1914 Without a Safety Net

Less than a month after the 100th anniversary of the single shot that set the world on fire, many scholars are comparing then and now. One of the most cogent assessments comes from Walter Russell Mead.

In “Have We Gone From a Post-War to a Pre-War World?” Mead says we should worry, but not so much. Today’s world is a troubled place. Yet, he notes, the U.S. has advantages unavailable to the great powers a century ago.  And those advantages, he argues, leave the U.S. far better equipped to put the brakes on dust-ups that might otherwise metastasize into global conflicts. 

Mead is too much of an optimist.

The major difference between the pre-World War I era and the post-World War II era was the rise of America as a global economic and military power. The world enjoyed many decades without a global shooting war because a confident, powerful America provided the “safety net”; it could stop regional conflicts from spiraling into grand wars, keep the global commons open, and deter great power confrontation. Today, that safety net is slipping away faster than Mead acknowledges.

Fair enough to argue, as Mead does, that America has all the good allies. On the other hand, every U.S. alliance is under significant strain. In the Pacific, American power is anchored to Asia by strong bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan. That triangle is struggling under lingering enmity and distrust between Seoul and Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has done precious little to build the alliance structure it needs to deal appropriately with a 21st century China. In particular, there ought to be seamless cooperation among India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. in responding to Chinese territorial claims. Washington has done nothing to foster that dialogue.

As for NATO, the dithering of member countries over the Russian seizure of the Crimea offers cold comfort. There is an upcoming NATO summit. If the U.S. again dodges the issue of expansion, it will be yet another sign that grand old alliance might not confidently carry into the future.

Mead also writes that “the military balance isn't even close.” That’s true, but not terribly relevant. America’s potential competitors don’t compete on a global scale. Washington does. That is why the “two-contingency” construct was critical to American strategy and force planning.  With a capacity to fight two wars at once, America could be confident that no adversary would calculate that if the US were engaged in one conflict it would be unable to deal with another.

Even before sequester, U.S. military capability was falling short of the strategic standard. Now the notion that the U.S. could fight two major conflicts simultaneously is no longer taken seriously.

But Mead adds we still have nuclear weapons—the ultimate deterrent. “[T]he prospect of nuclear escalation,” he concludes, “will inhibit both sides in future crises as it did the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.” Maybe. Maybe not.

As we saw even during the Cold War, nuclear wars did not prevent hot wars like Korea or Vietnam or confrontations like the Cuban Missile Crisis that pushed the envelope of stability. Further, the stability that nuclear weapons provided during the Cold War might not hold up in a proliferated nuclear environment, where, for example, countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all had their own atomic arsenal. Increased instability seems inevitable as long as the U.S. lags in deploying effective global missile defenses.

Mead is more ambivalent about the role of technology. Then as now, he acknowledges, it can be a disruptive force in the military balance and the practice of statecraft and intelligence, as well as in the fabric of modern society.  The stressors, he notes, however, are different. They are also unpredictable in their impact. At a time when the American security safety net is falling away, that ought to be worrisome.

Mead may be right; the analogy to 1914 might not be right for today. But, if the U.S. continues on an indifferent course of defense, economic, and foreign policy, it might be right soon enough.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies for The Heritage Foundation.


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