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We all learned at school how the status quo powers mismanaged the spectacular rise of Germany before World War I, a strategic revolution so like the rise of China today.
And we all learned how the Kaiser overplayed his hand. That much was obvious.
Yet it is difficult to pin-point exactly when the normal pattern of great power jostling began to metamorphose into something more dangerous, leading to two rival, entrenched, and heavily armed alliance structures unable or unwilling to avert the drift towards conflict. The Long Peace died by a thousand cuts, a snub here, a Dreadnought there, the race for oil.
The German historian Fritz Fischer has in a sense muddied the waters with his seminal work, Griff nach der Weltmacht (Bid for World Power). He draws on imperial archives in Potsdam to claim that Germany’s general staff was angling for a pre-emptive war to smash France and dismember the Russian Empire before it emerged as an industrial colossus. Sarajevo provided the “propitious moment”.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s court allegedly made up its mind after the Social Democrats (then Marxists) won a Reichstag majority in 1912, seeing war as a way to contain radical dissent. This assessment was tragically correct. War split the Social Democrats irrevocably, allowing the Nazis to exploit a divided Left under Weimar.
The Fischer version of events is a little too reassuring, and not just because the Entente allies had already fed Germany’s self-fulfilling fears of encirclement and emboldened Tsarist Russia to push its luck in the Balkans. A deeper cause was at work.
"The only condition which could lead to improvement of German-English relations would be if we bridled our economic development, and this is not possible," said Deutsche Bank chief Karl Helfferich as early as 1897. German steel output jumped tenfold from 1880 to 1900, leaping past British production. Sound familiar?
Is China now where Germany was in 1900? Possibly. There are certainly hints of menace from some quarters in Beijing. Defence minister Liang Guanglie said over New Year that China’s armed forces are “pushing forward preparations for military conflict in every strategic direction”.
Professor Huang Jing from Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew School and a former adviser to China’s Army, said Beijing is losing its grip on the colonels.
“The young officers are taking control of strategy and it is like young officers in Japan in the 1930s. This is very dangerous. They are on a collision course with a US-dominated system,” he said.
Yet nothing is foreordained. Which is why it was so unsettling to learn that most of the leadership of the US Congress declined to attend the state banquet at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao, including the Speaker of House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Mr Hu a “dictator”. Is this a remotely apposite term for a self-effacing man of Confucian leanings, whose father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, who fights a daily struggle against his own hotheads at home, and who will hand over power in an orderly transition next year?
Or for premier Wen Jiabao, who visited students in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, narrowly surviving the “insubordination purge” that followed? These leaders may be wrong in their assessment of how much democracy China can handle without flying out of control, but despots they are not.
President Barack Obama has bent over backwards to draw China into the international system through the G20, the World Bank and the IMF, in practical terms recognizing Beijing as co-equal in global condominium.
You could say Mr Obaba has won little in return for reaching out, but as Napoleon put it, “a leader is a dealer in hope”. What, pray, would a policy of crude containment do to China’s psyche?