The presentation focuses on comparisons between 2013/14 and 1913/14. It makes the following main arguments:
Rule-based international orders are strained by transitions in power, even though all the parties see the desirability and need for a common system of rules;
vulnerability is increased by the degree of complexity of the rules;
moments of transition are accompanied by a heightened attention to the possibility of covert action to abuse the complexity of the rule-based system to the advantage of one particular power.
The most obvious parallels of 2013/2014 to 1913/1914 lie in:
1. A fascination with the historical precedent of the decline of empires.
2. A global order underwritten by a Great Power / Superpower (Great Britain / United States) which is less economically dynamic than the challenger (Germany / China) but which considers its political institutions more legitimate and more capable of being universalized.
3. Concern on the part of the rising power in the aftermath of a major and system-changing international financial crisis (1907/2007-8) that the rules of the system privilege the old holder of power and disadvantage the challenger.
4. A focus in Asia on the growing power of China.
5. A focus in Europe on the growing power of Germany.
6. A (perhaps misplaced) confidence that the international economy is so complex and inter-connected that it could not be disrupted by military conflict.
7. A focus on the logistics and infrastructure of the international economy as a way to exercise new forms of strategic influence.
This Paper was part of Panel 1 "Systems of International Order" of the Conference "Das 20. Jahrhundert & der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive" (Munich, 14.-16.11.2013).
Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton and holds a joint appointment as Professor of International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School.