World Affairs Journal: Great Power Conflict – Will It Return?

Observances last year of the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War, as it was known until a second global conflict gave it a roman numeral, have paid deference to its status as the most brutal conflict in human existence as well as one whose influence we still live with today.

The “lessons” this devastating war holds for the present come from the fact that it was caused by the multipolarity of great power conflict that simmered from 1871 onward. In 1914, the rise of Italy and Germany as nation-states ensured that alliance politics, arms races, imperial maneuvering, expansion, navalism, resource scarcity, cultural divides, and political philosophy would collide. Germany, Italy, Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Japan all used the world as a chessboard. (Still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War and focused on both western and industrial expansion, America was initially in no mood for involvement in what it perceived as another in a long string of wasteful European conflicts.)

The medium and lesser powers attempted to use the great powers for their own reasons; Belgium, Holland, Spain, China, Serbia, and Turkey all had their part to play in the conflagration. However, at the core of the complex circumstances that caused the Great War was the absence of a world hegemon. The Pax Britannica was over, although Great Britain did not yet know it, and the Pax Americana had yet to begin.

The international situation today bears a disquieting resemblance to that world of a hundred years ago that came apart with sudden and appalling violence. International relations experts may claim that great power conflict is passé, having been replaced by issues such as terrorism, climate change, pandemics, energy, and migration. All these issues are pressing. Yet they should not hide the fact that there are many areas of the globe that are erupting or have erupted into great power conflict. The list includes the Euro-Russian frontier, the Baltics, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Sea of Japan, the Indian Ocean, the Taiwan and Korea/Tsu Shima straits, and the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq.

Because of these conflicts, we are witnessing four changes in international affairs that will lead to renewed great power conflict.

The first change is the slow disengagement of the United States from the dominating role it has played after World War II, marked most notably by a lowering of its defense spending and commitments. America has retreated from its role of protector of the world order, but the current occupant of the White House clearly ranks foreign affairs as an annoyance compared to an ambitious domestic agenda and has telegraphed his desire for America to have either a light or non-existent footprint across much of the globe.

The slow American withdrawal coincides with the second change, in which four of the current great powers (Russia, China, India, and Japan) are revaluating, amplifying, or changing aspects of their grand strategy in a way that resembles a similar reshuffling that took place late in the nineteenth century.

Third, there are ominous parallels between the cauldron that created the conflict of the Great War and those simmering today. China, playing the role of nineteenth-century Germany, seems determined to upset the economic and military stability created by the United States and Japan, especially in the area of naval power and power projection. Japan is playing the role of the United Kingdom, an old power clinging to its power base by mobilizing nationalism and militarism. Russia, attempting to resurrect its glory by aggressive action, reminds us of a turn-of-the-century France. India, coming on the world stage for the first time, yet not quite ready for a big role, is reminiscent of the newly unified Italian peninsula of 1861.

Too much could be made of such parallels, but the mix is right: an increasing multipolarity, in which new powers rise while old powers try to hold on, and alliance systems that ever more constrain actions and decisionmaking.

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