Here’s an interesting thought: we may be months away from World War III. This, in essence, is the argument by an op-ed in The Economist’s holiday issue. Looking back at new year 1914, the (unnamed) author concludes that the world back then was living in globalized prosperity and no one saw the catastrophe coming. This complacency, the author writes, was in part to blame for the war’s outbreak. A hundred years later, the author finds a similar complacency with regard to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea:
Yet the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power. The parallels are not exact—China lacks the Kaiser’s territorial ambitions and America’s defence budget is far more impressive than imperial Britain’s—but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard.
Which, by and large, it is not. The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago.
The comparison between China and Germany – and Europe in 1914 and Asia in 2014 in general – seems like a stretch. Germany went to war because it felt its back against the wall and was loosing the peace. It was encircled by a hostile triple entente that had more economic and military strength, and was fearful of falling behind the booming U.S. and industrializing Russia, as historians like Niall Ferguson have argued. A quick victory through a surprise attack in the near future seemed like Germany’s best chance to become a true world power.
China today, on the other hand, knows that it is destined to become the world’s leading economy and a military superpower within the next few decades. Unlike Germany in 1914, time is working in its favor, and going to war over territorial disputes now would only derail its rise. Similarly, Japan can’t afford any war in the near future, crippled by government debt and a weak military. A war may still happen once China is no longer on the rise and feels its time has come, and once Japan has built up a stronger military. But that won’t be anytime soon, and certainly not in 2014.
While World War III isn’t imminent, the article makes the important point that we should never underestimate the potential for another great war. Much like 1914, Westerners today have taken over the naive view that wars only happen in poor countries. The lesson of World War I suggests otherwise.