Hillary Clinton warned on Friday that Europe needs to get a better handle on migration to curb the growth of right-wing populism. Clinton’s controversial remarks, which coincide with this month’s landmark centenary of the end of the First World War, come as nationalism is on the rise again and not just in Europe as Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election showed.
And the rise of nationalism is not the only parallel that the world of today has with the early Twentieth Century. For instance, there is, once again, a significant shift in global power taking place.
Today, power is shifting to key developing countries in Asia with China being a primary beneficiary so far. This contrasts with 100 years ago when Germany and the US were amongst the key ‘rising nations’.
And as a century ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as ‘revisionist nations’ challenge key elements of the international order. This is partly driven by rising economic powers resurrecting nationalism and claims for resources.
This underlines that it is perhaps Asia where most tension and insecurity lie in terms of potential for a great power war. Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wise goal to seek “a new type of great-power relationship” with the US, learning the lessons of previous eras, his nation’s remarkable rise is nonetheless unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew parallels in 2014 between the geopolitical landscape in Asia today and Europe on the eve of war in 1914. Moreover, then-Philippine president Benigno Aquino compared what he claimed was Beijing’s track record of belligerent behaviour with German expansionism in the Twentieth Century by openly questioning “at what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough?’”
Yet, while the risk of a major war in Asia or elsewhere in the world certainly cannot be dismissed, there are some key differences today with the world of 100 years ago which, in the absence of catastrophic miscalculation, makes a major-power war unlikely for the foreseeable future. Most notably, the relative global balance of power is different today and, nuclear weapons and international institutions, especially the United Nations, generally act as a restraining force against major conflict that did not exist then.
The reduced chances of great-power war are not least because memories of the First and indeed Second World Wars, linger powerfully even today. With justification, the First World War was described as the “greatest seminal catastrophe” of the Twentieth Century by US diplomat George Kennan, who would later become the architect for the US Cold War ‘containment strategy’.
Aside from the many millions who died from 1914 to 1918, the war set in chain several developments that 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.
Another major difference between now and 100 years ago 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 the key emerging powers, including China and India, as well as established powers, such as the US, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, possess nuclear arsenals.
A further change is that, unlike 1914, there is now 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 all on the UN Security Council.
Moreover, the relative balance between the two leading powers today is different today than a century ago. That is, the gap between US and China is greater today than that between the UK and Germany 100 years ago.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest consequence of the First World War was the dawn of the ‘American Century’ in which the US emerged as the world’s most powerful nation. To be sure, the country has undergone relative decline, and China is now the largest economy in the world based on purchasing power parity data.
However, the US remains significantly ahead of China on most measures of national strength, including military might, and is likely to enjoy an overall advantage for years. Indeed, unlike the UK in the Twentieth Century, there are indications that US power will remain resilient potentially for decades to come, buoyed by factors such as the country’s ‘energy revolution’, which has potentially far-reaching geopolitical consequences.
Taken overall, the prospect of a major-power war for the foreseeable future is not as high as a century ago. The relative global balance of power is different today, partly because of the resilience of US power. Moreover, nuclear weapons and international institutions generally act as a restraining force against major conflict that did not exist 100 years ago.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.