Nor is China’s geostrategic size limited to its sovereign territory. Around the world, China has already pushed into traditionally American spheres of influence (such as South America) to a degree Germany was unable to do. On the eve of the First World War, British military might was at its peak. America’s, by contrast, is significantly reduced, and is on track to be reduced even further. To be sure, President Obama has made plain that America’s ability to fight one war has been and will be retained. But if the United States will supposedly be well-prepared to win the one war that it fights, the President is in the odd position of furnishing very little information that would lead observers to conclude that the one war the United States can win will be with China. It is unclear which other single war the Administration might be planning for. Europe’s interlocking turn-of-the-century alliance systems guaranteed general war, but they also left little to chance or doubt when it came to predicting which combatants would take which side. American intentions are clear, but those of Russia, North Korea and other regional powers are less so. It’s possible that configuration decreases the odds of a domino effect, but if one does happen, it will come as a more painful surprise.
In sum, despite some enduring resonances, the strategic landscape of early 20th century Europe is not an effective place to turn for comparisons to the contemporary Asia Pacific. What’s more, in all likelihood, there are no good historical parallels. The United States has never faced a strategic threat like China before—and has never before been entangled in a relationship of such complex and inauspicious interdependence with a strategic threat of any size. What we can conclude is that the new Pacific strategy should not come with a new sense of complacency or comprehensive control. Policymakers might be entitled to feel some confidence that they are making the best of a difficult situation. But they should be keenly aware of just how difficult the President’s new strategy may soon cause it to become. The United States launches its play for Asian prosperity on its own terms from a position of great weakness: Whatever the benefits of the new strategy, should American prosperity continue to falter in a significant way, its central premise will swiftly become an irrelevant failure. Severed from the prosperity pitch that had made it so palatable, the President’s Pacific strategy will be reduced to little more than a risky military gamble made on the cheap.