Just How Likely Is Another World War?

Graham Allison | The Atlantic | July 30, 2014

Assessing the similarities and differences between 1914 and 2014

...Historical analogies like 1914 can be fertile sources of insights about contemporary challenges. One danger, however, is that people can find an analogy so compelling that they conclude that current conditions are “just like” 1914. My late, great colleague Ernest May provided an appropriate antidote. He noted that as a matter of fact, the most common form of analysis used by leaders in crises is historical reasoning from analogies. He urged both analysts and policymakers to be more systematic about the effort. In a legendary course taught at Harvard for many years, he challenged students attracted by a historical analogy to follow a simple procedure: put the analogy as the headline on a sheet of paper; then draw a straight line down the middle of the page and write “similar” at the top of one column and “different” at the top of the other. Under each column, list at least three points that capture similarities and three that note differences between the analog and the current case.

This essay attempts to use the “May Method” to highlight seven salient similarities and seven instructive differences between the challenges confronting Chinese and American leaders today and those facing world leaders in 1914. While most of the similarities make the possibility of conflict today more plausible that it might otherwise seem, and most of the differences make conflict seem less plausible, instructively, some have the opposite effect...