James Holmes

Where Abe’s WWI Analogy Falls Apart

Recent Features

James Holmes

Where Abe’s WWI Analogy Falls Apart

Just one month into 2014, and the analogies to 1914 are already picking up.

Oh, dear. Less than a month into 2014, and 1914 analogies are already piling up in the policy and punditry worlds. Stop the madness!

A couple of weeks back, writing over at Project Syndicate, Professor Joseph Nye cautioned against invoking the outbreak of World War I cavalierly. Nye warns in particular about the sense of inevitability that historical analogies encourage. Rather than ask what’s similar and different between, say, U.S.-China competition today and Anglo-German competition then — a worthwhile endeavor — commentators often assume history will simply repeat itself. I blame George Santayana.

If so, war is fated. Better gird our loins, or whatever we gird, to ready ourselves for battle in this ultramodern age.

Now, the Naval Diplomat was making 1914 comparisons before 1914 comparisons were cool. Having done so, I concur with Nye’s circumspect approach to historical comparison. Europe’s past probably isn’t Asia’s future, strictly speaking. That being said, let’s not take too much solace in the disparities between yesterday and today. Nye maintains, for instance, that whereas Germany had already overtaken Britain by many indices in 1914, the United States remains “decades ahead of China in overall military, economic, and soft-power resources.”

Ahead, maybe; but decades ahead? Doubtful. But in any event, “overall” military power matters little. What matters is which competitor can concentrate the most power at the decisive place on the map at the right time. And that place will be a lot closer to China than to the United States. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army already boasts certain advantages over the U.S. military in the places Beijing cares about most, namely maritime East Asia. Its rapidly growing navy, for instance, bristles with anti-ship missiles that outrange their American counterparts. That means PLA Navy units can take potshots at U.S. Navy forces from beyond those forces’ firing range. A U.S. surface action group could take a fearful pounding while closing the distance to return fire. Only a carrier air wing provides any long-range hitting power — and aircraft carriers are destined to become scarcer in distant seas.

Plus, remember that there’s more to Chinese sea power than the PLA Navy. U.S. military forces are scattered across the globe, whereas Beijing cares mostly about the China seas. Any likely U.S.-China showdown, then, will take place under the shadow of shore-based PLA weaponry. That simplifies the problem for PLA commanders. China’s military can deploy its entire strength against U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force detachments stationed in Asia. Even a lesser force that hurls itself against a fraction of a superior force stands a fighting chance of getting its way.

An excess of fear is a hazardous thing. So is an excess of calm.

Other variations on the 1914 theme have also been heard. Last week, for example, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened 2014 to 1914, but with his own twist. Rather than cast America in the role of Great Britain and China as Imperial Germany, Abe sketched an analogy whereby Japan today plays the part of Britain then. His reasoning? East Asia, quoth the prime minister, finds itself in a “similar situation” because economic interdependence has failed to put a damper on geopolitical rivalry. You can imagine the response such words elicited from Beijing, which has gone to extraordinary lengths to distance itself from the German example.

Abe was rebutting a notion popular in pre-World War I Europe and America, namely that economic interdependence rendered — or should render — war unthinkable for any sane statesman. English intellectual Norman Angell formulated this thesis in his masterwork The Great Illusion, to fanfare from the great and the good. Stanford University president David Starr Jordan echoed Angell’s ideas even more forcefully on this side of the Atlantic. Abe reminds us that, however sensible such thinking seemed until 1914, nations sometimes prize other things more than trade and prosperity.

Even though Abe was using 1914 to make a limited point, it would be fun — and diplomacy and strategy are about fun — to expand on his comparison. Does the parallel work? Huh. In 1914, Britain was allied to great powers in continental Europe. The United States was years from becoming an “associated power” in the war effort. Were the analogy to contemporary Asia more exact, Britain, like present-day Japan, would have a preexisting alliance with the United States, with Washington as the senior partner. But the United States was a regional power on the rise, while Britain was the foremost sea power of the day. There was, and could be, no forerunner to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. It took World War I to convince Washington to construct a “navy second to none.”

You get the idea: the analogy swiftly breaks down when the Japan of 2014 plays Great Britain of 1914. Drawing the comparison is useful when the United States is Britain. But even then, this exercise’s value comes from exposing differences as much as from finding likenesses.

We need not acquit if the analogy doesn’t fit. But historical comparison does have its limits.