World War III: Neither Imminent nor Impossible


Christopher Coker, The Improbable War: China, The United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2015).


Today, war between the United States and China is unlikely. Despite the ongoing cyber escapades, island wrangling, and strategic pivoting, neither state wants to escalate the competition into armed conflict. The rationale for avoiding war is sound — nuclear weapons, economic interdependence, and increasingly lethal conventional weapons ensure that the human and economic costs would be excruciating for all parties involved. For the foreseeable future, both the United States and China will likely rely upon posturing, economic leverage, espionage, and diplomacy to achieve their goals.

This seems to be the current consensus and it should be reassuring. However, Professor Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics challenges us to think differently.

Beware of the Improbable

In The Improbable War, Professor Coker suggests that the low probability of a U.S.-China war may be putting us all at greater risk. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is an idea that stems from an all-too-human tendency to oversimplify risk (a subject about which Coker has written a great deal). When an event is unlikely, we often assume it will not happen and direct our attention elsewhere. But Coker points out that war is still “a possibility inherent in the present, and as a possibility is not yet an inescapable fact.” By redirecting our attention away from this possibility, our assumptions encourage a dangerous form of complacency.

The danger is especially clear in the diplomatic environment. When a war appears to be off the table, decision-makers can gravitate towards brinkmanship to win short-term gains and inadvertently neglect changing strategic conditions. Their negligence can quietly erode the stable conditions that helped take war off the table in the first place.

To illustrate his point, Coker reflects upon the build-up to World War I. During the early 1900s, many academics thought economic interconnectivity had rendered war impractical. The interconnected great power alliances seemed to offer an added deterrent that only made war less likely. However, their confidence that great power war was unlikely lulled European nations into a false sense of security. They fueled rising nationalism, arms build-ups, and provocative client states, which ultimately allowed the First World War to unfold.

As many have discussed, modern East Asia shares unsettling parallels with Europe in 1914. More hawkish nationalism is swelling in China and Japan. As in 1914’s Austria-Hungry and Serbia, Chinese and Japanese nationalists frequently exploit historical grievances and us-versus-them rhetoric to garner support. North Korea is perhaps the most provocative client state China could have, and the risk of miscalculation is not difficult to imagine. China’s ambitions for growth and prestige are comparable to the German Empire’s aspirations. Though necessary to check the power balance, East Asia’s interwoven security partnerships may again help weave a Thucydidean Trap. When assessing World War I’s trigger, Coker concludes that “war broke out in 1914 because the Great Powers ignored Thucydides’ warning with regard to maintaining control over their client states.” Coker also suggests that “the main conclusion to be drawn from 1914 is the fact that none of the Great Powers actually wanted war but some were ready enough to seize the moment when it came.” These observations prompt us to ask some uncomfortable questions: Are China and the United States maintaining control over their client states? As we observe the United States and China build war-ready militaries, will they be tempted to seize the moment if a war appears as though it might be just over the horizon?

The Way Forward

At the end of Coker’s book, our questions remain unanswered. Coker does not provide a concrete prediction for the future or a grand strategy detailing how the United States and China should move forward. He does, however, provide some recommendations. First, both states should avoid overestimating each other’s rationality. Emotional reasoning, misperception, and personal interests can all lead a state to make choices that contradict its strategic interests. Second, the United States and China need to exchange cultural perspectives, clarify areas of misunderstanding, and address differences in order to reduce the chance of inadvertently breaching a redline or misinterpreting a benign action as a provocation. Third, both parties should avoid a naval arms race. Increasing naval power in the East and South China Seas will only serve to intensify insecurity. Fourth, China and the United States should avoid militarizing space. Given the limited area available at useful orbiting altitudes and the dependence of both military and civilian society upon satellites, aggression in space is not worth the risk. Fifth, the United States should prepare for cyberwar. This involves establishing international norms, regulatory regimes, and boosting U.S. capabilities — including the defensive capabilities that clearly leave much to be desired.

But how useful are these recommendations? Assuming they are feasible, it is unclear whether these steps will address the triggers or underlying drivers of a U.S.-China conflict. Limiting cyber, space, and naval capabilities can reduce the damage inflicted by war, but not the political disputes that would initiate it. Sharing perspectives and being cognizant of irrational behavior can help avoid accidental war, but not one that stems from a legitimate conflict of interests. These steps are half measures that do not address the deeper strategic problems — conflicting long-term ambitions, nationalist-fueled rivalries, and precarious alliance obligations — which could still necessitate war. Coker discusses the importance of developing a strategic narrative, but refrains from suggesting one himself.

In the short term, a strategy will need to address the major triggers visible today. As observers at the Council on Foreign Relations and the RAND Corporation suggest, this will involve continuing military engagement, developing mutually agreed plans for deescalating a military exchange through the civilian governments, and negotiating long-term compromises. So long as there is distrust between the United States and China, we should expect China to continue investing in its military. China has the economic capability to build a strong military and stands to gain from a strong military’s deterrent and influence-projecting potential. Similarly, the United States should also continue building its East Asian presence and its partners’ capabilities to counterbalance China’s military growth, as Patrick Cronin, Justin Conrad, and other War on the Rocks contributors have recommended.

Perhaps more importantly, a strategy will need to address the underlying distrust and the zero-sum rivalry that are driving the United States and China toward a long-term antagonistic relationship. These factors are mutually reinforcing and stem from cultural separation, residual Cold War distrust, geopolitical concerns about shifting power balances, and other factors, but most significantly, from conflicting normative visions of the future. Coker notes that shared normative visions enabled the British Empire and the United States to maintain a relatively positive and peaceful relationship during the United States’ rise. He claims this relationship “had little to do with the balance of power and everything to do with intrinsic beliefs.” The most critical step toward establishing mutually acceptable strategic narratives that can break down the U.S.-China distrust and rivalry will be to narrow the gaps between their normative visions. Where interests overlap, collaborate. Where interests differ, negotiate, compromise, and respect redlines. This compromise may necessitate a degree of creativity, foresight, sacrifice, and political continuity that is not yet present. However, these qualities were not present at the turn of the 20th century in Europe either. If we leave our differences for fate to solve, we may not like how it finds a solution.


Ryan Neuhard is a student at the College of William and Mary and currently works as a research intern for Dr. Frank Hoffman at the National Defense University. He studies international relations with a focus on East Asia and emerging threats. He has studied, traveled, and conducted political science field research in China.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery