The potential for conflict between China and the United States has invited many comparisons with past great-power rivalries, especially those that sparked World War I. Hoping to get past superficial parallels, two groups of scholars have delved deeply into past crises to find out if there are indeed any lessons that might apply today.
Examining the causes of World War I, Rosecrance and Miller’s star-studded cast of scholars ask all the right questions: Did war break out in Europe owing to poor diplomacy or insufficient economic interdependence? Perhaps domestic upheavals or offensive military doctrines were to blame? Or did the simple fact that the rise of one power came at the expense of others make war inevitable? But the experts struggle to come up with original answers. Many wind up emphasizing the significant differences between 1914 and today, and, as the political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr., warns, overreliance on such analogies can create a “whiff of inevitability” about a developing conflict. Rosecrance points to the “tyranny of small things”: the importance of minor events whose major consequences cannot be predicted.
Gompert, Binnendijk, and Lin zero in on the problem of miscalculation, considering a number of cases in which states either committed or averted major blunders. The mistakes tended to involve taking military action based on optimistic assumptions: for example, Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions of Russia, Germany’s embrace of unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I, and Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Good decisions involved resisting temptation, as when the Soviet Union declined to use military force to support its communist allies during the political crisis in Poland in 1981. The authors contend that states avoid miscalculations about war when they allow themselves to be challenged by multiple sources of information, which is why democratic governments make fewer such mistakes than autocratic ones. Nevertheless, as the book points out, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated that democracies are hardly immune to catastrophic optimism.
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