In yesterday’s Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote another one of his interesting columns, “The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific,” noting some of the similarities in the current situation in the Far East and the international situation before World War I. In WWI, Germany was a rising power, Great Britain was concerned over its rise, and an isolated incident—the assassination of the Austrian archduke—brought about a global conflict. Today, China is rising, the US is the concerned party, and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has many worried that a more serious, armed struggle could break out. Rachman correctly writes that “the rising tensions between China, Japan, and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago.”
Rachman is right to point out the similarities and to suggest that by dismissing them, commentators and political leaders are being “far too complacent.” Where he falls short is suggesting that the key problem during the pre-war era lay in the fact that “a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war,” implying that the real problem today is the United States’ security commitment to Japan, a commitment understood to include the defense of the Senkaku Islands. The goal, Rachman writes, should be to “never again stumble into a war.”
But was World War I—the Great War, with its massive armies, its global character, and its horrific casualties—truly a product of an automatic system of security guarantees? Not really. While existing alliances certainly shaped the general context for the war that followed, more important were Berlin’s own ambitions and London’s failure to make clear in the weeks before the war that it would indeed go to war if Germany’s army violated Belgium’s neutrality and attacked France.
In the aftermath of the Austrian duke’s assassination in late June 1914, it was German prodding and assurances to Austria that led Vienna to make the kind of impossible ultimatums to Serbia that it did. Berlin wanted war, not only because it believed it was a propitious time given the relative military strength of its potential adversaries but, more fundamentally, because it believed it had a greater, more expansive role to play globally. In short, Germany was spoiling for a fight.
As for London, it was British diplomacy that inadvertently opened the door to Germany believing it could go to war and not face a British intervention. Hoping to keep open the possibility of a negotiated end to the crisis, Britain was less than clear with the Germans as to whether London would defend Belgium’s neutrality and the French. Arguably, if Britain had declared early support for France in July of 1914, it is likely that Germany would have convinced Austria-Hungary to settle with Serbia rather than declare war. It was the absence of clarity about a security guarantee, not its existence, which was the proximate critical ingredient that led to World War I.
There are plenty of useful lessons to be learned from the years, months, and days leading up to the Great War that today’s statesmen should not ignore. However, the one lesson they should not take away is that the war’s start was some sort of accident of history or the inevitable product of the international system of the time. Rachman is right to point out the parallels of today with 1914, but getting the history right is the first step to not repeating its terrible results.