Rising China has been hyper-aware of the war curse that has plagued history’s rising great powers.  Coincidentally, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I, a milestone that has stimulated an outpouring of deeply researched books that try to understand how rising Germany and Russia got into such big trouble. This new work on 1914 points to five interrelated dangers, each of which is relevant to potential security problems in East Asia.

Danger #1.  The belief that war now is better than war later.

The built-in danger of a great power’s rapid rise is that the currently dominant power will decide to strangle the rising state before it gets too strong to contain.  As former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s mantra of “peaceful rise” implied, the obvious antidote to this danger is for the rising power to lie low until its power has passed the point where preventive war is feasible.  But this is more easily said than done.

Rising Germany and dominant Britain were each other’s largest trading partners before 1914.  During that period, Germany increased its share of world trade more than any other great power.  Consequently, Germany’s leaders in the 1890s thought they could sustain good diplomatic relations with Britain even as Germany used its growing wealth to improve its navy to protect its commerce and to extend its clout abroad, as other powers had done.  But accompanied by occasionally boorish diplomatic behavior, this fairly modest German naval self-assertion looked highly threatening to Britain in the context of Germany’s rising economic power.  Britain responded with a flat-out naval arms race and the formation of an informal alliance with Germany’s likewise fearful neighbors, France and Russia.

At first, leaders in these countries hoped to avoid what they feared would be a horribly costly war that could trigger social revolution.  As a result of the Entente’s “hostile encirclement” of Germany, however, all sides soon started to ask not whether war would be better than peace, but whether their chances would be better in a war that would happen sooner rather than later.  Since several of Europe’s powers, especially Russia, were increasing their armaments in intermittent bursts of effort, each of them experienced “rise” or “decline” over the short term, leading them to calculate whether war in a given year would be better than waiting.  Paradoxically, all of Europe’s major continent powers concluded that 1914 would be a particularly advantageous year for each of them to fight.  The other four dangers explain how this could have been so.

Danger #2.  The belief that offense is the best form of self-defense.

All the continental powers planned to start the war with immediate attacks on their enemies, mainly because they incorrectly felt that attacking was the best way to defend themselves.  In fact, each of them would have been tactically better off staying on the defensive.  Their offensive preparations helped to cause the war by fueling everyone’s fears and encouraging the mindset that preventive war might be a way out of their security dilemmas.  The doctrinal predilection of the military professionals for decisive, problem-solving offensive operations, compounded by the inadequacy of civilian oversight over military planning, was decisive in putting Europe on this hair-trigger.

Danger #3.  Fears of abandonment and entrapment by allies.

The simplest explanation for why war happened in 1914 is that Germany saw its ally Austria’s influence in the Balkans on the decline and its enemy Russia’s military power on the verge of a 40 percent increase over the next three years.  It seemed a good year for Germany to have the fight that seemed inevitable.  But some German diplomats believed that this very fact would make Russia and its ally shy away from a premature conflict.  Why didn’t they?

Unlike a string of colonial and Balkan crises in prior years, the crisis provoked by the assassination of the Austrian archduke in 1914 found Russia and France militarily prepared for war and diplomatically committed to backing each other unconditionally.  Each worried that it might once again find itself facing Germany alone in any future crisis, so fighting together in 1914 looked better than waiting for another occasion.  Moreover, if France and Russia refused to resist aggression in 1914, Germany and Austria would be able to disarm Serbia, attract other Balkan allies, and consolidate control over Russia’s commercial lifeline through the Turkish Straits, making it much harder for the Entente to defeat them in the future.

Danger #4.  Economic interdependence produces growth but causes vulnerability.

The robust economic relationship between Germany and Britain created incentives for both peace and war.  Norman Angell famously wrote in 1914 that economic interdependence had made war impossible because it would be too costly.  But interdependence is just another word for vulnerability.  Rising great powers, such as pre-1914 Germany, imperial Japan in the interwar period, and now China have striven to make themselves less economically vulnerable by acquiring naval capabilities to protect trade and by gaining political influence — even domination — over sources of raw materials and markets abroad.  These efforts threaten the economic security of established trading states, which respond with arms racing, imperial protectionism, embargoes, and commerce raiding.  Such moves, countermoves, or the threat of them triggered Germany’s reckless strategy to forestall a British blockade by a quick victory on land in 1914 and Germany’s later unrestricted u-boat attacks on U.S. shipping.

Danger #5.  Playing the nationalist and militarist card.

Most countries, especially great powers, are prone to a self-absorbed, self-justifying, nationalist view of their foreign relations.  This tends to be true in spades for rising great powers, in part because the rivalries touched off by their increased power and demands for commensurate recognition create abundant opportunities for myopically self-serving misperceptions.  This is complicated by the turbulent social change that inevitably accompanies rapid economic growth, which means the emergence of demanding middle and working classes that challenge the authority of old elites.  These threatened leaders commonly respond by rhetorically shifting the line of domestic political cleavage from class to nation in an effort to co-opt the nationalist middle class and to prevent the emergence of a democratic opposition by driving a wedge between the middle class and the working class.  The professional military finds this strategy profitable, too.  When political rhetoric takes this nationalist turn, as it did in Germany, later in Japan, and now incipiently in China, the previous four dangers are heightened.

While today’s world differs in many ways from 1914, any of these mechanisms might still trigger the paradoxical conclusion that fighting a war sooner could seem better for all sides than waiting for war to come later.  Motives for this might include the need to forestall impending nuclear weapons proliferation (by Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan), an impending Taiwanese declaration of national sovereignty, or the impending collapse of the North Korean regime.  Shifting incentives within alliances (an opportunity for the United States created by a rare moment when Japan and South Korea are cooperating against North Korea, or conversely an opportunity for China to exploit an momentary rift between the United States and Taiwan) could also cause one or both sides to perceive a reason to act preventively.

The antidotes to these dangers are easy to list, but no doubt will be challenging to implement for the United States, China, and the other regional powers:

1.  Never foment nationalism as a diplomatic tool directed at foreign states.  It is uncontrollable in the long run and backfires first against the sorcerer’s apprentice who unleashes it.

2. Remember that defense, not offense, is normally the best defense, especially when blue water separates competitors, as is does in most of East Asia.

3. Make clear to all parties that alliance commitments are conditional on the prudent behavior of the ally.

4.  Institutionalize the stability of mutual economic interdependence so that states are not tempted to secure markets and resources through unilateral political and military means.

5.  Base commitments on tangible interests, which are likely to be complementary with those of other states, rather than on prestige and status, which are over-valued and lead to zero-sum competition.

Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.  His books include The Ideology of the Offensive:  Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914.   (“Active citation” web version of chapter 7 on Russia can be found here). This post is part of a short series accompanying a workshop “Beyond the Pivot: Managing Asian Security Crises” sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk and University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape.