As we enter 2014, war between great powers seems almost inconceivable. But if we start at the other end of the telescope by imagining that a Great War with some similarities to World War I actually happened, what could future historians find in current conditions that permitted events to ride mankind to another catastrophe?
If we start with the fact that it happened, we know who the primary combatants had to be. Russia is no longer a great power player; Europe has disarmed itself; the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America are arenas for local wars. In the growing competition between the U.S. and China, however, one can hear echoes of 1914.
First, a tangled cluster of factors can be summarized as “Thucydides Trap.” When a rapidly rising power rivals an established ruling power, trouble ensues. In 11 of 15 cases in which this has occurred in the past 500 years, the result was war. The great Greek historian Thucydides identified these structural stresses as the primary cause of the war between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece. In his oft-quoted insight, “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
Note that Thucydides identified two factors: rise and fear. Today, a rising China naturally expects more respect and predictably demands greater say and sway in the resolution of differences among nations. …