Danger: Falling Powers

On the surface, Kaiser Wilhelm II had every reason to be optimistic in 1914. A century earlier, Prussia—the forerunner to Wilhelm’s German Empire—had been thrashed by Napoleon. Into the 1850s, a loosely confederated Germany was, one British observer later said, a “cluster of insignificant states under insignificant princelings.”1 Since the unification of those states in 1871, however, Germany had been a great power on the make.

Its factories churned out iron and steel, erasing Great Britain’s once-unassailable economic lead. Germany built an army unparalleled in Europe; its growing navy threatened British supremacy at sea. By the early 1900s, Germany was a continental heavyweight pursuing an audacious “world policy” aimed at grabbing colonies and global power. “Germany towered above all the other continental states,” historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote; it seemed destined for dominance in Europe and perhaps beyond.2

Yet the kaiser and his aides didn’t feel confident. In the East, one enemy—Russia—was building up its army, enlarging its fleet, and slashing the time required to ready its forces for war. In the West, another enemy—France—was dramatically enlarging the army it could hurl at Germany. Even worse, a Franco-Russian-British entente had Germany surrounded, while the kaiser’s allies, he complained, were dropping away like rotten fruit.3 Perhaps time was not on Berlin’s side: If Wilhelm did not make a dash for greatness soon, Germany’s military position and hopes for world power might crumble.

Germany must strike to “defeat the enemy while we still stand a chance of victory,” the chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, declared in 1914, even if that meant “provoking a war in the near future.” 4 When a diplomatic crisis broke upon Europe that summer, the kaiser’s government did just that—making the decisions and taking the risks that helped turn the assassination of an Austrian prince into the global conflagration known as World War I. If Germany’s rise had given it the wherewithal to destroy the balance of power, its impending decline drove the aggressive gamble that plunged Europe into darkness.

This scenario has been more common than you might think. The conventional wisdom among political scientists holds that great powers are either rising or falling; that rising powers push forward whereas declining powers fall back; and that the greatest tensions and most devastating wars occur when a rising challenger surpasses an established superpower—what scholars call a “power transition.” The reality is more complicated.

A country can be rising and falling at the same time: States that we look back on as “rising powers” often experienced economic slowdowns and strategic encirclement by hostile actors. It is the resulting fear of decline—not the optimism created by perpetual ascent—that frequently incites risky, belligerent behavior. When growth slows, anxious expansion often follows. When a country is surrounded by enemies, it may try reckless gambits to break the closing ring. Most important, conflict can occur even when there is no “hegemonic transition”: The real trap may come once a previously rising challenger realizes it won’t overtake its enemies. When a dissatisfied power’s window begins to close, when its leaders fear that they cannot deliver the glories they have promised, even a low-probability lunge for victory may seem better than a humiliating descent.

In other words, the reason China’s trajectory is so alarming is not that it will inexorably overtake America. It is that some of history’s deadliest wars were started by revisionist powers whose future no longer looked so bright.


The current understanding of what causes great-power conflict draws heavily from one of the earliest wars on record. In his chronicle of the Great Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 405 BC, Thucydides provided the classic formula. The rise of Athens, with its peerless navy and growing empire, threatened Sparta, a land power that had previously led the Greek world. The Spartans watched nervously as Athens grew, armed, and drew other states into its orbit. Sparta found its influence tested in ways that became harder to abide. Amid a series of escalating crises, Sparta resolved to fight before it was too late—“to throw themselves heart and soul upon the hostile power, and break it, if they could, by commencing the present war.”5 The horrific clash that followed devastated both sides and brought the golden age of Greek civilization to an end.

Thucydides is considered the father of the international relations canon, and his explanation of great-power conflict remains at the heart of that discipline. Power transition theory holds that war is likely when a rising country threatens to overtake an established country. As the challenger grows stronger, it destabilizes the existing system. It provokes tests of strength with the reigning power. The outcome is a spiral of hostility. “War is most likely,” one political scientist writes, “during the periods when the power capabilities of a rising and dissatisfied challenger begin to approach those of the leading state.”6

In 2015, Harvard University’s Graham Allison appropriated the wisdom of the ancients to explain the rivalries of the present. Throughout history, Allison argued, power transitions have led to war. This danger is particularly acute because China will soon be “the biggest player in the history of the world.”7 The task of the coming decades will be managing the rise of a country that is destined to replace America as the world’s leader, without causing a violent cataclysm along the way. That formula, not surprisingly, appeals to Xi Jinping, who has cited the “Thucydides Trap” in calling on America to accept Chinese primacy in Asia and beyond.8

There is an elemental truth to Thucydides’s thesis: The rise of new powers inevitably shakes up the world. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Athens would not have been nearly so threatening to Sparta had it not become a mighty superpower. Washington and Beijing would not be locked in rivalry if China was still a weak, impoverished state. Rising powers do typically expand their influence in ways that threaten reigning powers. But the calculus that produces war isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

To see why, go back to the Peloponnesian War. Donald Kagan, the leading modern historian of that conflict, shows that the rise of Athens probably caused the first Peloponnesian War, fought from 460 to 455 BC. But that war ended in a comprehensive peace settlement. The causes of the Great Peloponnesian War (the one Thucydides chronicled) were more complex. Athens was, in the years before that conflict, a risen power whose influence was no longer expanding. It made moves that tested and ultimately ruptured the peace because it feared rapid decline.

The cause was a struggle between a Spartan ally, Corinth, and a neutral power, Corcyra, over an obscure place called Epidamnus. Corinth was on the verge of winning that struggle and adding Corcyra’s formidable fleet to its own. That would have given Corinth’s ally, Sparta, the ability to neutralize Athens’s naval advantage, the basis of its power and prosperity. The Athenians, writes Kagan, “were threatened with a deadly change in the balance of power at one stroke.”9 This nightmare drew Athens into the fight between Corinth and Corcyra—and set off a chain reaction that produced the Great Peloponnesian War.

There’s a clue here for understanding what drives great powers to desperation. A country whose relative wealth and power are growing, whose position is improving, will surely enlarge its geopolitical horizons. But it should also want to delay a climactic confrontation—to avoid prematurely bringing down the wrath of the reigning hegemon. Such a country should presumably conduct itself as China did for two decades after the Cold War, by hiding its capabilities and biding its time.

Now imagine an alternative scenario. A dissatisfied state has been building its power and ratcheting up its ambitions. Its leaders have stoked intense nationalism; they have promised the people that past insults will be avenged and great sacrifices will be rewarded. But then the country peaks, perhaps because its economy stalls, perhaps because it runs into a coalition of rivals determined to thwart its rise. A window of opportunity now begins to shut; a window of vulnerability looms. In these circumstances, a revisionist power may behave more aggressively, even unpredictably, because it feels an urge to grab what it can before it is too late.

That’s the troubling possibility the United States confronts vis-à-vis China today—and it’s one that has played out many times in the past.


Let’s start with economic slowdowns: What happens when fast-rising countries suffer severe stagnation? To answer this question, we looked at every instance during the past 150 years in which a major power’s per capita GDP grew at least twice as fast as the world average for 7 years and then slowed by at least 50 percent over the next 7 years.10 These are countries that were soaring and then fell back to earth. They usually landed hard.

Most of the rising countries that stagnated during the past 150 years tried to revive their economies through mercantilist policies—the use of state power to lock up markets and resources—and international expansion. They cracked down at home and carved out spheres of influence abroad. They built up their militaries and used them more assertively. In many cases, this behavior fueled great-power tensions. In some cases, it triggered major wars.

Why are stumbling great-powers so problematic? The logic is straightforward. Eras of rapid growth fuel a country’s ambitions, raise its citizens’ expectations, and unnerve its rivals. During a long economic boom, businesses enjoy swelling profits, and citizens get used to the good life. The country achieves greater international power and prestige. Leaders feed these expectations, promising the people a future of prosperity and greatness. Then stagnation jeopardizes everything.

Slowing growth makes it harder for leaders to keep the people fat and happy. Economic underperformance weakens the country and gives its rivals the upper hand. Fearful of unrest, leaders repress domestic dissent. They become determined to restore stronger growth and keep foreign predators at bay. Expansion seems like an escape hatch—a way of grabbing new sources of wealth, rallying the nation around its leaders, and warding off looming threats.11

Many countries have followed this path, including some you might not expect. Democratic France, one of America’s key NATO allies, had a long post–World War II boom that fizzled in the 1970s. Paris responded by trying to rebuild its old economic sphere of influence in Africa, deploying 14,000 troops in its former colonies and undertaking a dozen military interventions over the next two decades.12 Democratic Japan grew even more rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s before slumping in the 1970s. Tokyo reacted by ramping up investment in Southeast Asia, in hopes of establishing a geo-economic domain, and by helping Japanese firms snap up global market share in key industries and secure access to critical resources such as oil. Japan did not become militarily aggressive, in this case, but it developed a powerful navy to protect its investments and sea lanes.13

Even America once engaged in anxious expansion. In the 1880s, the long post–Civil War economic surge ended, and the 1890s saw a brutal financial panic and a prolonged depression. National unemployment averaged nearly 12 percent from 1894 to 1898. Strikes, lockouts, and other labor battles became frequent and bloody.14 Beset by domestic strife, American officials also worried that the country was vulnerable to European mega-empires that were eating up the globe. Africa and Asia had already been devoured; the Western Hemisphere might be next. “Our only rivals in peace as well as enemies in war would be found located at our very doors,” Secretary of State Richard Olney warned.15

Washington didn’t gently accept this fate. The government violently suppressed strikes at home and jacked up tariffs on foreign goods while engaging in a burst of global expansion.16 The United States pumped investment and exports into new markets in Latin America and East Asia while keeping its home market relatively closed against European goods.17 It built a vast navy and seized key strategic points such as Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal route. It fought a war against Spain, sent troops to China, and asserted a right to keep foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere. “The United States . . . stands face to face with the greatest conjuncture that can confront a people,” wrote one leading expansionist. “She must protect the outlets of her trade, or run the risk of suffocation.”18

Fortunately, these were mild cases of anxious aggrandizement. In each case, democratic institutions served as shock absorbers for aggressive urges and internal tensions. In each case, the country still had a relatively open, dynamic economy that could compete in foreign markets. These characteristics made it easier to restore growth by promoting innovation and peaceful commerce, rather than using full-blown military aggression to create a self-contained economic bloc.19 Finally, because postwar Japan and postwar France lived within a relatively healthy world order led by Washington, they had limited need—or ability—to engage in the worst forms of mercantilist expansion.

But what happens when stagnation hits authoritarian regimes that lack democratic legitimacy and traffic in blustery nationalism? Whose uncompetitive, state-controlled economies rely on crony capitalist networks that profit from mercantilism? That’s when countries simply push their way into foreign markets and seize critical resources, even if it means destabilizing world politics.

Consider imperial Russia. That country enjoyed an economic boom from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Industrial output doubled, while iron and steel, crude oil, and coal production tripled. By 1900, however, a deep slump was under way. Peasants ransacked estates, workers destroyed railways and factories, and dozens of senior officials were assassinated. Russia’s rulers feared that its technological backwardness would condemn it to “industrial captivity” by more advanced nations.20

A scared, absolutist government cracked down severely: By 1905, 70 percent of the empire was under martial law and more than 10,000 people had been executed. The Russian military grew, with both the naval budget and tonnage of the fleet rising by nearly 40 percent between 1901 and 1905.21 Government-controlled banks and industries became tools of economic expansion. St. Petersburg pushed hard to strengthen its influence in East Asia, seeking colonial gains in Korea and sending 170,000 soldiers to occupy Manchuria. These moves, however, backfired: They antagonized Japan, which beat Russia in the first great-power war of the twentieth century.22

A century later, Vladimir Putin’s Russia turned aggressive under similar circumstances.23 After the global financial crisis and a crash in oil prices ended a run of hydrocarbon-propelled growth, Putin needed new ways of strengthening Russia’s position, propping up its resource-dependent economy, and averting challenges to his rule. He criminalized dissent, murdered his political challengers, and steered Russia deeper into autocracy; he dialed up the nationalism and xenophobia toward foreign enemies.24 Putin sought to create a Eurasian economic bloc centered on Russia—“a new imperial community,” one cheerleader called it. He deployed state-owned enterprises, such as oil giant Rosneft, and government-backed mercenaries as tools of state power in overseas regions. Not least, Russia lopped off chunks of two neighbors (Georgia and Ukraine) that were trying to escape its orbit, while also intervening in the Syrian civil war. “We need a small victorious war,” one Russian minister argued (foolishly) in 1904. Russia’s twenty-first century tsar knows that playbook well.25

Indeed, Russian aggression in Ukraine demonstrates the peaking-power dynamic at work. In the early 2010s, the EU threatened Putin’s vision for a Eurasian bloc by offering Ukraine a comprehensive free trade agreement that would have barred many Russian products.26 The agreement also called for integrating Ukraine into the EU’s common security and defense policy, a move Russian leaders may have viewed as a slippery slope leading to NATO membership.27

Russia aggressively pressured Ukraine to reject the EU’s deal, and in November 2013, Moscow had seemingly achieved its objectives when Ukraine’s president, Victor Yanukovych, killed the agreement.28 But that decision sparked protests in Kyiv that eventually forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Russian officials warned that Ukraine was about to split in half, that the EU would swallow the western portion of the country, that Russia would lose its gas deals with Ukraine and its naval base in Crimea, and that the resulting chaos might spark domestic unrest in Russia itself.29 Faced with a Western-leaning Ukraine and the consequences that might follow, Putin chose to use the fruits of a years-long military buildup to vivisect that country instead. Russia annexed Crimea and fomented insurgencies in eastern Ukraine in 2014, a state of open hostility that lasted until Russia launched a full-scale invasion—representing Europe’s largest interstate military conflict since World War II—in 2022.

Economic stagnation even helps explain some of the most violent, radically disruptive behavior the world has ever seen. During the 1920s, Japan and Germany grew rapidly before hitting a wall. During the Great Depression, both countries went on expansionist rampages that were fueled by toxic ideologies as well as a desire to seize land, resources, and other assets before enemies—many of them self-created—could move in for the kill.30

All of these cases were complicated: There is never just one factor that drives a country to war. Yet there is a clear pattern. If rapid growth gives countries the ability to act boldly, stagnation can provide a powerful motive for rasher forms of expansion and belligerence. That’s why the most dangerous sequence in international politics is a long ascent followed by the prospect of a sharp decline. We see something similar when we look at how revisionist powers have coped with a second challenge: geopolitical encirclement. Some of the most catastrophic gambles in history have come when once-rising powers concluded that their path to glory was about to be blocked.


Imperial Germany is the textbook example. The Anglo-German rivalry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is often seen as a forerunner to the U.S.-China competition: Both were cases of a fast-rising, autocratic power challenging the liberal superpower of the day. But the more ominous precedent may be this: War came when a cornered, declining Germany realized that it could not get past its rivals without a fight.

World War I marked the calamitous coda to an era of remarkable German ascent. Between 1864 and 1871, Wilhelm I and his “iron chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, forged the German Empire through short, brilliantly orchestrated wars against Denmark, Austria-Hungary, and France. The unified state soon became an industrial juggernaut. By 1910, Germany had Europe’s leading economy; by 1914, it produced twice as much steel as Britain and had twice as many miles of railroad track. Defense spending multiplied nearly fivefold between 1880 and 1914; Berlin soon commanded Europe’s most fearsome army, and its shipyards were building a navy that would nip at Britain’s heels. Looking back, historian Paul Kennedy doubted whether the relative power “of any two neighboring states” had ever changed as much “in the course of one man’s lifetime as occurred here between Britain and Germany.”31 Not since Napoleon had Europe seen a country with such potential to dominate on land while also vying for supremacy at sea.

Yet Germany’s rise was always precarious because that country had potential foes all around. Its location in the heart of a crowded continent provided tremendous influence but ensured the jealousy of states along its flanks. Germany rose, moreover, at a time when many of the world’s choice colonial possessions had been claimed or were being snapped up by established empires that were not eager to share. So even a strong, surging Germany had to tread carefully, lest it provoke what Bismarck called the “nightmare of coalitions”—the combined hostility of countries that could tear it apart.32

Until the 1890s, Germany played the game with skill. During the wars of unification, Bismarck deftly prevented Germany’s enemies from ganging up on it. He refused to march all the way to Vienna after Prussia had routed Austria-Hungary in 1866, for fear of turning a wounded rival into a lasting enemy; he cleverly provoked France into starting the war in 1870.33 After unification, Bismarck manipulated Europe’s complex alliance politics and limited Germany’s global ambitions to keep the new empire from being surrounded. “My map of Africa is here in Europe,” he explained: Rather than making itself the target of Europe’s imperial rivalries, Germany should pit its competitors against each other by encouraging them to expand abroad.34

Yet this nineteenth century “hide and bide” strategy didn’t last, because Bismarck himself didn’t last. The chancellor was fired by the more impulsive Wilhelm II in 1890. Under Wilhelm II, Germany became less abashed in its pursuit of European and global aggrandizement. It embarked on a “world policy” meant to deliver markets, resources, and an overseas empire on par with those of Germany’s rivals. It envisioned a German-dominated Mitteleuropa that would provide economic security and a platform to project global power. “The days when Germans granted one neighbor the earth, the other the sea, and reserved for themselves the sky, where pure doctrine reigns—those days are over,” foreign minister and future chancellor Bernhard von Bülow announced in 1897: Germany would claim its “place in the sun.”35

That policy threatened to leave others in the shade. The quest for imperial gains in Africa, the Near East, the Pacific, and the Western Hemisphere drew Germany into rows with London, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Washington. The great strength of the German army posed a mortal peril to a still-seething France. Perhaps most important, Berlin constructed a powerful “risk fleet” of battleships intended to keep the vaunted Royal Navy at bay and thereby give Germany a free hand in Europe and around the globe. Bismarck had assiduously reassured other countries that Germany would respect the existing order. The actions of his successors raised suspicions that Berlin intended to break that order—to seek “a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England,” wrote British diplomat Eyre Crowe.36

Germany thus began to precipitate the encirclement Bismarck had feared. In 1894, France and Russia concluded a military alliance aimed at Berlin. Britain threw its energies into maintaining an unmatched fleet of battleships and positioning them near Germany. “Germany keeps her whole fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England,” Admiral Jackie Fisher remarked. “We must therefore keep a fleet twice as powerful as that of Germany always concentrated within a few hours of Germany.”37 More damaging, Berlin’s assertiveness caused London to settle disputes with its other rivals—France, Russia, Japan, the United States—to focus on the menace across the North Sea. Germany had activated the anxieties that could turn Europe’s geography into a deadly trap. It faced, in Bülow’s phrasing, a “ring of Powers” who sought “to isolate and paralyze it.”38

It also faced economic containment. Germany’s industrial rise had naturally stimulated insecurities elsewhere. “In every part of the globe they are cutting out English traders,” the Saturday Review warned in 1875, “and even in England they are seizing on whole branches and even centers of trade as their own.”39 As Germany’s conduct became more menacing, its rivals threw up protective tariffs and began consolidating their empires against the emerging challenge. The British were out to “destroy” German industry, the kaiser predicted. Germany must “forestall the evil by building a strong fleet.” 40

Berlin’s response was to try to break the ring—through tactics that strengthened it instead. When Germany provoked an imperial imbroglio with France over Morocco in 1905, in hopes of showing that the recent Anglo-French entente was toothless, it simply demonstrated how badly the two countries needed each other—and hastened the formation of a Triple Entente linking Paris, London, and St. Petersburg. When Berlin used coercive threats against Russia during crises in the volatile Balkans in 1908–1909 and 1912–1913, Tsar Nicholas II’s government concluded that it must stand firm in the future. And when Germany stirred up another colonial dispute in Morocco in 1911, it produced explicit warnings that Britain did not seek peace “at any price.” 41 The tendency, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (Bülow’s successor) lamented, was to “challenge everybody, get in everyone’s way and actually, in the course of all this, weaken nobody.” 42 All the while, recurring crises were making Europe a geopolitical hothouse. Fears of war were rising on all sides.

Nothing better illustrated this vicious circle than Germany’s war plans. To deal with the threat of a two-front fight against France and Russia, the General Staff had developed its Schlieffen Plan, which envisioned a lightning blow against France so that Germany’s forces could then pivot to block slow-mobilizing Russian armies in the East. Yet the only way to defeat France quickly was to skirt the heavy fortifications on the Franco-German frontier by knifing through neutral Belgium. That move might well bring Britain into any European war, because London could not tolerate an enemy dominating the Low Countries just across the water. It was an absurd situation: Germany’s abundance of enemies produced high-risk military plans that were liable to create even more.43 The Schlieffen Plan also made Germany hypersensitive to small shifts in the military balance, which would wreck the exquisite timing and the scheme required.

And big shifts were coming. In 1912, Russia approved the expansion of its Baltic fleet; in 1913, it began to enlarge the army by 470,000 men. With French financial backing, Russia was also expanding and modernizing its railroads: Its mobilization time would soon fall from six weeks to two. France had passed new conscription laws that, by extending the term of service from two years to three, threatened to negate the numerical advantage that Germany’s larger population provided. The United Kingdom announced that it would build two battleships for every one by Berlin.44 Germany was still Europe’s foremost military power. But by 1916–1917, it would be hopelessly outclassed by the enemy coalition. “I believe a war to be unavoidable and: the sooner the better,” Moltke declared in late 1912: Better to fight now than suffer slow suffocation or outright destruction.45

There was plenty of cause for fatalism. Germany’s isolation had caused it to lean ever more heavily on its principal ally, Austria-Hungary. Yet that multinational empire was being torn apart by ethnic tensions and challenged by a Russian-backed Serbia in the Balkans. Other potential allies, such as Italy and the Ottoman Empire, were fading. Before long, Germany might be all alone.46

The economic pressure was also intensifying. Prior to World War I, Russia was growing at almost 10 percent annually, meaning that Germany was losing ground. London was blocking Germany from accessing the oil its navy needed in Persia, while France was obstructing crucial exports of iron ore. German exporters were petrified that Russia would launch a crippling tariff war. Germany, industrialist Walther Rathenau commented in 1913, was too much at “the mercy of the world market.” 47 Its enemies might choke off the markets and resources Germany needed to thrive in a cutthroat world.

At home, too, conditions were flammable. The socialist Left was advancing as labor strikes multiplied. The prestige of the kaiser and the German military was ebbing, and the autocratic political system was under strain. The government had stoked nationalist passions that it was now in danger of disappointing; it had promised triumphs that were not materializing. Even increased repression could not stabilize the situation: The kaiser’s aides began to see a brief, victorious war as a last-gasp way of rallying the population behind a faltering regime. “I need” a “declaration of war for reasons of internal politics,” Bethmann-Hollweg said.48 On the eve of World War I, Germany was a mighty state that had become terrified of the future.

The result was a now-or-never mentality. Berlin must strike soon to cripple France as a great power, set Russia back by a generation, and carve out the vast domain—a Mitteleuropa stretching from Western Europe to Ukraine, as well as new colonies far afield—it was being denied. It must exploit the closing window of opportunity that its military strength still provided before a window of vulnerability opened wide. “If we do not conjure up a war into being,” one of Germany’s diplomats quipped, “no one else certainly will do so.” 49 Bismarck had once compared preventive war to committing suicide for fear of death. Yet this was the risk German leaders were now willing to take.

The opportunity arose after Serbian radicals assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914. It didn’t initially seem that a global war would erupt: Many European leaders stuck to their summer vacation plans. Yet as more candid German officials later admitted, Berlin did nothing in the subsequent crisis to prevent a major war—while doing much to precipitate one.50

The timing was right: Germany’s military position might never again be as good. The contours of the crisis were favorable: An enraged Austria-Hungary was sure to align with Germany.51 The fact that the quarrel had started in a relatively remote corner of Europe provided a fatal glimmer of hope, encouraged by London’s initial irresolution, that Great Britain might stay on the sidelines. The politics also looked promising: The government might whip up a patriotic fervor by portraying the clash as a war of necessity against predators closing in for the kill. So Berlin first issued a “blank check” to Austria-Hungary, pushing it to crush Serbia and pledging to back it even at risk of war with Russia and France. As the crisis spiraled, the German government deflected opportunities for a peaceful settlement, while the military prepared to implement the Schlieffen Plan despite the obvious dangers. “This war will turn into a world war in which England will also intervene,” Moltke acknowledged—but the alternative was for Germany to be contained and its ambitions extinguished.52

At the last minute, the kaiser waffled, fearful of a great catastrophe. But he ultimately pushed ahead rather than disrupt the elaborate timing of the Schlieffen Plan—delaying the public announcement of Germany’s mobilization just enough to make it appear that Russia had decided for war first. “The government has succeeded very well in making us appear as the attacked,” one military official wrote.53 What ensued was not the unifying victory Wilhelm sought, but a four-year slugfest that destroyed his regime, toppled empires, and introduced the world to industrial-age mass slaughter. “Lord yes, in a certain sense it was a preventive war,” Bethmann-Hollweg admitted in 1915, motivated by the belief that “today war is still possible without defeat, but not in two years!”54

World War I, like every war, had many causes. But at root it was a German preventive war, launched because the kaiser’s government saw no other way of escaping the trap it had laid for itself. Germany was a revisionist power whose rise had been stunted by the blowback from its own designs. So it wagered and lost everything on a showdown that—as Moltke rightly predicted—would “annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come.”55


In some cases, economic slumps cause major powers to lash out instead of accepting a new, disappointing normal. In others, expansionist states provoke their own containment and then go for broke. Imperial Japan experienced both dynamics in the 1920s and 1930s. What ensued was a ghastly Pacific War within World War II.

For more than a half-century after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan was rising impressively. The creation of a modern economy and a strong military allowed Japan to defeat the Qing Dynasty in one war, rout tsarist Russia in another, and accumulate colonial privileges in Taiwan, Korea, and China. During World War I, Japan seized German holdings in China and the Pacific. Yet Japan was hardly a hyper-belligerent rogue state. It allied with Great Britain from 1902 to 1923; it accepted American influence in the Philippines in exchange for Washington blessing Japanese control of Korea. All the while, Japan’s economy was zipping along at 6.1 percent annual growth from 1904 to 1919. The value of Japanese exports tripled during World War I.56

Into the 1920s, Japan looked like a responsible stakeholder. Voting rights expanded and the political system became more democratic. The Japanese government signed a set of treaties, known as the Washington System, in which it joined America, Britain, and other countries in creating a stable balance of naval power, pledging to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, and forswearing unilateral expansion in the Asia-Pacific. In 1923, Franklin D. Roosevelt commented that America and Japan “had not a single valid reason . . . for fighting each other.”57 And as long as the global economy was working relatively well for Japan, it had good reason not to cause too much trouble. Japan needed “the great market of China,” Japanese foreign minister Kijūrō Shidehara explained. But if it chased the “territorial expansion” favored by some military officials, it would “merely destroy international cooperation.”58

The trouble began when the prosperity ended. Japanese growth dropped to 1.8 percent annually during the 1920s.59 A major earthquake and a banking collapse rocked the economy. Rising American tariffs battered Japanese silk exports. Then the Great Depression struck. Markets slammed shut and Japanese exports fell by 50 percent in a single year.60 More than 2.6 million citizens lost their jobs; farmers resorted to selling their daughters.61 Communist and anarchist influences proliferated. “Unemployment is increasing daily. The family is breaking up. Starving people fill the streets,” one government official wrote.62 Above all, the global turn to protectionism made Japan’s pursuit of integration seem quixotic—and made a quest for expansion and autarky more attractive. “The economic warfare in the world,” future foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka observed, “is tending to create larger economic blocs.” A “suffocated” Japan needed “room that will let us breathe.”63

The depression made Japan especially sensitive to changes in China. During the late 1920s, a nationalist movement under Chiang Kai-shek had begun attacking Japan’s economic privileges and contesting its influence. Chiang’s Soviet-trained army was on the march. Other rivals were, simultaneously, prowling: The Soviets sent 100,000 troops to retake a crucial railway that had been seized by a Manchurian warlord, then secured an agreement that allowed their goods, but not Japan’s, to pass through the region duty-free.64 Eighty percent of Japan’s overseas business investment was in China. Tokyo relied on Manchuria for 40 percent of its trade and critical resources such as coal, iron, and grain.65 The region was a crucial buffer against foreign encroachment. As Japan stagnated, other powers seemed primed to pounce.

Tokyo’s answer was fascism at home and violence abroad. From the late 1920s onward, the military conducted a slow-motion coup, while ultranationalist zealots murdered prime ministers and other officials deemed insufficiently patriotic. The government outlawed dissent, jailed its critics, and built a pervasive police state. It exerted greater control over banks and industries to harness the nation’s resources for rivalry. An ascendant military faction preached the need for “total war” and began mobilizing society for conflict.66 By 1941, one Western observer wrote, Japan had walked “a long way on the road to totalitarian statehood.” 67

It had also become a serial aggressor. The army seized control of Manchuria in 1931, making it a Japanese puppet state. In 1932–1933, Japanese troops pushed farther down China’s coast and into its interior. In 1934, Tokyo declared East Asia its exclusive domain—a reverse Monroe Doctrine that, U.S. ambassador Joseph Grew wrote, “places China in a state of tutelage under Japan.” 68 Withdrawing from the Washington treaties, Japan also began a massive military buildup featuring aircraft carriers, monster battleships, and state-of-the-art fighter planes. And by 1936, Japanese officials had drawn up plans for a vast Asian empire that would make Japan a superpower by giving it copious resources, markets, and geopolitical space.

Under this plan, Manchuria would be developed and large swaths of China would be seized. Japan would grab European colonies in Southeast Asia that were rich in oil, rubber, and other resources; it would claim strategic islands throughout the western and central Pacific. All of this would require preparations for war with the countries that would surely resist Japanese dominance of such a large, vital region—the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and America.69 Unless Japan got what it demanded, Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoye had earlier written, it must “destroy the status quo for the sake of self-preservation.”70

Konoye was a man of his word. In 1937, Japan launched a massive, brutal war in China, using up to 800,000 troops in a bid to force Chiang into submission. In 1938, Konoye announced the creation of the “New Order,” a Japanese-dominated Asia in which all roads led to Tokyo. Konoye’s government put the country on a war footing to support this expanding imperial project, while allying with other fascist powers—Nazi Germany and Italy—seeking empires of their own. “The era of democracy is finished,” Matsuoka declared. “Totalitarianism . . . will control the world.”71

Yet war in the expanses of China turned into a quagmire: Even before Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces had paid a blood price of 600,000 casualties.72 It forced food shortages and other sacrifices on a restive population. Perversely, expansion also left Tokyo more reliant on its potential enemies for resources to keep the war machine humming. Before World War II, Japan “imported 80 percent of its oil, 90 percent of its gasoline, 74 percent of its scrap iron, and 60 percent of its machine tools” from America.73 “We are aiming to put an end to seventy years’ dependence on Britain and America commercially and economically,” army officials had vowed—but an interminable war in China had the opposite effect.74

It simultaneously put a target on Japan’s back. The push into Manchuria and northern China eventually incited a brief but punishing war with the Soviet Union, in which Stalin’s Red Army pounded Japan’s Sixth Army. Japan’s viciousness in China and covetous gaze toward Southeast Asia alienated the United Kingdom and other European powers. And while America had reacted weakly to the conquest of Manchuria, the audacity of Japan’s drive for regional dominance and the sheer horror of the war in China—the terror bombing, the deliberate massacre and rape of civilians, the use of biological weapons—began to make Washington an enemy.75

“The present reign of terror and international lawlessness,” FDR declared, threatened “the very foundations of civilization.”76 By 1940, the United States was floating Chiang’s government financially and constricting the export of aviation materials, high-octane gasoline, scrap metal, and other goods to Japan. America was also responding to threats in Europe and Asia by making itself a military superpower. That year, the U.S. Navy placed orders for 9 battleships, 11 aircraft carriers, 8 heavy cruisers, 31 light cruisers, and 181 destroyers. FDR set a target of producing 50,000 airplanes per year; Congress raised the authorized manpower of the U.S. Army by nearly 1 million men.77 And when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, while also occupying northern French Indochina in September 1940, U.S. officials concluded that Tokyo had cast its lot with vile gangsters who were destroying the world.

By this point, a strategic noose was tightening around Japan’s neck. In view of the “total war” clique, Japan had to keep pushing—especially into Indochina and the Dutch East Indies—to build its autarkic empire. Yet doing so meant marching toward war with Britain and with America, a country whose economy was twelve times the size of Japan’s.78 The United States could throttle Japan by turning off the oil shipments that fueled its army and navy; America could mobilize unmatchable military power. “Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America,” Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned.79 Like Wilhelm’s Germany, Japan had cornered itself: Expansion had led to isolation that could only be overcome by a humiliating retreat—withdrawal from China and abandonment of the New Order—or by staking everything on a wild dash for victory.

What made the bet-the-house option more appealing was that Japan had, in late 1940 and 1941, a narrow window of military opportunity. Germany’s blitzkrieg in Western Europe had broken France and left Britain fighting for its life, creating “the opportunity of a century” in Southeast Asia.80 FDR was distracted by the undeclared battle with Hitler for control of the Atlantic. Japan’s nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in April 1941, followed by Hitler’s invasion of the country in June, temporarily neutralized any threat from the north. Not least, Japan still had a military lead thanks to its early rearmament: It possessed ten aircraft carriers to the three that Anglo-American forces had across the entire Pacific.81 The question was how long the window would stay open.

The answer came in the second half of 1941. After Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina, FDR imposed a full oil embargo that threatened to leave Japan’s ships and planes running on fumes. Japan was “like a fish in a pond from which the water was gradually being drained away,” its leaders believed.82 America was bulking up its defenses in the Philippines with B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters. Military staff talks with the British and Dutch, and economic sanctions coordinated with them, made the Japanese fear that their encirclement was nearly complete. And with American rearmament accelerating, the U.S. Navy would, by 1942–1943, have “four times the tonnage and four times the air power of Japan’s.”83 At that point, Japan would have no hope of hegemony in Asia. Its leaders would be totally discredited: All the blood the nation had shed, all the privations it had endured, would be for naught. America would “demand more and more concessions,” Japanese leaders concluded, “and ultimately our empire will lie prostrate at the feet of the United States.”84

In the fall of 1941, the Japanese government decided to seize the Dutch East Indies, Philippines, and other possessions from Singapore to the central Pacific, even though this meant war with Britain and America. Few Japanese officials believed that the country could win an all-out struggle. “We can give you a wild show for six months to a year, but if the war drags on to two and three years, I cannot be confident of the outcome,” Yamamoto predicted.85 But they feared that the alternative was a sharp decline that would leave Japan impotent before its enemies. And they hoped that a series of lightning blows could so demoralize the United States that it might sue for peace rather than continue the fight. At best, war would bring terrible risks; at worst, it might cause national destruction. But sometimes, said Hideki Tojo, the general who ultimately led Japan into war, “one must conjure up enough courage, close one’s eyes, and jump.”86

This was the genesis of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. If war was inevitable, then why not buy more temporary military advantage—and more time to digest Japan’s new conquests—by devastating the U.S. Pacific Fleet? The irony was that the attack was so devastating and, in American eyes, so treacherous, that it galvanized the country to destroy Japan whatever the cost. “The Japanese,” one congressman thundered, “have gone stark, raving mad, and have, by their unprovoked attack committed military, naval, and national suicide.”87

World War II would prove nearly suicidal for Japan. The cause, however, was not insanity but the desperation of a country whose revisionist dreams were about to be shattered. Japan had been on an aggressive tear for a decade. It became most dangerous when it realized that time was running out.

Historians typically think of pre–World War I Germany and pre–World War II Japan as rising countries. Japan had gone from weakness to strength in the decades after 1868; its empire grew rapidly in the 1930s. Germany was a vastly more formidable contender in 1914 than it had been in 1871. Both countries had risen far enough, fast enough to fundamentally challenge the global status quo.

Yet at the climactic moment, imperial German and imperial Japanese leaders did not feel like they were moving up. Stagnation, encirclement, or some combination convinced them that their moment was slipping away. A revisionist power that has begun to fear the future may well act more impulsively than one that thinks tomorrow will be better than today. That’s the real trap we ought to worry about—the trap in which an aspiring superpower peaks and then refuses to bear the painful consequences of descent.

China’s present-day leaders would be outraged to hear the CCP compared to imperial Germany, let alone to imperial Japan. In fairness, China hasn’t embarked on anything like the military aggression that Japan perpetrated for a decade prior to World War II.

But don’t take too much comfort. Imperial Germany didn’t wage a major war for four decades after 1871, yet in 1914 it did much to thrust the world into a catastrophe on an almost unimaginable scale. World War I was “the deluge . . . a convulsion of nature,” said Britain’s David Lloyd George, “an earthquake which is upheaving the very rocks of European life.”88 When revisionist powers see the writing on the wall, things can get ugly quickly—with consequences that might have seemed inconceivable not long before.

Here’s another reason for concern: Like Japan, China checks a lot of worrying boxes. It is dealing with a prolonged economic slowdown that will be extremely difficult to escape. It is encountering a ring of rivals that are working, albeit incrementally, to stymie Beijing’s advance. China also has an authoritarian system and an economic model that make mercantilist expansion more attractive. Its trade expectations are turning starkly negative. Indeed, China is already engaging in the practices—the military buildup, the search for spheres of influence, the effort to control critical technologies and resources—we would expect from a state in its position. If there is a recipe for aggression by a country that has risen remarkably but is now struggling to deal with stagnation and encirclement, China has all the critical ingredients. So let’s now look closely at what moves a more combative China might make.

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