As the World War I centennial is celebrated, repressed thoughts of great power war once again begin to surface. With today’s highly “interconnected global economy” underwritten by a liberal order leading to the “rise of the rest,” it appears unlikely that any state would want to disrupt the current system. And yet, the constant stream of somber news reignites fears of a calamitous global catastrophe.
In times of international flux, where the worst seems possible, it is important to turn to those who can best interpret these eras. In the case of great power or “hegemonic” wars, there is hardly a greater authority than Robert Gilpin. In his seminal work on the subject, War and Change in World Politics, Gilpin argues that three preconditions must be met for a hegemonic war to occur. First, Gilpin believes that the soon-to-be warring parties must feel there is a “‘closing in’ of space and opportunities.” Second, there must be a general “perception that a fundamental historical change is taking place.” Finally, events around the world start to “escape human control.”
Notably, all three of these conditions currently exist in the world.
- Closing In
Europe, where great power conflict took place for centuries, was heavily congested and contested. As powers like Britain, France, Germany and others rose, they fought for influence and geography at the expense of the others’ territory. Due to the close quarters, any desire for expansion on one country’s part would cause concern in the others.
Today, some say, the world is different. The two powers that would compete in a war — the United States and China — are separated by a vast ocean, supposedly making it hard for each to antagonize the other. This, however, is not true. The map may show an expansive world, but new technologies — leading to hyperconnectivity and shorter travel times, especially for military equipment — have made the world “claustrophobic.” To wit, when China announced an “Air Defense Identification Zone” the United States quickly deployed two B-52 bombers to challenge its claim.
And that was using old equipment. Both China and the United States are developing hypersonic missiles and vehicles. Humanity has already conquered physical space with commercial flight and fast ships. Now, it continues to shrink space even further for potentially decisive advantage. It is also hard to claim that China and the United States are far apart when they regularly bump up against each other as they have in the South China Sea.
Since the dawn of “Pax Americana” after World War II, belief in the United States as the undisputed global hegemon remained fairly stable. Until now. According to a recent Pew poll, Americans’ views of the United States as a global power have reached a 40-year low. Indeed, only 17 percent believe that America plays a “more important and powerful role than ten years ago.” Rightly or wrongly, this perception exists. Even though most people still find the United States preferable to China, regional powers can use the widespread belief that America is declining to make their cases for running the system. In fact they are already doing so to a degree. For example, China’s Global Times reports that 47 percent of people believe China has achieved “major power” status. Should both perceptions keep trending in the same direction — the United States is declining while China rises — then the feeling of an historic shift is almost inevitable.
- Human Control
As current events prove, even the great powers cannot stop horrendous things from happening in the world. From Latin America and Africa to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, chaos and turmoil run rampant. While this is a particularly bad period for international affairs, it is naïve to think this may be an isolated epoch.
In fact, there is reason to think the world might grow more unstable in the years ahead. Over the next 11 years, the world can expect another one billion people, reaching a total of around 8 billion by 2030. As technology becomes more powerful, it will do two things. First, it will empower the individual, or a group of individuals, to do great good or great harm. Second, it will allow individuals to be more aware of how the middle class lives. People around the world will demand similar things, causing stress on governments and brewing civil unrest and instability. Thus, as people are further empowered and further angered, the probability that these non-state actors — indeed, normal, everyday people — disrupt international affairs or geopolitics is high. Governments will continue to have less and less control of the citizenry, allowing the regular citizen to do with her newfound power what she wills. In essence, we will see, in a big way, the diffusion of power.
Although the world currently satisfies Gilpin’s three preconditions, there need not be pessimism. For one, current relations between the United States and China are nowhere near the point where a potential great war between them is possible, and there is no other rivalry nearing that of Washington and Beijing.
Second, some of the trends that can cause harm, like rapid technological progress, can also be used to help stabilize the global order. To be sure, technology could be used to curb the desolation brought on by expectedly low water, food, and energy levels.
Finally, and most importantly, Gilpin’s guidance is certainly not comprehensive. There are more variables for which to account (i.e. the effect of nuclear weapons) that dictate whether or not a great power war may take place. That said, Gilpin’s framework serves as a good rubric by which to measure the current global climate. By all measures, this is certainly a dangerous time.
But Gilpin’s preconditions shouldn’t be misconstrued as predictive or fatalistic. Indeed, the United States, as the hegemon, has the capability (and responsibility) to preserve the international order and lead the world out of this mess. By keeping good relations with partners and allies, deterring adversaries, reversing the perception of its decline, and leveraging technological capabilities for global good, there is a decent chance that the U.S. can make the great-power-war-incubation period fade away. Should the United States not seize this moment, and ensure that China is a responsible partner in the current global system alongside it, then the chance of a great power war cannot be dismissed, however remote.