How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Since the closing days of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers, pundits, international relations scholars, and policy analysts have argued that great-power war is a relic of a bygone age. In 1986, the historian John Lewis Gaddis termed the post–World War II era a “Long Peace” because the Soviet Union and the United States had not come to blows. A few years later, the political scientist John Mueller suggested that changing norms had made great-power conflict obsolete. By 2011, the psychologist Steven Pinker was arguing that the Long Peace had morphed into a “New Peace,” marked by a generalized decrease of violence in human affairs.
Of course, as evidenced by ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, to name a few, there is currently no shortage of organized armed violence involving smaller countries. Still, given the blood-drenched course of politics since the start of the modern international system in the sixteenth century, the absence of war among great powers since 1945 is striking. That does not mean, however, that these kinds of conflicts are off the table. In fact, despite attempts by academics and politicians to write off great-power war as a real threat, the conditions that make it possible still exist. Tensions persist among today’s great powers—above all the United States and China—and any number of flash points could trigger a conflict between them. These two countries are on a collision course fueled by the dynamics of a power transition and their competition for status and prestige, and without a change in direction, war between them in the coming decades is not only possible but probable.
Even as geopolitical competition between the United States and China intensifies, most Americans who think seriously about foreign policy and grand strategy refuse to believe that war is likely. This optimism is primarily rooted in several prominent theories of state behavior. The first is that a high level of economic interdependence between two countries reduces the risk of violent conflict. But history provides many examples to counter this hypothesis. The countries of Europe were never more interdependent—both economically and culturally—than they were just before the outbreak of World War I, and the economies of two of that conflict’s main belligerents, the United Kingdom and Germany, were closely linked. And even if the interdependence of the United States and China might theoretically reduce the risk of war between them, their economic ties have begun to unravel in recent years, as each begins to decouple from the other’s economy.
Skepticism about the prospect of a great-power war also stems from faith in the strength of nuclear deterrence. The risk of mutual assured destruction from a nuclear war surely played a role in preventing the Cold War from turning hot. In recent decades, however, technological advances have weakened this deterrent. The combination of miniaturized, low-yield nuclear warheads and highly accurate delivery systems has made thinkable what once was unthinkable: a “limited” nuclear war, which would not result in apocalyptic destruction.
Finally, other scholars have argued that the so-called liberal international order will preserve peace. In this view, U.S. leadership—through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund—and the spread of the principles of peaceful cooperation now provide regularity and predictability in international conduct. Some, such as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry, optimistically forecast that this order can survive for many decades into the future, notwithstanding China’s rise and the eventual end of U.S. predominance. This assumption, however, is problematic. The order is being challenged not only by changing international dynamics but also by political developments in the countries that have traditionally defended it. In the United States and Europe, the rise of populism and illiberal democracy is a backlash against the current order and the elites who champion and profit from it. As domestic support for the order decreases and the balance of power shifts toward other countries, the system will inevitably become less effective at mediating conflict. Rising powers may also see an opening to revise the structure entirely, raising the likelihood of war.
Beyond theory, history also demonstrates that the constraints on great-power war are weaker than they often appear. In particular, the course of the British-German rivalry that culminated in war 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 the parallels to today’s contest between the United States and China could hardly be clearer.
In the early years of the twentieth century, imperial Germany’s fast-growing economic, technological, and naval power began to pose a challenge to the existing British-led international order. Despite close trade ties between the two countries, British elites began to see Germany’s growing economic power as a menace. Moreover, they resented Germany’s economic success because it was the result of trade and industrial policies they deemed unfair: German prosperity, they felt, derived from state intervention rather than the liberal, laissez-faire approach that governed the United Kingdom’s political economy. British elites also harbored a deep antipathy toward Germany because they saw its political culture—which privileged the military and its values—as fundamentally antithetical to liberal values. Simply put, they believed Germany was an irredeemably bad actor. It is no wonder that once war began, the British quickly came to understand the conflict as an ideological crusade pitting liberalism against Prussian autocracy and militarism.
The United States and China are on a collision course.
The British and the Germans were competing for prestige as well as power. Germany’s Weltpolitik strategy—building a big navy and seeking colonies—provoked the United Kingdom, which, as a trading nation with a sprawling overseas empire, could not ignore the emergence of a rival naval power just across the North Sea. In reality, however, Germany’s battleship-building program was driven less by economic or military considerations than by a hunger for status. Germany’s goal was not necessarily to challenge the United Kingdom but to be acknowledged as its great-power equal.
Despite these sources of potential conflict, the outbreak of war between the two states in August 1914 hardly was inevitable. As the historians Zara Steiner and Keith Neilson pointed out, “there was no direct clash over territory, thrones, or borders” between the two. In fact, there were important factors that might have fostered peace: trade, cultural bonds, and interconnected elites and royal families, to name a few.
So why did they go to war? The historian Margaret MacMillan’s answer is that the conflict was “the result of the clash between a major global power feeling its advantage slip away and a rising challenger.” As she writes:
Such transitions are rarely managed peacefully. The established power is too often arrogant, lecturing the rest of the world about how to manage its affairs, and too often insensitive to the fears and concerns of lesser powers. Such a power, as Britain was then, and the United States is today, inevitably resists its own intimations of mortality and the rising one is impatient to get its fair share of whatever is on offer, whether colonies, trade, resources or influence.
The parallels between the pre-1914 British-German antagonism and contemporary U.S.-Chinese relations are both striking and cautionary. The United States finds itself in the place of the United Kingdom, an incumbent hegemon whose relative power is gradually waning. Washington, like London before it, resents its adversary’s rise, which it attributes to unfair trade and economic policies, and views its rival as a bad actor whose values are antithetical to liberalism. For its part, like Germany prior to World War I, today’s fast-rising China wants to be acknowledged as an equal on the international stage and seeks hegemony in its own region. The United Kingdom’s inability to adjust peacefully to Germany’s rise helped lead to World War I. Whether the United States follows that British precedent will determine whether U.S.-Chinese competition ends in war.
For Chinese leaders, their own country’s history provides a cautionary tale about what happens to major countries that fail to make the jump to great-power status. As scholars have noted, China’s defeat by the British and the French in the two Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century stemmed from its inability to adapt to the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Because of a weak response on the part of Chinese leaders, stronger imperialist powers were able to dominate the country’s affairs; the Chinese refer to the subsequent era, in which Western powers and Japan kept China down, as “the century of humiliation.”
China’s current rise is driven by a desire to avenge the humiliation it suffered and to restore its pre-nineteenth-century status as East Asia’s dominant power. Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” program was the first step in this process. To spur its economic growth and modernization, China integrated into the U.S.-led world order. As Deng himself put it in 1992, “Those who are backward get beaten.” Beijing’s long-term goal was not simply to get rich. It aimed to become wealthy enough to acquire the military and technological capabilities needed to wrest regional hegemony in East Asia away from the United States. China joined the system not to help preserve it but to challenge it from within.
That strategy has succeeded. China is rapidly approaching the United States on every important measure of power. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund announced that, when measured in terms of purchasing power parity, China had passed the United States as the world’s largest economy. Measured by market exchange rate, China’s GDP is now nearly 70 percent of the United States’. And as China continues to recover rapidly from the pandemic-induced economic downturn, it will likely pass the United States as the world’s number one economy by any measure before the end of this decade. In military terms, the story is similar. In 2015, a study by the RAND Corporation, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, noted that the gap between U.S. and Chinese military power in East Asia was closing rapidly. The U.S. fleet and U.S. bases in the region were now under threat from improved Chinese capabilities. The study’s authors themselves expressed surprise at this shift. “Even for many of the contributors to this report, who track developments in the Asian military situation on an ongoing basis, the speed of change . . . was striking,” they noted.
U.S. policymakers increasingly see the U.S.-Chinese rivalry not as a traditional great-power competition but as a struggle pitting democracy against communism. In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech whose main purpose was to cast U.S.-Chinese hostility in ideological terms. “We have to keep in mind that the [Chinese Communist Party] regime is a Marxist-Leninist regime,” he said.
General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology . . . that informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism. America can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries, just as the CCP has never ignored them.
Such rhetoric aims to lay the groundwork for a more intense phase of U.S.-Chinese friction by echoing Cold War depictions of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” delegitimizing China’s government in the eyes of the American public, and portraying China as a bad actor in international politics.
It is not only hawks such as Pompeo who have come to view China through an ideological prism. A wide swath of establishment figures in Washington have come to believe that the real threat to the United States is not China’s growing military and economic power but Beijing’s challenge to the U.S. model of political and economic development. As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan wrote in these pages in 2019, “China may ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did”; its “rise to superpower status will exert a pull toward autocracy.”
This ideological turn in U.S. China policy is unwise. It creates a febrile mood in Washington and makes war more likely. The United States would be better advised to take ideology out of the equation and conduct its relationship with China as a traditional great-power rivalry, in which diplomacy aims to manage competition through compromise, conciliation, and the search for common ground. Ideological contests, on the other hand, are zero-sum in nature. If your rival is evil, compromise—indeed, negotiation itself—becomes appeasement.
Today, the U.S.-Chinese relationship is in free fall. Economic relations are on the rocks due to the Trump administration’s trade war, and U.S. technology policy aims to put Chinese firms such as Huawei out of business. It is easy to see how any number of flash points could trigger a war in the coming years. Events on the Korean Peninsula could draw in the United States and China, and both countries’ military maneuvers have raised tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Washington is also challenging long-established understandings about Taiwan’s status by edging closer to recognizing the island’s independence from China and openly acknowledging the United States’ military commitment to defend Taiwan. The United States has also reacted strongly to Beijing’s repression of China’s Uighur Muslim minority and to its imposition of a harsh new security law on Hong Kong. In both cases, a bipartisan array of U.S. officials have condemned China, and both Congress and the Trump administration have imposed retaliatory sanctions.
Despite such pushback, however, China is unlikely to abandon its goal of becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia. Beijing will also continue pressing the United States to accord it respect as a great-power equal. Avoiding war by accommodating China’s desires would require the United States to retract its security guarantee to Taiwan and recognize Beijing’s claims on the island. Washington would also need to accept the reality that its liberal values are not universal and thus stop interfering in China’s internal affairs by condemning Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and issuing thinly veiled calls for regime change.
There is little chance that the United States will take those steps. Doing so would mean acknowledging the end of U.S. primacy. This makes the prospect of a hot war ever more likely. Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union generally accepted each other’s European spheres of influence, today, Washington and Beijing have starkly different views of who should enjoy preeminence in the East China and South China Seas and Taiwan.
If Washington does not cede its dominance in East Asia it is on the fast track to war.
U.S. public opinion is also unlikely to act as a check on this potential march to war. Historically, the country’s foreign policy establishment has not been particularly responsive to public opinion, and many American voters know little about U.S. overseas military commitments and their implications. In the event of a Chinese attack, especially on Taiwan, the “rally around the flag” effect and the U.S. government’s ability to manipulate public opinion would likely neuter public opposition to war. U.S. leaders would condemn Beijing as a ruthless, aggressive, and expansionist communist dictatorship aiming to suppress the freedom-loving people of a democratic territory. The U.S. public would be told that war was necessary to uphold the United States’ universal values. Of course, as was the case with World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war, public disillusionment would set in if the war went badly. By then, however, it would be too late.
Over the past few years, multiple observers—including leading China analysts in the United States, such as Robert Kagan and Evan Osnos—have suggested that the United States and China might be, like the United Kingdom and Germany in 1914, “sleepwalking” into war. Although the march toward conflict continues, everyone’s eyes are now wide open. The trouble is that although supporters of increased confrontation are making their case loudly and clearly, opposition to such policies has been surprisingly muted within the foreign policy establishment. One reason is that many who typically advocate policies of strategic self-discipline and restraint in U.S. foreign policy have, in recent years, become far more hawkish when it comes to China. Among scholars and analysts who generally agree that the United States should disengage from the Middle East (and, some say, even from Europe), few support similar strategic adjustments in East Asia. Instead, some in this camp—notably the distinguished realist scholar John Mearsheimer—now claim that the United States must oppose China’s drive for regional hegemony. But this argument is based on the geopolitical nightmare that obsessed the British strategic thinker Sir Halford Mackinder at the beginning of the twentieth century: if a single power dominated the Eurasian heartland, it could attain global hegemony. Mackinder’s argument has many weaknesses. It is the product of an era that equated military power with population size and coal and steel production. The Eurasian threat was overhyped in Mackinder’s day, and it still is. Chinese regional hegemony is not something worth going to war over.
Whether the United States can, or will, peacefully cede its dominance in East Asia and acknowledge China’s standing as its great-power equal is an open question. If Washington does not do so, however, it is on the fast track to war—one that might make the military disasters of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq pale in comparison.