History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. — Mark Twain
As we approach the anniversary of World War I, we face another situation of an unprecedented globalized economy, with nations knitted together by trade, a long period of peace among the major powers ensured by a dominant imperial naval power trying to manage the rise of an ambitious, aggressive continental power.
Then, it was Great Britain working to "contain" Germany. As for the degree to which the world was connected, under the ideal that nations that traded together didn't go to war with each other, here is John Maynard Keynes:
The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.
He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.
But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.
Then that world marched off the cliff, never to be recovered, over a seemingly minor event in the Balkans (Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph didn't even like Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, who, ironically, wanted peace with Serbia).
Scholars now know that this calamity was not as surprising and avoidable as Barbara Tuchman led generations to believe in The Guns of August. Without the statesmanship of Bismarck, militarized Germany was itching for a fight with Russia. Niall Ferguson has argued that Great Britain was foolish to have become involved in the war at all.
In 2013, the United States confronts a rising China. We have loudly made a "pivot" to the Pacific, claiming we aren't trying to contain China. That may be true in that America has worked hard over three decades to manage China's peaceful rise to become a great power.
But such events as Beijing declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands whose ownership it disputes with Japan, may make containment difficult.
As discussed frequently in this space, diminishing oil reserves and other disruptions are making the world less stable. The East China Sea may hold substantial petroleum under its floor. China, which has little oil at home, is desperate to lock up these supplies, which are also coveted by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Other areas include disputed claims between China and the Philippines and Vietnam.
Although comparisons between China and Wilhelmine Germany have been made, Chinese President Xi Jinping is no Kaiser Bill. He is leading a much more assertive foreign policy than his predecessors.
Japan is our ally (as are Taiwan and South Korea). Such measures as the ADIZ lead us to a situation that John Kennedy dreaded during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where a lieutanant's miscalculation could start World War III. South Korea is also an interesting wild card.
Americans have little knowledge of how much destruction Imperial Japan wrought in China during World War II. China had been fighting Japan for more than four years before Pearl Harbor.
China also remembers how it was dismembered and humiliated by the European powers for decades. Something that united Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong was a fire to cleanse China of foreign dominance.
While Americans can't get enough Duck Dynasty, these historical experiences are intense present passions that unite the Chinese people and an otherwise unpopular Communist Party (Rana Mitter, in his insightful book, Forgotten Ally, makes the point that the ghost of Chiang would nod approvingly at today's China, a one-party state with a market/mercantilist economy, while the shade of Mao would hold his hand in his hands, seeing his dreams in tatters).
Japan has been unwilling to make the amends that Germany did with its neighbors. Although the constitution that Douglas MacArthur imposed on Japan forbids aggressive war, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces are robust. And Tokyo is unwilling to be bullied by Beijing. Nationalism cuts both ways.
Now much discussion in defense circles is about "anti-access/area denial" (AA/AD) — how a war between China and America would be fought. Chinese ballistic missiles are potential carrier killers, consigning the U.S. capital ships that have ruled the waves for seven decades to impotence. American strategists are trying to counter this.
A repeat of Bill Clinton sending a carrier battle group through the Taiwan Strait in the late '90s to "send a message" is unlikely. We did send two B-52s into China's newly declared ADIZ. They were unchallenged.
Meanwhile, today's America is exhausted by more than a decade of needless wars. Its economy is ailing although the rich are doing very well. As Den Xioping well knew, a strong military flowed from a strong economy, not vice versa. Back to rhymes: America is about as distracted with internal political troubles as Britain was in 1913-14.
"Chimerica" plus Japan is the most important economic relationship in the world (one ensured by the U.S. Navy, with China as a free rider). It would be folly to risk it.
That's exactly why we should be paying attention.