Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun

World War I began in Europe in August 1914, just over 100 years ago — a fact Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January.

Some 20 million people were killed during the war. In one battle, the Somme, there were 1.3 million casualties. World War I was a horrifying war that destroyed three European empires: German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian. Until World War I, the global balance of power was centered in Europe. After World War I, Europe still mattered, but the United States and Japan emerged as great powers. World War I also ushered in the Russian Revolution in 1917, prepared the way for fascism and accelerated the ideological battles that wracked the 20th century.

Was the war inevitable? Are there lessons for today? The Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf writes that “history, alas, teaches us that friction between status quo and revisionist powers may well lead to conflict, however ruinous the consequences. Indeed, Thucydides the great ancient historian, argued that the calamitous Peloponnesian War was due to the alarm that the growing power of Athens inspired in Sparta.” Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan adds that “it is tempting — and sobering — to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and Britain a century ago.”

Citing Thucydides in regard to the rise of China is not new. I plead guilty to having published such a comparison 15 years ago. But historical metaphors and analogies can be misleading when differences in context are not made explicit. To some extent, World War I was caused by the rise in the power of Germany and the fear that created in Great Britain. But it was also caused by the rise in the power of Russia and the fear that created in Germany, the rise of Slavic nationalism and the fear that created in Austria-Hungary, as well as a myriad of other factors that differed from ancient Greece.

There is greater difference in the overall power of the U.S. and China today than there was between Germany and Britain in the last century. Germany had already passed Britain in industrial strength by 1900, while China will not equal the United States in per capita income for decades. Thus, there is more time to manage the relationship and avoid mistakes. There is less reason to succumb to fear.

Metaphors can be useful as general precautions, but they become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. There are structural similarities about the three situations — ancient Greece, World War I and contemporary U.S.-China relations — but also important differences in context that allow opportunities for leadership choices to matter. War is never inevitable. With good policy choices, there is no reason to believe that the horrible history of World War I will repeat itself.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of “The Future of Power.”


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