A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 3, 2022

Why Ukraine Example Will Prevent the US and China From "Stumbling Into War"

Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was accompanied by a chorus of hand-wringing commentary from major media, warning - as they have also done about Russia - that doing anything too bold might set the Chinese leadership off. 

Pelosi has now left Taiwan - to overwhelmingly positive, bi-partisan (!) support - and the Chinese were left doing live-fire exercises at a distance to demonstrate their fruitless frustration. The reality is that after Russia's embarrassment in Ukraine, the cost of behaving irresponsibly is too high. And China's Xi knows it. JL 

Hal Brands reports in Bloomberg:

Wars don’t happen by accident. They happen when countries knowingly take military risks to achieve their political objectives. World War I was not an accidental war that policy makers “sleepwalked” into. A determined but anxious Germany was willing to take risks to achieve goals it could not attain through peaceful means. The resulting conflagration was part of a longer-running clash between liberalism and illiberalism. (And) if Europe enjoyed 25 years of relative stability after the Cold War, it was largely because the US preserved its commitments on the continent, so as to avoid the sort of cascading chaos that had followed World War I.

The systematic study of international relations, in universities and think tanks, was a response to the war of 1914-1918. Many ideas that shape current debates on foreign policy grew out of interpretations of how that war started and why it failed to produce a lasting peace. Even today, when analysts warn of an unwanted war with China, or bemoan America’s alleged lack of magnanimity following its victory in the Cold War, they are invoking perceived lessons of World War I.

Alas, some of the most commonly held ideas about the war are wrong — and they deeply skew our understanding of the modern world. For the U.S. to thrive in the great rivalries shaping this century, it must better understand the conflict that ushered in the last.

World War I was not an accidental war, or one that policy makers “sleepwalked” into. A determined but anxious Germany was willing to take risks to achieve goals it could not attain through peaceful means. The resulting conflagration was not a pointless slugfest. It was part of a longer-running clash between liberalism and illiberalism. And the fatal flaw of the postwar peace was not that it was too harsh; the trouble was that America’s strategic withdrawal from Europe destabilized the complex set of arrangements that might have made that settlement last.


Wars typically don’t happen by accident. They happen when countries knowingly take military risks to achieve their political objectives. Yet the myth that conflict can erupt even when no one wants it persists, and it traces back to a particular understanding of World War I.

Europe “slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war,” David Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the last two years of the conflict, later wrote. Hair-trigger military plans, interlocking alliance commitments and rampant nationalism — according to this interpretation — turned the assassination of an Austrian archduke into an all-consuming conflict that the combatants would have preferred to avoid.

The truth is far closer to what some German historians began to argue in the 1960s and 1970s: The taproot of the conflict was ambition and risk-taking in Berlin.

Following unification in 1871, Germany became a military and economic heavyweight. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it pursued primacy in continental Europe, bid for colonies and global influence, and constructed a navy to rival Britain’s. By the early 1900s, Germany was increasingly turning to provocation and coercion. This catalyzed the formation of an opposing alliance: the Triple Entente between the UK, France and Russia.

By 1914, Germany was facing encirclement. Its one real ally, Austria-Hungary, was fading because of internal tensions and challenges in the Balkans. German leaders began to think that they had to strike immediately or accept decline on the installment plan. Germany must “defeat the enemy while we still stand a chance of victory,” argued the chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, even if that meant “provoking a war.”

This is not to say that German leaders wanted the global conflict they ultimately got. But they were willing to risk a major war against France and Russia, even a continental one, in hopes of breaking up the opposing coalition and clearing the way to European primacy.

German leaders encouraged Austria-Hungary to crush Serbia — ostensibly to avenge the death of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that June — despite the strong possibility that Russia and France would respond by joining that conflict. They torpedoed British efforts to mediate the crisis.

And as that crisis intensified, the German military pushed ahead with plans for a lightning attack on France through neutral Belgium, despite the government’s belated recognition that this would cause Britain, too, to intervene. “Lord yes,” Germany had fought a “preventive war,” Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg said, in hopes of achieving a decisive victory before it was too late.

Other countries were not blameless. Serbia’s support for terrorists sparked the crisis in the first place. Russia and France did not seek war, but neither did they wish to see Austria-Hungary secure hegemony in the Balkans. Yet it was German power and assertiveness that had polarized Europe — and Berlin did nearly nothing to avert a big war during the July crisis while doing much to precipitate one.

The one thing that might have shifted Germany’s calculus in July 1914 was a clear statement from Britain that it would intervene, thereby bolstering French defenses and making the conflict a global one that Berlin probably could not win. But the British government did not issue such a statement until war was imminent, mostly because the government was, until the German assault through Belgium, sharply divided on the issue. On the allied side, then, World War I resulted less from a failure of de-escalation than a failure of deterrence.

The conflict that ensued has often been seen as an amoral clash of empires. The Bolshevik regime in Russia, which came to power in 1918 and quickly made peace with Germany, promoted this critique by releasing secret treaties in which the Allies had planned to carve up the territory of their enemies. In the 1920s and 1930s, a cohort of historians and commentators adopted this view that the war had simply been an omni-directional imperial landgrab, and ultimately pointless because it failed to produce a better peace.

But World War I was far from pointless because it averted the danger of German primacy in Europe and perhaps beyond. The war aims of Imperial Germany during World War I — crushing France and Russia, achieving economic and political hegemony in Europe, conquering huge swaths of land and resources in the east — were not so different than the war aims of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Had autocratic Germany won the war, as it nearly did in 1914 and again in 1918, it would have attained dominance on land and been poised to exert great influence across the seas. A German victory, the journalist Walter Lippmann later wrote, would have “made the world unsafe for the American democracies from Canada to the Argentine.”

Moreover, World War I was very much a battle of ideas. In great-power contests throughout history, ideological tensions have fueled geopolitical tensions, and clashes over the balance of power have shaped the balance of political ideals. World War I was part of the overarching struggle of the 20th century — the contest between liberalism and its enemies.

British and French observers believed that the war was so fateful because it pitted democracy and the rule of law against tyranny and an ethos of aggression. The invasion and rape of neutral Belgium reinforced this impression that the Germans were, in Lloyd George’s words, the “throned Philistines of Europe,” so dangerous because they combined great power with autocratic brutality.

Many Germans agreed that the contest of arms was also a contest of systems. German intellectuals argued that the country’s mixed but mostly autocratic political model was superior to that of the Western democracies. They derided, as the historian Wolfgang Mommsen reminds us, the “all-powerful tyranny of individualism” and celebrated Germans who devoted themselves to the purposes of the state.

And just as Otto von Bismarck had once declared that the great issues of the day would be settled by “blood and iron,” prominent Germans argued that might made right. It was “the measure of strength, war, which always decides biologically, and therefore fairly,” wrote one retired general shortly before the war began.

In this context, US President Woodrow Wilson — who saw the war in both ideological and geopolitical terms, and famously described it as a struggle to make the world safe for democracy — was hardly the starry-eyed outlier he is often thought to be.

What made this democracy-autocracy framing awkward was that despotic, czarist Russia had sided with the Allies. Yet this made the initial, relatively liberal Russian revolution of early 1917 exhilarating. Russia had joined “the forces that are fighting for freedom in the world, for justice, and for peace,” Wilson declared, and had thus ideologically purified the war America would now join.

If anything, the ideological dimensions of the war became sharper with time. Russia, following the Bolshevik revolution later that year, left the war. Germany slipped deeper into outright military dictatorship. The Atlantic powers, now including the US, ultimately triumphed by forging an overwhelming coalition of liberal democracies.

World War I featured “a new level of international cooperation,” writes historian Adam Tooze, by nations that combined their resources to promote shared interests as well as “common values.”

Alas, that cooperation didn’t bring lasting peace. World War I led, just 20 years later, to an even more devastating crackup. Before the ink was dry on the Versailles Treaty in 1919, British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the peace had failed because of its harsh, vindictive nature. To this day, there persists a widespread view that Versailles crippled Germany economically, destabilized it politically, and paved the way for Hitler and all that followed.

Germany didn’t get off easy. The Versailles Treaty stripped it of 13% of its prewar land and 10% of its population. That treaty left Germany with limited sovereignty in parts of its remaining territory. The victors imposed strict limitations on the German military. Most gallingly, Germany had to accept moral responsibility for the war and commit to pay 132 billion gold marks in reparations.

Yet Versailles was not dramatically more punitive than the peace Germany had imposed on France in 1871, when it annexed Alsace and Lorraine and required Paris to pay a large indemnity. It was not remotely as Carthaginian as the treaties Germany forced on Romania and Russia after knocking them out of World War I, placing nearly all of Russia’s coal mines, half its industry, and roughly one-third of its population under effective German control.

Nor did Versailles deprive Germany of its key industrial areas, which ensured that the country — once it recovered — would again be Europe’s most powerful state. Indeed, the treaty arguably improved Germany’s strategic position: The breakup of the great empires in Eastern Europe meant that its neighbors were mostly small and weak. Even the reparations were not so crushing, because Germany paid a total of only 22 billion gold marks between 1918 and 1932.

In some ways, Germany faced a far harsher peace after World War II, when the country was split in two for decades. Yet today’s re-unified Germany is a linchpin of the democratic order.

So why didn’t the post-World War I settlement succeed?

One reason was that many Germans never saw it as legitimate. Because the war had ended with German troops still occupying foreign soil, the reality of military defeat was not carried home as happened during World War II. It was all too easy for Germans to believe, and for unscrupulous leaders to tell them, that the country had not actually been beaten in the field, and that any restrictions imposed on it were unjust.

The larger problem, as historian Robert Kagan shows, was the US. It was possible to imagine a stable postwar settlement, but that would have required America to embrace a hegemonic role in Europe. Only Washington had the money to rebuild Europe economically. Only it could forgive British and French war debts, allowing them to reduce the reparations payments that so embittered Germany. Only the US could provide France with the reassurance and security that would have allowed it to rehabilitate Germany rather than trying, futilely, to hold it down.

World War I had broken the European balance, so any structure of peace had to rest upon a foundation of American power. When the US withdrew much of that power from Europe, rejecting the Versailles Treaty in the Senate and then disengaging strategically during the 1920s, the structure collapsed. It was not a lack of compassion that doomed the peace. It was a lack of American commitment.

Today, the US and its allies again face the reality of great-power rivalry and the possibility of great-power war. To fare well, they’ll need to grasp the real lessons of World War I.

Consider the issue of what causes wars between great powers. Influential observers have warned that the US and China could stumble into a war that no one wants, such as a conflict that escalates wildly after an accidental naval collision in the South China Sea. Following this logic, Washington should focus on establishing the crisis-management mechanisms that can allow the two sides to resolve such incidents peacefully.

But the greater danger, in light of Beijing’s unyielding military buildup and its increasingly coercive conduct, is surely a non-accidental war that starts because China believes it can best attain its objectives regarding Taiwan or the Philippines by force. De-escalation may once again be less important than deterrence, achieved by maintaining the military strengths and clarity of intentions that make Beijing realize what Berlin did not — that a resort to war will bring only catastrophe.

Similarly, the idea that World War I was not about great ideas has its echo in “realist” arguments that today’s rivalries are merely arid struggles over global power. This view obscures critical differences between Washington and its rivals, not least the fact that the US has been able to build an impressive global coalition because its democratic ideals make it such an attractive partner.

It also misses some root causes and essential characteristics of today’s rivalries — the fact that both China and Russia are inherently threatened by a powerful, democratic US, and that both countries are trying to create an international system that will privilege autocracy rather than democracy. You can’t understand World War I without understanding the ideological passions that infused that conflict — just as you can’t understand current affairs without understanding how conflicting political systems promote conflicting views of world order.

Finally, the “vengeful peace” myth lives on, in mostly unhelpful ways. After the Cold War, for instance, critics argued that expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was creating a Weimar Russia — an angry, humiliated power that would surely rebel against an unjust settlement imposed when it was weak.

Yet those arguments ignored all the ways Washington appeased and conciliated post-Soviet Russia: bringing it into the Group of 7, and refusing, until 2014, to station NATO forces in Eastern Europe. They ignored how Russia had traditionally sought to dominate countries along its borders and — regardless of what policy the US pursued — probably would do so again once it regained its strength. Such reasoning informed policy prescriptions, such as calls to cede Moscow a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, that would have left the West more vulnerable when the Russian resurgence eventually came.

Indeed, if Europe enjoyed 25 years of relative stability after the Cold War, it was largely because the US preserved and even extended its commitments on the continent, so as to avoid the sort of cascading chaos that had followed World War I.

More than 100 years after it ended, the Great War lives on in our understanding of war, peace and the way the world works. Yet if history is to be a good guide to statecraft in a new era of danger, we must first get the past right.


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