Good news: World War I is over and will not happen again

Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).

It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.

The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications. 

This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.

The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come. 

As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.

This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.

But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.

The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.

There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation.  That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.

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National Security

Why George Packer is wrong about American engagement

George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.

So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."

I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.

Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.

Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions.  Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.

I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.

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