One hundred years ago this month, Britain declared war on Germany. And though the issues of that era may seem irrelevant now, the pre-war tensions between those two nations can actually help us understand where today’s Sino-American relationship is headed. After all, though history never repeats itself exactly, as Mark Twain famously observed, it does rhyme. Or to put it another way, clear patterns recur when two rival nations are locked in a cycle of rise and decline.
Throughout history, those power transitions have almost invariably resulted in war — and the US-China relationship is in just such a transition. China clearly is on the rise. It has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading manufacturing state, the leading trading state, and the leading exporter. Indeed, according to one World Bank measure, China already has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest economy. That nation’s growing wealth is financing a big buildup of its military capabilities and fueling its geopolitical ambitions.
When power transitions occur, great powers eventually face what students of great-power dynamics relations call “the Carr Moment.” In “The Twenty Years’ Crisis,” his classic study of international relations, British scholar Edward Hallett Carr focused on a crucial issue in great-power politics: When the balance of power is shifting, how can a declining nation’s desire to preserve the status quo be reconciled with an ascending rival’s desire to revise the world order to reflect its rising power?
The Carr Moment comes at the point when the declining power must decide whether to accede to that revision or try to preserve the prevailing order. Standing firm means risking war. But accommodating the rising power forces the fading hegemon to come to terms with its decline.
This was Britain’s choice during the years leading up to 1914. Although it is tempting for historians to conclude that war between Britain and Germany was inevitable, there was serious debate among the British foreign policy establishment in the decade or so before the war about whether to contain or conciliate Germany.
In a January 1907 memorandum, Sir Eyre Crow, a senior Foreign Office official, made the case for containment. Crowe argued that the Anglo-German rivalry resulted from a fundamental opposition of interests. Accommodating Germany, he maintained, would only whet the expansionist appetite of a nation whose ultimate goal was “to supplant the British Empire.” As he saw it, war with Germany could be avoided only by submitting to Berlin’s demands — and thus forfeiting Britain’s leading power status — or amassing enough power to deter Berlin.
Lord Thomas Sanderson, who had recently retired as permanent undersecretary of state, rebutted Crowe. As a latecomer to the world stage, a unified Germany was understandably “impatient to realize various long-suppressed aspirations,” he said. From Berlin’s perspective, “the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.” Sanderson understood that refusing to accommodate Berlin’s aspirations risked conflict, but Crowe’s view prevailed — and in August of 1914 Britain and Germany found themselves at war.
Over the next few decades, powerful forces will push the United States and China toward confrontation. The Carr question of our time: Will the United States, the declining hegemon in East Asia, try to preserve a status quo that no longer reflects actual power in the region or accommodate the demands of a rising China?
As long as the United States and China remain committed to their current ambitions and strategies, the potential for future conflict is high. Avoiding conflict will depend much more on the United States than on China. But today the spirit of Sir Eyre Crowe pervades the American foreign-policy community. The United States professes benevolence toward China, but refuses to make any significant concessions to China’s ambitions.
Washington will likely have the “last clear chance” to avoid the looming Sino-American conflict by undertaking a policy of strategic adjustment in East Asia. But America’s political culture and sense of national identity will make doing so difficult. So will the fact that when US policymakers look to history for guidance, the default option is to invoke the “lessons” of the pre-World War II era, and not those of the run-up to World War I. That’s a mistake. If the United States wants to avoid a future collision with China, it must eschew Crowe’s counsel and embrace Sanderson’s.
That’s the real lesson of World War I.
Christopher Layne is professor of international affairs and chair in national security at Texas A&M University.