The parallels between 2014 and 1914

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill

The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a “war to end all wars” that killed some 20 million people and fundamentally transformed the international order in Europe and beyond.

“The question we face today,” asked Joseph Nye, one of America’s leading strategic thinkers and the University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, is “whether it could happen again.”

Quite possibly, says Margaret MacMillan, professor of international history at Oxford University and author of “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.” “We are witnessing,” writes Professor MacMillan, “as much as the world of 1914, shifts in the international power structure, with emerging powers challenging the established ones. Just as national rivalries led to mutual suspicions between Britain and the newly ascendant Germany before 1914, the same is happening between the U.S. and China now, and also between China and Japan.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has amplified Professor MacMillan’s warning. “Mr. Abe made his remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,” reports the London-based Economist, “Talking – on the record – to a group of journalists, Mr. Abe said that China and Japan are in ‘a similar situation’ to that of Germany and Britain a century ago. In a year that marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of that war, Mr. Abe is neither the first nor will he be the last to draw parallels. But as the leader of a country that would be on the front line of a renewed conflict, his words weigh more heavily than those of academics or journalists.”

Abe’s Davos warning, an Economist analysis points out, “was not so much about growing military rivalry and naval competition – though of course, with the tense dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, that is also a factor. Rather he was making a commonly made salutary argument: that those who think war is impossible between China and Japan because they are so intertwined economically overlook the way a previous wave of fast-growing trade and globalization ended – in a cataclysmic war.”

Are Japan and China on course to military conflict?

At least one Chinese speaker at Davos thought so. As Henry Blodget of Business Insider reports, “The influential Chinese professional does not seem so much worried about a military conflict as convinced that one is inevitable. And not because of any strategic value of the islands themselves, but because China and Japan increasingly hate each other. Then he stated that many in China believe that China can accomplish its goals – smacking down Japan, demonstrating its military superiority in the region, and establishing full control over the symbolic islands – with a surgical invasion.”

It is hard to imagine that leaders in Beijing may be seriously considering such a risky adventure. “But the risk of an accidental collision or clash,” according to the Economist, “between Chinese and Japanese boats or airplanes around the islands does make armed conflict a real possibility – even a probability.”

And since the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan clearly covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the risk of a China-Japan clash is indeed of a global conflict.

In a year-end lead editorial entitled “Look back with angst,” the Economist concludes with the following remarks, “A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the World War I. Humanity can learn from its mistakes. … The memory of the horrors unleashed a century ago makes leaders less likely to stumble into war today. So does the explosive power of a modern conflagration: the threat of a nuclear holocaust is a powerful brake on the reckless escalation. Yet the parallels remain troubling. The parallels are not exact, but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard. Which, by and large, it is not. The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.”

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.