It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.
History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.
Fragile Rise was originally written for a Chinese audience (it was translated by historian Joshua Hill.
Today’s fashionable historical analogy is the “Thucydides Trap”, which hearkens back to the rise of ancient Athens and the reaction it produced in Sparta. In the forward to Chinese scholar Xu Qiyu’s insightful analysis of Imperial Germany’s rise and diplomacy from 1871 to 1914, Harvard’s Graham Allison warns that China’s rise potentially puts it on a collision course with the United States, “the world’s reigning power”.
Fragile Rise does not purport to be anything other than what it appears—an analysis of the evolution of Imperial Germany’s grand strategy as implemented by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and his successors. Xu, who is Deputy Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Beijing, is a fan of Bismarck, calling him a “true grand master of politics … who ha[d] the deepest insights into human nature.”
Bismarck understood that the unification of Germany in 1871 upset the European balance of power and had the potential of fostering an anti-German alliance. Xu recounts Bismarck’s successful efforts at “alliance-building” which “actively shape[d]” Germany’s foreign policy environment.
First, Bismarck negotiated an alliance with Austria. Next, he revived the League of Three Emperors (Germany, Austria, and Russia). He then brought Italy into his Austrian alliance, forming the Triple Alliance. The capstone to his alliance system was the Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty in 1887. “Bismarck’s alliance system,” Xu writes, “stands out as the largest, most complicated diplomatic project in the history of modern international relations.”
Bismarck, Xu writes,
was, without doubt, the most brilliant diplomat of the nineteenth century. The success of his foreign policies rested on his insightfulness, his ability to see the whole situation, his flexibility, and, even more important … his … patience and self-control.
Bismarck knew that Germany’s rise “made it the focal point of European politics.” He was careful to steer Germany’s rise in a manner that prevented the grouping of other powers in opposition to Germany.
Xu identifies, however, three of Bismarck’s failings that eventually undermined his “carefully balanced strategic vision” once he was gone from the scene. First, Bismarck neglected to improve and stabilize domestic policymaking in Germany. Second, he failed to train and educate successor policymakers. Third, he never instilled his worldview in German public opinion. When Kaiser Wilhelm II forced Bismarck to retire in 1890, Germany’s nuanced, subtle, and flexible grand strategy gradually disappeared.
Wilhelm II and his key ministers eventually adopted a strategy of Weltpolitik—a world policy. Germany, under the guidance of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and inspired by the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, greatly increased the size and power of its navy. This constituted, Xu writes, “a direct threat to British hegemony and an existential challenge.” Meanwhile, Germany failed to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, and its involvement in a series of crises (in Morocco and the Balkans) produced closer relations among Britain, France, and Russia, while moving Germany even closer to Austria-Hungary.
At the same time, Xu explains, Germany’s military planned for a war on two fronts—the infamous Schlieffen Plan—which divorced Germany’s war aims from practical political goals, ignoring the most famous and most important of Clausewitz’s dictums.
Perhaps Germany’s greatest mistake was to allow Austria-Hungary to immerse Germany in its troubles in the Balkans. Bismarck once famously remarked that “the Balkans weren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier,” yet his successors plunged the world into war by giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check” to wage war against Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Are there lessons for China’s leaders here? Is China’s rise today comparable to Germany’s in the late 19th-early 20th century? Does the PLA Navy pose a direct challenge to US naval supremacy in the way that Germany’s naval construction challenged British sea control? Are China’s actions in the South and East China Seas comparable to the crises leading up to the First World War? Are China’s leaders and strategists more like Bismarck or Wilhelm II?
Fragile Rise does not answer any of these questions, nor could it. Although the book was originally written for a Chinese audience (it was translated by historian Joshua Hill under the auspices of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), China’s rise is a unique historical event occurring in far different times and under far different circumstances. China’s leaders and the statesmen and policymakers of the United States and other world powers should certainly look to history for guidance, but remember Bismarck’s sage and timeless advice: “Man cannot control the current of events, he can only float with them and steer.”