The World After a Great Power War

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The World After a Great Power War

Insights from Miranda Priebe 

The World After a Great Power War
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Miranda Priebe  director of the Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, as well as co-author of RAND report “Alternative Futures Following a Great Powers War, Volume 1” (2023) – is the 371st in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Identify your report’s top three takeaways.   

Our report explored what to expect in the aftermath of great power wars. To do so, we looked at past wars and developed future scenarios. Our main takeaways were:

  1. Leaders’ peacetime predictions about future wars are likely to get at least some major elements wrong. Historically, policymakers have almost always made incorrect assumptions about key aspects of a future war such as the length or parties to a conflict or the post-war environment. We should therefore be humble about our ability to predict the trajectory of future wars and their aftermaths.
  2. Great powers that are not directly involved in a conflict are likely to gain relative to the parties that do fight in it. For example, a U.S.-Russia war would likely provide China with significant advantages.
  3. Victory in wartime does not necessarily translate into winning the peace that follows. For example, winners may face stronger balancing coalitions after the war and wartime alliance dynamics could undermine post-war alliance cohesion.

Two of the report’s four scenarios result in decisive outcomes for China and the United States with Japan. Briefly describe the key assumptions, drivers, and strategic outcomes of both scenarios. 

We intentionally developed scenarios that ended in different ways to explore the post-war implications. We were therefore trying to develop plausible, but not necessarily the most likely, great power war scenarios.

Specifically, we considered three different ways that a U.S.-China war could end. In one, the war results in an indecisive outcome as neither country claims a clear victory. 

In the second, China annexes Taiwan after just about everything goes China’s way in the war: China was able to launch an attack at the time of its own choosing with limited advanced warning and its military performed well without the kind of logistical and other problems that Russia has had in Ukraine. Although China annexed Taiwan in this scenario, it faced high costs in the aftermath. In our scenario, China’s invasion provoked countries in East Asia to form a NATO-like alliance to balance against China and led Japan and South Korea to pursue nuclear programs, without U.S. opposition.

In the scenario with a decisive U.S. and Japanese victory, a conflict in the East China Sea escalates when U.S. war aims expand to include degrading China’s military power to prevent future regional aggression. The United States and Japan succeed in defending Japan’s maritime claims and destroying substantial portions of PLA capabilities. However, as in the other scenario, the victory comes at a cost.  Russia and China formalize a post-war alliance and post-war arms racing between China and the United States intensifies. Many states in the region distance themselves from the United States, who they see as having unnecessarily expanded the conflict, reducing U.S. basing and access options going forward. 

Explain misunderstandings about the effects of new technology in warfare. 

We found that, historically, planners and policymakers often failed to anticipate the implications of new technologies. Despite a series of wars in Central Europe and East Asia over the late 19th century, European leaders repeatedly failed to understand or misinterpreted the military implications of railways and new types of firepower. Similarly, although previous conflicts had seen the use of trench warfare, European leaders during the First World War failed to anticipate that this innovation would make offensive operations and a quick victory difficult to achieve. 

How can examining alternative futures help mitigate the risk of conflict escalation?  

Engaging with alternative futures can help planners consider different ways that wars can unfold. This may help to reveal possible costs and risks of political and military choices and help policymakers decide which are worth running. Imagining these possibilities before a war can give planners time to develop and weigh options that might reduce the risk of escalation.

Assess the common consequences of great power war and how they should factor into U.S. and allied decision-making in advance of kinetic conflict.   

Great power wars are generally very destructive and have significant effects on post-war societies and economies. Historically, these wars have often expanded to include additional states that policymakers did not originally anticipate – such as when China entered the Korean War. These wars often last longer and are more intense than policymakers predict and have unexpected post-war consequences. In the nuclear era, great power wars also carry the risk of nuclear escalation. 

U.S. and allied decisionmakers should therefore be modest when making predictions about future wars and always consider the possibility that these wars will unfold in dramatically different ways than they expect. Such humility could help them more accurately assess the possible tradeoffs of decisions to use force.