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Lessons from History: How Not to Start another War?

Abstract: This article examines significant similarities between the Sino-US rivalry today and the British-German rivalry that led to the First World War.  In both cases rapid economic growth resulted in a feeling of supposedly denied entitlement as a great power.  Both China and Germany created large navies from scratch to break the hegemony of their British / American rivals.  Along with military expansion went a crackdown on minorities and the rejection of Western ideas.  History has shown us that such rivalries need careful management to avoid sleepwalking into a disastrous war.

For all of humanities impressive advances in knowledge and technology we still struggle to understand the world beyond our grasp.  For many analysts, the world appears as an ever-changing web of meaning woven together by interdependence and contingency.  Even specialized experts can’t reliably predict the near future.  Fortunately, there are certain patterns in this apparent chaos we have to live in.  After all, the needs of humans and their ways of fulfilling them, both on the level of individuals and groups, have been surprisingly constant through history.  More than 2500 years ago, the first true historian, Thucydides, predicted that men lead war because of three reasons: fear, interest, and honor.  Today, scholars like Graham Allison give agree.  Allison coined the concept of “Thucydides’ Trap”, which describes a situation in which one hegemonial power is confronted with an aspiring power.

The rise of China’s economic and military power has ushered in a new era of Sino-US-rivalry creating this scenario.  The last three US Administrations emphasized the need for increased engagement in East Asia, recognizing China as the most powerful rival.  Hand in hand with the reassignment of the US’s diplomatic and military focus goes a myriad of papers aiming at developing frameworks for understanding the new order and the intentions of its participants.  Looking back at history can help to identify patterns in the complex chaos, allowing us to make more educated assessment as to how the interactions of individuals, organizations, and nations might play out.

Early in 2021 Matthew Flynn tried this by asking “what Napoleon can teach us about the South China Sea”.  In his insightful article, he makes the point that Great Britain was able to defeat Napoleonic France by dominance of the sea and better alliance-building.  He also stressed the economical superiority of the British and the self-defeating attempts of Napoleon to reach a Europe-wide boycott on British trade through the costly invasions of Spain and Russia.  In Flynn’s view the USA today has similar advantages.  However, the USA should not follow the confrontational way into this “kind of devastating struggle that defined British and French relations at the turn of the 19th century”.  “Washington”, he argues, “should learn from this and instead pursue a balance of power.”

By GG001213 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61884932

While we can agree or not with this advice, I doubt that the historical analogy is fitting.  The British superiority over the French was overwhelming.  They had more ships, better crews, better tactics, better morale, better ports, and a better shipbuilding industry.  Of course, the US Navy is the most potent navy in the world, but her predominance is shrinking.  The Chinese used their world class shipbuilding industry to triple the number of warships between 2000 and now, thereby creating the navy with the most ships.  The media-savvy development of their home-build aircraft carriers is only the most visible example of many new blue-sea capabilities.  The Royal Navy hindered Napoleon’s attempts to conquer Britain, but it was the combined armies of Europe’s great powers that defeated the French.  It’s hard to imagine a comparable alliance against China today.

Finally, the economic situation is different.  The UK was by far the strongest economic power in the world both in trade and in the manufacture of goods.  In fact, continental Europe exported “only foodstuffs and raw materials” which made the UK, ruling over a huge colonial empire, independent.  According to the IMF, in 2020 alone the USA imported goods from China with a worth above 450.000 Million US Dollars, while exports totaled around 136.000 Million US Dollar.  The United Nations Statistics Division reports China’s share of global manufacturing at 28.4 %, significantly above the share of the USA.  These numbers alone make it clear that we now live in a much more integrated and less lopsided world economy.

In 1871, 56 years after Napoleon’s final defeat, the Prussians eventually forged the potpourri of small German states into the German Kaiserreich.  The new nation underwent a rapid industrialization, developed imperialistic urges, built the greatest battle-fleet in Europe, second only to the Royal Navy, and eventually became the main rival to the Great Britain.  This history of this period offers many similarities to the USA and China today.

A late nation with huge ambitions

Throughout the 19th Century, German liberals wanted to create what most Western European people already had: a nation-state.  This wish corresponded with the zeitgeist of the time.  Additionally, the Germans had a strong urge to feel safe from their neighbors.  The Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 combined with the French invasions under Napoleon were two traumatizing experiences driving this.  In 1848, the liberal’s revolution was defeated by the united military power of the German princes.  Finally, in 1871 Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia created the German Kaiserreich after three wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870).

At first, the liberal “Bürgertum” tried to install a strong parliament, but it soon succumbed to Bismarck’s successes and integrated itself into the authoritarian regime.  The military became a glorified institution relatively unsupervised by the civilian authorities.  After all, it wase the generals who had fulfilled the long-held dream of an unified fatherland.  Not long after the unification the hunt for enemies within the state started.  Catholics, Poles, Alsatians, Jews, and Socialists were increasingly targeted by the Prussian dominated administration.  Nationalistic pressure groups, such as the 1891 founded “Alldeutsche Verband”, became increasingly important and called for colonial expansion.  The later acquisitions of colonies in Africa and the Far East brought Germany in competition with other imperialist nations and in particular Great Britain.  The impulsive character of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and their often aggressive behavior of his diplomats made things worse magnifying geopolitical tensions.  Whilst other nations started to fear Germany’s newfound might, the Germans acted out their inferiority complex.

China’s ambassador to the UK denies genocide in 2020. BBC/Guardian full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwBaL-5o1oc

The political ambitions of the Kaiserreich were based on the rise of its economy.  In a very short time Germany became a highly industrialized nation.  By 1900, Germany’s “manufactures accounted for approximately 70 % of total German exports, a higher proportion than attained even by Britain”.   By 1907, more than 42 % of the population worked in industry and manufacturing and only 28 % still worked on the fields.  Numerous banks were founded, most prominently the Deutsche Bank in 1870,  explicitly aiming to “make us independent from England”.   German GDP rose accordingly quick fueling imperialistic ambitions.  In Great Britain, this rapid growth was watched carefully and the danger of losing the position as leading economy became a strategic theme in British politics.  Arthur Balfour remarked in 1907: “We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.”  Indeed, by 1900 Germany was exporting more steel than Great Britain and its export of chemical and electrical goods, the high-tech of the time. were significantly higher.  Many British people were shocked when the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 showed just how many products were “Made in Germany”.

HMS Dreadnought

The Germans, however, were not satisfied with their economic success alone.  A strong fleet was seen as a status symbol for a modern great power.  The Kaiserliche Marine had a very media-savvy promoter in Admiral Tirpitz.  Tirpitz not only convinced the Kaiser of the importance of a blue sea navy, he also made it a symbol for the ongoing modernization of Germany.  The Army was still dominated by the aristocracy, whereas the new navy became a pet-program for the national-liberal Bürgertum.  In 1890, the recently founded “Deutscher Flottenverein” had over half a million members and became, arguably, a successful nationalist pressure group.  The German fleet laws of 1898 and 1900 laid the foundation for a completely new fleet capable of competing with the Royal Navy.  The envisioned fleet was supposed to include over 40 battleships and around 52 big and small cruisers.  At first, British Members of Parliament were successful in restraining the naval spending.  This changed in 1909, when the so-called Naval Scare, a politically orchestrated campaign, pathed the way for an impressive increase of the Royal Navy.  In Great Britain, Germany soon replaced Russia as main antagonist.  On the other side of the North Sea, “perfidious Albion” was perceived as scheming against the Reich and denying it its rightful place as a great power.

An old nation with huge ambitions

Modern Communist China perceives itself as a reborn nation finally overcoming the so-called Century of Humiliation in which European powers could interfere at will in the affairs of the Middle Kingdom.  It’s the publicly stated aim of Xi’s Administration to bring China back to its former glory by “lead[ing] the reform of the global governance system”, expansion into the South China Sea, and by ‘unifying’ China, both ideologically and by acquisition of claimed territories.  Far from preaching an internationalist communism in 2014 Chairman Xi stressed the importance of patriotism as the “muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture”.  Indeed, the last years have shown how influential an ethnic nationalism has become.  In another key speech in 2018, Xi emphasized the importance of inner homogeneity: “We should adhere to the correct political direction, strengthen propaganda and ideology work to tightly unify the ideals and faith, the values and ideas and the morals and ethics of all our people.”

Countries which have signed upto China’s belt and road initiative 2019. By Owennson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78386561

A paramount part of this propaganda is the renewed crackdown on bad-faith influence from Western states.  In the so-called “Document 9” from 2013 the following sins are clearly stated: “Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy”, “Promoting ‘universal values’”, “Promoting civil society”, “Promoting Neoliberalism”, and “Promoting the West’s idea of journalism”.  The harsh measures taken in Hong Kong and against Uyghurs and Chinese opposition members complement the ideological unifying process.  This closely resembles the German attempts to marginalize ethnic and political minorities potentially opposed to the state.  The rejection of Western thoughts and the aimfully constructed exclusive nationalism are highly comparable.  The striving for possessing the South China Sea and claims of being denied their rightful role in the world could be understood as China’s demand of  its “place in the sun”.  Last, not least the Chinese “wolf-warriors” with their hyper-nationalistic tone, supposedly attending a certain sense of Chinese grandeur, willfully break as much diplomatic porcelain as their German predecessors did.

China’s rapid industrialization and its status as “the world’s factory” doesn’t need further explanation.  Interestingly, there is a historical parallel to China’s “One Belt, One Road” project.  In 1899, a German conglomerate, heavily supported by the Kaiser, was awarded a concession from the Ottomans to extend the Berlin–Istanbul railway all the way to Baghdad.  The concession included the rights on all minerals found in an area of 20 km on both sides of the railway and the right to found ports in the Persian Gulf.

Despite the high population density on the coast and the importance of fishing and transportation of goods, the Chinese lacked a strong fleet for most parts of the 19th and 20th centuries.  In 2016, marine industries, transportation and tourism by sea, and exploitation of ocean resources alone were responsible for 1/10 of China’s GDP.  China’s import of resources and its import and export of goods is mostly seaborne.  Even more importantly, 20–33 % of the whole world’s global sea trade runs through the South China Sea.  Yet the Chinese wish for a strong navy is not just an economic necessity.  Humiliations such as the Taiwan crisis in 1996, in which the USA sailed two whole aircraft carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait, led to the recognition that only a capable navy would allow the CCP to project power adequately.  The PLA Navy and its acquisitions in the South China Sea satisfy nationalist feelings by fulfilling a perceived historical entitlement, not unlike the German navy and the colonies once did.

How not to start another First World War?

The cardinal lesson is how easily such rivalries can lead into a world war.  Christopher Clark’s seminal study “The Sleepwalkers” has shown how nations can “sleepwalk” without clear intent into a disastrous war.  This can be avoided by finding ways of hedging and partializing certain areas of conflict.  This prevents chain reactions and feedback loops that lead into unforeseen catastrophe.  History has shown that strongly intermingled economies are no panacea for peace.  It’s vital to build strong alliances but the German’s “Niebelungentreue” to the Austrians, giving them unconditioned support for their aggressive foreign policy, is an important caveat for the possible pitfalls of alliances.  Both Korea and Taiwan could be the first domino-stone to fall instigating a new great war.  It’s very possible that we will experience more forms of hybrid warfare in Asia and Africa, however, political ‘fire doors’ should be implemented, e. g. the non-use of regular troops, to hinder regional conflicts from escalation.

The USA will have to accept that it will be no longer possible to stop China’s expansion by sheer force.  Even a 360-ship navy and a move to multi domain operations will not be able to operate successfully against China’s navy and air force in their backyard.  It would make more sense to invest the money for new ships and possibly useless missiles in cutting-edge cyber capabilities.  These are dearly needed to fend off economic and information warfare and can be used as a strong deterrence beneath the threshold of open warfare.  At the moment, the CCP arguably profits more from a semi-independent Taiwan, e. g. by importing semiconductors.  Of course, the nationalist propaganda in China together with economic and demographic instabilities, may force the CCP’s to initiate an invasion to stabilize the regime.  Arguably, the ongoing Chinese annexations in Bhutan already serve this aim.  The example of the German nationalist pressure groups, making it almost impossible for the administration to back down from a confrontational course against the Great Britain, has shown that nationalism is a two-sided sword for governments.  The USA should try to prevent such a scenario by abstaining from traditional saber rattling.

Pro-Tibet protestors in San Francisco. By BrokenSphere – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3898010

Accepting China’s military and economic strength and its role as a great power does, however, not mean that systemic conflicts should be ignored or potential Chinese transgressions overlooked.  The very reverse should be the case.  While the USA should be respectful to China as an independent nation, it should name systemic differences and emphasize that cooperation between the two nations is highly desired.  But not at any cost. Criticism of China’s transgressions will remain a paper tiger as long as most products in the USA are “Made in China” and national icons like the ivy league’s universities and Hollywood practice self-censor to make money in China.

The West should learn from the CCP’s playbook and use economical bargaining chips to reward or punish political behavior.  It would be highly advisable to compete in less military and more economic oriented ways.  The Corona virus crisis has shown the dangers of an overly globalized economy.  Cost-efficiency is important but so is resilience. A certain reindustrialization would lessen some of the more virulent social distortions in the USA.

All in all, the USA should take the rivalry sportingly, avoid war, and prove that the Western way of living is all but obsolete.



Julian Koeck

Julian Koeck is a historian. He has written a book about the German nationalistic voelkish movement before and after the First World War. He is currently working at the University of Heidelberg.


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