The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Rising Powers, War and the Economists

July 3, 2005

Brad DeLong has an interesting post on “Wilhelmine China”.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Greg Ip editorial Ip and Neil King, Jr. take issue with Brad’s analogy between the UK and the US in the nineteenth century. Brad quotes them:

Brad DeLong, an economic historian at the University of California at Berkeley, sees a useful parallel in Britain’s policy toward the emerging industrial colossus of the United States in the 19th century…. As late as the 1840s, he notes, the U.S. and Britain — then the world’s sole superpower — came close to war over territorial disputes in the Pacific Northwest and the lucrative fur trade there. But in subsequent decades Britain chose to accommodate, rather than suppress, the U.S. By 1900, the notion of conflict was widely regarded “as silly, simply because the trade and economic connections were so tight and the political systems so compatible,” Mr. DeLong said. Similarly, he argues the world will be safer if the Chinese in time see the U.S. as having aided, rather than hampered, their economic development.

History, though, also offers counterexamples. Germany was catching up to Britain at the same time as was the U.S. but that relationship ended in war. Similarly, Japan was more open to imports and foreign investment before World War II than after, yet its rapid industrialization, especially later under a nationalist military government, ultimately made it a more formidable adversary of the U.S. “There is no deterministic relation” between economic advance and war or peace, said Charles Maier, a Harvard University historian….

Ip and King are right here. If there’s a twenty-first century analogy between the UK and the US, the only possible candidate (besides a resurgent Japan or a really booming India) would be the US and the EU. Frankly, I think we should just be wary of simple analogies.

Anyway, Brad’s response to Ip and King is really what this post is about:

The most important point, however, is that both Germany’s and Japan’s decisions to go to war were catastrophic mistakes. They lost. Moreover, Norman Angell was right: the decision to risk war was overwhelmingly stupid. They would still have been catastrophic decisions even had Germany or Japan won: nothing Germany could have gained from victory in World War I or Japan from victory in World War II would have been worth the suffering [emphasis added].

The problem with Brad’s analysis is that, from a strict cost-benefit calculus, war is almost never anything other than stupid, and often catastrophically so.

Indeed, James Fearon made this point in his seminal article, “Rationalist Explanations for War” International Organization 49,3 (Summer 1995), pp. 379-414.

Given that war is always costly (in terms of revenue, resources, lost consumer production, damage, death, etc.) two rational actors always ought to find some negotiated settlement preferable to going to war. Of course, the presence of an indivisible issue, incorrect information about a rival’s objectives, or the inability of one (or both) sides to make a credible commitment to upholding the settlement all may lead rational states to opt for war.

Moreover, we often forget just how close Germany came to winning World War I. The Schlieffen Plan almost worked. Germany would probably have won the war – and, ironically, the next few decades would almost certainly have been much better for humankind – if the United States had not intervened on the side of the Entente. I am not suggesting the war would have been “worth it” in economic terms… but that’s the whole problem with Angell’s and Brad’s analysis: wars are almost never is worth the costs, and yet states keep on fighting them.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.