Great Power Conflict: Will It Return?

Observances last year of the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War, as it was known until a second global conflict gave it a roman numeral, have paid deference to its status as the most brutal conflict in human existence as well as one whose influence we still live with today.

The “lessons” this devastating war holds for the present come from the fact that it was caused by the multipolarity of great power conflict that simmered from 1871 onward. In 1914, the rise of Italy and Germany as nation-states ensured that alliance politics, arms races, imperial maneuvering, expansion, navalism, resource scarcity, cultural divides, and political philosophy would collide. Germany, Italy, Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Japan all used the world as a chessboard. (Still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War and focused on both western and industrial expansion, America was initially in no mood for involvement in what it perceived as another in a long string of wasteful European conflicts.)

The medium and lesser powers attempted to use the great powers for their own reasons; Belgium, Holland, Spain, China, Serbia, and Turkey all had their part to play in the conflagration. However, at the core of the complex circumstances that caused the Great War was the absence of a world hegemon. The Pax Britannica was over, although Great Britain did not yet know it, and the Pax Americana had yet to begin.

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The Great War, Reconsidered

Nearly a century after World War I began, it’s easier to see the ways it has been misinterpreted over the years. It’s a healthy reminder that few historical judgments are ever ironclad.

The international situation today bears a disquieting resemblance to that world of a hundred years ago that came apart with sudden and appalling violence. International relations experts may claim that great power conflict is passé, having been replaced by issues such as terrorism, climate change, pandemics, energy, and migration. All these issues are pressing. Yet they should not hide the fact that there are many areas of the globe that are erupting or have erupted into great power conflict. The list includes the Euro-Russian frontier, the Baltics, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Sea of Japan, the Indian Ocean, the Taiwan and Korea/Tsu Shima straits, and the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq.

Because of these conflicts, we are witnessing four changes in international affairs that will lead to renewed great power conflict.

The first change is the slow disengagement of the United States from the dominating role it has played after World War II, marked most notably by a lowering of its defense spending and commitments. America has retreated from its role of protector of the world order, but the current occupant of the White House clearly ranks foreign affairs as an annoyance compared to an ambitious domestic agenda and has telegraphed his desire for America to have either a light or non-existent footprint across much of the globe.

The slow American withdrawal coincides with the second change, in which four of the current great powers (Russia, China, India, and Japan) are revaluating, amplifying, or changing aspects of their grand strategy in a way that resembles a similar reshuffling that took place late in the nineteenth century.

Third, there are ominous parallels between the cauldron that created the conflict of the Great War and those simmering today. China, playing the role of nineteenth-century Germany, seems determined to upset the economic and military stability created by the United States and Japan, especially in the area of naval power and power projection. Japan is playing the role of the United Kingdom, an old power clinging to its power base by mobilizing nationalism and militarism. Russia, attempting to resurrect its glory by aggressive action, reminds us of a turn-of-the-century France. India, coming on the world stage for the first time, yet not quite ready for a big role, is reminiscent of the newly unified Italian peninsula of 1861.

Too much could be made of such parallels, but the mix is right: an increasing multipolarity, in which new powers rise while old powers try to hold on, and alliance systems that ever more constrain actions and decisionmaking.


A Russian Ministry of Defense document requested by President Vladimir Putin in 2003 spoke in terms of the geopolitical realities of Russia’s engagement with the Euro-Atlantic world to its west, the Islamic world to its south, and the Asian-Pacific world to its east. Russia’s Armed Forces must have sufficient power to deal with the challenges posed on each of these axes. Four years later, the Russian media announced the declaration of the Putin Doctrine. Putin himself said that Russia viewed policies embraced by the United States and NATO as threats to Russian national interests. He particularly called attention to NATO’s expansion and warned that the deployment of a US antiballistic missile system into Eastern Europe would be a precipitous step toward a new arms race. Later, Russia endorsed the use of energy as part of a coercive diplomacy and the old Soviet method of using arms control and reduction agreements to achieve Russian national interest.

Woven throughout all of these documents and declarations is the need by Russia to be treated with the respect granted the old USSR. Putin was able to achieve this when he forced President Obama’s hand over the chemical weapons issue in Syria. Russia came out as the proactive indispensable nation for a road to peace. In reality, Russia was able to outmaneuver the United States on the diplomatic front and throw a lifeline to the Assad regime in one fell coup de grâce.

The Putin Doctrine also aims in part to reassert Russian regional hegemony, and supported by a rising and nationalistic Orthodox Church, Putin has borrowed elements of the nineteenth-century Russian state to justify a return to an imperial path.

Soviet grand strategy was governed by creating and exploiting the “constellation of forces” for the benefit of the socialist motherland. Russian strategic thinking today is dominated by a number of factors: the border it shares with Eastern Europe, NATO expansion, its border with China, a blessing and curse of natural resources, military modernization, nuclear weapons, and national pride. One of its singular fears is an attack along its periphery it would not be able to defend against. This requires the creation of buffers between itself and potential adversaries. It can do this by claiming to protect Russians in what they often call the “near abroad,” where Russian minorities are large and loyal to Moscow.

Crimea, and to a slightly lesser degree Ukraine and Moldova, offer places where Russia can establish “breathing space” from the Europeans; the Caucasus from the Turks and Iranians; and Central Asia from the Chinese. Belarus is in a class by itself, as it will form a joint defense system that will legitimate larger concentrations of Russian troops on the Polish and Baltic frontier.

The Putin regime recently announced a new military modernization program that runs through 2025, with a proposed injection of $770 billion dollars over the next ten years. Russia spends 4.4 percent of its GDP on the military, with a purchasing power of close to $100 billion. A future force will be smaller, but more capable of handling a range of contingencies on Russia’s periphery. Russia also has purchased select foreign systems, such as France’s Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel, and Italian light armored vehicles. Priorities for the strategic nuclear forces include force modernization and command-and-control facilities upgrades. Russia will field more road‐mobile SS‐27 Mod‐2 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. It also will continue development of the RS‐26 ICBM, the Dolgorukiy ballistic missile submarine and SS‐NX‐32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, and next-generation cruise missiles. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will receive thirty new ships by 2020 and will become self-sufficient with its own infrastructure in the Crimean Peninsula.

Russia will continue to modernize its military, use covert operations, and economic intimidation to neutralize or co-opt borderland areas while attempting to project power abroad. This will partially be focused on blunting America’s ability to act unilaterally or to create and hold together alliance structures and coalitions.


China’s strategic doctrine since the Deng Xiaoping era has been defined by the phrase “to preserve China’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” In recent years, other slogans and statements have been added, such as desiring a “harmonious world” system and taking advantage of a period of “strategic opportunity.”

The Mao Zedong era attempted to literally and figuratively destroy Chinese Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and classical Confucianism. But today’s lip service Maoism is bankrupt, and China itself is filled with bellicose nationalism and wounded pride. The Chinese Communist Party and its allies in the People’s Liberation Army use aggressive nationalism to unify the people. Yet this is a tiger that, once unleashed, is difficult to put back in its cage. China’s potential civil disorder problem is greater than that of any other great power. Growing protests by disaffected political, economic, religious, and ethnic groups, especially in the countryside, continue to bedevil the Communist government.

Unlike the United States, or even Pan-Slavic Russia, China’s foreign policy does not possess crusading goals, but is driven by pure realism that consists of ensuring buffers between itself and potentially powerful allies, massive resource acquisition, and route accessibility especially in Central and South Asia. China, in many ways, is resurrecting Ming and Qing dynasty ambitions by trying (with much difficulty) to create semi-vassal states in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and North Korea.

This “Dragon Reborn” creed is the longest-term threat to peace in the Pacific since the 1930s. The most worrying aspect of this doctrine is the attempt by China to engage in the twin plans of building a blue-water navy and expanding its capability in area-denial weapons and tactics. The workings of this strategy can be seen in the recent Chinese moves in the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, and the Taiwan straits, where its navy has confronted, initially, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and even Australia. Driven by resource instability, nationalism, and jingoism, this “First Island Chain” policy envisions Beijing’s ability eventually to neutralize or push out America’s bases and aircraft carrier task forces, followed by dominance of the region.

All of this is expressed in concrete actions: a $132 billion military budget, creation of a major naval base on Hainan island, a massive increase in land-to-sea ballistic missiles, massive investment in modernizing China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, the deployment of its first aircraft carrier, the development of its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, an immense investment in offensive cyber warfare operations (and attacks), intimidation of Hong Kong, diplomatic isolation of Taiwan (while offering economic carrots), arms and missile technology proliferation, anti-satellite missiles, space weapon research, use of the North Korean regime as a bargaining chip, development of naval-friendly places in the Indian Ocean, and attempting to create a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone over the Japanese Senkaku Islands.

Turning from Maoism to imperial expansionism, China has had significant success on the world stage, but the flash-point scenarios it faces are numerous: conflict with Vietnam over the Spratly Islands; conflict on the Korean Peninsula because of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal; a continuing potential for a confrontation with Taiwan.

But of all the scenarios that might cause a showdown between the United States and China in the Pacific, the most serious one involves Japan.


Japan is the most unusual of all the great powers—still in some ways the second most important economy in the world, and unlike China’s, one that is devoted primarily to finished goods, high technology, high quality, and efficiency. Still trying to rev up this economic machine, Japan sees the world today as potentially very hostile because of Chinese imperial dreams in Asia; North Korean aggression past, present, and future; and Russian resurgence. All of these powers are modernizing their navies and nuclear arsenals, while America declares a “pivot” to Asia with little evidence of consequences for its foreign policy.

Unlike the other great powers with which it competes, Japan is hampered by a Constitution that the United States wrote and also depends on America for large areas of its security. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is continuing the evolution away from both of these dependencies by slowly returning Japan to its intrinsic geopolitical imperatives. If Washington signals to Tokyo that it is downsizing its protections, Japan will accelerate its strategic independence. Traditionally, Japan’s grand strategy has been dictated by the need to secure the home islands and neighboring ones; control the strategic avenues to and from Japan for military and economic needs; ensure adequate resources for its economy and markets for its finished goods; and prevent a breakdown of domestic social order.

The long rule of the Shogunate, stretching back to the early seventeenth century, was inward-looking, and broken by the imposition of foreign powers, notably the United States in 1854. Japan understood it needed to expand or expire. This thinking, in its extreme form, reached its apex in the 1930s, when Japan started World War II, and was tempered only by the postwar American occupation, followed by Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and the US security guarantee. Article 9 renounced war and the ability of the Japanese state to possess a military, although this was changed in 1954 to allow a “self-defense force,” which began to resemble a great power military. For decades, Japan was governed by the Yoshida and Fukuda doctrines, which essentially enshrined these pacifist policies. Since 2012, however, the Abe doctrine has introduced an incredible transformation, in which Japan is asserting itself once again as it did prior to World War I.

Much has been made of Abe’s 2013 “five principles,” chief among them the protection of universal values, such as freedom, democracy, and basic human rights; the guarantee that free and open seas are governed by laws and rules and welcoming the US “rebalancing” in the region; and the promotion of trade and investment, as well as the flow of goods, capitals, people, and services, through various economic partnership networks.

However, the real change is deeper and more important. Also in 2013, the Japanese Cabinet, under Abe’s direction, approved Japan’s first national security strategy, made more possible by the creation of a Japanese National Security Council. In large part a response to China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific over areas such as the Senkaku Islands, the strategy argues that Japan needs to make a more “proactive contribution to peace,” i.e., it needs to contribute more to its military alliance with America despite its pacifist constitution.

The strategy amounts to a plan for a five-year military buildup. Spending will increase to $240 billion, an increase of about five percent over the previous five-year plan. The document promises that Japan will respond “calmly and resolutely to the rapid expansion and step-up of China’s maritime and air activities.” It also declares North Korea a “grave and imminent threat.” It calls for the cultivation of “love of country” in Japan, and for “expanding security education” in universities. More controversially, it also promises to review Japan’s self-imposed ban on arms exports. Under the plan, Japan will transform its Self-Defense Forces into a full-fledged military, primarily by investing heavily in advanced war-fighting technology, space weapons, ballistic missile defense, unmanned aerial vehicles, a more mobile ground force, and expanded naval and coastal capabilities.

Abe continues to push the envelope on Article 9. The first modification granted more military flexibility for overseas logistics, transport, and support missions. The next was the deployment of forces in Iraq. Now Abe seeks to give the military more freedom to intercept missiles launched at allies, to search or apprehend vessels at sea that lend support to allies’ enemies, to help allies with military logistics such as refueling, and to engage in self-defense operations.

At a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2014, Abe stated that the tensions between China and Japan were similar to the situation that Britain and Germany found themselves in before World War I, and said that having strong trade relationships was not enough to deter strategic differences. There has been an ensuing debate about the quality of the translation of the remark, but the essential truth of the statement remains. Abe has made it clear that he intends that Japan should return to being a normal player in international relations by 2020, freed from the last restraints placed on it in 1945.


The newest great power is India, although it has yet to fully define its place in the world, and is constantly sucked into the vortex of radical Islam and subcontinental geopolitics that have so far prevented it from devoting energy to great power maneuvers. In fact, among the great powers, India, which spent much of its post-independence history as nominal leader of the non-aligned movement, has devoted the least attention to a grand strategy.

India faces the rise of Islamic extremism, border tensions with China, perennial strife with Pakistan, and the inability to remedy a level of domestic poverty and corruption that none of the other great powers are burdened with. Most importantly, it appears to be on a collision course with China dictated by geographical proximity, resource scarcity, and historical enmity. In 1991, India began its “Look East” policy as an alternative to China in South Asia, targeting Nepal, Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand for greater attention. The policy was generally an economic success, but geopolitical assessments have been mixed. As a result, India recently rebranded the policy using the phrase “Act East.”

Spurred on by Hindu nationalism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has indicated a new assertiveness in foreign policy, an emphasis on strategic thinking, and a desire for India to become a regional power—all of it supported by a greater role for the Indian military.

The much-discussed “Transformation Study” by General V. K. Singh created a window into India’s new strategic thinking. It envisions an Indian military able to fight on “two and a half fronts” (namely, against China, Pakistan, and an Islamic insurgency at home). Yet this seems a grandiose ambition given the fact that India has been unable to come to terms with a consistent policy over its three major geopolitical issues: Pakistan, China, and the Indian Ocean. Ultimately, India’s decision over this last issue will determine its pathway as a great power. A new generation of policymakers has indicated that they want to see the Indian Ocean as an Indian lake, so to speak. Should New Delhi pursue this vision, it will make for greater tensions with Beijing. Although India spends only $46.1 billion on defense, India’s naval trajectory is clearly headed toward power projection. It has two aircraft carriers, and by 2020 intends to have a third. This would give it the largest carrier fleet in the eastern hemisphere with the exception of America’s.

India’s problem is how it will build the technology and military capabilities of a great power in the absence of a clear goal or strategy. In conceiving of such a strategy, India will ultimately be forced to choose sides, which it has avoided since independence, and that choice will dramatically affect the worldwide geopolitical situation.


Not all the elements of the decades before the Great War are currently in play in the international arena. However, we are witnessing a similar cauldron of rising multipolarity, revanchist emotions, resurrected grievances, military expansion and modernization, along with a return to grand strategies that were suppressed after World War I by the aggressive ideologies of fascism and communism and Cold War politics. Scholars dismiss great power conflict, and statesmen can’t bring themselves to confront it. If they did, the debates in many Western democracies about defense budgets would vanish. The enduring pain and destruction of that great conflagration a century ago is often hard for people of this age to imagine, but the world would be ill served if great power politics is ignored due to political correctness or boredom with history.

Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of political science at Ripon College and a senior fellow in national security affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council.

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