"IT'S THE THIRD WORLD WAR" headlines an Italian satirical newspaper during the 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese conflict. From the Balkans, appropriately enough, a warning: in the summer following interventions in Ethiopia and Zaïre, Yugoslavian President Tito, the only remaining European leader who can claim to have fought in both world wars, decries "the renewed threat to peace from power politics and the persistence of the terrifying arms race. . . ." In London, a group of retired military officers publishes a best seller. Its topic: the fictional history of a global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that begins in August 1985.1

Perhaps these are simply the efforts of an old continent to shrug off its recurrent bad dream, a jittery unwillingness to believe that the longest span of European peace since the Great War could persist. Whatever credence is awarded such anxieties, the imagery is significant. In the United States the Munich analogy has pervaded our thinking about foreign affairs. Memories of the 1930s have shaped our perceptions of a ceaselessly expanding adversary and contributed to our distrust of diplomatic solutions.2 In Europe, even for the conservative authors of The Third World War, the 1914 analogy has a far more powerful hold. It is assumed that we could recognize another Hitler, but could we discern a second Sarajevo?

Toying with historical analogies is at best an imprecise exercise, at worst a polemical game. Nevertheless, the lingering strength of the "lessons" of the 1930s in the United States and our national distance from the events of July 1914 make a reexamination worth the risk.


The existence of two preeminent great powers has been a convention in the analysis of international politics since 1945. By the late 1970s, however, the historical bipolar configuration at the level of military power was modified. The apparent military strength of the Soviet Union had increased, while the potential for a greater element of multipolarity grew as China embarked upon a program of military modernization and the Sino-Soviet split showed no signs of dissipating.

Many in the West voiced alarm at the achievement of equivalence in strategic armaments by the Soviet Union and at the modernization of the Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. But these were spheres in which the existence of Soviet military power had been a fact for decades. A more startling change was the use by the Soviet Union of new capabilities for projecting its political influence into regions such as Africa, far distant from its traditional spheres of interest. The contrast between the 1950s, or the early 1960s, and the 1970s is stark: sabre-rattling over Suez in 1956 and paltry contributions to Lumumba's cause in the Congo; a massive airlift in support of Egypt and Syria in 1973 and large-scale logistical support of the MPLA in Angola and of Mengistu in Ethiopia. Such dramatic maneuvers followed a decade of Soviet naval expansion and an apparent shift toward the use of the fleet for diplomatic ends.3

The emerging pattern of superpower competition begins to suggest the rivalry between England and Germany that characterized the years from the turn of the century until the First World War. On the one hand, the established maritime hegemon; on the other, the continental challenger, seeking its place in the sun through a Weltpolitik based upon naval power and the spread of its influence in the non-European world. Some would make the analogy even more explicit by comparing Admiral Gorshkov, who has sounded at times like a disciple of Mahan, to Admiral von Tirpitz, the father of Germany's Imperial Navy.4

The analogy is appealing but flawed. The Soviet fleet is not justified by the peculiar logic of the "risk theory" that Tirpitz and the Kaiser employed-as a lever to compel Britain's concession of German equality and perhaps a diplomatic realignment as well. While the exertion of political and military influence, the establishment of Soviet prestige, and other tasks characteristic of a "world policy" may be functions of the Soviet fleet, they are accompanied by the more mundane tasks of protecting an expanding commercial and fishing presence and acting against the American marine-based deterrent. The Soviet navy does not have the same crucial place as a symbol of national unity and middle-class patriotism that the German battle fleet held in the fragmented society of Wilhelmine Germany. Finally, the German naval challenge became the core of rivalry with England, overshadowing other long-standing sources of friction; the Soviet "world policy" has only appeared after decades of conflict with its principal adversary, the United States.5

The response of the hegemonic power in each case, however, has been outrage at any suggestion that the existing balance of forces could be regarded as unjust or subject to change. In each instance the appearance of the challenger has forced the dominant power to evaluate the meaning of its rival's new "world policy." What are the intentions of Germany (or the Soviet Union)? What measures, if any, should be adopted to meet the challenge? Among historians, debate over German designs continues: Fritz Fischer and his school argue that Entente policy before 1914 was legitimate containment of a Germany bent upon European hegemony, hegemony that foreshadowed the later expansionist aims of Hitler. Others more sympathetic to the German dilemma suggest that "perhaps the proper lesson is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts."6

The earliest debate on the upstart's intentions, and one that remains fresh, took place in the first decade of this century within the British Foreign Office. The British diplomat Eyre Crowe represented the ascendant attitude, hostile to Germany; Lord Sanderson, diplomat of an older generation, took a more relaxed view of German intentions.7 The outline of their argument has been echoed in the recent American questioning of Soviet aims, particularly in the apparent difference of views between the National Security Council and the State Department. For Crowe, the history of German actions displayed "direct and unmistakable hostility to England" and "a disregard of the elementary rules of straightforward and honorable dealing." While noting that a German plan of European and then world hegemony was a possibility, he accepted the more likely explanation that Germany was exploiting those opportunities available, and, perhaps, down the road, hoping that preponderance would be achieved. The justice of Britain's established rights and closed preserves, under challenge from Germany, was self-evident to Crowe; moreover, every German gain was a British loss.

In the more detached view of Sanderson, "the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream." Sanderson saw a more complicated explanation for German actions, not simple hostility toward Britain or a ceaseless striving for world hegemony. German behavior could be understood as the result of an arriviste mentality-"impatient to realize various long-suppressed aspirations and claim full recognition of its new position"-and as influenced by the insecurity of being flanked by "two powerful, jealous and discontented neighbors." While Crowe urged the defense of the status quo and an end to a policy of "concessions made without any conviction either of their justice or of their being set off by equivalent counter-services," Sanderson warned that "a great and growing nation cannot be repressed," and counseled accommodation.

Apart from the sharpness of its prose, the Crowe-Sanderson debate bears rereading in light of the renewed Soviet-American competition in the 1970s. It throws into relief the questions that remain central, stripped of vestiges of a cold war mentality. What are the aims of the Soviet Union and how do they differ from those of other great powers, including the United States? What changes in the configuration of power would be acceptable, if any? Does the Soviet Union display that combination of insecurity and confidence in its power that characterized pre-1914 Germany? Many, like Crowe, continue to argue that the intentions of the Soviet Union are of little import; a prudent adversary will prepare to thwart either the carefully laid plan or the haphazard exploitation of circumstance. Nevertheless, while Crowe's view triumphed, Sanderson's caution had the better of the argument. Interpretations of intentions do shape policy, in this case and in others. Tentative rapprochements were dismissed out of hand by the Foreign Office, and the worst light was placed on every German deed.

More important, such readings of motivation shape actions vis-à-vis other powers as well. The Anglo-German rivalry was viewed in a blinkered way by Crowe and those who shared his views; it was the principal rivalry in the international arena. They chose to treat less seriously its implantation in other competitive and hostile relations, whether among the great powers or within regional balances. In similar fashion, the superimposition of renewed Soviet-American competition upon new elements of multipolarity in the system and the confusion of that rivalry with festering local quarrels may prove the most dangerous similarity with the 1914 case.


The early 1970s saw an American effort to nudge the world toward multipolarity: Japan and Europe were anointed as potential great powers and the same role was conceded to China despite its nuclear inferiority and its antiquated military forces. The attempt to promote Europe and Japan, even as "civilian" great powers, failed. The "Year of Europe" proclaimed in 1973 seemed to represent renewed American desires to subordinate its allies. Meanwhile, European integration moved forward at its own halting pace. Japan has been even less willing to pursue independent initiatives, although some have detected a withering of internal obstacles to greater diplomatic and military activism, produced in part by the diplomatic bullying of the Soviet Union. By any of the traditional measures of great power status-particularly an independent diplomatic and military role outside their regions-these two candidate great powers did not pass the test.

The only serious new contender for great power status in the 1970s, then, was China, despite its limited diplomatic and military means. And China raises the question, not of the possibility of a multipolar system with several great powers, but of its desirability. The naïve belief that such a world would necessarily be less conflict-ridden and more peaceful than a bipolar system was challenged at the peak of Soviet-American duopoly by Kenneth Waltz.8 Waltz argued against a technological determinism that awarded nuclear weapons pride of place in averting war and establishing the predominance of the United States and the Soviet Union. That technological point of view persists in the attention that continues to be fixed upon the strategic arms race, even though the link of arms races to conflict leads through diplomatic and political considerations that are often ignored. The erosion of bipolarity, as Waltz argued, might not result in a world less prone to war or tension; certainly the historical record does not support an optimistic view of a multipolar world.

The element of disturbance (or flexibility) introduced by America's opening to China was muted at first by the economic and military constraints produced by China's internal political struggles, which culminated in the defeat of the Gang of Four in 1976. On the side of the United States, the advantages of the triangular relationship were limited by domestic political bars to full normalization of relations between the two states, obstacles multiplied by the collapse of South Vietnam. When those barriers were overcome in December 1978, the beginning of full diplomatic relations was coupled with hints of change in the balancing act between the Soviet Union and China. Talk of "playing the China card" and of a "fundamental realignment of global politics" was heard in some quarters; leaning toward China, it was argued, would curb an increasingly serious Soviet threat. Most of the support for a tilt seemed to come from the National Security Council staff; the State Department resisted an end to the even-handed policy. Nevertheless, by November 1979, it seemed that a trade agreement granting China most-favored-nation status would be completed before the Soviet Union was awarded similar standing.

A diplomatic tilt toward China by the United States and its allies would be amplified by the economic ties that are being busily constructed, despite the most recent scaling-down of China's economic plans. The new economic strategy signaled by the consolidation of Premier Hua Guofeng in power and the reemergence of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping also has implications for military policy. China has embarked upon a program of modernizing its conventional forces, and it intends to obtain the means for such modernization from the West. Although arguments have been advanced for a Chinese-American military relationship, the United States has only gone so far as to accept the sale of weapons by Britain and France. The potential for moving from a limited economic tilt to closer diplomatic and military ties is clear to all.

The risks inherent in this latest American encouragement of multipolarity become clearer in examining once again British policy at the turn of the century. Disturbed by rumors of a continental coalition during the Boer War, the British government concluded that isolation was less than splendid and engineered an exit from Britain's exposed position, first in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 and then through the Entente Cordiale with France, concluded in April 1904. The Entente was a limited agreement, concerned principally with colonial questions; both Britain and France sought a relaxation of tension because they feared involvement in the looming Russo-Japanese War. The accord was not negotiated by Britain as an anti-German measure, nor was it regarded as such at the time. But gradually, and particularly after the German effort to break Anglo-French cooperation in the first Moroccan crisis of 1905, the limited agreement was shaped to fit the anti-German mold of the Foreign Office and the military, always with French encouragement. Bit by bit, beginning with the military staff conversations of 1905-06, a de facto military alliance was constructed, one whose obligations were first fully grasped by the British Cabinet only during the 1914 crisis.9

Whether the alignment with France and thus with Russia was in Britain's interest in light of the German challenge, whether Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, dealt frankly with his colleagues, whether a less ambiguous or a more distant British stance would have been more likely to avert war in 1914-all of these issues have been debated. What is not debatable is the gradual, and, to the public and members of the Cabinet, imperceptible way in which a "continental commitment" was constructed. There was no great debate over the wisdom of Grey's strategy. The only written obligations were the Grey-Cambon letters of November 1912, which committed the two governments to consult in a crisis, and joint military plans that emphasized their mutual dependence. Yet, even without the invasion of Belgium in the final crisis, the British government would have found it difficult to evade military support for France. The lesson by 1914 was clear: a multipolar system might offer less flexibility than its proponents then and now would have us believe.

The China card presents some of the same attractions for the United States that the Entente offered Britain: China's status as the underdog in its rivalry with the Soviet Union, interest in and growing friendship for China among the elite, a cyclical popular fascination with the country, potentially close economic and military ties. The dangers are similar-involvement in conflicts on the Asian mainland that may not affect American interests and a threat to the increasingly tenuous relationship with the Soviet Union. Soviet fears of encirclement should be taken seriously. From the Soviet point of view, China could represent the worst fears instilled in Wilhelmine Germany by the Franco-Russian alliance: irredentist claims, a rapidly expanding economic and military potential, the added explosive of racial fears. For Soviet leaders obsessed by Bismarck's cauchemar des coalitions, the China card is a nightmare that might drive them to extremes.


Ambiguities in the structure of power among the great have been accompanied by a diffusion of power to the middling and the small. At least one small country, Vietnam, can claim to have fought two of the great powers to a draw; another, Israel, has defied its great power patron on significant questions of foreign policy. Applauded by many, particularly on the Left, the loosening of the postwar blocs has also produced two sources of great power confrontation that recall the combination of rigidity and fragmentation in the international order before 1914.

First, the bloc structures themselves, particularly those areas contiguous to the great powers, have come to be regarded as essential elements of security and international status. Since such regions as the Caribbean and Eastern Europe have been for so long de facto spheres of influence, little thought has been given to the consequences of a crumbling of external control or internal orthodoxy. The recent uproar over Soviet troops in Cuba demonstrates, however, the sensitivity of these areas; any policy of pinpricks is unlikely to be treated with the nonchalance that might be found elsewhere. Even if political change occurs without the involvement of another great power, as it has in Nicaragua and as it may in Eastern Europe, there are strong pressures to impute meddling and malevolence to one's adversary.

And, in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia presents the special case of a country that detached itself from the Soviet sphere and might at some point be threatened with forcible reabsorption by the Soviet Union (an action the United States has pledged not to take with respect to Cuba in the Caribbean). Such a unilateral attempt to reimpose the writ of the great power might in itself be viewed as a provocation by others: Sir John Hackett's Third World War begins with a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia, designed to stifle the threat of disruptive change in its East European sphere. These sensitive and potentially unstable regions require special care and a considerable measure of foresight. Yet, just as Britain neglected its policy in the Balkans, where two nations saw their future great power status at stake, so the United States prefers to set aside examination of future responses toward Eastern Europe.10

The long-standing sources of instability within or adjacent to established spheres of influence is now complemented by renewed competition between the Soviet Union and the United States outside those spheres. It is an outcome that was hardly expected in the early 1970s: in response to the Vietnam War and the apparent growth in power on the part of weaker states, many alleged that the efficacy of intervention had declined. The Soviet Union seemed to be acquiring the trappings of global power at a time when those old-fashioned means of influence had lost their clout. For the United States, these assumptions fitted well with the Nixon Doctrine and the nomination of regional powers-the "new influentials" of recent years-to accompany the United States in the emerging multipolar world. Those powers, it was hoped, would undertake some of the interventionist tasks that the United States, for political reasons, no longer desired.

The new strategy of devolution seemed to come apart in the late 1970s. America's relaxed attitude toward events in the Third World was jolted by Soviet and Cuban interventions in Angola and Ethiopia; the new regional policemen were not expected to cope with great power intruders. The collapse of the Shah's regime in January 1979 made clear the fragile political accomplishments of such states, while the surge of American concern over the oil-producing areas of the Middle East made that sphere seem too important to leave to the care of others.

As Soviet advisers entered combat in Afghanistan, French paratroopers landed at Kolwezi, and an American military mission was dispatched to Yemen, it seemed that a new age of imperialism had dawned. Exacerbated dependence upon imported oil shaped American strategy in the "arc of crisis" to the model of classical British strategy in the region. In place of that great pole of empire, India, the United States became obsessed with the security of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. The littoral of the Indian Ocean, never a prominent security interest of the United States in the past, assumed the same importance that it had held for Britain's elite in the age of empire. Move and countermove closely resembled the "Great Game" played out by Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. One can discern the same futile hopes for modernized buffer states (the Ottoman Empire for Britain, Iran for the United States), the same attempts to employ financial means of influence on the part of the United States and military means by Russia, the same expansion of the demands of security to absurd lengths: British security in India came to depend upon a foothold in Egypt, which in turn pointed to the annexation of Uganda. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser, has spoken with approval of future "Fashodas" in which the great powers would test their strengths. Perhaps unwittingly he fixed upon the pinnacle of imperialist irrationality, when Britain and France came close to war in 1898 over French claims to an economically and strategically worthless part of the Sudan.11

Even the Fashoda crisis, however pointless, was a confrontation of the Powers without intermediaries. In the late 1970s renewed great power involvement has most often been accompanied by reliance upon proxies, clients, surrogates or "friends." The pattern is a familiar one: the epoch of pre-1914 imperialism was also studded with episodes in which one or another of the Powers was forced into a confrontation by a weaker state: the Crimean War was brought about in part by Turkey, playing Britain against Russia; the Panjdeh crisis of 1885, which nearly resulted in another Anglo-Russian war, was very probably provoked by Afghanistan.12 Terrorist groups were employed as well: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which precipitated the 1914 crisis was connected through the Young Bosnia group to the secret nationalist society, the Black Hand, whose leader was also the chief of the Serbian military secret service; the foreknowledge of the Serbian government is still debated. Serbia in turn was viewed by Austria and Germany as a proxy for Russian ambitions in the Balkans. One diplomat reported that the Serbian government undertakes "no measure, makes no decision of any importance, without seeking the decision of the representative of the Czar in Belgrade."13

The complications introduced by great power rivalry superimposed upon local conflicts have pervaded recent crises between the Soviet Union and the United States. Charges and countercharges illustrate the psychological tendency to attribute unity and control to one's opponent beyond what the facts admit: your servile mercenaries, my unruly allies. The United States overestimated the role of the Soviet Union in starting and stopping the 1970 Syrian intervention in Jordan; Henry Kissinger, then National Security Adviser, warned the Soviet chargé d'affaires, Yuli Vorontsov, "You and your client started it, and you have to end it." The most anxious moments of the 1973 October War came as Israel and Egypt jockeyed for a favorable military position, while their patrons issued warnings and sought restraint. The Soviet and Cuban presence in Angola led the American government to allege in 1978 a remarkable chain of control: from the Soviet Union to Cuba to the Angolan government to the Katangan gendarmes who invaded Zaïre during the Shaba crisis in May.

The record of great power competition before 1914 would lead one to expect the pursuit of rivalry by means other than direct confrontation to reappear. But proxy or client relations are even more uncertain and risky than they were in the earlier epoch, and the stakes are larger; economic development and the competition for resources have made the "loss" of states seem an insufferable injury to the great power. Efforts to build up regional powers, such as Iran, have had as their ironic consequence that a lapse into neutrality or movement into the "other camp" seems far more significant. And the "other camp" may at times be much harder to define: at one point in the conflict between Ethiopia on the one hand and Somalia and the Eritreans on the other, the supporters of Ethiopia included Israel, Kenya, the Soviet Union, Libya and Cuba, while their opponents included a mixture of conservative and radical Arab states. Not only are the stakes in this contemporary competition higher, the means of influence or control available to the powers have become less potent; some, such as the Soviet reliance upon military advisers, may be more likely to lead to escalation. Arms sources have been diversified and localized; turning off the arms tap, as the United States did during the Nicaraguan civil war, no longer suffices to halt conflicts.

The loosening of the cold war alignments has diminished great power control over lesser actors, but it has not reduced concern over their fates. The weaker powers have more resources and greater autonomy than they had before 1914 to embroil one protector or another in their quarrels. And the competition that has revived outside immediate spheres of influence, while it may not lead directly to conflict, can, like the pre-1914 confrontations in Morocco, embitter relations and contribute to a dangerous sense of insecurity. Such parallels with the imperial competition of an earlier epoch do not permit one to share Brzezinski's sanguine contemplation of future Fashodas.


The most recent explanations of the outbreak of war in 1914 have emphasized less the Realpolitik logic of what happened than the ways in which domestic policies influenced state action. Foreign policy in the imperfectly democratized societies of Europe was not simply directed outward at potential foes or allies. International security mirrored domestic insecurity, and foreign policy provided a means of escape.

The link between domestic instability and foreign expansion has been applied most often to Germany and to the ramshackle eastern empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia.14 The political impasse had its most explosive international consequences in the case of Germany-the Reich's "world policy" was born of efforts to construct a coalition between the middle class and agrarian conservatives; the collapse of that coalition and the increasing electoral power of the Social Democrats led some to toy with the idea of an escape through war. Austria-Hungary faced a dual threat, democratic and national. The latter had a direct connection with foreign policy through the South Slav question and the Serbian threat. Despite a stabilization in Russia after the 1905 Revolution, rapid industrialization and continued political backwardness combined with pan-Slav sentiment to push the czarist regime toward risky ventures. The absolutist states relied increasingly upon nationalist appeals to maintain support against exaggerated external threats. The old social order made its last stand in the higher civil service and the officer corps, which were awarded unusual power and often escaped firm political control.

Domestic conflict does not automatically translate into foreign adventure, whether in Europe before 1914 or in contemporary international politics. The dynamic is often puzzling. In Britain, the impending crisis over Ireland seemed to distract the political elite from foreign questions during the summer of 1914.15 Political stalemate in Austria-Hungary had often induced paralysis in foreign policy rather than the determination to stave off decline that Vienna displayed in 1914.16 The greatest incentive to risk-taking is present when the internal prospects do not foreclose action altogether but are bad enough to encourage a foreign move that might aid in consolidation, particularly when this perception is coupled with an international setting that can still be challenged but with declining probability of success. From 1912 on, this set of perceptions came to be shared by the elites of Austria-Hungary and Germany.

And it is this dual calculation that Sir John Hackett imputes to the Soviet leadership in his scenario of the Third World War: plagued by internal difficulties in the Warsaw Pact that threaten to spread to the Soviet Union, facing a military balance relatively favorable but likely to grow less favorable by the late 1980s. Is such a scenario probable in the nuclear age? Has the coincidence of preponderant military power with remarkable political stability in the United States and the Soviet Union been just that, a coincidence? Perhaps the presence of nuclear weapons has raised the stakes too high for the use of foreign policy for political ends. Yet there are hints that Hackett's scenario may not be so far-fetched in the world that is emerging, and that the dynamic described may not be restricted to the Soviet Union.

For the Soviet Union, something akin to Hackett's "German" scenario seems to be accepted as a possibility by the intelligence community: the combustible combination of a relative military apogee with growing economic and social difficulties. A major social impasse might be produced by a projected slowing of industrial growth, a perpetually stagnant agricultural sector, a temporary petroleum production ceiling, a slowing in workforce growth-all shared by other maturing economies. Another demographic shift may have more political significance-the steady erosion of the population balance away from the Slavic and particularly the Great Russian population toward the Muslim nationalities. Like the nationalities dilemmas of previous polyglot states, there is an external dimension-the potential for attraction or meddling by neighboring China or by Muslim states.17

From the first statement of the containment policy, Western observers have overestimated the internal strains on the Soviet system. These latest challenges may be met by accommodation or by more far-reaching transformations, with few external effects. At least one observer, Alexander Yanov, has suggested a more drastic possibility, based upon the growing influence of what he terms "the Russian New Right." To meet its crisis of legitimacy and the growing economic malaise, the regime might turn to the old themes of Russian Slavophile nationalism, themes with a wider resonance among the Russian population than Marxism or liberalism. This strategy would have international implications, not only in the renewal of internal repression, but in the possible attempts to establish tighter control in Eastern Europe (including Yugoslavia), and in dealing with China, the archfoe of the nationalist demonology that Yanov describes.18

Forecasting Chinese foreign policy on the basis of domestic developments is even more hazardous. During periods of relative leadership stability, the conduct of Chinese foreign policy and attitudes toward the use of force seem an easily explicable response to the international situation. The border war with India in 1962 resembled a Kabinetskrieg in its restrained aims, despite the hysterical response of the West. At other times, foreign policy maneuvers may have been instruments in the internal power struggle. The border conflict with the Soviet Union, for example, has been traced to Premier Zhou Enlai's struggle with Defense Minister Lin Biao.19 The Chinese invasion of Vietnam in February-March 1979 has been compared to the border conflict with India: a response to provocation that had become unbearable, hence limited retaliation for the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. But the military maneuver may also have been linked to the consolidation of Deng Xiaoping in power; the invasion served to support Deng's case for the modernization of conventional military forces.

Whatever the mix of calculated Realpolitik and domestic maneuver in this Chinese action, there is little assurance that Chinese foreign policy is on a stable future course. Pragmatism in domestic policy has been accompanied by ever more strident denunciations of Soviet designs abroad; such opposition to at least one of the other great powers may be required internally as the leadership departs from Maoist orthodoxy as interpreted by the defeated Gang of Four.20 Although Sinologists dislike admitting the record, China has experienced more intense struggle within its elite than the other great powers, and there is some evidence that the instability has been translated into foreign action.

Claiming democratic legitimacy and bipartisan support for foreign policy, American leaders have vigorously rejected allegations that they might be "playing politics" with foreign policy. When a reporter intimated that the worldwide military alert ordered in October 1973 was designed for domestic as well as diplomatic requirements, Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, heatedly replied, "It is a symptom of what is happening to our country that it could even be suggested that the United States would alert its forces for domestic reasons." During recent domestic political crises, however, foreign policy has been used for domestic ends, even though the uses to this point have been relatively harmless.

Although the military alert ordered in October 1973 by a rump meeting of the National Security Council remains something of a mystery, U.S. foreign policy during our most recent domestic crisis-Watergate-resembled the British model of 1914 rather than the German: policy stumbled, attention turned inward. Richard Nixon attempted to escape his domestic troubles by portraying himself as the indispensable peacemaker, embarking on two unnecessary trips (to the Soviet Union and the Middle East) at considerable risk to his health. At least part of the inept handling of the Cyprus coup during the summer of 1974 can be attributed to the distractions of the deepening impeachment crisis.

Despite the relatively happy (in international terms) conclusion to the Watergate crisis, the final weeks of that most imperial of presidencies resembled an absolutist monarchy in its twilight, with courtiers and family playing a prominent role. The United States was spared a major crisis at an awkward moment and the foreign policy apparatus was insulated from the scandal. One can only wonder about the outcome if these favorable circumstances had not prevailed.

At least two trends may tempt U.S. leaders to employ foreign policy for domestic ends in the years ahead. First, a major domestic political impasse-energy-has clear international links. Dependence upon imported petroleum has already stimulated U.S. concern about Soviet intentions in the Indian Ocean; military planning to meet threats to the Persian Gulf oil supplies has been underway for some time, including the formation of an intervention force that appears to be designed for the Middle East. While most alternatives are offered publicly as hedges against Soviet actions, the possible use of military force is also envisioned against "radical" moves to take over significant oil-producing states and against oil suppliers that reduce their output too drastically.21 The bias toward intervention will increase, if, as seems likely, measures of conservation prove inadequate, and our strategic reserve of petroleum remains virtually nonexistent. The means to break a debilitating political stalemate at home through military action would be available to a future American president-always, of course, at the risk of a Soviet response.

The final breakdown of the fraying bipartisan consensus is another encouragement to risk-taking. The Easton meeting of Republican leaders in February 1979 signaled a new partisan stance. If the Republican Party adopts a strident nationalist appeal, the pressure upon a future president to "do something"-the Mayaguez syndrome-is likely to increase for fear of political losses. Such pressure was resisted during the Iranian revolution and again during the recent outcry over Soviet troops in Cuba, but resistance could weaken in a future crisis. The object of our next effort to demonstrate continuing great power status might not be as helpless and friendless as Cambodia was in 1975.

All of these forecasts of possible political pressures are "worst cases," but not completely fanciful ones. In drawing comparisons with 1914, one can at least derive some reassurance from the firm political control of the military that is likely to persist in all of the powers and from the absence of any aristocratic military ethos such as helped to push the European states toward the brink in 1914. The remaining domestic impetus toward risky behavior could produce a crisis with great potential for escalation and enormous obstacles to negotiation, rooted in the political requirements of each state. Perhaps the possibility of nuclear war will continue to restrain such temptations to evade domestic stalemates and to cut through national dilemmas with foreign adventures. The 1914 analogy hardly encourages complete reliance upon such restraint.


Shaping both the international and the domestic perceptions of the elites in 1914 were what James Joll has labeled the "unspoken assumptions," underlying beliefs about the nature of international reality. Social Darwinist notions of struggle and competition were particularly pervasive. In the 1970s two ideological mutations may be the new unspoken assumptions for our fin de siècle: the decline of internationalism (and the concomitant rise of nationalism) and slowly changing attitudes toward the use of force.

Internationalism in its liberal and Marxist variants has rarely appeared so weak. Cuba remains faithful to its vision of revolutionary advance, and the Soviet Union is at times influenced by similar sympathies (as in Ethiopia). China, on the other hand, has embarked on a course in which the overriding determinant of relations with other states is a carefully constructed anti-Soviet strategy. Supping with Mobutu, the Shah and President Pinochet of Chile has not been too high a price to pay for thwarting the "social imperialism" of the polar bear. The Communist International that shaped a generation of leaders is now only a memory. Radical movements of all kinds are increasingly intent upon nationalist goals and nationalist appeals: pan-Arabism is in decline; the Sandinista guerrillas claim that they are building a new Nicaragua, not a new Cuba. Within Western societies, disillusionment with revolutionary models is also profound, and the efforts of trilateralism and human rights to evoke a common cause seem tepid replacements for the ideological appeals of the cold war years. The United Nations, the most potent symbol of liberal internationalism, has seldom attracted less attention or respect.

To those who viewed the ideological struggle of the cold war as a dangerous contamination of international relations, the apparent triumph of nationalism might seem comforting. A Bismarckian China may well seem safer than the (misperceived) revolutionary juggernaut of the 1960s. But ideology added a certain predictability to international politics and, while stimulating some international divisions, such as the Sino-Soviet split, also served as a stimulus to cooperation and compromise that could override pure national self-interest. Most important, it gave to the great powers a certain confidence in their historical role and their futures.

The triumph of nationalism has meant as well the disappearance of domestic constraints imposed by those groups most attached to the internationalist cause. Accounts of the 1914 crisis often omit the strength of pacifist and antiwar sentiment in Europe. Working-class movements in all of the major European countries were growing in electoral strength, criticizing military budgets, threatening strikes on the outbreak of war, seeking to establish ties to their counterparts in other countries. Liberal peace societies flourished, and the years before 1914 were marked by growing interest in the procedures of international arbitration and law. Such political bars to international conflict foundered in 1914. Today, even these restraints are lacking. Working-class internationalism is dead in the major industrial countries-the American labor movement has long taken the most nationalist positions on questions of foreign policy; even the French Communist Party has given itself over to chauvinist appeals. The web of restraints woven by internationalism, whether egalitarian or hegemonic, has unraveled.

The rise of nationalism has been accompanied by renewed interest in that relic of the belle époque, geopolitics. Used and misused by spokesmen for starkly different points of view, geopolitics fits most neatly with the nationalist and conservative side of the political spectrum, where it was born. Geopolitics is useful as a restraint on the diversion of resources to domestic welfare ends, since it posits requirements for any great power that wishes to retain its status. Through the liberal use of terms such as "rimlands," it urges an endlessly expanding strategic role for the great power and justifies renewed competition in the Third World. The geopolitical frame of mind also fits well (as it did before 1914) with a vision of international competition and struggle that denies the possibility of sustained cooperation.

Connected ideologically with the geopolitical revival is a second shift in the unspoken assumptions, one concerning the use of force. Conventional military conflicts have dotted the history of international politics since the appearance of nuclear weapons, even though the direct confrontation of two nuclear powers (apart from the Soviet-Chinese border skirmishes) has been avoided. In the absence of undisputed internal support, however, the bar to invasion, pure and simple, has been a strong one, particularly among weak states with few claims to historical legitimacy. On three occasions within the last two years, such invasions have taken place, all defended as a response to border "provocations": Tanzania against Uganda, Vietnam against Cambodia, and China against Vietnam. The international response to these actions was surprisingly mild. The Left was embarrassed by the human rights records of the victims and by conflicts between socialist states; the Right watched gleefully as tyrannical regimes were overthrown in two instances and two socialist states battled one another in the third.

In the China-Vietnam conflict, the potential for escalation to a great power confrontation was evident; other future objects of the use of force may also have powerful supporters. It is at the nuclear level, however, that a more significant erosion of restraints is taking place. The military forces in pre-1914 Europe were not viewed as deterrents; "they were instruments for fighting a war which was widely regarded-and not by the soldiers alone-as being inevitable, necessary, and even desirable."22 The transition to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence after World War II took some time, but after its acceptance the assumption that nuclear weapons would be used to deter the use of force by one's adversary remained unshaken into the 1970s. Now that doctrine is challenged by those who see in the growth of Soviet nuclear armaments the obsolescence of the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine and argue that nuclear weapons should be made "usable."23 Coupled with technological threats to the stability of the nuclear balance that may emerge in the 1980s, these new arguments on the fighting of a nuclear war raise a final parallel to the pre-1914 system in the military givens of world politics: a bias toward preemption, a willingness to undertake a conflict that is assumed to be short and "winnable." It is unlikely that advocates of war-fighting see such a conflict as "inevitable, necessary, and even desirable," and the debate is hardly over. But the attack on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction may mark a first step in revising our own unspoken assumptions.


But wait, some will say, the age-old game of military and diplomatic competition has been transformed in the latter half of the twentieth century by the growth of economic interdependence between states and by an overriding concern for economic welfare within states. It is no disparagement of these arguments, which the author endorses in large measure, to note the prevalence of similar observations before 1914. Normal Angell (The Great Illusion), H. N. Brailsford (The War of Steel and Gold) and many other liberals and socialists believed that there would be no more war among the principal powers of Europe, in large measure because of the economic irrationality of such a conflict.

The blighting of their hopes in 1914 does not, on the other hand, lend support to the competing argument that economic rivalry was central in stimulating international tensions that ultimately led to war. Prototypes of the military-industrial complex were powerful and sought to continue the armaments build-up, but colonial competition had slackened by 1914 and was far from the center of concern in the final crisis. Business interests had hardly been in the forefront of conflict in any case-in Morocco, for instance, French and German interests seemed to cooperate, while their political leaders lurched toward confrontation. The Anglo-German commercial competition that had so alarmed British opinion in the 1890s had largely dissipated as well, and the levels of trade interdependence between the naval rivals was high. The interests of the financial community were hardly served by war; the Foreign Office was in fact suspicious of the City of London's "pro-German" ties.24 The two chessboards of diplomatic and economic competition did not perfectly coincide; very often, the diplomatic and strategic exploited the economic. A world characterized by high economic interdependence, unparalleled prosperity, and relative openness still went to war.

Today, the level of economic linkage among the great powers is far lower by most measures: there is no unified international monetary system based upon London; trade between East and West is heavily constrained by political considerations; emigration is likewise restricted. One form of economic dependence, upon external sources of natural resources, may well be higher than in earlier periods, but it is more likely to spur competition than cooperation. There is little reason to expect economic interdependence to prove a more serious barrier to the use of force by insecure nation-states than it did before 1914.


Competing American strategies for the more ambiguous world that has emerged can already be discerned. For the authors of The Third World War, whose model of Soviet intentions lies closer to the 1930s than to 1914, the lessons are simple: deterrence may fail if military strength is permitted to erode; a prudent statesman will therefore increase military expenditures and prepare to fight and win a war if the worst case materializes. Diplomatic strategies have also appeared: the trilateralism-plus-China school of modified containment; the balanced approach to relations with the Soviet Union and China; those who would prefer to disengage from the great power game and rely upon the increasingly important influentials of the developing world for support.

The 1914 analogy points to weaknesses in our dominant mode of thinking about relations with our adversaries, especially in deterrence theory (an image powerfully shaped by the supposed lessons of the 1930s), and to flaws in the cruder treatments of power and the use of force.25 A few modest guides could profitably be derived from the 1914 analogy:

1. Reexamine your adversaries' intentions and the sources of their behavior. The simplified political model that dominated U.S. foreign policy after World War II assumed that the Soviet Union and China were irreducibly hostile and could not be appeased. The totalitarian construct seemed to satisfy the need for explaining their foreign policies; the possibility of changing the intentions of adversaries was seldom considered. Although scholarship has amended simplified views of Soviet and Chinese foreign policy, the gap between military intelligence, which often increases the perception of threat, and political and diplomatic intelligence, which might reduce it, has widened. The least that can be proposed in the more ambiguous world of the 1980s is a constant reevaluation of deeply appealing theories about one's adversaries. Perhaps Germany was irreconcilable in its rivalry with Britain before 1914, but there can be no doubt that Eyre Crowe and his associates would have dismissed any German change in direction as meaningless.

2. The survival of your opponent may save your life. Containment was not concerned with the internal stability of the Soviet Union; in George Kennan's earliest statement, the policy was designed to promote "either the break-up or the mellowing of Soviet power."26 The 1914 analogy suggests that heavily armed states faced with internal strains may commit risky and dangerous acts. Austria-Hungary did not go to war in 1914 because of imminent internal disintegration, but the Serbian challenge to Austria's great power status did have an internal dimension. Paul Schroeder has argued that British policy was guilty of failing to recognize Austria's plight; the rules of the system dictated British efforts to ensure the survival of an endangered member of the European Concert.27 Perhaps Austria-Hungary was doomed by the forces of nationalism and destined to fall apart; even so, a state facing similar prospects must be treated with care-its doom may be the doom of others. We have grown accustomed to seeing danger in self-confident, expansionist states, but a world of great powers that sense themselves in decline and at the same time increase their military strength may be even more prone to crises and serious conflict.

3. Label surrogates and proxies carefully. One reason that Britain failed to take Austria-Hungary seriously was the conviction of the germanophobe Foreign Office that Vienna's foreign policy was simply an extension of Berlin's. Not only did this belief reinforce insensitivity to the decline of Austria-Hungary, it hid the instabilities that existed between the Central Powers: "In the final crisis, the solidarity of the Dual Alliance powers was more the product of their mutual distrust than of deutsche Treue."28 The false notion that Austria-Hungary had lost any capacity for independent action made impossible even a self-interested Entente policy of inducing a more independent course within the monarchy. The assumptions underlying long-standing American policy toward Vietnam and Cuba can be questioned on similar grounds.

4. Bargaining over influence may be more advantageous than spurring competition. As great power rivalry progresses in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, the United States will appear increasingly like Sanderson's "huge giant," screaming at the appearance of Cuban doctors in yet another country. Rather than the pattern of counterintervention sought by Henry Kissinger in Angola, the United States would do well to specify which types of influence in which countries are objectionable. A true reversion to the "new imperialism" would lead to agreements limiting the range of influence permitted to the powers in key areas (along the lines of the Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907) or, even better for the hapless objects of great power attention, the exclusion by agreement of certain forms of influence or presence.

5. Do not be lulled by crisis management. After two Balkan wars in as many years, European diplomats in the summer of 1914 assumed that yet another crisis in that troublesome region could be solved. Success had bred overconfidence, and unnoticed, one power (Austria-Hungary) had given up on the Concert of Europe, abandoning any hopes that its vital interests would be considered fairly within that mechanism of resolving conflict. As the roster of postwar crises successfully surmounted grows, so does the potential for unwarranted complacency at a time when innumerable pin-pricks and irritations are likely to appear in far-flung areas.

These limited suggestions will be challenged by those who object to such singleminded concentration upon the great power game and by those who argue for the transformation, not the moderation, of that game. One can only reply that so long as great powers continue to act in the ways that they have historically acted, efforts to restrain their competition, their misperceptions, their limited vision will be crucial. Ironically, the final service of the 1914 analogy is to induce skepticism about forecasting of the future of international politics. Even when predictions are terribly pessimistic, our fundamentally liberal view of history is based upon the extrapolation of existing trends, whether favorable or unfavorable. We omit the notion of the unexpected, of the crisis that was not included in the plans. Given our long-standing obsession with the 1930s, a decade that seemed destined to end in war, a return of our gaze to the war that emerged suddenly from Europe's last untroubled summer may at least introduce an element of healthy doubt.

1 General Sir John Hackett et al., The Third World War: August 1985, New York: Macmillan, 1978. A less convincing effort at prophecy is Shelford Bidwell, ed., World War 3, London: Hamlyn, 1978.

6 David Calleo, The German Problem Reconsidered: Germany and World Order, Cambridge: The University Press, 1978, p. 6. The principal works of Fritz Fischer are Germany's Aims in the First World War, London: Chatto & Windus, 1967; War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914, London: Chatto & Windus, 1975; and World Power or Decline: The Controversy Over Germany's Aims in the First World War, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

9 The best accounts are G.W. Monger, The End of Isolation, Thomas Nelson, 1963; and Samuel Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, Harvard University Press, 1969.

11 Elizabeth Drew, "Brzezinski," The New Yorker, May 1, 1978, p. 110. The best account of the Fashoda crisis and the Marchand mission that touched it off can be found in G.N. Sanderson, England, Europe, and the Upper Nile, 1882-1899, Edinburgh: The University Press, 1965, especially Chapter 15.

13 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, London: Edward Arnold, 1970, p. 30.

14 Eckhart Kehr was the intellectual forebear of this school; contemporary exponents include Fritz Fischer, Arno Mayer, V.R. Berghahn, and many others.

16 Such paralysis was apparent in 1903-1906; in 1913, the finance minister had predicted economic collapse if the empire went to war. F.R. Bridge, From Sadowa to Sarajevo, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

18 Alexander Yanov, The Russian New Right, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, p. 152; and Détente After Brezhnev, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, Chapter 3.

20 Lucian W. Pye, "The Puzzles of Chinese Pragmatism," Foreign Policy, Summer 1978, p. 134.

21 Drew Middleton, "Oil Price Rise Stirs Review of U.S. War Moves in Crisis," The New York Times July 5, 1979, p. A-3.

22 Michael Howard, Studies in War and Peace, London: Temple Smith, 1970, p. 104.

24 Zara Steiner, op. cit. footnote 15, p. 62.

26 "X" (later identified as Mr. Kennan), "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Foreign Affairs, July 1947, p. 582.

28 Bridge, op. cit. footnote 16, p. 375.



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  • Miles Kahler is Assistant Professor of Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
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