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Sleepwalking Toward Accidental Conflict

The argument minimizing the risk of a war between major powers – that today’s globalized, interconnected world has too much at stake to risk a seismic unraveling – is painfully familiar. It is the same argument that was made in the early twentieth century, when the first wave of globalization was at its peak.

NEW HAVEN – Too many observers have lost sight of one of the key lessons of World War I. The Great War was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, which occurred against the backdrop of a long-simmering conflict between Europe’s major powers. This interplay between conflict escalation and a political spark has special resonance today.

With war raging in Ukraine and a cold-war mentality gripping the United States and China, there can be no mistaking the historical parallels. The world is simmering with conflict and resentment. All that is missing is a triggering event. With tensions in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Ukraine, there are plenty of possible sparks to worry about.

Taiwan is a leading candidate. Even if, like me, you do not accept the US view that President Xi Jinping has consciously shortened the timeline for reunification, recent actions by the US government may end up forcing his hand. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taipei last August, and her successor, Kevin McCarthy, seems intent on doing the same. The newly established House Select Committee on China appears likely to send its own mission shortly, especially following the unannounced recent visit of its chairman, Mike Gallagher.