Opinion: How US and China Can Avoid Sleepwalking in War


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Project Syndicate) —As President Joe Biden’s administration implements its great power competition strategy with China, analysts are looking for historical metaphors to explain the escalation of the rivalry. But while many cite the start of the Cold War, a more disturbing historical metaphor is the start of World War I. In 1914, all the great powers expected a short Third Balkan War. Instead, as British historian Christopher Clark has shown, they sleepwalking in a conflagration that spanned four years, destroyed four empires and killed millions of people.

At the time, leaders did not pay enough attention to changes in the international order that used to be called the “concert of Europe”. One important change has been the growing strength of nationalism. In Eastern Europe, Panslavism threatened both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, which had large Slavic populations. German writers wrote about the inevitability of Teutonic-Slavic battles, and textbooks ignited nationalist passions.

The White House’s gradual approach to China was aimed at strengthening the United States’ position before fully engaging with Beijing. But as the WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains, a few issues could soon lead to a one-on-one meeting between President Biden and Xi Jinping. Photographic illustration: Todd Johnson

Nationalism has proven to be a stronger bond than socialism for the working classes of Europe, and a stronger bond than capitalism for European bankers.

There was a terrible awkwardness about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pursuit of greater power. Something similar can be seen with President Xi Jinping.

In addition, there was a growing complacency towards peace. The great powers had not been involved in a war in Europe for 40 years. Of course, there had been crises – in Morocco in 1905-06, in Bosnia in 1908, in Morocco again in 1911, and the Balkan wars in 1912-13 – but they had all been manageable. The diplomatic compromises that resolved these conflicts, however, fueled frustration and growing support for revisionism.

Many leaders came to believe that a short decisive war won by the fittest would be a welcome change.

A third cause of the loss of flexibility in the international order at the turn of the 20th century was German policy, which was ambitious but vague and confusing. There was a terrible awkwardness about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pursuit of greater power. Something similar can be seen with President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, his abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s patient approach and the excesses of China’s “wolf warrior” nationalist diplomacy.

Inadvertent escalation

Policymakers today need to be alert to the rise of nationalism in China as well as populist chauvinism in the United States. Combined with China’s aggressive foreign policy, a history of dead ends and unsatisfactory compromises on Taiwan, the prospects for an inadvertent escalation between the two powers exist.

As Clark puts it, once disasters like World War I occur, “they impose on us (or appear to do) a sense of their necessity.” But in 1914, Clark concludes, “the future was still open, fair. Despite all the hardening of the fronts in both European armed camps, there were signs that the time for a major confrontation might have passed.

A successful strategy must prevent sleepwalking syndrome.

By 1914 Austria had had enough of upstart Serbian nationalism. The assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian terrorist was a perfect pretext for an ultimatum. Before going on vacation, the German kaiser decided to dissuade a rising Russia and support its Austrian ally by handing Austria a diplomatic blank check. When he returned and learned how Austria had filled it in, he tried to retract it, but it was too late.

Such a strategy can be successful if the United States avoids ideological demonization and deceptive Cold War analogies, and maintains its alliances.

The United States hopes to deter China from using force and preserve the legal vacuum of Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province. For years, US policy has been designed to discourage Taiwan’s declaration of de jure independence as well as the use of force by China against the island. Today, some analysts are warning that this policy of double deterrence is outdated, as China’s growing military might could spur its leaders to act.

Others believe that an outright guarantee to Taiwan or hints that the United States is moving in that direction would spur China to act. But even if China avoids a full-scale invasion and simply tries to coerce Taiwan with a blockade or by taking one of its offshore islands, all bets would be wrong if an incident involving ships or planes resulted in casualties of life. If the United States responds by freezing assets or invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act, the two countries’ metaphorical war could quickly become a reality.

The lessons of 1914 are to beware of sleepwalking, but they do not provide a solution to the management of the Taiwan problem.

Successful diplomacy begins at home

A successful US strategy towards China begins at home. We must preserve democratic institutions that attract rather than constrain allies, invest in research and development that maintains America’s technological advantage, and keep America open to the world.

Externally, the United States would have to restructure its traditional military forces to accommodate technological change; strengthen alliance structures, including NATO and agreements with Japan, Australia and South Korea; strengthen relations with India; strengthen and complement the international institutions that the United States helped create after World War II to set standards and manage interdependence; and cooperate with China to the extent possible on transnational issues.

So far, the Biden administration has followed such a strategy, but 1914 is a constant reminder of caution.

In the short term, given Xi’s authoritarian policies, the United States will likely have to spend more time on the rivalry side of the equation. But such a strategy can be successful if the United States avoids the ideological demonization and deceptive Cold War analogies, and maintains its alliances. In 1946, George Kennan correctly predicted a decades-long confrontation with the Soviet Union. The United States cannot contain China, but it can constrain China’s choices by shaping the environment in which it operates.

If the Sino-American relationship were a hand of poker, Americans would recognize that they received a good hand and avoid succumbing to fear or belief in the decline of the United States. But even a good hand can lose if played poorly.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of “Do Morals Matter?” Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump.

This comment was posted with permission from Project Syndicate – The China Sleepwalking Syndrome.

Learn more about China from the experts at Project Syndicate:

Raghuram G. Rajan: Risky crackdown on Chinese companies threatens to block innovation and growth

Anne-Marie Slaughter: America must be honest about its failures

Chang-Tai Hsieh: US policy towards China is misguided, as it would actually strengthen China and weaken the United States

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