November 30, 2021
History may not always repeat, but it often rhymes… in a way that could lead to war.
For example, let me remind you of a tale of two countries…
Country G boasts a big military, a fast-growing economy, and rising technological prowess. And it’s challenging the existing international order that is led – at least for now – by Country U.
Countries G and U have deep and broad trade links. But Country U increasingly views Country G as an economic adversary, rather than just a competitor.
That’s partly because Country U thinks that Country G has taken economic and investment shortcuts – for example, through government funding of strategic industries… while in Country U, development and growth have been organic and market-driven.
Country G is using its growing wealth and economic might to ensure access to resources, extend its geopolitical positioning, and export its ideology around the world. That’s increasingly threatening Country U’s position at the head of the global geopolitical table.
In addition to harboring clashing economic philosophies, Country G’s political culture is fundamentally different from the more liberal values and traditions of Country U.
Country G wants to fulfill what it believes is its destiny… to be recognized – again – as a great power. Country U knows that it’s unlikely that Country G’s ambitions will stop there, and knows that it’s only a matter of time before Country G threatens its predominant position.
Then… and Now
As you may have guessed – especially if you’re a history buff – Country G is Germany… and Country U is the United Kingdom shortly before World War I.
And we know what happened next between the U.K. and Germany. As Foreign Affairs magazine explained…
The course of the British-German rivalry that culminated in war [the Great War – that is, World War I] in 1914 shows how two great powers can be drawn inexorably toward a conflict that seemed highly unlikely – right up until the moment it began.
And exactly what is this storied history rhyming with today? One big clue…
Foreign Affairs continues…
The parallels to today’s contest between the United States and China could hardly be clearer.
No less authority than Henry Kissinger – who as Secretary of State for President Richard Nixon laid the groundwork for the historic reopening of U.S. relations with China in 1972 – also sees the historical analogy… and is alarmed.
“Unless there is some basis for some cooperative action, the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War I,” the 98-year-old Kissinger said at a conference this month.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping – the leaders of the two biggest, most powerful countries on Earth (with a nod to Russia only because of its nuclear arsenal… more on that below) – spoke on the phone only a few times this entire year, until they had a more formal conversation a few weeks ago.
That certainly doesn’t bode well for any kind of cooperative action. “U.S.-China relations are at their worst in decades,” an NPR host explained two weeks ago.
War? Couldn’t Be… (But It Could)
An old-fashioned geopolitical bar brawl – updated for the nuclear age – between the world’s superpower and the rising No. 2 might sound like something you’d hear about from a black-and-white television… Surely in the 21st century, we – Americans, the other countries at the big-boy table, and humankind in general – have advanced beyond something so primitive, right?
In a world of instant communication, artificial intelligence, obligatory motorcycle helmets, and kiddie bumper rails in bowling alleys, the whole idea of war between the world’s two biggest economies feels – especially for anyone under age 60 – as remote as a late-night History Channel documentary on Theodore Roosevelt.
But it’s here, right now, even if you’re fortunate enough to not know or notice. A recent tally by World Population Review lists 21 countries that are currently at war. It includes conflicts of the civil, terrorist insurgency, drug, ethnic violence, and political unrest brands… such as those in Ethiopia (civil war also involving Eritrea), Mexico (where the government is fighting drug cartels), Myanmar and Syria (civil wars), and Burkina Faso, Tanzania, and Nigeria (which are fighting terrorist insurgencies)… and elsewhere.
These wars – like all wars – are tragic and terrible. The silver lining, if such a thing exists in people killing each other, is that these conflicts have been relatively contained… most haven’t spread, forest fire-like, to engulf neighbors or other powers to become war-by-proxies.
Meanwhile, the current period of peace between the world’s biggest powers since the end of World War II is historically unprecedented… It’s often lost on nonhistorians (and those not in a war zone) that the current “long peace” is an extraordinary gift. And as part of that, Europe is in the midst of the longest period of peace between major countries on the continent in 2,000 years.
No matter the trappings of civility and modernity, we – humans – are a bellicose species. As war historian and author of the 2020 book War Margaret MacMillan said…
We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organized themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others.
Right now, the chances are rising that historical rhyming – cue the echoes of Germany and the United Kingdom before the Great War – could lead to war between the United States and China.
And that’s not of the “trade” or “cyber” kind, which are bad enough, nor what companies do when they’re competing in the global marketplace.
No… I’m referring to the actual blood-and-bullets kind of war, where soldiers and civilians – lots and lots of them – die.
The Money Question
But first… a big reason why China and the U.S. could work things out and not shoot at each other: money.
The economies of China and the U.S. are as close as Irish twins. The U.S. imports more goods from China (nearly 18% of everything it buys abroad) than anywhere else… Without China, your local Walmart – which gets around 80% of the goods it sells from China – would be almost as empty as the paper-products aisle during peak COVID-19 pandemic hoarding.
In turn, the U.S. is China’s biggest export market… And China is one of Uncle Sam’s biggest creditors, via its holdings of U.S. Treasurys (around 5% of the total).
Would you start shooting at the guys who owe you $1.1 trillion? Me neither.
But financial and economic links are no guarantee. Before World War I, the economies of the U.K. and Germany were like peas in a pod… And that didn’t stop the bullets.
And the economies of China and the U.S. are currently uncoupling faster than a midnight marriage at a Las Vegas drive-through chapel.
For example… there’s the still-ongoing trade war that didn’t draw to a quick end with the departure of Donald Trump… the evolving battle of technologies between the two countries likely resulting in a ring-fenced Chinese tech universe… a simmering series of cyberbattles that could lead to something much bigger… and big global manufacturers that are rethinking their reliance on China as the world’s sweatshop, production floor, and manufacturing center in the wake of the unprecedented stresses on the global supply chain.
And then there’s the “how” of war… which China is building – fast.
Click here to check out the conclusion to Kim’s story, which details China’s military ambitions, how North Korea fits into the puzzle, and why the country’s slow-motion demographic collapse means the clock is ticking for China…
Love us? Hate us? Let us know at [email protected].
Executive Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
November 30, 2021