For six decades after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Great Britain was able to underwrite a liberal world order based on freedom of navigation and free trade. The unification of Germany in the early 1870s threatened this system. Although Great Britain was willing to accommodate Germany, Germany did not wish to be accommodated. Instead, it followed a mercantilist trade policy and sought to challenge Great Britain at sea.
The resulting tensions arising from Germany’s trade policies and its decision to build a navy capable of challenging the Royal Navy set the world on the path to the Great War of 1914.
One must always be careful with historical analogies, but there are some striking similarities between the British-German relationship in the latter 19th century and the United States-Chinese relationship today.
Since the end of World War II, the United States, like Great Britain in the 19th century, has underwritten a liberal world order, seeking to accommodate any countries willing to follow the rules of international cooperation. For historical and cultural reasons, the Peoples’ Republic of China, like Germany before it, has rejected accommodation. Instead, China has used its Belt-Road Initiative to extend its economic and political influence over the Asian continent. Especially worrisome has been its attempt to dominate the South China Sea.
The U.S. opening to China during the Nixon administration was a brilliant diplomatic ploy that put a great deal of pressure on the Soviet Union. But the subsequent attempt to integrate China into the liberal world order was based on a fundamental misconception: that behind the Chinese version of communism, there was the core of a modern country that could be enticed into an alignment with liberal countries.