Painting depicting the signing of the armistice in 1918. (Wikipedia.)

One hundred years ago last weekend, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering World War I. The origins of the Great War have, for good reason, been intensely scrutinized. They are a bewildering mixture of bluff, misjudgment, miscommunication, arrogance and malice. On the centenary of this tragedy, at least half a dozen new books have been published. Some, notably the two by Margaret MacMillan and Christopher Clark, are superb.

These authors may be straining for contemporary relevance (and book sales) by drawing parallels with the current era, but their comparisons of a revisionist China rising (perhaps in concert with a declining power) against the status quo alliance system is striking and appropriate. Clark's title Sleepwalkers belies his subtle argument: it's not that World War I was somehow an accident but that the actors escalated blindly and carelessly. Wars are never accidental. They always build on a pretextual 'narrative', something that Michael Vlahos notes in a worrying essay that reaches even further back in history. Vlahos sees a bilateral urge today to seek conflict in the Pacific. Unsurprisingly, as an American military professor, he is perturbed by China's swagger:

China wants a symbolic event. Chinese for their part also seem contemptuous of US military power. Engaging PRC government officials in Beijing just last year, my impression was not one of Chinese posturing, but rather of an authentic, steely resolve tied to a conviction of historical entitlement. Their body language, in every second of our two-week discussions, told me they are going to make it happen. Somewhere. Sometime. Someday—soon.

So the actual catalysts of a US-China war, whether inadvertant or deliberate, are not hard to imagine. The narrative is already in place. There is a huge body of literature about why wars start. Barbara Tuchman's still-classic 1962 history of World War I, The Guns of August, famously concludes her suspenseful account of the war's lead-up at the First Battle of the Marne, yet the war would rage for another four years.

Much less discussed is how wars end.

Geoffrey Blainey is one of the most thoughtful writers here. He sees international relations as a spectrum from amity to hostility, in which the causes of war and the causes of peace are merely a continuum of a negotiated power order. Wars happen by the calculation (or more often miscalculation) of a power imbalance. Peace breaks out by the same calculus (ie. when at least one warring party agrees to withdraw or submit and thereby acknowledges its power inferiority). War may be 'irrational' after the fact, especially for the loser, but is usually entered through rational reckoning.

MacMillan perceptively notes that World War I 'had stopped before Germany itself was invaded, so few Germans behind the lines experienced the defeat firsthand. The German army had marched home in good order' and was hailed publicly as valiant and unbowed. Indeed, the fact that 'pride, honor and identity of the German Reich prohibited the acknowledgement of defeat' has been noted by the German professor Andreas Herberg-Rothe. He says, with a subsequent and telling reference to China, that 'these empires knew their rule wouldn't survive if they had to acknowledge military defeat...(which) would have humiliated their identity and "face".'

So what would be the aftermath of a US-China war, even a limited one? An American defeat might result in an unpopular president being voted out but not the collapse of American democracy. For his/her Chinese counterpart the stakes would be altogether greater; a fight to the 'symbolic death' (in Rothe's words). The Communist regime surely would double down on domestic repression to quash the indignation of its nationalist populace. In other words, not only would war be preposterously bad for both sides, it would probably not be conclusive nor result in major political change in either country.

The rhetorical military commander's question 'tell me how this ends?' is even more valid today. What would war between the US and China look like? What would 'victory' look like? Would either side even acknowledge defeat, let alone accept surrender? The lessons of World War I are not just about how it started one hundred years ago, but the very unsatisfactory way it ended in 1918.