What Can China Learn from World War I

Jul 25 , 2014

The centennial of World War I is being commemorated this month, however this was not a major event in China’s history. In fact, other than a little known battle in which a combined Japanese-British force conquered a German garrison in Qingdao in Shandong Province, the war was fought far away, and most Chinese were barely aware of it. But one hundred years later some lessons of the 51-month war, one of the longest and deadliest in human history, carry great importance for China’s future as it becomes a global power.

First, the war taught us that contrary to common belief globalization and economic interdependency are not guarantors of peace and stability. During the pre-war years the world experienced the biggest wave of globalization with an unprecedented flow of goods, capital, information and workers, enabled by secure sea lanes, telegraphs and free trade policies. Just like today, economic integration was viewed as a cementing force in world politics and an antidote to international conflict. A hugely popular book, titled “The Great Illusion”, published in 1909 by the British author Norman Angell, argued that the economies of European countries had grown so interdependent that war between them would be entirely futile and therefore unlikely. With the war’s outbreak globalization reached a grinding halt. Ten million people were killed on the battlefield; the high seas were littered with warships and submarines; millions of tons of cargo were sent to the bottom of the ocean. Today, we are again told that international war is unlikely due to the interconnectedness of modern economies.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman popularized the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, asserting that in the era of globalization no two countries that have a McDonalds are likely to fight a war against each other. But globalization can be a stabilizing force only up to the point it faces strong pushback from nationalism and religious fervor. Time and again we have witnessed countries – Iran and Russia are the latest cases in point – taking action that is starkly opposed to their economic interests. What China should learn from World War I is that the globalized world is more brittle than it seems. In tough economic times, there tends to be a backlash against free trade, sparking domestic pressures for tariffs and protectionism while open immigration often breeds deep frustrations and xenophobia. Such domestic pressures can create deep rifts among countries that are economically intertwined, and under some circumstances can even lead to war. The real Great Illusion is that Facebook, McDonalds and free trade agreements can shield the world from conflict. The same backlash against globalization that happened in Europe in the early 20th century can happen again should the global economy continue to flounder.

The second lesson has to do with the dangers of entangling alliances. World War I was a classic example of how alliance obligations turn local conflicts into global ones, forcing major powers to fight against each other on behalf of minor client states. The danger of entangling alliances was highlighted 122 years before the outbreak of the war by President George Washington in his Farewell Address in which he warned that treaties could embroil the U.S. in unnecessary wars and diplomatic morasses. His warning was heeded until the end of the Second World War. But then the U.S. signed the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which formed NATO, and three years later the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Japan. Altogether Washington today has 60 treaty allies. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would join Japan in a war against China over the East China Sea islands or that it would fight Russia over scraps of one former Soviet republic or another, but it was equally unlikely one hundred years ago that France and England would go to war with Germany and Austria-Hungary over a marginal conflict with Serbia. It happened then; it could happen again. While the U.S. is becoming increasingly entangled in its alliance obligations – whether formal or informal – in Eastern Europe and Asia, China should avoid falling into the alliance trap. Though the number of its friends and economic partners is surely on the rise, China has been criticized for having no strategic allies in the world. But lack of strategic alliances should not necessarily be viewed as a problem. As World War I taught us, alliances do not always generate security. In fact, in many cases the opposite is true. Minor allies can drag major powers into war.

The third lesson has to do with the dynamism of the international system. Before the war the world’s policeman was based in London, stretched thin and burdened by colonial responsibilities, arms races, imperial skirmishes, rebellions and minor wars. The war marked the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the beginning of the decline of the British Empire while giving rise to new global powers such as the United States, Germany and Japan. This happened with remarkable speed. When in 1917 American troops crossed the Atlantic to join the war effort they were beggars in uniform, dependent on their allies for arms.

Within a quarter century with defense spending equal to that of the next 14 militaries combined, the U.S. military turned into the most powerful military in the world. But America’s hegemony is not eternal. In fact, its prominence is already eroding, albeit at a glacial pace. China should prepare itself for the possibility that a catalyzing and seminal event, be it war, financial crisis or an epic natural disaster, would accelerate the shift from a unipolar to a multi-polar system, similar to the global system that existed a century ago. In such a case China would be called upon to take on more global responsibilities and to carve itself a global agenda beyond facilitating prosperity and economic opportunity for its people. In learning how to maneuver in a multi-polar world China should turn to the pre-World War I era as its textbook case and study the lessons of great power politics.

Many experts believe that the era of great wars is over. Let us hope that this is the case. China emerged unscratched from the First World War and deeply wounded from the Second. In learning the lessons of 1914 it can help the world avoid the third.

Gal Luft is Co-Director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.


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