Great-Power War to 2030

by Joshua S. Goldstein

Making predictions about social trends of any kind is extremely difficult and arguably impossible. Past efforts at prediction have been notoriously unsuccessful, as Dan Gardner has shown compellingly in his recent book Future Babble. In my opinion we just do not understand war and international relations well enough to predict anything twenty years into the future. 

Certainly if the trends of recent decades continue, the coming decades will be more peaceful. But that’s an “if.” There’s no guarantee that recent trends will continue. Nonetheless, by recognizing recent trends away from war we can craft policies based on past successes, such as increasing support for the United Nations.

I’d like to address one common fear about war in the coming decades – the rise of China relative to the United States. Political scientist and leading “realist” John Mearsheimer (2010: 382) has written that “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.” My view, by contrast, is that a great-power war involving China is possible alright, but not inevitable and actually not even that likely.

Must a rising China inevitably come to blows with the United States as the former hegemonic power in decline? The analogy is to the rise of Germany and the challenge it posed to Britain before the World Wars. But China, unlike 19th-century Germany, follows a “peaceful rise” strategy and has not fought a single military battle in 25 years (the only permanent UN Security Council member in that category). Also Germany felt denied its due status in the international system, as it came late to the colonial game and had few overseas possessions. But China has its due status as a permanent veto-wielding member of the UNSC, thanks to the foresight of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the creation of the UN, back when China’s power was anything but great.

China’s leaders stay in power by delivering economic prosperity based on international trade. A future war against the United States or another great power would wreck the pursuit of this trade-based wealth. That would be irrational on the part of China’s leadership, which has so far proven both peaceful and generally rather cautious in world affairs. Given that a great-power war in the nuclear age would be absolutely catastrophic for the participants, one would have to assume a level of craziness or stupidity from China’s leaders that completely departs from their behavior in recent decades. They may be exasperating as negotiating partners, or brutal as human-rights abusers, but they are not crazy.

The most dangerous possibility of war would involve an accidental or unintended escalation of a U.S.-Chinese conflict over Taiwan. The American position is deliberately ambiguous about whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event China attacked to re-integrate the island by force. The United States has for decades officially recognized that Taiwan is part of “one China,” and does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. At the same time, however, the United States sells arms to Taiwan and implies that it might use military means to prevent forceful re-integration. Fortunately, China-Taiwan trade and communication have been increasingly rapidly, and the chances of a declaration of independence, or some other reason for a Chinese attack, are decreasing.

As for the South China Sea, the conflicts there are worrisome but so far have tended to produce calibrated ballets of diplomatic and military maneuvering rather than conquest by force. The stakes in oil and minerals undersea in that area may be lucrative, but they in no way would outweigh the enormous costs of international wars in the region.

Mistakes could happen, trends could shift, things could go badly. But it would be wrong to think of negative outcomes as inevitable, or unstoppable. All evidence suggests that sound policy choices have good prospects to steer U.S.-Chinese relations, as well as those among other great powers, away from war in the coming years.



Joshua S. Goldstein is professor emeritus of international relations at American University and research scholar at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His book Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011) documents the reduction in the number, size and scope of the world’s wars in recent decades.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

Doubting the Decline of Great Power War Thesis

by Bradley A. Thayer

The decline of Great Power war thesis advanced by the NIC analysis pivots on an important empirical fact:  there haven’t been any since World War II.  The cause, or causes, of the “Long Peace” is less transparent and widely debated. 

I advance two arguments here.  First, U.S. power is the principal cause of stability in international politics but is likely to weaken in the timeframe considered by the NIC report.  As the relative power of the U.S. declines, the likelihood of great power conflict rises.  Second, the NIC study underplays the probability of intense security competition with China. As a consequence, I am doubtful the world has seen the end of great power war. 

In addition to ensuring the security of the U.S. and its allies, American primacy provides four benefits for the world.  The first has been a more peaceful world.  During the Cold War, U.S. leadership reduced friction among many states that were frequent antagonists.  Today, American primacy reduces nuclear proliferation incentives and helps keep a number of historically dicey relationships peaceful—such as between Greece and Turkey. 

Second, American power gives the United States the ability to spread the positive norms and values the NIC document identifies.  Doing so is a source of much good for the countries concerned as well as the United States.  This is because liberal democracies are more likely to align with the United States and be sympathetic to the American worldview.  

Third, along with the growth in the number of democratic states around the world has been the growth of the global economy, as the NIC analysis recognizes.  With its allies, the United States has toiled to create a globalized trade regime defined by free trade and commerce, respect for international property rights, mobility of capital and labor markets.  The prosperity that flows from this liberal order is a global good. 

Fourth, the United States has been willing to use its power not only to advance its interests but also to promote the welfare of people all over the globe.  The U.S. military has participated in scores of humanitarian operations since the end of the Cold War.  Given these great benefits, we may be confident of one prediction:  Many people around the world will miss U.S. primacy when it’s gone. 

Without U.S. power, the liberal order is likely to end, and this alone is liable to exacerbate tensions.  But the waning of U.S. power, at least in relative terms, introduces additional problems concerning the future prospects for great power war.  Declining hegemons have a choice.  They may labor to reverse their decline, perhaps through innovation or greater competition with the challenger, which may lead to conflict.  Or they may accept it, and watch their influence wither and allies drift away, which also introduces avenues of conflict.  There is no reason to believe that the United States will escape this difficult decision, either of which holds the prospect of conflict with China.

On the other side of the coin, China’s rise in relative power contains great risks of conflict and intense security competition.

Briefly, here are three major reasons for pessimism when we consider the likelihood of a Sino-American conflict.  First, China has numerous border disputes in the South and East China Seas, India, and, of course, Taiwan.  Each of these conflicts is dangerous, particularly those in the South China Sea, due to the national security interest of Beijing, Washington and its allies, and the risk of intentional or inadvertent escalation. 

Second, we must consider Beijing’s and Washington’s conflicting grand strategic interests.  The report underplays how belligerent, revisionist, and risk accepting China may be in the future.  The world has witnessed China’s abandonment of Deng’s 24-Character Strategy and talk of a “Peaceful Rise” in favor of rapid military expansion and what can only be described as a strategic autism or tone deafness that has alarmed Japan, India, and the ASEAN states, to the benefit of the U.S.  Unfortunately, unless Beijing’s trajectory changes, it is on a collision course with Washington. 

Third, the systemic problems of alliances, mutual concerns over credibility, buck-passing, “chain ganging” and abandonment, confront the United States in its explicit or de facto alliances with Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  These alliances provide prodigious benefits but also introduce pathways to conflict with China.  Friends are great to have but they can get you into trouble.  To this, we must add the dangers well identified by theories of hegemonic war and power transition concerning the incentives, held by the declining hegemon or challenger, or both, for arms racing and other forms of intense security competition.

In sum, there are significant reasons to doubt the decline of Great Power war thesis in the context of China’s relations with other Great Powers.



Bradley A. Thayer is a Professor of Political Science at Baylor University and Consultant to DoD.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030