Is East Asia about to experience its “July Crisis”?

Recent tensions between China and its neighbors, particularly Japan, over disputed islands have Asia-watchers aflutter. The prospect of a war, of any sort, between the PRC and Japan has observers of all stripes in overdrive, not least those who pay attention to things like the naval balance of power in the East China Sea. Not being a professional Asia-watcher, I’ll limit my comment to my belief that any East Asia war would be a bad thing, particularly over unpopulated islands, and I’ll add my hope that any war, should it occur, will be brief and as relatively bloodless as perhaps a minor naval skirmish might be. But who knows?

The rising rivalry between China and several of its neighbors, as well as the United States, has pundits seeking ominous portents, and the temptation to reach for 1914 and the Great War is real. Perhaps such comparisons are unavoidable, given that interest in that conflict, aptly termed “the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century” by the scholar-diplomatist George Kennan, is rising since we’re only a year-and-a-half away from the centenary of the Sarajevo assassination and its resulting catastrophe. I’m all for citing World War analogies whenever they are appropriate, since it’s one of my big interests; my first book was on that war, and I’ve got another one in the works about the fateful summer of 1914.

Yet analogies have to be accurate to be meaningful. I don’t deny journalists a good historical analogy, I only ask that it be reasonably truthful. A couple days ago there appeared an op-ed in the Financial Times warning that the “shadow of 1914” is falling over East Asia, in light of rising tensions between the PRC and Japan. It seems entirely appropriate to be concerned that a bit of miscalculation by the Chinese or Japanese navies – or, worst case, by both simultaneously  – could lead to a local crisis which might become a pan-Asian one all too easily.

Yet Rachman’s take on what actually happened in 1914 is deeply flawed, as he cites shopworn cliches that “leaders on all sides felt helpless as they were swept towards a war that most of them did not want” – which is the sort of thing peddled a good half-century ago by bad popularizers like Barbara Tuchman, whose influential-but-wrong Guns of August deeply misrepresented what actually transpired that awful July. It has long been fashionable to present the coming of the Great War, particularly its culmination in that most epic of diplomatic fails, when an act of Balkan terrorism was allowed to devolve into a European-wide war pulling in all the continent’s major powers, as one huge accident which nobody really wanted. Tuchman’s version was engagingly written and apparently influenced President John Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, encouraging his administration to show restraint lest they get a nuclear version of the July Crisis and with it armageddon: an example when bad history may result in good outcomes.

Rachman has been taken to task for his use of outdated and incorrect history, quite appropriately, by Harvard’s Stephen Walt, in his new column, in which he notes that what really caused the Sarajevo assassinations to spiral into a vast conflagration was Germany – specifically bellicose military and political leaders in Berlin. There was no “accident” here: Germany, for a complex set of geopolitical reasons, none of which seem reasonable to anyone today since we know the cataclysm which followed, opted consciously for war with Russia and France – a huge roll of the dice which ended up costing ten million lives. As evidence, Walt cites some pretty outdated political science sources. While his assessment is by no means entirely wrong, Walt’s take is also shopworn, albeit by a couple decades less than Rachman’s. Yet ultimately the July Crisis as presented by Walt is likewise outdated and incorrect.

Political scientists and international relations scholars like Walt love to compress complex historical events into manageable, easy-to-footnote boxes, and they are usually behind the curve on historical scholarship. The real blame for the July Crisis turning into a continent-wide conflagration – presuming we’re giving a pass to Serbia for the state terrorism which caused the mess in the first place – lies in Vienna, not Berlin. There is no doubt that some Prussian generals feared that, given known Russian military modernization plans, Imperial Germany might not be able to win any war after 1917, so why not go for a win now? But such views were not dominant outside parts of the General Staff, and there were plenty of leaders in Berlin who viewed the crisis with trepidation.

Moreover, research in the last couple decades has shown conclusively that generals and diplomats in Vienna were chomping at the bit for a war with Serbia, consequences be damned, and showed far less restraint than their counterparts in Berlin. Austria-Hungary’s top general, Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf, who headed the General Staff from 1906 to 1917, with a small interruption in 1912, was the real “architect of the apocalypse.” Seeing the fragile Dual Monarchy buffeted by its weak domestic situation, made worse due to its extreme ethnic diversity, which its neighbors, Serbia especially, were exploiting to the detriment of the Habsburg edifice, Conrad counseled preventative war on multiple occasions in the years before the Sarajevo assassination gave him the chance he had been waiting for. Emperor Franz Joseph had always turned down Conrad’s demands to crush the Dual Monarchy’s neighbors, but in 1914, an old and tired man, he no longer resisted the pleas of his top general (one of the bitterest ironies of the July Crisis is that Gavrilo Princip killed off the one man at court who would have resisted any war mightily: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a convinced reactionary, thought war a costly stupidity, but he was inconveniently dead).

Conrad’s strategic aims were fuzzy, not least because by the time the July Crisis rolled around he fully expected that Austria-Hungary would probably actually lose the Great War he knew was coming, but so desperate was he to seek a military solution to his country’s political pains that he went all-in nevertheless. Just as important, Conrad’s views were widely held by Austria-Hungary’s military leadership, who overwhelmingly felt that Serbia at long last had to be crushed, and senior diplomats either agreed wholeheartedly or were willing to the give the generals their dream-war. Indeed, many Habsburg generals feared the consequences of not going to war soon enough after the assassinations: the belief that a crisis ought not be allowed go to waste did not originate on the Potomac. The July Crisis, originally a Balkan affair, became a wider war because Conrad and other leaders in Dual Monarchy wanted war, regardless of the consequences. Thus did Austria-Hungary, per the sad cliche, commit suicide out of fear of death

While Berlin cannot be absolved of blame for the Great War altogether, her part in the disaster was far less than Vienna or Belgrade’s. The alliance with Austria-Hungary existed more in theory than in reality; there were no joint war plans of any kind, and relations between the two armies were testy at best, marred by mistrust and suspicion (it didn’t help that Austria’s last real war had been against the Prussians, in 1866, who thrashed them badly). And despite later claims to the contrary, Germany’s military leadership knew all too well in the years before the war that the Habsburg military was underfunded and suffered from low readiness which would mean terrible losses in the event of war. A reliable partner Austria-Hungary was not – she soon became a great military burden to Germany after suffering epic defeats at the war’s outset – but she was the only real ally the Prussians had, and losing her was strategically unthinkable. The choice facing Berlin in July 1914 – back up the only friend you’ve got, whatever his problems, or risk being alone in a Europe where France, Russia, and Britain are allied against you – was a terrible one, and the decision the German leadership made looks understandable, if tragic.

One of the ironies of all this is that while Franz Conrad was one odd duck – something of a social Darwinist, he also had a messy personal life which seems to have contributed to his desire to get a war going – his analysis of Austria-Hungary’s ills was not incorrect. The geostrategic calculus of what ailed his country was mostly right, and he was surely correct that Serbia constituted a direct challenge to the Balkan balance of power which had held since the 1870s, and after the Sarajevo assassination force was the only solution. Austrians who counseled peace with Belgrade in the summer of 1914 were as deeply in the minority as Americans who wished to parley with, not kill, Osama Bin Laden in the fall of 2001. Yet Austria-Hungary’s military weakness meant that any Great War would likely be a catastrophe – for the Habsburg Empire, for Europe, and for all humanity.

Is Asia really about to experience its “July Crisis” over a bunch of islands most people even in the region would have trouble locating on a map? Stranger things have happened, and decades before 1914, Otto von Bismarck presciently stated that Europe’s next war would be over “some damned thing in the Balkans.” Nearly a century ago Asia, colonized or marginalized in the world system, managed to mostly avoid Europe’s catastrophe. Will Europe and the West manage to steer clear if East Asia opts for its own Great War? Moreover, does Beijing have its own Conrad, who actively wants a war to secure his country’s position, prestige, and power, no matter the consequences?

I hope nothing of the sort happens, but I’ll leave that call to veteran Asia-watchers. I endorse historical analogies, even ones comparing events across the world to July 1914 – as long as the historical analogies are accurate and truthful. For those go to practicing historians, not journalists and political scientists, since getting it wrong may have dire consequences.


4 comments on “Is East Asia about to experience its “July Crisis”?”
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  2. Jake says:

    I’m late to the party, so-to-speak, regarding your blog (something that I’m hoping to rectify by becoming a regular reader), so I didn’t see this post until you Tweeted it today.

    I think that the “1914 analogy” is a potentially solid fit (as you’ve described it), with regard to the situation in the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands. I find the overall tenor of the analysis in the press to be extremely naive in its view of the forces involved. The media (outside of a select few, relatively minor sources) has apparently skipped the ideological and cultural aspects of China’s rise, and is convinced that Beijing is motivated by nothing more than the continued rise of the Chinese economy, thus negating any real risk for armed conflict, which – as goes the conventional wisdom – would only come about as a result of some terrible misunderstanding. This view is baseless, to my mind, as it neglects the single greatest cultural force that drives the present-day PRC (which, by the way is still very, very communist, no matter what the Tom Friedmans of the world might care to think…). I’d recommend Zheng Wang’s excellent 2012 book “Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy” as an excellent primer on the topic.

    In short, post-Tienanmen China has (perhaps counter-intuitively) become more, rather than less nationalistic and dedicated to the Communist Party of China’s single-party grip on power than before the massacre. This is largely due to the completely effective campaign of nationalism-focused comprehensive education mandated by the CCP in the wake of the student protests of ’89 (also marked by the CCP’s miraculous “rediscovery” of Confucius). The CCP’s emphasis on reclaiming China’s “rightful” spot at the top of the heap (as led by the CCP, of course), and on righting the wrongs of 100-plus years’ worth of humiliation, unequal treaties, and oppression has created a structure in which China’s leadership is both empowered and mandated to act ever more aggressively in defense of China’s “legitimate” territorial cultural claims (whether in the ECS, SCS, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Arctic, or Anunachal Pradesh). This, when combined with rising Japanese nationalism (brought on, in large part, by China’s increased belligerence) brings about a scenario not unlike that to which you referred at the end of your piece, in which Beijing’s “Conrad” (likely the bulk of the Politburo Standing Committee) sees war as a potentially worthwhile thing, in light of China’s destined re-ascendance to its historical role as Zhongguo (“The Middle Kingdom”), under the “mandate of heaven.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that President Xi is itching for a fight with the Japanese (and by extension, the U.S.), I tend to believe that he’s far more sanguine on the matter than those of us in the West would like to believe.

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