Friday marked the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), a momentous occasion in the Second World War, which remains the largest armed conflict in human history. Three quarters of a century on, while another great-power conflict cannot be ruled out, the odds are currently lower than during the first half of the 20th century, despite the deep decay of the post-1945 order.
For amid this year’s coronavirus-restricted celebrations of V-E Day, and the later ones in August for Victory in the Pacific Day, there are growing geopolitical tensions, not least between China and the United States. These have spiked recently over what United States President Donald Trump continues to assert is Beijing’s cover up of the pandemic in Wuhan which he claims was man-made and originated in a Chinese laboratory, despite failing to disclose evidence to support this jaw-dropping claim.
The Sino-US tensions underline that the world of today does have some parallels with the first half of the 20th century. Once again, there is a significant movement in global power taking place.
Today, power is shifting to key developing countries with Asian states, especially China, being the primary beneficiaries so far. This contrasts with the first half of the 20th century when the US, especially, but also other nations at various times, including Russia and Germany, were the key ‘rising nations’.
And as 100 years ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as ‘revisionist nations’ challenge key elements of the US-led international order. This is partly driven by rising economic power resurrecting nationalism and claims for resources, as witnessed by disputes in the South China Sea for instance.
Recent years have also seen Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Yet, it is perhaps Asia where most tension and insecurity lie in terms of potential for a great-power war. China’s remarkable rise is unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is just one of the leading politicians who has drawn parallels between the geopolitical landscape in Asia today and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Scrapping US involvement
Yet, the irony is that it is the US itself that, under the Trump administration, is also hastening the collapse of the post-war order created after the allied victory over the axis powers. Trump, unlike all his post-war predecessors in the White House, has disowned much of the system of US-led institutions and alliances, promising instead an America-first platform that had the potential to reshape US foreign and trade policy more radically than at any point since the beginning of the Cold War.
Trump, for instance, has shifted away from this post-war orthodoxy — pursued by both Democratic and Republican presidents — by scrapping US involvement in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with key allies in Asia-Pacific and the Americas; withdrawing from the Paris climate change deal agreed by over 170 nations; and threatening the future of the World Trade Organisation and World Health Organisation. He has also re-negotiated other international and regional deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement.
So these risks are real, significant, and could yet grow substantially in the 2020s. However, as of May 2020, there are also some key differences with the world of the first half of the 20th century which, in the absence of catastrophic miscalculation, makes a major power war unlikely for the foreseeable future.
This is not least because memories of not just the Second World War, but also the First World War linger powerfully today. Aside from the many millions who died in both conflicts, these wars set in chain several developments which blighted the world for decades to come. These include the emergence of Communism in Russia and — as numerous historians assert — the rise of Nazi Germany and the seeds of the Second World War which led on, in turn, to the Cold War.
Brake on major-power conflict
Another major difference between now and most of the first half of the 20th century, before the atomic age began in 1945 with the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, is the presence of nuclear weapons which, as during the Cold War, generally serve as a brake on major-power conflict. It is noteworthy here that both revisionist nations, as well as ‘status-quo powers’ in the West, possess atomic arsenals.
Yet another key change is that, unlike much of the first half of the 20th century, one of the key legacies of the Second World War is a dense web of post-war international institutions, especially the United Nations, which continue to have significant resilience and legitimacy decades after their creation. While these bodies are imperfect, and in need of reform, the fact remains that they have generally enabled international security, especially with five of the key powers on the UN Security Council.
Erosion of 1945 post-war settlement
Taken overall, the prospect of a major-power conflict for the foreseeable future is therefore not as high as in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, the landscape of the 2020s is also volatile, fast-moving and could yet change significantly in relatively short order, especially if erosion of the 1945 post-war settlement continues apace.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.