March 10, 2013

From 1914 to 2014: The Shadow of Rational Pessimism

Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e29e200a-6ebb-11e2-9ded-00144feab49a.html

China’s territorial claims and bellicose actions in the Western Pacific have aroused concerns about where this process could lead. In The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific (in the Financial Times on 4 February), Gideon Rachman asked whether we are watching a re-run of events that led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Then, a rising power (Germany) was challenging the established power (Britain) for a say in world affairs and a share in the world's colonial territories. It was not Germany's plan to make war on Britain; German leaders wanted only a say and a share. The economic, military, and naval power that they built was not made to go to war, only to prevent Britain from blocking Germany’s demands. They wanted to ensure peace and to command respect. The war that then came about was not meant to happen. The war would not have happened at all if allies, agents, proxies, and third parties beyond their control had not helped to bring it about.

Replace Britain by the United States, Germany by China, and Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Serbia by Japan, Vietnam, and North and South Korea, and you have Rachman's story in a nutshell. Rachman's conclusion is hopeful, however: China's leaders have tried to learn from history. That, and the inhibitions added by nuclear weapons, will help to avert war.

What was the role of calculation in the outbreak of World War I? Rachman writes as though the war was not calculated at all:

Leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want.

But something is missing here. While the war was in some sense unwanted, the leaders were not helpless: they chose war. It was a calculated decision, and it was not a miscalculation: those who favoured war correctly estimated that victory was far from certain. They had a war plan for a quick victory over France that relied on a high speed military manoeuvre on a colossal scale, a decision by Britain to abstain, and a Russian mobilization that would obligingly wait until the German Army was ready to switch its focus from West to East. They knew it was an outrageous gamble.

Critical to this story was something that I will call rational pessimism. By 1912, Germany no longer felt itself the confident, rising power once led by Bismarck. Germany’s leaders had come to fear the future. Their own attempts to secure Germany’s rightful place in the sun, they feared, were leaving Germany ever weaker.

These fears were well founded. Externally, the balance of power was tilting away from Germany. More countries were adhering to the anti-German alliance of Britain and France. Britain and Russia were rearming at a pace that nullified Germanys’ own efforts. Given time, Germany would only become weaker. Within Germany the balance was tilting away from monarchism and conservatism towards parliamentary socialism. The fiscal demands of rearmament were opening up new social divisions. Germany’s Prussian bureaucracy and aristocracy felt itself more and more besieged.

Increasingly the calculation became: If we fight, we may lose but at least there is a chance that we win. If we remain at peace, we certainly lose. From this point of view the war was a gamble, but it was not a miscalculation. It was simply the choice with the highest expected value. For this reason the leaders of the Central Powers went to war full of foreboding, but they went to war anyway.

In July 1914 the German chancellor Bethmann Holweg confided in his friend Kurt Riezler, who wrote in his diary:

Russia’s military power growing fast … Austria grows ever weaker … This time things are worse than 1912, because now Austria is on the defensive against the Serb-Russian agitation. … The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows into an ever great weight pressing down on our chest.

The chancellor is very pessimistic about Germany’s intellectual condition. Frightful decline of our political niveau. Individuals are becoming ever smaller and more insignificant; nobody says anything great and honest. Failure of the intelligentsia and of the professors.

This pessimism was general. When Germany’s Wilhelm II was informed of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, he wrote:

Now or never.

In Vienna, Kaiser Franz-Josef wrote:

If we go under, we better go under decently.

(The latter quotes are from Holger Herwig’s The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918, published in 1997 by Arnold).)

From this perspective it becomes crystal clear why North Korea’s predicament is so dangerous. Day by day, North Korea is provoking enemies and losing friends. The tensions within the country are largely unknown but surely increasing. What insider would predict a peaceful future for the Pyongyang regime that is better than today? What does Kim Jong-Un have left to lose from gambling on conflict, no matter how poor the odds? Rational pessimism is surely tilting North Korea’s choices towards war. Still, we are not there yet.

As for China itself, the threat of war should be thought of as one for the future. It seems unlikely that China’s leaders would ever choose to gamble everything on a major war as long as they expect to gain more from a continuation of peace. Their optimism is a bulwark against war.

The risk is that optimism is fragile. China faces many problems that could sap the confidence of its leadership. Edward Luttwak (in The Rise of China vs the Logic of Strategy, published in 2012 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University) has written that China is pursuing an impossible trinity of prosperity, diplomatic influence, and military power. China’s economic growth may falter. Even if economic growth is sustained in China, the chances are that at some stage the West will recover its prosperity and technological leadership. Meanwhile China’s rearmament and territorial claims are losing it friends in Japan, Vietnam, and India. At home, there are protests over a range of issues that widens continually: the rule of law, corruption, censorship, inequality, wages and working conditions, land grabs, and pollution. China’s rulers rely on xenophobia and stories of foreign encirclement and penetration to manage these threats to their legitimacy.

Putting all this together, it is not hard to envisage a future in which China’s leaders would become rational pessimists. Would they then be held back by knowledge of history and by the possibility of nuclear war? Maybe. Is Kim Jong-Un restrained by these things today? So far, yes. If Germany’s rulers in 1914 could have seen the future, would they have chosen differently? Perhaps. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure.


- 2 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Luke Theobald

    A very interesting article, as we have seen in recent years how autocrats do not step down easily, Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. However North Korea has a more destabilizing and destructive potential than these other countries.
    However how can the international community raise the benefits of peace for North Korea? Surely the isolationist policy of North Korea protects it from sanctions but it will also blocks any potential benefits that the international community can offer (aid, investment etc).
    So how can war be avoided unless North Korean leadership chooses so?
    Your thoughts would be welcomed.

    12 Mar 2013, 17:07

  2. Mark Harrison

    I’m not sure there is an answer. Everyone’s ideal solution (everyone except China, perhaps) is that the Chinese should offer the Kim family a life pension and a refuge in China and hand over North Korea to the South. But if I was Kim I would trust no one, not even the Chinese. For an explanation see Daron Acemoglu, “Why not a political Coase theorem? Social conflict, commitment, and politics,” Journal of Comparative Economics 31(4) (2003), pages 620-652.

    12 Mar 2013, 20:59


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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