I enjoyed Jack Levy’s comments on how the world would have looked to people writing in 1912. As part of my current research, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the three decades before World War I. As Levy pointed out, this last period of great power peace has some interesting parallels with the present one. Like today, the international economy had become increasingly integrated. For good reason, some even refer to this period as the “first age of globalization.” The period also saw the emergence of several new great powers, including Japan, Germany, and the United States. Like emerging powers today, each of these states sought to carve out its own world role and to find, as the German Foreign Secretary put it, a “place in the sun.” Like Levy, I don’t think these parallels we are doomed to repeat the catastrophe of 1914. I want to highlight the different institutional rules governing the international economic system today. The dangers discussed in the NIC report are real, but there is reason for hope when it comes to avoiding great power war.
The rules of the game governing the “first age of globalization” encouraged great powers to pursue foreign policies that made political and military conflict more likely. Declining transportation costs, not more liberal trade policies, drove economic integration. There was no web of international agreements discouraging states from pursuing protectionist trade policies. As Patrick McDonald‘s recent book, The Invisible Hand of Peace, explains nicely, protectionism went hand-in-hand with aggressive foreign policies. Many of the great powers, including the emerging United States, sought to shut foreign competitors out of their home markets even as they sought to expand their own overseas trade and investment. Even though markets and investment opportunities in less developed areas of the world were small, great power policy makers found these areas attractive because they would not export manufactured products. As one American policy maker put it in 1899, they preferred “trade with people who can send you things you ant and cannot produce, and take from you in return things they want and cannot produce; in other words, a trade largely between different zones, and largely with less advanced peoples….” Great powers scrambled to obtain privileged access to these areas through formal or informal imperial control. This zero-sum competition added a political and military component to economic rivalry. Increasing globalization made this dangerous situation worse, not better, in spite of the fact that it also increased the likely cost of a great power war.
In large part because of the international economic institutions constructed after World War II, present day great powers do not face a world in which protectionism and political efforts to secure exclusive market access are the norm. Emerging as well as longstanding powers can now obtain greater benefits from peaceful participation in the international economic system than they could through the predatory foreign policies that were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They do not need a large military force to secure their place in the sun. Economic competition among the great powers continues, but it is not tied to imperialism and military rivalry in the way it was in 1914.
These international institutional differences are probably more important for continuing great power peace than is the military dominance of the United States. American military supremacy reduces uncertainty about the cost and outcome of a hegemonic war, making such a war less likely. However, as in the 19th Century, higher growth rates in emerging powers strongly suggest that the current American military edge will not last forever. Efforts to sustain it will be self-defeating if they threaten these emerging powers and set off a spiral of military competition. Similarly, major uses of American military power without the support (or at least the consent) of other great powers also risk leading these states to build up their military capabilities in order to limit American freedom of action. The United States will be better served by policies that enhance the benefits that emerging powers like China receive from upholding the status quo.
Although the differences in international institutions give reason for optimism about continuing great power peace, there are no guarantees. These institutions are not immutable. They rest on major power policy makers’ belief that they have more to gain from participation in the present system than they do from alternative foreign policies. Right now, this belief is well founded but it could be undermined if the system ceases to bring material benefits to powers capable of undermining it. If the predatory and imperialistic foreign policies of years leading up to 1914 once again offer real benefits, I suspect that new ideological justifications for them will not be hard to find.
Benjamin O. Fordham is professor of political science at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research on the role of domestic political and economic interests in foreign policy making has been published in International Studies Quarterly, International Organization, the Journal of Politics, and other journals. He is currently working on a book about the domestic politics of American foreign policy during the 1890-1914 period.