History Repeating?

2014 marks 100 years since WWI, which means many people will be applying lessons from 1914 to today. Don't listen to them says Steve Saideman.
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January 3, 2014

As it is exactly 100 years since the start of the First World War, we are going to see a lot of stories this year saying something about how 1914 speaks to today... as if World War III may break out soon.  Of course, anytime somebody says it ain't gonna happen, folks mention the various experts who said in 1914 that war was not going happen that year.  Still, if Vegas set an over/under line on world wars in 2014 at one, I would bet on the under – that there will not be a world war this year.

Of course, this depends on what one means by a world war.  Would a conflict that involves multiple hemispheres (north and south or east and west – I am not picky) count?  How about one that involves at least two great powers on either side? Or just two superpowers, like if the cold war got hot – but there is only one superpower still, right?

Of course, then we would have to figure out which countries count as great powers, and that is not always easy.  My list would include the U.S., China, Russia, and maybe Japan, Germany, France, and the U.K. And if we really want to stretch the definition, perhaps Brazil, India, Indonesia, and a few other places.  Great powers are countries that can project power around the world, so everyone with nukes and the ability to deliver them beyond their neighbouring countries stand up (the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, India – if you have a space program, you can drop nukes far away).  We can come up with other lists, but the question of WW or not WW basically entails whether some combo of the U.S., China, and Russia (with European countries to be named later) will start fighting.

So, what is the likelihood that the U.S. will engage in a war with China and/or Russia?  Pretty close to zero.  Why?  Those aforementioned nuclear weapons have a great deal to do with it – MAD and all that.  The difference between 1914 and 2014 is a complete reversal in preemption temptation.  In 1914, there was a sense that striking first had great advantages and most countries had war plans built on that assumption.  Now, attacking first just means you make more rubble bounce, but that won’t save your own country from total annihilation.  MAD ain't perfect (there is the ye olde Stability-Instability Paradox), but I’m pretty sure the preemption temptation is not relevant 100 years after the First World War.

There is, however, one thing to be concerned about – the First World War became a world war because the need to maintain alliances and credibility caused a small war between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to expand to the rest of Europe and beyond.  A valid question in 2014 is whether alliances might cause a small dispute to escalate into something larger. Tensions between China and Japan are suggestive, as the U.S. would be pulled in on the side of Japan.  The problem with this line of argument is that, again, folks might be applying 1914 analogies to the initial escalation process.

The good news, in terms of alliance politics, is that the potential adversaries of the U.S. are not nearly as tied to their allies as the various actors were in the lead up to First World War.  Who is Russia committed to?  Yes, Russia has supported Assad in a variety of ways, but Syria is more of a client than an ally.  Russia’s security does not depend on Syria, nor has Russia made a clear alliance commitment to Syria.  Who else is Russia allied with?  The same goes for China. China is far less committed to supporting whatever North Korea is up to these days.  Sure, North Korea would probably love to drag China into a war, but, again, China’s security does not hinge on the credibility of that alliance.

Really, only the U.S. and its allies are in danger of being dragged into a war in order to protect the credibility of an alliance.  Libya might have been one such war.  This is why Georgia should not be allowed into NATO, as it would be the most likely ally to see an alliance commitment as a green light to provoke a conflict with Russia.

The positive news here is that the U.S. is exhausted.  Its military is tired, its economy is frayed, and its people are sick of war. Recent surveys have shown that even the “good war” is no longer popular.  So the U.S. is unlikely to allow itself to get sucked into any new war anytime soon. 

One last important difference between 1914 and 2014: in a nuclear world, allies are convenient but are not ultimately necessary.  No nuclear power with a second strike capability has to go to war to protect an ally – it would be a choice, not a compulsion.  The only existential threats such countries face are the arsenals of the other states with nuclear weapons.

So, again, there would be far less pressure to enter a war one does not want to protect a commitment one does not really need.  As the co-author of a new book on alliance behaviour, I don’t want to say that alliances are irrelevant, but as a scholar of international relations, I have to say that alliances in 2014 are not the same as alliances in 1914.

Sure, anniversaries are swell. And we should be thinking about how the past still matters today, because it does.  Just don't buy into what the fear mongers are mongering.