Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 March 2024


It's Looking a Lot Like World War II Out There

Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941— it can happen again. 
Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941— it can happen again.  Photographer: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

America Firsters seem unaware of just how quickly and completely the international order can collapse. 


Our world resembles the 1930s more than we might think. Now, as then, the balance of power is shifting ominously. Violent autocracies are seeking expansive empires. Ties between authoritarian states are growing stronger; regional conflicts are becoming interwoven. Democracies are threatened from without and within. The US is, once again, tempted by a doctrine that pursues unilateralism and retrenchment, in the guise of “America First.”

To be sure, the parallels are inexact. The present international system is stronger than the one that crumbled in the 1930s, thanks to the stability American power and US alliances still provide. None of the travails of recent decades — not the global financial crisis, not Covid — has wrought privation and radicalism equivalent to that caused by the Great Depression. For these and other reasons, a catastrophic collapse of global order may seem inconceivable. But to many who lived through the 1930s, it seemed inconceivable that the accumulating pressures of that decade would explode into the peerless horrors that followed.

The greatest danger to any international order is the assumption that its achievements are permanent and its enemies will always be held at bay. Defending the liberal order the US created after World War II thus requires learning the lessons of an earlier, darker era in which such complacency exacted an awful cost.

No one disputes that history should inform policy. The question is which history matters most.

For many commentators, the answer is not the second world war but the first. “Unless there is some basis for some cooperative action,” Henry Kissinger warned the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in 2020, “The world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War I.”

True, like today’s US-China rivalry, World War I resulted from tensions between a liberal hegemon, the UK, and an illiberal Eurasian challenger, Imperial Germany. In this instance, the thinking goes, blunders and miscalculations caused a devastating conflict no one truly wanted. The present-day imperative, then, is to reduce tensions, avoid arms races, and limit the chances humanity might “sleepwalk” into catastrophe. It’s a superficially appealing analogy, but not a very useful one.

World War I was no accidental war. Its root cause was the conduct of a Germany whose power and ambition had polarized Europe, and which ran enormous risks in the summer of 1914 despite knowing a continental conflict might result. British efforts to reduce tensions during that crisis made war more likely, by giving Berlin false hope London might sit out the fight. The history of World War I just isn’t what advocates of the analogy think it is. And today, parallels to the period before the second world war seem more pronounced.

There are haunting symbolic similarities: A neo-totalitarian China using concentration camps for industrial-scale oppression; a neo-fascist Russia waging a quasi-genocidal war of conquest; Iranian-backed terrorists making Oct. 7, 2023, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Most fundamentally, the core strategic problem of our moment is ripped from the 1930s, not the 1910s. World War I was caused by tensions within a single region, Europe. But today, like before World War II, the prevailing system is being challenged on multiple fronts, by multiple actors, who are coming together in an awkward, destabilizing embrace.

The expansion of these revisionists is, so far, modest compared to the malefactors of the 1930s and 1940s. Their atrocities aren’t yet close to those of Adolf Hitler’s “New Order” or Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But perhaps that’s because today’s revisionists have had to operate in an environment long dominated by US power. How ugly might things get if aggressive autocracies were less constrained? The best reason to mine the lessons of the pre-World War II era is to ensure we never find out.

The first lesson is that international order can collapse with devastating thoroughness and speed. In retrospect, we know what happened in the 1930s. Breakdowns of regional order produced a crisis of global security. Regimes rooted in violent ideologies pursued some of history’s most brazen, horrific land-grabs. But even though most democratic leaders knew an ill wind was blowing, few predicted how ferocious the gale would become.

Into the mid-1930s, some European leaders hoped Italy’s Benito Mussolini might check Adolf Hitler. After the Munich crisis of 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed he had secured “peace for our time” by allowing Germany to annex a large part of Czechoslovakia. On the eve of Hitler’s rampage through Western Europe in 1940, almost no one realized how totally the European balance of power was about to break. That same year — as Japan waged a brutal war in China — US diplomats still hoped “moderates” in Tokyo might change that country’s course.

Some experts underestimated the totalizing ambitions of the fascist powers; others misjudged the military strength of the opposing sides. The larger intellectual failing was simply an inability to imagine how catastrophically the world could buckle when assaulted by determined aggressors — and how steep the resulting descent could be.

Perhaps no such calamity is possible in our era — perhaps the progress and prosperity the world has achieved since 1945 are irreversible. Yet warning signs are starting to accumulate.

China’s Military Budget

Beijing’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been rising since 2020

Source: China’s Ministry of Finance via Bloomberg

Note: 2024 is a projection.

Russia’s conduct in Ukraine since 2014 has demonstrated how what starts as a limited incursion into a disputed territory can become an effort to erase an entire nation. Recent events in the Middle East remind us of how even an economically feeble revisionist, Iran, can cultivate proxies capable of throwing the region into chaos. In East Asia, China is conducting what one US admiral calls “the largest military buildup in history since World War II.” These states make no secret of their desire to rearrange the regions around them and upend a world long structured by American power. They still have some distance to go: The fact that the front lines of the US-China competition are in the Taiwan Strait, not the Central Pacific, and that the contest between Russia and the West is occurring in Ukraine, not Central Europe, testifies to the achievements of the present order. But to assume this system is immune to the strains being exerted upon it is to risk being surprised, once again, by how quickly things fall apart.

The authoritarian powers make awkward partners. Iran, Russia and China aren’t formal allies. Historically, they have been rivals more often than friends. Even today, a China that ultimately dominates Eurasia might menace Russia and Iran more severely than it menaces America. But this isn’t much reason for reassurance, because a second lesson is that even an ambivalent alliance of totalitarian states can set the world aflame.

The Axis powers ­— Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy —never trusted one another. As historian Williamson Murray wrote, they were united mainly by their desire “to steal as much of the world as possible.” Had they succeeded, the towering ambitions and toxic racism that motivated these countries surely would have condemned them, eventually, to a fratricidal falling-out. Even so, one of history’s most dysfunctional partnerships created deeply destabilizing effects.

These powers backed each other at vital moments: Mussolini aided Hitler in crises over Austria and Sudeten Czechoslovakia in 1938. Success by one opened doors for others: Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 encouraged Hitler to send his military back into the Rhineland in 1936, just as Germany’s blitzkrieg through Western Europe in 1940 emboldened Japan to press into Southeast Asia. The combined effect of these assaults was to fatally rupture the status quo, by confronting its defenders with more challenges than they could beat back.

Costs of Superpower

China and Russia have been closing the gap on US defense spending

Source: SIPRI

Note: In Constant 2022 USD.

Today’s revisionists don’t share much beyond illiberal rule and resentment of American might. That’s enough to produce cooperation with pernicious results.

Russia has accelerated China’s military ascendance by selling it advanced aircraft, missiles and air defenses — and now through shadowy technological partnerships meant to hasten development of sensitive capabilities. Iran and North Korea have bolstered Russia’s attack on Ukraine by selling it drones, artillery and missiles. China has provided Putin with microchips and outlets for Russian trade. Meanwhile, the autocratic peace these powers have established at Eurasia’s core allows them to probe, more assertively, into surrounding regions. Putin can throw his army against Ukraine because he doesn’t have to worry about hostility from China.

Military Muscle

Russia's defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been surpassing the US’s for a decade

Source: SIPRI

Don’t underestimate where these alignments could lead. If Russia sells China its most sensitive submarine-quieting technology, it could upend the undersea balance in the Western Pacific. If Moscow postures its forces menacingly in Europe during a Sino-American showdown in Asia, Washington would be whipsawed by crises on separate fronts. Today’s autocratic axis doesn’t need to be a formal alliance if the goal is simply to overload the international system by fostering more, and more serious, challenges than America can handle at once.

The goal of US policy should be to prevent major war, particularly the sort of global war that erupted in the 1930s — and that could occur again if Europe, the Middle East and Asia were all consumed by conflict at once. Yet the best way of deterring war is preparing to wage it effectively, and the demands of any great-power conflict could be severe.

Fighting in Ukraine has devoured vast quantities of lives, money and materiel. A war between America and China would consume munitions, ships and aircraft at rates more astonishing still. US officials should heed a third lesson: Use other countries’ wars to get ready for one’s own.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America was hardly prepared for conflict. The only reason it wasn’t further behind the curve was that it had actually begun to rearm in 1938-39, and then more seriously in 1940. Defense spending rose dramatically in peacetime, from well under 2% of GDP in 1938 to more than 5% of GDP by 1941.

As war loomed, there were anguished debates about whether to send US weapons to an existentially embattled Great Britain, through the Lend-Lease program, or keep them for America itself. But in reality, Lend-Lease was a positive-sum undertaking. By stimulating additional military production before Pearl Harbor, it expanded the capacity of the US defense industrial base, which would ultimately carry the free world to victory.

President Joe Biden has said that America must be the “arsenal of democracy” for Israel and Ukraine. But America’s defense industrial base is now faulty and fragile, which is why the US is struggling to produce the artillery and other weapons Ukraine needs to fend off Russia — let alone the long-range missiles, ships, and submarines it would need in a great-power war of its own.

Aid to Ukraine is sometimes said to exacerbate this problem by depleting US stockpiles and diverting aid from Taiwan. It is true that rocket motors and artillery shells used for one thing cannot be used for another. But the answer, for a country with worldwide commitments, is to use what wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have revealed about a deteriorating global order — and a feeble defense industrial base — to impel the larger rearmament program that can ease those tradeoffs by expanding America’s overall production capacity. The arsenal of democracy is in danger of being outstripped by the arsenal of autocracy. The US must find, in wars that are already occurring, the urgency needed to prepare for what may come.

This may seem like a heavy burden: It requires Washington and its allies to start treating the present moment as a prewar period. Motivation might come from a fourth lesson: It is cheaper to sustain a favorable order than rebuild one that has been shattered.

The cost of failing to stop the fascist powers early was ghastly. It could be measured in the 60 million lives lost in World War II, or in the herculean feats of power projection required to liberate Hitler’s Europe and a Japanese-dominated Pacific. It could be measured in the vicious crimes the Axis powers perpetrated in areas they conquered — and in the moral compromises the Allies made to set the balance aright, whether the devil’s bargain with Moscow or the incineration of German and Japanese cities.

The reward Washington and its allies reaped, for winning World War II and then the Cold War, was a system historically favorable to the democracies. The price of preserving that system only looks steep until one calculates the price of letting it slip away.

Aid to Ukraine—equivalent to about 5% of the US defense budget—may seem expensive. But would it be cheaper to see Ukraine defeated, and then face a vengeful, mobilized Russia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s east? In Asia, the investments in military capabilities and coalition-building needed to sustain the status quo are sizable. But would it be easier to curb China once it has taken Taiwan and cast its imposing shadow across the Western Pacific? In the Middle East, keeping crucial sea lanes open is challenging. Allowing hostile forces to close them would surely take a higher toll, in economic losses and deepening strategic decay.

Americans presently find the vexations of upholding global order endless. A look backward suggests the alternative could be much worse.

Finally, preserving global order is a collective endeavor—but it won’t happen without the US. Washington wasn’t a major player in Europe and East Asia as the forces of revisionism gained momentum before World War II, and that was exactly the trouble.

US abstention created a cascading commitment problem: The fact that Britain and France couldn’t count on American support made them reluctant to face down Hitler in 1938, when they might have won had war been the result. As World War II and the Cold War subsequently showed, only the consistent application of America’s power could create an environment in which humanity reached new levels of flourishing because the worst forms of aggression were constrained.

That lesson stuck for decades after Pearl Harbor but is being unlearned today. The ethos of the pre-World War II isolationists — America First — has made a comeback. Support for assistance to Ukraine is slipping. If Donald Trump wins the presidency in 2024, the hollowing out of NATO and other US alliances is all too conceivable. It is important to understand what this might mean.

A key difference between Munich in 1938 and Ukraine in 2022 was American leadership. Absent US assistance, Kyiv surely would have been defeated, whether sooner or later, and a divided Europe might have chosen to appease rather than oppose an advancing Russia. Likewise, an Asia abandoned by the US would be at China’s mercy. Countries in the Middle East would struggle to counter Iran and its proxies, to say nothing of the menagerie of terrorist groups that still menace the region, without the diplomatic and military support Washington provides.

At best, the consequence of US retrenchment would be greater international disorder. At worst, it would be the liberation of aggressive impulses that consigned the world to terror 85 years ago. America can have the comfort of retrenchment, or it can have the global stability, prosperity and democratic supremacy it created in the aftermath of history’s worst war. It probably can’t have both at the same time.

More From Hal Brands at Bloomberg Opinion:

Want more Bloomberg Opinion? Terminal readers head to OPIN <GO>. Or you can subscribe to our daily newsletter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hal Brands at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Get Alerts

No comments:

Post a Comment