A century after WW1, there is little danger of history repeating itself

Tensions may be raising around the world, but the stakes have become too high

Share

Today marks the centenary of the United Kingdom declaring war against Germany and entering the First World War. One-hundred years on, while another Great War cannot be ruled out, the prospect for the foreseeable future is not as high as a century ago.

Nevertheless, the world today does have parallels with the early Twentieth Century. Once again, there is a significant movement in global power taking place. 

Today, power is shifting to developing countries with key Asian states, especially China, primary beneficiaries so far. This contrasts with 1914 when Germany, Russia and the United States were the key ‘rising nations’. 

And as 100 years ago, geopolitical tensions are mounting as ‘revisionist nations’, including China and Russia, challenge key elements of the international order.  This is partly driven by rising economic power resurrecting nationalism and claims for resources, as witnessed by disputes between China and neighbouring countries in the South China Sea, for instance.

While much focus in 2014 has so far been on Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and developments in Syria and Iraq, it is perhaps Asia where most tension lies in terms of potential for a great power war.  China’s remarkable rise is unsettling the region, and indeed much of the world beyond.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew parallels earlier this year between the geopolitical landscape in Asia today and Europe on the eve of war in 2014.  Moreover, Philippine President Benigno Aquino compared what he claimed was Beijing's track record of belligerent behaviour with German expansionism in the Twentieth Century by openly questioning “at what point do you say, 'Enough is enough?'“

Within Asia, potential triggers for a great power conflict include Taiwan, a US ally, which China claims sovereignty over.  Another flashpoint could be an escalation of tension between Japan (which the United States has a security treaty with) and China.

These risks are real and significant. However, there are key differences today with 1914 which, in the absence of catastrophic miscalculation, makes a major power war unlikely for the foreseeable future. 

One major difference between now and 1914 is the presence of nuclear weapons which, as during the Cold War, generally serve as a brake on any major power conflict. Of importance here is that both revisionist nations, including China and Russia, as well as ‘status-quo powers’, such as the United States and France, that possess nuclear arsenals.

 

A further fundamental change is that, unlike 1914, there is now a dense web of post-war international institutions, especially the United Nations, which still have significant resilience and legitimacy.  While these bodies need of reform, they have generally enabled international security, especially with five of the key powers all on the UN Security Council.

Moreover, the relative balance between the two leading powers today is different in 2014 than 1914.  That is, the gap between United States and China is greater today than that between the United Kingdom and Germany 100 years ago.

The United States remains significantly ahead of China on most measures of national strength, including military might, and is likely to enjoy an overall advantage for years.  Indeed, there are indications that US power will remain resilient for decades, buoyed by factors such as the country’s ‘energy revolution’.

Taken overall, the prospect of a major power war for the foreseeable future is not as high as in 1914. The relative global balance of power is different today, partly because of the resilience of US power. Moreover, nuclear weapons and international institutions generally act as a restraining force against major conflict that did not exist 100 years ago.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album