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Foreign Policy

Time to wake up!

Jun 28, 2024

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“Both China and the United States seem to be sleepwalking toward a cross-strait confrontation at some point within the next decade.” 

So concludes Yale professor Odd Arne Westad in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. In “Sleepwalking toward War,” he argues that current U.S.-China relations have worrisome parallels to the missteps of the Germans and the British in the lead-up to World War I. 

“China should remember that one of Germany’s major mistakes before World War I was to stand by as Austria-Hungary harassed its neighbors in the Balkans even as German leaders appealed to the high principles of international justice. This hypocrisy helped produce war in 1914. Right now, China is repeating that mistake with its treatment of Russia.” 

“Sleepwalkers” is a powerful meme because it springs from the sorry example of World War I, one of the most futile, and arguably avoidable, wars ever fought. 

As Harvard professor Joseph Nye wrote in “The China Sleepwalking Syndrome” in 2021, the World War I analogy is a compelling one. 

In a 2022 article for Foreign Policy entitled, “The West Is Sleepwalking Into War in Ukraine,” Harvard professor Stephen Walt also invokes the meme, but uses it instead to criticize America’s headlong rush to support Ukraine. 

Nye, also a frequent contributor to this publication, wrote on this topic for China-U.S. Focus last December

“The best historical analogy is not Cold War Europe after 1945 but pre-war Europe in 1914. European leaders welcomed what they thought would be a brief conflict in the Balkans, but instead got the four terrible years of World War I.” 

“The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” is also a respected, influential work by historian Christopher Clark ,whose title has clearly helped to set the terminology of the current debate. 

Westad uses Clark’s term, but instead references another work on the topic, namely “The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914,” by Paul Kennedy. 

The vivid metaphor of sleepwalking into war is powerful stuff, but one should remember that history – the essential reading of which offers a rough guide to how events might play out in the future based on how they unfolded in the past – is wide open to interpretation. 

Although many basic facts can be agreed upon, who’s to say things happened precisely as current wisdom has it? Scholars get some things right, some things wrong. Historians argue with one another all the time. An overly ambitious academic might seek to make their narrative the last word on the topic, but that doesn’t put the matter to rest, because restless minds will continue to pore over material, look for discrepancies and turn it upside down if necessary to shed new light on the topic. 

Who’s to say history will repeat itself? Or, as the perhaps apocryphal quote attributed to Mark Twain has it, “history doesn’t so much repeat itself as rhyme.” 

Of all the great power rivalries, why compare the U.S. and China to the UK and Germany? If nothing else, it’s a Eurocentric analogy. What about the lessons of Asian history? If the sleepwalk to World War 1 has become something of a cliché, what about that other great metaphor, the “the road to Pearl Harbor?” 

When China was first invaded by Japan, the U.S. looked on with concern, but didn’t do much about it, not unlike China’s weak-voiced position to date on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

In the 1930s, despite Japan's continued aggressions in China, U.S.-Japan business remained brisk. China was far away, so it wasn’t seen as America’s fight. Few if any vital American interests were at stake when Japan swept into Manchuria, so the business of business continued. 

As the global sense of outrage grew, Japan then, like Russia now, was faced with material shortages as Western countries began to apply sanctions and embargo Japan. But even as Japan’s military incursion reached China proper after the Marco Polo Bridge incident near Beijing, only half-hearted attempts were made to negotiate a peace.

The indecisiveness of the international response brings to mind the recent Ukraine Peace conference which excluded Russia, which China elected not to attend, and which saw a number of countries including Brazil, India and Thailand, express ambivalence about the process. 

According to a U.S. State Department summary of the “road to Pearl Harbor,” both sides made miscalculations. 

“Faced with serious shortages as a result of the embargo, unable to retreat, and convinced that the U.S. officials opposed further negotiations, Japan’s leaders came to the conclusion that they had to act swiftly.” 

While the U.S. side was not against negotiation in principle, talks languished because the U.S. assumed, incorrectly, that Japan lacked the military prowess necessary to attack across the Pacific. 

The National World War II Museum remembers it this way: 

“War is fickle. What if rapid victory eluded Japan? The country was, once again, facing an enemy with vast human and material resources. If Japan didn’t win quickly, it probably wouldn’t win at all.” 

If such scenarios, firmly in the past tense, pose endless fodder for the historian, how much more challenging is it in the present tense when the kinetic conflict, or avoidance of such, is still in the future? 

Nye argues in his “sleepwalking” article that the U.S. cannot and should not attempt to contain China, but is well within its rights and self-interest as a norm-setting nation to “constrain” China by exercising its influence in the global order. 

“In the near term, given Xi’s assertive policies, the US will probably have to spend more time on the rivalry side of the equation. But such a strategy can succeed if the US avoids ideological demonization and misleading Cold War analogies.” 

Trying to constrain is smarter and more nuanced than trying to contain. There’s a bit of wordplay going on, but perhaps that’s the kind of memorable nuance that will help keep the peace. 

In the meantime, the so-called global order which grants the U.S., in concert with its allies, the power to constrain others is itself hotly contested. As noted by Westad in his variation of the “sleepwalking” thesis, a white paper published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in June 2022: 

“What the United States has constantly vowed to preserve is a so-called international order designed to serve the United States’ own interests and perpetuate its hegemony.” 

One of the few things all sides in the current debate are sure to be in agreement on is that it’s time to wake up.

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