors lurk in the background: the perilous dynamic between the predominant and the challenger, the arms race pressures, the web of alliances that connects the United States to potential conflicts in Asia and to allies who want to harness American power to advance their claims in the region, the flash points across Asia that could, in the manner of a remote assassination in the Balkans, ignite a wider war. If war were to come, no doubt many would look back and say it was inevitable, it was predicted, the signs were there, the pressures were understood, there were so many war-promoting factors that it was impossible to preserve the peace.

It will matter enormously whether U.S.-China relations are managed wisely or poorly. There are many in the American debate who favor a primarily competitive response to the rise of China, seeking to preserve and maximize American primacy while encircling and containing China. In this volume we find instead—in the analyses of Alexandroff, Rudd, and Rosecrance, for example—the argument that the wise course involves bringing China closer, drawing it into shared institutions, making it a partner in the provision of international public goods, building strategic trust, preserving and strengthening lines of communication between the two potential antagonists. But even if one accepts that this is the wise course—and clearly many will not—surely one of the lessons of 1914 is that wisdom does not always prevail. To make their way to war, leaders in Washington and Beijing do not have to echo the beliefs and reproduce the realities and mistakes of 1914. They can invent their own flawed beliefs and make their own mistakes.  

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For Academic Citation: Miller, Steven E.. “The Sarajevo Centenary—1914 and the Rise of China.” In The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict. December 2014.