The leading power of the age is in relative decline, beset by political crisis at home and by steadily eroding economic prowess. Rising powers are jostling for position in the four corners of the world, some seeking a new place for themselves within the current global order, others questioning its very legitimacy. Democracy and despotism are locked in uneasy competition. A world economy is interconnected as never before by flows of money, trade, and people, and by the unprecedented spread of new, distance-destroying technologies. A global society, perhaps even a global moral consciousness, is emerging as a result. Small-town America rails at the excessive power of Wall Street. Asia is rising once again. And, yes, there's trouble in the Middle East.
In many ways, the world of 1913, the last year before the Great War, seems not so much the world of 100 years ago as the world of today, curiously refracted through time. It is impossible to look at it without an uncanny feeling of recognition, telescoping a century into the blink of an eye. But can peering back into the world of our great-grandparents really help us understand the world we live in today?
Let's get the caveats out of the way upfront. History does not repeat itself -- at least not exactly. Analogies from one period to another are never perfect. However tempting it may be to view China in 2013 as an exact parallel to Germany in 1913 (the disruptive rising power of its age) or to view the contemporary United States as going through the exact same experience as Britain a century ago (a "weary titan staggering under the too vast orb of its fate," as Joseph Chamberlain put it), things are never quite that straightforward. Whereas Germany in 1913 explicitly sought a foreign empire, China in 2013 publicly eschews the idea that it is an expansionist power (though it is perfectly clear about protecting its interests around the world). Whereas the German empire in 1913 had barely 40 years of history as a unified state behind it and was only slightly more populous that Britain or France, China in 2013 can look back on centuries of continuous history as a player in world affairs, and it now boasts one-fifth of the world's population. Whereas Germany's rise was a genuinely new geopolitical phenomenon in 1913, the rise of China today is more of a return to historical normality. These differences matter.
Similarly, the strengths and weaknesses of the United States in 2013 are not quite the same as those of Britain 100 years ago. Then, Britain benefited politically from being the world's banker and from being the linchpin of the gold standard. Today the United States, though benefiting politically and economically from being the issuer of the world's principal reserve currency, is hardly in the same position: The country is laden with debt. (One can argue about whether it should really be such a big issue that so much of that debt is owned by Chinese state entities -- after all, Beijing can't just dump Treasury bonds if it doesn't get what it wants from Washington. But Chinese ownership of U.S. debt feeds a perception of American decline, and perceptions of the relative powers of states matter a lot to how other countries treat them.) There are other differences between Britain in 1913 and the United States in 2013. Britain was never a military superpower on the order of the United States today. There was never a unipolar British moment. Britain in 1913 had slipped behind Germany industrially decades before, living more and more off the proceeds of the past; the United States in 2013 is still the world's largest economy and in many respects the most dynamic and most innovative.
Moreover, the global context in which powers rise and fall in the 21st century is not quite the same as the one of the early 20th. In 1913, a handful of empires, mostly European, ruled over most of the world. Only two countries in Africa -- Ethiopia and Liberia -- could claim to be truly independent. In 2013, the United Nations counts over 190 independent states among its membership. Fifty-two of these are African. In 1913, one in four of the world's people lived in Europe; now it's less than one in 10. And the web of international laws and institutions that bind the world together is much thicker now than it was 100 years ago, though it shouldn't be forgotten that the Hague conventions on the laws of war date from before World War I, while the forerunner of the International Court of Justice opened its doors to the world in -- you guessed it -- 1913.
But the fact that historical analogies are imperfect -- and the analogy between 1913 and 2013 is far from being seamless -- does not make them useless. It simply means that they need to be interpreted with care. As Mark Twain put it: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The task is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.
In the end, the utility of history to the decision-maker or to the policy analyst is not as a stock of neatly packaged lessons for the contemporary world, to be pulled off the shelf and applied formulaically to every situation. Rather, it is to hone a way of thinking about change and continuity, contingency and chance. Thinking historically can remind us of the surprises that can knock states and societies off course and, at the same time, can check our enthusiasm for believing that this time is different. The world of 1913, on the threshold of the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century yet by and large not expecting it, is a case in point. Sure, there is such a sin as misusing history -- abusing history, even. But there is a much worse mistake: imagining that we have escaped it.