Harold James: Cosmos, Chaos: Finance, Power and Conflict

Abstract for the conference Das 20. Jahrhundert und der Erste Weltkrieg

My presentation focuses on comparisons between 2013/14 and 1913/14.  It makes the following main arguments:

  • Rule-based international orders are strained by transitions in power, even though all the parties see the desirability and need for a common system of rules;
  • vulnerability is increased by the degree of complexity of the rules;
  • moments of transition are accompanied by a heightened attention to the possibility of covert action to abuse the complexity of the rule-based system to the advantage of one particular power.

The most obvious parallels of 2013/2014 to 1913/1914 lie in:

1. A fascination with the historical precedent of the decline of empires.

2. A global order underwritten by a Great Power / Superpower (Great Britain / United States) which is less economically dynamic than the challenger (Germany / China) but which considers its political institutions more legitimate and more capable of being universalized.

3. Concern on the part of the rising power in the aftermath of a major and system-changing international financial crisis (1907/2007-8) that the rules of the system privilege the old holder of power and disadvantage the challenger.

4. A focus in Asia on the growing power of China.

5. A focus in Europe on the growing power of Germany.

6. A (perhaps misplaced) confidence that the international economy is so complex and inter-connected that it could not be disrupted by military conflict.

7. A focus on the logistics and infrastructure of the international economy as a way to exercise new forms of strategic influence.


Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton and holds a joint appointment as Professor of International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. 

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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