America’s rise as a superpower

In Der Spiegel, Hans Hoyng writes: “Sarajevo, 21st-century version.” This is how political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, refers to what is currently brewing off the Chinese coast, where the territorial claims of several nations overlap.

The analogy to the period prior to the outbreak of World War I is striking. China, “the Germany of (that) time,” as American historian Robert Kagan puts it, is the emergent world power still seeking to define its role within the global community. At the same time, China is staking its claim to natural resources, intimidating its neighbors and developing massive naval power to secure its trade routes.

In taking these steps, China could easily become a rival to another world power, the United States of America, which would assume the role once played by Great Britain in this historical comparison. Just as the United Kingdom did at the time, the United States is now building alliances with its rival’s neighbors. And leaders in Beijing have responded to such attempts to encircle their country with a similar sense of outrage as that displayed by the German Reich.

The current crisis in the East China Sea illustrates once again that there are still lessons to be learned from World War I a century after it began and, upon closer inspection, that politicians on both sides are trying to avoid making the same mistakes. But the current crisis in East Asia diverges from the situation leading up to World War I in one important respect: There is currently no country able to assume the role once played by the United States, which, with its late entry into the war, decided its outcome and eventually outpaced both its winners and losers.

The US’s entry into the war in 1917 marked the beginning of its path to becoming a world power. In fact, according to historian Herfried Münkler, this was precisely the goal of some politicians in Washington. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, a son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson, was already forging plans to replace the pound sterling with the dollar as the foremost international reserve currency.

But his father-in-law, a lawyer and political scientist, and America’s only president to enter politics after serving as the president of a university, had no such prosaic intentions. Wilson, the descendent of Scottish Presbyterians and a staunch idealist, and yet down-to-earth and in many respects, such as his racism, a son of the South, wanted to save the world and end war once and for all.

He failed, of course, with peace lasting only 20 years after World War I. Nevertheless, American politicians today justify military intervention with the same arguments Wilson used to convince the country to put an end to its isolation and intervene in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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