Great Strategic Rivalries: The Return of Geopolitics

Predictions of the end of history were premature, and the triumph of liberal democratic ideals seem indefinitely postponed. Instead, after a short post-Cold War interregnum, global affairs have returned to their historical norm, as great powers compete for influence and seek to impose their will on the global order. So little has changed, in fact, that one of last year’s most influential books—Graham Allison’s Destined for War—reaches back 2,500 years to view the growing competition between China and the United States through a Thucydidean prism.

Such a viewpoint has much to commend it, but it is, unfortunately, a narrow historical aperture through which to try and comprehend the many complexities of an enduring competition between rival powers. As America’s new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy spell out, inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. National Security. As such, policymakers must demand a better and more encompassing historical analysis than Allison provides.

...since the fall of Napoleon in 1815, over half of all wars have been between enduring rivals.

Recently, over a dozen American and British historians gathered to examine the most enduring strategic rivalries and competitions over the past 2,500 years. Their individual studies were then analyzed to collect those common denominators that sufficiently withstood the test of time to be of use to today’s policymakers. This analysis, built upon the work of political scientists, confirms that since the fall of Napoleon in 1815 over half of all wars have been between enduring rivals. If one adds early conflicts between proto-rivals, that number climbs to over 80 percent.[1]

With that many conflicts to learn from, one could be forgiven for believing that states could learn from each interaction how best to tamp down passions and avoid further conflicts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the historical record demonstrates that direct confrontations between rivals, even if not militarized, are what generate and feed the passions that sustain an enduring rivalry.[2] Consequently, as a rivalry matures, states almost never learn anything from current or past crises about how to avoid future ones, or even methods for peacefully edging away from calamity. Rather, successive encounters cause both parties to become more belligerent and to escalate their intensity. Typically, after three militarized engagements—short of war—it becomes nearly impossible for states to tamp down public passions or the rush to war. Moreover, if a rivalry leads to a series of wars, each new conflict is typically of greater scope and passion as wars head toward a Clausewitzian absolute.[3]

Berlin in 1948. (Walter Sanders/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Most rivalries sustain themselves through long periods of intermittent violent conflict, which almost always rise in intensity with each new engagement. Conflicts, including near total wars (e.g., the First World War), rarely bring an end to a rivalry, unless it leads to the utter subjugation or destruction of one side (e.g., World War II). Between these intermittent wars, passions rarely subside and competition continues. Often, a rivalry is continued purely because it is fed by the internal posturing of one state or another, as one or more political parties inflame passions against a rival state for political gain, or to distract the populace from internal—often economic—problems.[4]

Interestingly, ideological differences between states have not always proven sufficient to propel a rivalry forward. Typically, ideology only become dangerous when a state’s strategic goals and positions are predominantly defined by ideas, beliefs, and values. Sometimes this dynamic is pushed to the point where one side believes ideology, as defined by will and commitment, can prevail over material reality. Such was the case when Spain dispatched the Armada, in “confident hope of a miracle,” or when Japan launched a war against the United States in 1941. Moreover, in almost every historical case examined, whenever a state was forced to choose between ideology and a geopolitical imperative, ideology was cast aside.

Once an enduring rivalry is underway, the most reliable indicator of when a conflict will erupt is when one or both sides recognizes a real or perceived shift in the relative alignment of economic and military power. In fact, such perceptions, when measured statistically against other causes of conflict, double the chance of war, as states that view the relative power alignment moving against them are much more inclined to roll the dice on a preemptive conflict than they are when the power status quo is stable. For instance, many scholars have made the case that the First World War began in 1914 because all of Europe’s great powers felt their relative power—as compared to Europe’s other great states—was on the wane.[5] As such, many statesmen, certain that war was inevitable over the longer term, believed their best chance for victory was in 1914.

Photo of the German High Seas Fleet, probably before World War I. A member of the Braunschweig class leads the line. (Wikimedia)

Power shifts between states are often sufficient reason to start a rivalry where previously none had existed. In these cases, states that make a movement toward parity in a military domain dominated by another state are historically the most likely to cause an international realignment.[6] The best recent historical example of this effect was Germany’s turn of the century drive to build a fleet capable of challenging Great Britain’s. In this case, a single German policy choice ended an Anglo-French enmity that had lasted over 800 years and turned the British Empire’s full attention to the German threat. Worse, when war came, the expensive German fleet proved almost useless. If Germany had invested the cost of its high seas fleet into building several additional army corps it probably could have avoided British ire, and built a sufficient force to make the Schlieffen Plan workable. A scholar would have to search a long time to find another example of geopolitical ineptitude of this magnitude. As we examine history for pointers toward the future, one wonders if we would view China as a rising competitor if it eschewed its drive toward a blue water navy and focused on enhancing its land power.

While Thucydides offers too small an example to analyze the development of any modern strategic rivalry, there is a reason why his work has remained the foundation of realist international theory. This is a mainly a consequence of Thucydides’ identification of fear, honor, and interest as the root cause of the Peloponnesian War, and the fact that one or all of these causes still serve as root explanations for the development and course of every strategic rivalry since. Our historical analyses offered only one addition to Thucydides’ insight: rivalries, at their base, are power contests over who will dominate a specific sphere of interest and establish the rule-set that underpins the global order.

As America’s unipolar moment ends, it is worth considering if it is possible to avoid the start of another round of strategic rivalries. Unfortunately, historical precedents are not comforting. In our study, rivalries always start in the wake of major shocks to the global system. These shocks act as a catalyst in both ending an enduring strategic rivalry and starting a new one. Such shocks are not, however, sufficient, in and of themselves, to set-off such a rivalry. For that one or more other conditions must be present: opposing ideologies; a prolonged economic competition; or, a national sense of being wronged and having to reset an injustice (e.g., Alsace-Lorraine in pre-1914 Franco-German rivalry).

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping (Kremlin)

Given the requirement for a shock to the global system to kick off a strategic rivalry, policymakers might look to the future with some apprehension, as in the past decade the world has undergone a series of systemic shocks to the global order, any one of which could establish the conditions for the emergence of a new rivalry, or possibly—in the case of Russia—the continuation of a previous one. These shocks include, but, may not be limited to: the revival of Russia as an expansionary power; the rise of a new great power (China) within the global system; the ongoing collapse of Arab civilization; and the increasingly rapid remaking of the global economy in ways that will rival the impact of the first Industrial Revolution.

Given the apparently high cost of an enduring rivalry, it is fair to ask why such rivalries are permitted to gain traction, and more paradoxically, why they persist—sometimes for centuries. The standard assumption is that an extended rivalry, particularly one that involves successive conflicts, will become progressively more ruinous, principally in financial terms. In most cases, however, the standard assumption is wrong. The historical data clearly demonstrate that if a state can avoid total defeat and subjugation, a rivalry—even one involving multiple conflicts—almost always results in a prolonged economic boom. While wars were, at least until the modern era, often ruinous for a government’s finances, the underlying economy often experienced accelerated growth.[7] In somewhat of an absurdity, bankrupt governments often found themselves sitting on top of a burgeoning economy. As Angus Madison’s historical economic data demonstrates, for the period after the Industrial Revolution, major rivalries are clearly good for economic growth.

Only in the last century did this pattern begin to break down. This coincides with the state’s increasing capacity to take, for its own purposes, a much larger slice of a nation’s wealth via taxes. For example, to wage the Napoleonic Wars, Britain spent six percent of its gross domestic product per year, barely a tenth of the gross domestic product percentage consumed by America and Great Britain for each year of World War II. Before the Industrial Revolution, and the concurrent rise of the revenue state, government finances might become overstretched, but this typically had only a limited and temporary effect on the broader economy. In the modern era, however, the state’s ability to access huge portions of an economy’s wealth for a militarized competition could—and often did—wreck a nation’s underlying economy. As such, the broad public support that underpins an enduring rivalry often rapidly ebbed away. Moreover, the historical evidence indicates that sustaining support for even a modest expenditure of gross domestic product on a state’s military often requires a rapidly growing economy, and such support quickly erodes when an economy stagnates or enters a period of slow growth. Still, if a runaway arms build-up can be avoided, the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that even a modern nation state caught-up in a prolonged competition will tend to grow faster than the global norm.[8]

Another economic consideration policymakers should be cognizant of is this: over the past several hundred years, the size of a rival’s economy is not nearly as important as its administrative capacity to draw resources from that economy. This reverses Dr. Paul Kennedy’s famous observation that victory typically goes to the side with the more flourishing production base. Victory has often eluded the side with the greatest materiel resources—although that often remains the way to bet. Rather, success more often goes to the side best able to mobilize its resource base for the decisive effort of war.[9] For instance, the size of China’s overall economy may overtake the U.S. economy in the next few years, yet its gross domestic product per capita is about where the United States was in 1912. Adding this fact to estimates on the capacity of it its grossly inefficient financial infrastructure means that China will find it difficult to even come close to matching the resources—financial and materiel—that America could bring to bear in a true crisis.

...over the course of a rivalry, political leaders are almost always more disposed to taking risks to avoid losses rather than to make gains.

Before concluding, it is worth noting a few other lessons history offers us when it comes to thinking about future strategic rivalries. First, rivalries, by their very nature, are a contest. If one side retreats then the other will fill the void, either on its own or through proxies. Moreover, the historical record demonstrates that a rival’s expansion will continue until it is checked by military force, although there may be temporary pauses as a rival power stops to consolidate its gains.[10] Second, over the course of a rivalry, political leaders are almost always more disposed to taking risks to avoid losses rather than to make gains.[11] While the domino theory of risk avoidance has been discredited in the popular imagination, it still retains much of its historic credibility. Successive events tend to acquire geopolitical momentum, where one defeat or withdrawal has historically led to a series of such incidents. As such policymakers are often loath to let the domino-chain get started. Finally, when rivals do head down the road to war, it is worth noting they almost always make accurate net assessments of each other's capabilities. After doing so, states habitually get almost everything else wrong. Where policymakers usually fail is in interpretation and imagination. Rarely, in history, has a state been able to turn its deep knowledge of a rival’s capacity and capabilities into an accurate assessment of its intentions or future strategic actions. As such, states often blunder into conflicts that in hindsight appear easily avoidable.

A statue of Thucydides at the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna.(Walter Maderbacher, Wikimedia)

One cannot go far wrong by employing Thucydides as a foundation for any model. As General George Marshall reminded us: “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens.” But Marshall surely did not mean for policymakers to end their studies with the Peloponnesian War. Rather, Thucydides is but a starting point for a much wider historical study aimed at revealing the true nature of strategic rivalries and the character of their ensuing conflicts.

James Lacey is a professor at the Marine Corps War Colleges and the editor of Great Strategic Rivalries. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, an unsigned painting mistakenly attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. (Wikimedia)


[1] Gary Goertz and Paul F. Diehl, “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns”, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2. June, 1993.

[2] Gary Goertz and Paul F. Diehl, “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2 Jun., 1993; Paul F. Diehl, “Contiguity and Military Escalation in Major Power Rivalries”, Journal of Politics Vol 47, pp. 1203 - 1211. The datasets for these studies come from the Correlates of War Project:

[3] Gary Goertz and Paul F. Diehl, June, 1993.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 2010; James Joll, Gordon Martel, The Origins of the First World War, Routledge, 2006; Holger Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, Bloomsbury, 2014, Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, Harper Collins, 2012; Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended the Peace, Random House, 2014; Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War, Basic Books 2014.

[6] For two graphs enumerating history’s great rivalries and their causes see: James Lacey, ed., Great Strategic Rivalries: From the Classical World to the Cold War, Oxford, 2017, pp. 13-18.

[7] For further information and graphs on the economic growth trajectories of the major European powers see: Lacey, ed., Great Strategic Rivalries, pp. 22-25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Lacey, Gold Blood and Power: Finance and War Through the Ages, Strategic Studies Institute, 2015.

[10] For a thorough analysis of the evidence for this point see the cases in: Lacey, ed., Great Strategic Rivalries, pp. 22-25.

[11] Ibid.