Monday, July 21, 2014

Asia today echoes divided Europe of 1914

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Nothing in 1914 made war between the great powers of Europe inevitable, and nothing today makes war inevitable between the great powers of Asia. But four features of the European scene in 1914 made it harder for a small crisis to be contained, so that a great war that could easily have been avoided nonetheless happened. These four features should be our focus when we look for lessons from 1914 about what is happening in Asia today, and we should ask how far they are features of today’s world as well.

First, the hierarchy of European power in 1914 was very fluid and complex. We all know that a rising Germany was challenging British primacy. But at the same time, America and Japan were growing strong enough to affect the balance of power within Europe, and Russia was starting to take off economically and militarily. And other powers were in relative decline: not just Britain, but Austria-Hungary and France. No one was sure where they stood in the pecking order.

Second, in 1914 leaders still relied on the old diplomatic system of the 19th century to manage crises and keep the peace. They did not see that this old system was no longer working, because it did not match the new realities of power. The Concert of Europe built in 1815 had set limits on great-power quarrels that prevented Europe-wide wars, but those limits were breached when Germany took Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1871, and by others after that. In 1914, when statesmen tried to use the old system to manage the crisis, they found it was broken.

Third, political and military leaders in 1914 faced new military realities that they barely understood, especially the way railways had transformed how armies were assembled and deployed. They did not understand how much mass mobilisation by rail constrained their choices as conflict loomed, and they lost control of events.


Finally, they almost all underestimated their adversaries’ resolve. With perhaps one exception, no one wanted a war in 1914. But they all believed they could achieve their objectives without fighting for them, because they assumed the other side wanted war even less, and would back down first. By the time they realised their mistake, it seemed too late and too hard to back down themselves.

This is strange. The system of rigid alliances was supposed to predetermine each country’s actions, and leave no doubt about how they would all act. But an epidemic of wishful thinking in July 1914 made almost everyone assume that the other side’s alliances would not hold and so their opponents would not fight. 

The Serbs and the Russians assumed Germany would not support Austria; the Germans and the Austrians assumed Russia would not support Serbia; the Germans hoped France would not support Russia, and they assumed Britain would not support France or Belgium, and that Belgium would not fight at all. The British assumed no one would support anyone and the whole thing would blow over.

So no one understood that if they wanted to avoid war they would have to take a step back themselves. The war that no one wanted happened because everyone – almost everyone – believed they could get what they wanted without fighting, and they were all wrong.

Could this happen in Asia now? Well, let’s look at how far the factors that turned a crisis into a catastrophe in 1914 are evident in Asia today.

First, wealth and power are shifting in Asia today even faster than in Europe a century ago, especially as China and India grow, and as other powers fall back in relative terms. The Soviet collapse 25 years ago began the process, and Japan’s decades of stagnation since then have made its decline relative to China especially striking.

But the biggest shift is the swift eclipse of America’s unipolar moment. The obvious fact that America itself remains strong and vibrant, and is not declining in absolute terms, makes it hard to comprehend the speed, scale and significance of the change in its relative position compared with China. 

Second, as power shifts in Asia, the old order that has kept the region so peaceful for so long is breaking down, just as the Concert of Europe broke down before 1914. And as in 1914, people do not yet realise this. America has been the leading power and guarantor of regional stability for so long that few of us can even imagine that this might not always be so. We assume that America will make sure that no crises get out of hand, just as the Europeans in 1914 assumed that the old Concert would keep working. That prevents us looking for new and more effective ways to keep the peace.

Third, policymakers around Asia today have only the haziest idea of how a war in Asia would unfold. Geography dictates it would be fought at sea, but there have been no major maritime wars since 1945, so no one really knows what would happen. Even worse, a clash in Asia could bring nuclear-armed powers into direct conflict for the first time in history, and no one knows what that would mean either. As in 1914, there is a real danger that ill-understood military imperatives would overwhelm policymakers in an Asian crisis.

And finally, what is the risk that countries in Asia might underestimate one another’s resolve, as the Europeans did in 1914? Look at China and America today. Their primary strategic aims in Asia are incompatible: America wants to preserve the status quo based on US primacy, and China wants to build a new order in Asia based on Chinese primacy. Neither side wants a war, but there is a real risk that both believe they can achieve their aims without fighting for them, because they assume the other side wants a war even less than they do. They therefore assume the other side will back down to avoid a conflict, so they do not have to. In particular, China seems to assume America will not be willing to go war over an issue such as the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Instead, they apparently expect America to desert Japan if push comes to shove. Americans, on the other hand, expect China to back off.

And this is the biggest danger. There is a real chance they are both underestimating one another’s resolve. They therefore do not realise that to avoid a war that neither wants, both must be willing to step back halfway, because neither will give way completely. This is the most worrying parallel between 1914 and 2014. 

Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

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