Andrew Hammond: Different centuries, same global tensions

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There are parallels between 1914 and 2014 but, writes Andrew Hammond, enough differences to avoid a war

JULY 2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was 100 years ago this month that Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum and subsequently declared war on Serbia, setting off a chain reaction which engulfed European powers, including Germany, Russia and Britain, which entered the conflict soon after.

While another Great War cannot be ruled out, the prospect of this for the foreseeable future – despite current concerns following the shooting down of a passenger plane over Ukraine – is not as high as a century ago.

The relative global balance of power is different today than in 1914. Nuclear weapons and international institutions, especially the UN, generally act as a restraining force against major conflict that did not then exist.

Nevertheless, the world today does have parallels with the early 20th century. Once again, there is a significant movement in global power taking place. Today, power is shifting to key developing countries with Asia, especially China, primary beneficiaries so far. This contrasts with 1914 when Germany, Russia and the United States were the “rising nations”

As with 100 years ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as “revisionist nations”, including China and Russia, challenge elements of the US-led world order. This is partly driven by increasing economic power resurrecting nationalism and competing claims for resources, as witnessed by disputes between China and neighbouring South China Sea countries.

While much focus in 2014 has been on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and developments in Syria and Iraq, it is perhaps Asia where most tension and insecurity lie in terms of potential for a great power war. China’s remarkable rise is unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond. And dangers of miscalculation are growing, in part, because of military build-ups.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe drew parallels earlier this year between the geopolitical landscape in Asia today and Europe on the eve of war in 1914. Moreover, Philippine president Benigno Aquino recently compared what he claimed was Beijing’s track record of belligerent behaviour with German expansionism in the 20th century by openly questioning “at what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough?’”

Within Asia, potential triggers for a great power conflict include Taiwan, a US ally, which China claims sovereignty over. Another flashpoint could be an escalation of tension between Japan, with which the US has a security treaty, and China.

These risks are real and significant. However, there are clear differences today with the world of 1914 which, in the absence of catastrophic miscalculation, makes a major power war unlikely for the foreseeable future.

This is not least because memories of the First and Second World Wars linger. With justification, the First World War was described as the “greatest seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century by US diplomat George Kennan, who would later become the architect of the US Cold War containment strategy.

Aside from the many millions who died from 1914 to 1918, the First World War set in chain several developments which blighted the world for decades. These include the emergence of Communism in Russia and, as numerous historians assert, the rise of Nazi Germany and the seeds of the Second World War.

Another major difference between now and 1914 is the presence of nuclear weapons which, as during the Cold War, generally act as a brake on major power conflict. Revisionist nations, including China and Russia, as well as status quo powers such as the US and France, possess nuclear arsenals.

A further fundamental change is that, unlike 1914, there is now a dense web of post-war international institutions, such as the UN, which continue to have significant resilience and legitimacy decades after their creation. While they are imperfect, and in need of reform, they have generally enabled international security, especially with five of the key powers sitting on the UN Security Council.

Moreover, the relative balance between the two leading powers today is different than in 1914.

The gap between the US and China is greater today than that between the United Kingdom and Germany 100 years ago.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest consequence of the First World War was the dawn of a century in which the US emerged as the world’s most powerful nation. To be sure, the country has undergone relative decline, and China is forecast to become the largest economy in the world this year based on purchasing power parity data.

However, the US remains significantly ahead of China on most measures of national strength, including military might, and is likely to enjoy an advantage for years.

Unlike the United Kingdom in the 20th century, there are indications that the US will remain resilient for decades, buoyed by factors such as its energy revolution which has far-reaching geopolitical consequences.

Taken overall, the prospect of a major power war for the foreseeable future is not as high as in 1914.

The global balance of power is different, partly because of the resilience of the US, and partly because nuclear weapons and international institutions generally act as a restraining force.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a former UK Government Special Adviser