Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
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One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don't measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it's still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.
But as you might expect, the world isn't just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It's hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world's highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free."
China's point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.
The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn't done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America's favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.
The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we've seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America's global role. What's going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we're the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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I was in Beijing earlier this week, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. The conference was jointly sponsored by Beijing University and Harvard, and featured a number of prominent Chinese and American academics (and a few former policymakers). Our Chinese hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the absence of clean air didn't prevent the other participants from making lots of interesting presentations. (For another summary of the proceedings, check out Alan Alexandroff's account here).
The panel on which I spoke was focused on how the United States and China could cooperate to enhance international security. I made five basic points and thought I'd pass them along to you.
1. Positive and Negative Forms of Security Cooperation. In theory (I argued), there are two broad forms that Sino-American security cooperation could take. The first type consists of positive acts of collaboration, such as counterterrorism measures or anti-piracy operations (as in the Gulf of Aden). One can also imagine more ambitious sorts of cooperation, as when the two states jointly approve U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. One could even imagine situations where China and the United States might join forces to halt some deep civil conflict, although that is obviously less likely.
The second type of security cooperation is essentially negative: Each side seeks to enhance its mutual security by limiting or restraining its activities in some important realm. Traditional arms control is an obvious example of this sort of cooperation, as was the U.S.-Soviet "Incidents at Sea" agreement. Sino-American agreement on a naval "code of conduct" or a ban on cyberattacks would be of this type as well.
In short, it is not hard to think of various ways that Washington and Beijing could cooperate to reduce the risk of international conflict. But is significant cooperation likely, and what factors might make it more or less probable?
2. Prospects for Cooperation. Unfortunately, the probability that two states will engage in significant acts of security cooperation -- and especially of the positive sort noted above -- is largely determined by the level of amity or trust between them. If they have generally positive relations, cooperation is fairly easy. If there is a lot of mutual suspicion, however, positive acts of cooperation will be hard to sustain because both sides may fear that the other is gaining some sort of advantage. Paradoxically: Security cooperation is easiest when it is least important and hardest when it would be most valuable. Welcome to the wonderful world of international relations!
3. Rival Grand Strategies. The main barrier to extensive Sino-American cooperation to enhance global security is the tension between their respective grand strategies. China's central strategic aim is to continue to grow economically, gradually acquire greater economic and military power, and eventually reduce or eliminate the U.S. security role in Asia. Not by conquest or force necessarily, but by co-opting or cowing neighboring states into distancing themselves from the United States. The reason is easy to fathom: Just as U.S. leaders wanted to expel the European great powers from the Western Hemisphere (see under: Monroe Doctrine), China's leaders believe they will be more secure in the long run if the United States does not have a large military presence near their borders and does not have close security ties with their neighbors.
The United States, by contrast, wants to stay in Asia in order to keep China from establishing a dominant position there. Since the U.S. became a great power, a core principle of its grand strategy was to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia. That's why the United States opposed Germany in World War I, fought Germany and Japan in World War II, and worked to contain the Soviet Union in the Cold War. If no single power dominates Europe or Asia, the states there will worry mostly about each other, and none are able to focus solely on the United States or do much to interfere over in the Western Hemisphere. Accordingly, the U.S. will want to stay in Asia, to backstop its allies there and prevent Beijing from dominating the region.
4. Will the U.S. and China Act with Restraint? If the United States and China each pursue their respective grand strategies energetically, conflicts of interest will be numerous and intense, and we will see lots of trouble down the road. In this sort of world, there won't be much security cooperation between the two sides, and there will be a very intense security competition in Asia itself, with each side trying to cultivate allies of its own and trying simultaneously to undermine the opposing coalition. But if the two states pursue their strategies in a restrained, even lazy, fashion, they'll find it easier to reach common ground on some issues and might even engage in positive acts of collaboration on occasion.
Alas, I don't think the latter outcome is likely. Restraint is not something the United States does very well, and the recent "pivot" to Asia is probably a harbinger of more to come. Fiscal constraints will put some limits on what the United States can do, but you can bet that the Pentagon sees a coming conflict with China as a major force driver and will push hard for an assertive approach and the preservation of our current "forward presence." Similarly, China's own level of restraint has declined as its relative power has grown, and Deng Xiaoping's strategy of the "peaceful rise" has been gradually giving way to a more assertive nationalism. If China's economic growth rate does not slow significantly, I wouldn't expect a lot of restraint on either side. (FWIW, I think a slowdown is nearly inevitable, which will create big problems for the Chinese leadership but might dampen tensions somewhat.)
5. Stability for the Long Term. Unfortunately, managing Sino-American relations over the long term will be even harder. If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If "wise leadership" is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.
The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.
And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.
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I'm in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I'm enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I've been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I'm having a fine time.
This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today's email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it's well worth reading.
Of course, I liked the symposium because there's a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China's rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America's increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.
Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America's long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes:
"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States' rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."
Or as India's C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable:
"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China's power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."
My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors' tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.
The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).
In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."
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The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.
Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you'd be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?
Here's the rub: Although Japan's capita income is nearly four times greater than China's, its population is less than 10 percent that of China's and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea's economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China's economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time.
Well, if that was a major long-term concern, what could you do? You might start by asking yourself what other countries did when they faced similar circumstances. For example, you might look at Britain's response to Germany's rise at the beginning of the 20th century. German unification and its rapid industrial development created a powerhouse in continental Europe, and by 1900, Britain could not keep pace through internal effort alone.
How did Britain respond? By mending fences with other major powers. It settled a dispute with the United States over the Venezuelan border, supported the United States during the Spanish-American War, and settled another boundary dispute over Alaska in 1903. It muted its colonial rivalry with France through the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and concluded another entente with Russia by settling border disputes in Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan in 1907. These were mostly acts of appeasement, by the way, but undertaken with a larger strategic purpose in mind.
In short, the obvious and growing threat from Germany led Britain to resolve various disputes and form stronger ties with other major powers, reducing the number of conflicts it had to worry about and laying the foundation for the alliance that ultimately defeated Germany's attempt to establish hegemony in Europe in World War I.
So if you were a smart Japanese or South Korean strategist and you believed that China was probably your most serious long-term security challenge, you'd be looking to mend fences with other countries and especially with each other. Not only would this allow you to concentrate more attention on China, it would increase the odds that China would face cohesive opposition if it tried to throw its weight around in the future. If done adroitly, that possibility might have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations, thereby stabilizing East Asia for everyone.
Yet this is precisely what Japan and South Korea are NOT doing. To the contrary: at the same time that Japan is having an increasingly ugly spat with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are also engaged in an intermittently heated quarrel over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, a different and equally insignificant pile of rocks.
I don't know whose claim to these little chunks of land is more deserving and I certainly wouldn't try to arbitrate it here. But it is hard to read about these disputes -- and especially the flap between South Korea and Japan -- without concluding that these two states are letting national pride cloud their thinking in a most unproductive way. And one big reason might be the long habit of expecting Uncle Sam to take care of their security for them.
I've made this point before: managing alliance relations in Asia is not going to be easy. But instead of focusing primarily on military deployments and doctrinal innovations like "Air-Sea Battle," the United States needs to devote at least as much attention to East Asian diplomacy, to include helping its friends settle differences among themselves. In the end, helping our friends work together (and for that matter, helping them resolve differences with China in a fair-minded way) could do more to stabilize relations in the region than shifting another carrier battle group there or doing a lot of saber-rattling.
Balancing against threats is a powerful tendency in international affairs, but it is not always done efficiently and the uncertainties that this creates can tempt others to take advantage. Helping lubricate the balancing process is an ideal role for the United States. It is also the best way to ensure that Uncle Sam doesn't get stuck carrying most of the burden itself.
Update: For a broadly similar view from my colleague Joseph Nye, go here.
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Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
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What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
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One of my favorite Cold War stories is the tale of the Moscow air show of 1955, when Western observers were awed by a flyover of what seemed to be hundreds of Mya-4 Bison long range bombers. The CIA later determined that this was a Potemkin armada: Visibility was low that day and the Soviets in charge just had the same group of planes fly out of sight and then circle back over the field, creating the impression that they had a much larger arsenal than they did. Such antics helped fuel fears of a bomber gap, much as Khrushchev's later missile rattling fueled fears of a so-called missile gap. Neither existed, and neither did the Stanley Kubrick's infamous "mine shaft gap."
I thought of this episode when I read about the launching of China's first "aircraft carrier." I put those words in quotation marks because the vessel isn't carrying any aircraft, because China has yet to build any that can land on a carrier deck. For the moment, in short, it's just a big vessel that doesn't add to China's actual military capability at all. Even so, this development is being interpreted as a sign of China's growing military muscle, and the New York Times story quotes officials in Asia describing the launching itself as an act of intimidation.
China is obviously growing wealthier and stronger, but the United States and others have a powerful interest in assessing this trend as accurately as possible. If we are complacent and understate China's capabilities, we might unpleasantly surprised at some point in the future. But if we inflate the threat and overstate China's power, we'll waste money trying to stay ahead and we might even end up deterring ourselves. Exaggerating Chinese power could also convince some of Beijing's weaker neighbors that standing up to it is just too hard. So the United States (and others) have a big incentive to get this one right, despite the unavoidable uncertainties that military assessments entail.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people and groups with an incentive to distort public discourse on this broad issue. Some of our Asian allies are likely to cry wolf every time China does anything remotely worrisome, in the hope of scaring Washington and getting us to do even more to protect them. Defense contractors and think tanks that depend on their largesse are likely to threat-inflate as well, in order convince the Pentagon to fund new weapons. Politicians from both parties will offer their own worst-case assessments if they think they can make their opponents look bad on this issue. For all these reasons, developing and maintaining a reasonably accurate sense of what China can and cannot do is going to be hard.
You might say that we can just let the "marketplace of ideas" operate, and over time competing views about China's capabilities will contend with each other and we'll gradually converge on a more-or-less accurate appraisal. It would be nice if things worked like this, but this is sort of issue where intellectual market failure is likely. Why? Because there will be a lot more money supporting the hawkish side of this debate, and lots of bureaucratic interests committed toward worst-case appraisals. That view might be the right one, of course, but it's going to be hard to be sure.
Of course, my remedy for this problem (and some others) is to get a lot of smart people who don't have a professional or financial stake in this debate involved in the discussion. I don't want the debate on China's capabilities to be dominated by people working for the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or D.C.-based think tanks funded by such groups. I don't want to exclude them either, but I'd like to see a lot of other disinterested voices too. And to follow up on yesterday's post, this is another reason why we want a healthy, diverse, and engaged set of scholars in the academic world, who aren't directly beholden to anyone with a dog in particular policy fights.
That participation won't occur if universities don't support training and teaching in security studies, or if university-based scholars disengage from the public sphere and spend their time debating minor issues that are mostly of interest only to each other. In this issue, as in many others, getting academics and other independent voices to be an active part of public discourse is essential to making accurate assessments and reasonably smart decisions.
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There's a fascinating and worrisome confrontation playing out in the East China Sea, over a group of uninhabited islands called the Senkakus (Chinese name: Diaoyu). Here's where they are, and here's what they look like.
Short version: Japan seized control of the islands following a war with China in 1895. The United States administered them from 1945 to the early 1970s. Japan regained control in 1972, when ownership was reacquired by a private family. Nobody lives there.
Earlier this year, the right-wing mayor of Tokyo said the city government was going to buy the islands to ensure that they remained in Japanese hands. (Had he gone ahead and done so, they would have become the most distant metropolitan suburb in the history of the world). To forestall this step, the Japanese national government bought the islands instead, a step that has provoked some ugly demonstrations in China and raised the possibility of a military confrontation.
This issue is a tricky problem for the United States, because we'll be expected to support our Japanese ally if the dispute escalates. The U.S. position on the whole issue isn't clear, however, and is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan agrees with the PRC and regards the islands (the largest of which is only some 4 square kilometers and is home to moles, birds, and sheep), as part of its territory too.
This whole business got me thinking. In a bygone era, sovereigns used to sell each other territory when it was in their interest to do so, normally when one of them needed cash. Remember the Louisiana Purchase, or the acquisition of Alaska from Russia? If the Japanese government can pay roughly $2 billion to buy the islands from a private family, why can't China pay the same amount (or whatever the market will bear) to obtain them from Japan? After all, the PRC is pretty flush with cash these days, and Japan could use some extra money (although ~$2 billion isn't really that much). Still, why not just view this as a simple matter of business?
The main obstacle to this obvious solution is nationalism. China regards the islands as Chinese territory, so why should they pay Japan in order to get something they think is rightfully theirs? Similarly, some Japanese might regard selling the islands as an affront to their own national pride, or something like that, even though nobody in Japan is likely to live there or even get anywhere near the remote little rocks.
Nonetheless, it would be smart move for Tokyo to offer to sell the islands at roughly the same price they just paid. Think of it this way: Suppose you and a wealthy neighbor disagreed over the boundary line between your property, and suppose further that the municipal records where you lived weren't clear. Both parties think the other's position is unfair, but you might be willing to forego your claim if your wealthy neighbor offered you enough. And he might be willing to do that even if he believed he was purchasing something he already owned, if doing so would be cheaper than litigation and if he wanted to avoid having a nasty relationship with you in perpetuity. Buying out your claim would be smart move on his part, and you might even take the money and invite him over for a beer to celebrate the deal.
Tokyo should offer to sell for another reason. If China refused, it would look like Beijing was spoiling for a fight, and unwilling to solve the matter in a reasonable way. That outcome would be a victory for Japan, because it is in their interest to be seen as the reasonable party in this dispute. Why? Because if China's power continues to rise, a key feature of East Asian diplomacy will be how different actors inside and outside the region perceive the intentions of the various players. China will want to portray the United States and its various regional allies as the main source of confrontation or instability, because that will make other states less likely to join with the United States in balancing China. By contrast, the more that Beijing is perceived as bellicose, ambitious, and prone to throwing its weight around, the easier it will be for the United States to maintain its Asian partnerships and the more that other states in East and Southeast Asia will be inclined to cooperate with each other despite their economic ties to China and their various disputes with each other. The spat over the Senkakus provides both Japan and China with an opportunity to show how reasonable they can be. And by doing so, they give the other side a chance to blow it by being recalcitrant or greedy.
By the way, I'm betting that none of these things will happen: Japan won't offer to sell and if it does, China will refuse to buy. Which is one of the many reasons why I believe security competition in East Asia will continue to increase.
UPDATE: A well-informed commenter called me yesterday and said I had missed a key element in this dispute: China doesn't care about the islands per se; it is more interested in the resources that may exist in their vicinity (oil, gas, fish, etc.) and wants possession in order to extend its "exclusive economic zone." This is a good point, but it is not a barrier to a financial solution to the dispute. If there are valuable resources and China wants them, Japan can just raise the price, or agree to sell in exchange for some cash up front and a percentage of future revenues (say, for the next fifty years or so). In other words, there's in principle no reason this couldn't be handled through a process of bargaining and side payments. But as I said, I still don't think it will get resolved this way.
Just how committed should the United States be in the Far East? Everybody knows that the Obama administration has announced a "pivot" to Asia this year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just reiterated the U.S. position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force."
At one level there's nothing all that new here. The United States has long sought to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia, because such a power would then be in a better position to threaten U.S. interests elsewhere. That motive explained U.S opposition to Japanese expansion in the 1930s and the formation of a Washington-centered, anti-Soviet alliance network in Asia during the Cold War. Today, it means keeping a wary eye on a rising China and strengthening security ties with a number of different Asian partners.
But this effort today faces the classic "Goldilocks problem." The U.S. commitment in Asia needs to be "just right"; not too hot and not too cold. If it is "too hot" (meaning that the U.S. is too assertive and too confrontational), then hardliners in Beijing will be empowered and security competition between Washington and Beijing will intensify even more. If U.S. leaders seem to be picking unnecessary quarrels that might jeopardize profitable economic relations -- as the Romney campaign suggests it might -- then Washington is likely to be seen not as the solution but as the problem.
But equally important, an overly energetic U.S. policy will encourage its regional allies to misbehave in a number of ways. First, if the U.S. does too much to reassure its allies that it is ready to help them, they will free-ride and let Uncle Sam bear most of the burden of containing China. Second, if America's regional allies are too confident that Washington will protect them no matter what, they will continue to indulge assorted bilateral squabbles and devote insufficient attention to ironing out lingering historical enmities. (Case in point: the continued territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, and the domestic uproar in South Korea that derailed a useful intelligence cooperation agreement with Tokyo).
But if U.S. policy is "too cold" -- that is, if the United States seems distracted by other problems, or insufficiently attuned to regional concerns, then some of its Asian partners may start to consider other options. Assuming that China continues to grow economically (and continues to build a more capable military), they may eventually conclude that trying to stand up to it won't be possible.
This dilemma may also explain why countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have been so assertive in challenging China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. They may be thinking that they have to get Uncle Sam fully committed now, while the United States is still richer and stronger than China, in the hope that the U.S. will take action to slow China's rise and use its influence to get these territorial issues resolved on terms that other littoral countries can live with. If they believe the balance of power will shift against them (and the U.S.) in the future, then they have an incentive to raise the temperature now.
The big lesson to take from this discussion is that managing security relations in the Far East is going to be very tricky for many years to come. We have all the ingredients for trouble: shifting balances of power, territorial disputes, lingering historical resentments, and a large number of interested parties (each with their own interests and concerns). Like I said, getting U.S. policy "just right" is not going to be easy.
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One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.
This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.
For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.
In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.
Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.
For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.
The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?
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If you were focusing on Hurricane Isaac or the continued violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation about China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was "increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems." The online journal Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: the headline announced a "big story"--that "China's missiles could thwart U.S."--and the text offered the alarming forecast that "the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology."
What is really going on here? Not much. China presently has a modest strategic nuclear force. It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can presently reach the United States. By way of comparison, the United States has over 2000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs, SLBMs, and cruise missiles, all of them capable of reaching China. And if that were not enough, the U.S. has nearly 3000 nuclear warheads in reserve.
Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts. Why? Chinese officials worry about the scenario where the United States uses its larger and much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on ballistic missile defenses to deal with whatever small and ragged second-strike the Chinese managed to muster. (Missile defenses can't handle large or sophisticated attacks, but in theory they might be able to deal with a small and poorly coordinated reply).
This discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios. In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warhead missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China's nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation. As the U.S. Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, "China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications, and its leaders have expressed concern that such defenses might negate China's strategic deterrent."
Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising revisionist threat, but such claims do not follow logically from the evidence presented. To repeat: what China is doing is a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns for deterrent stability that led the United States to create a "strategic triad" back in the 1950s.
Second, if you wanted to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization, the smart way to do it would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the same negotiating framework that capped and eventually reduced the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their respective arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying its major population centers, it simply doesn't matter if one side has twice as many warheads before the war. Or ten times as many. Or a hundred times....
Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country by building missile defenses is a fool's errand. It is always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly in order to prevent massive damage. If you fired a hundred warheads and 95% were intercepted -- an astonishingly high level of performance -- that would still let five warheads through and that means losing five cities. And if an opponent were convinced that your defenses would work perfectly -- a highly unlikely proposition -- there are plenty of other ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Ballistic missile defense never made much sense either strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.
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Nine months ago I visited South Korea for a conference on security issues, and I posted a summary of my conference paper here on this site. Among the main points I made (and not for the first time) was that creating and managing balancing coalitions in Asia was going to be tricky, and require some adroit diplomacy and skillful U.S. leadership. As I said back then:
"For starters, a balancing coalition in Asia will face serious dilemmas of collective action. Although many Asian states may worry about a rising threat from China, each will also be tempted to get others to bear most of the burden and to free-ride on their efforts. These incentives may lead some states to simultaneously balance against China (at least somewhat) while at the same time trying cultivating close economic relations with China. Indeed, one could argue that this is precisely what South Korea has tried to do over the past decade or more. This problem may be compounded by lingering historical divisions between potential alliance partners (e.g., Japan and South Korea), and by adroit Chinese efforts to play "divide-and-rule."
The past several weeks provide some instructive support for this view. First, a May 2012 agreement to increase security cooperation and intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan (a move that the United States clearly supported) has foundered in recent weeks, in good part due to domestic opposition in South Korea. Some of the opposition was merely opportunistic (the agreement provided President Lee's opponents with an issue to exploit), but the controversy also stemmed from Korea's bitter experience as a Japanese colony during the first half of the 20th century. Second, the recent ASEAN summit failed to issue a closing communiqué fo the first time in the organization's forty-five year history, largely because there was no consensus on how to respond to China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Both events highlight some of the key obstacles to effective balancing behavior in Asia: 1) the temptation to free-ride, 2) lingering historical tensions between key members, and 3) China's ability to cultivate certain regional states (in this case, Cambodia) and block a coordinated regional response.
States do tend to balance against threats, and it is no surprise that the United States has begun to focus more attention on Asia and that many Asian states welcome the enhanced attention. But creating effective balancing coalitions is neither easy nor automatic, and it's going to require more time and skill to pull it off, especially if the United States wants to make sure that other states pull their weight and don't leave Uncle Sucker doing all of the heavy lifting. And my guess is that managing intra-alliance diplomacy in Asia is going to make the history of NATO look like child's play.
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I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.
I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.
The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.
But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.
My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.
Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.
My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.
It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.
Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.
All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.
I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
Just a heads-up: I was part of a "Room for Debate" symposium at the New York Times website here. There's a nice exchange of views, and regular readers of this blog won't be surprised by my forecast that if China keeps growing economically, a serious security competition between the U.S. and China is nearly inevitable. War is not inevitable, in my view, assuming we get reasonably mature and competent leaders in Washington and Beijing. So cast those ballots carefully come November (and every four years after that).
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Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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Will China hold together? I'd say yes. But as scholars and pundits debate China's future, a critical issue is whether the government will face powerful internal challenges of the sort that eventually helped bring down the USSR. One piece of that puzzle is whether minority groups such as China's restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province will pose a significant threat to internal stability.
I know very little about this issue, but I found this brief commentary by Arabinda Acharya and Wang Zhihao, two researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, to be rather eye-opening. Factoid #1: Acharya and Wang point out that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than it does on defense, a fact that reflects the CCP's long-term concern about internal order.
Equally interesting was their reminder about the dearth of reliable information on the true situation in Xinjiang. Money quotation:
"The Xinjiang situation is also characterized by a lack of facts. Accounts of events come mainly from two sources: state-sponsored media and overseas Uighur activists who claim to have sources within the region. Reporting by these two entities however cannot be independently verified, due to China's ban on the presence of outside media in the region. Therefore, it has become difficult to determine where facts end and embellishment begins.
State media attributes the incidents to rioters or terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) also going by the name Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Beijing also accuses overseas Uighur organizations especially the World Uighur Congress for inciting unrests in Xinjiang. Uighur activist groups however, claim that the protests are acts of the local Uighur lashing out at Beijing's "systematic oppression." These incidents nevertheless, are being exploited to garner international support for resisting what is being termed as "state oppression" in Xinjiang. As the facts continue to be obfuscated, it has become difficult to distinguish protests against specific grievances by local Uighur from organized acts of terrorism."
As we've seen in many other contexts, the dearth of reliable information is exacerbated by the contending parties' incentives to misrepresent what is really going on, making it extremely difficult for outsiders to judge either the threat of instability or the appropriateness of the government's counter-measures. And insofar as internal instability poses a significant threat to China's continued economic expansion, it means that outsiders will find it even more difficult to forecast its trajectory with confidence.
For their part, Acharya and Wang offer a fairly sanguine forecast, opining that "Fortunately for China, the situation in Xinjiang is not and does not portend to be a problem of massive proportions." Nonetheless, they warn that overly harsh measures could fuel greater Uighur resistance, and they conclude that "Beijing would do well to temper its actions with appropriate sensitivity to overall issues involved rather than attempt to crush all dissent with mere force."
Good advice, I suspect, but it will be interesting to see if China's leaders can follow this prescription for subtlety, especially internal discontent increases.
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Note: I've posted several times on the question of Sino-American relations. Today I feature a guest post by Yuan-kang Wang of Western Michigan University, who offers an interesting analysis of what China's past behavior might tell us about its future course.
By Yuan-kang Wang:
As a regular visitor who enjoys reading this blog, I thank Steve Walt for the invitation to contribute this guest post on the relationship between Chinese power, culture, and foreign policy behavior.
Steve (and others) have written about American exceptionalism. It won't surprise you to learn that China has its own brand. Most Chinese people -- be they the common man or the political, economic, and academic elite -- think of historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture. Because Confucianism cherishes harmony and abhors war, this version portrays a China that has not behaved aggressively nor been an expansionist power throughout its 5,000 years of glorious history. Instead, a benevolent, humane Chinese world order is juxtaposed against the malevolent, ruthless power politics in the West.
The current government in Beijing has recruited Chinese exceptionalism into its notion of a "peaceful rise." One can find numerous examples of this line of thought in official white papers and statements by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other officials. The message is clear: China's unique history, peaceful culture, and defensive mindset ensure a power that will rise peacefully.
All nations tend to see their history as exceptional, and these beliefs usually continue a heavy dose of fiction. Here are the top three myths of contemporary Chinese exceptionalism.
Myth #1: China did not expand when it was strong.
Many Chinese firmly believe that China does not have a tradition of foreign expansion. The empirical record, however, shows otherwise. The history of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) shows that Confucian China was far from being a pacifist state. On the contrary, Song and Ming leaders preferred to settle disputes by force when they felt the country was strong, and in general China was expansionist whenever it enjoyed a preponderance of power. As a regional hegemon, the early Ming China launched eight large-scale attacks on the Mongols, annexed Vietnam as a Chinese province, and established naval dominance in the region.
But Confucian China could also be accommodating and conciliatory when it lacked the power to defeat adversaries. The Song dynasty, for example, accepted its inferior status as a vassal of the stronger Jin empire in the twelfth century. Chinese leaders justified their decision by invoking the Confucian aversion to war, arguing that China should use the period of peace to build up strength and bide its time until it had developed the capabilities for attack. In short, leaders in Confucian China were acutely sensitive to balance-of-power considerations, just as realism depicts.
Myth 2: The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power.
In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese dispatched seven spectacular voyages led by Zheng He to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and East Africa. The Chinese like to point out that Zheng He's fleets did not conquer an inch of land, unlike the brutal, aggressive Westerners who colonized much of the world. Instead, they were simply ambassadors of peace exploring exotic places.
This simplistic view, however, overlooks the massive naval power of the fleet-27,000 soldiers on 250 ships-which allowed the Chinese to "shock and awe" foreigners into submission. The Chinese fleet engaged in widespread "power projection" activities, expanding the Confucian tribute system and disciplining unruly states. As a result, many foreigners came to the Ming court to pay tribute. Moreover, the supposedly peaceful Zheng He used military force at least three times; he even captured the king of modern-day Sri Lanka and delivered him to China for disobeying Ming authority. Perhaps we should let the admiral speak for himself:
"When we reached the foreign countries, we captured barbarian kings who were disrespectful and resisted Chinese civilization. We exterminated bandit soldiers who looted and plundered recklessly. Because of this, the sea lanes became clear and peaceful, and foreign peoples could pursue their occupations in safety."
Myth 3: The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense.
You've probably heard this before: China adheres to a "purely defensive" grand strategy. The Chinese built the Great Wall not to attack but to defend.
Well, the first thing you need to remember about the Great Wall is that it has not always been there. The wall we see today was built by Ming China, and it was built only after a series of repeated Chinese attacks against the Mongols had failed. There was no wall-building in early Ming China, because at that time the country enjoyed a preponderance of power and had no need for additional defenses. At that point, the Chinese preferred to be on the offensive. Ming China built the Great Wall only after its relative power had declined.
In essence, Confucian China did not behave much differently from other great powers in history, despite having different culture and domestic institutions. As realism suggests, the anarchic structure of the system compelled it to compete for power, overriding domestic and individual factors.
Thus, Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia. This policy will inevitably bring it into a security competition with the United States in the region and beyond. Washington is getting out of the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan and "pivoting" toward Asia. As the Chinese saying goes, "One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers." Brace yourself. The game is on.
Yuan-kang Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics.
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Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.
I wasn't present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here's why I'm inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.
First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I've noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition -- especially in East Asia -- will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China's continued ascent, I'm guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.
The second reason I'm inclined to downplay this week's meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China's overall power position isn't going overtake America's in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi's individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I'd argue that what really matters is Xi's ability to manage China's economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).
Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi's personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he's able to do. Again, that's not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.
The last reason why I'm inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that's not necessarily certain if you're dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I'm hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I'm not suggesting that leaders' personalities and propensities don't matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.
None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you've been told up till now.
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Dan Drezner misunderstands me, and not for the first time. Specifically, in my post on the debate over whether China is overtaking the United States, I neither said nor implied that "developing accurate assessments about the power balance between China and the United States" was not important. My point, rather, was that focusing so heavily on whether China was "catching up" ran the risk of distracting us from equally important issues, such as America's ability to advance its interests more broadly.
In particular, even if everyone agreed that China was not catching up at present, it might still be true that the United States was less able to get its way than it used to be. And even if Michael Beckley is correct that China is not "catching up," it does not necessarily follow that the United States is in great shape, or that it hasn't committed some costly blunders that it ought not to repeat.
Dan is correct to say that the United States is still the world's most powerful country, but of course I never said it wasn't. Indeed, America's enduring assets are a point that I emphasized in my own post and in the National Interest article to which I linked. But the real issue is whether our capacity to "run the world" is more constrained than it used to be. After World War II, the U.S. was able to create a working international trade and monetary order, create new alliance partnerships in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and pretty much run those partnerships on its own terms for decades. Back in those days, the U.S. could devote fully five percent of its GDP to a single initiative like the Marshall Plan without batting an eye. And then we spent the 1950s subsidizing our allies' recovery. Can anyone imagine our doing something similar today (i.e., spending five percent of GDP (that is, about $700 billion) on economic aid for anyone, in addition to our normal expenditures for defense and foreign affairs? And let's not forget that it has been two decades since the last successful multilateral trade round, which is another indicator of how power has diffused.
But one doesn't have to go all the way back to 1947. I'd argue that U.S. influence was significantly higher in 1999, in part because we enjoyed a budget surplus,but also because we had a reputation for military prowess and idealism that made many states want to be on our side. For lack of a better term, let's call it soft power.
Today, by contrast, we have budget deficits looming as far as the eye can see. We've lost one war (Iraq) and are going to lose another (Afghanistan). Our global image has been tarnished by events like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the persistent use of drones, and our decidedly one-sided policies elsewhere in the Middle East. Israel ignores our efforts to foster peace, Saudi Arabia ignored us when it intervened in Bahrain, both Pakistan and Afghanistan routinely lie to us, and we have little influence over the political evolution underway in places like Egypt or Libya. Turkey may be cooperating on some issues, but it is hardly as compliant an ally as it was back in the days of the old military government. And so on.
Again, this situation doesn't mean the U.S. is devoid of all influence or a "pitiful, helpless giant." But at the same time, to conclude that all is well because China is not about to supplant us as the world's number 1 power strikes me as a dangerous misreading of recent trends.
Dan is undoubtedly correct to point out that many states still want to rely on U.S. power to help them deal with local security problems, and that the United States is sometimes able to elicit support from like-minded allies if we work really, really hard at it. It is therefore not surprising that a number of Asian countries are eager for U.S. help to counter the challenges posed by a more powerful China. But as I've argued previously, forming a balancing coalition against a rising China is not going to be a walk in the park, and it will require adroit diplomacy to overcome the inevitable dilemmas of collective action and other incentives to "free-ride" on Uncle Sam.
One can also raise at least two questions about Beckley's optimistic assessment. If China hasn't been "catching up," then why are so many states in Asia worried about it? It's possible that they have fallen for the hype too, but at a minimum it ought to give us some pause to realize how seriously China's neighbors see its growing capabilities. Second, as Tom Christensen and some others have previously noted, China does not have to equal the United States in order to pose a greater challenge for us (which is a point that could also be said, on a far lesser scale, for some other countries).
To see this, just ask yourself the following question: if the U.S. were contemplating a direct test of strength with China, would it be better for the United States for this to have occurred in 1992, 2012, or 2022? I'd argue the former, and I'll bet almost anyone in the U.S. military would agree. That's not to say the United States would not win a direct test of strength both now and well into the future, it's just to say that it would have been easier in the past than it is likely to be in the future. And if that inference is correct, then it tells you something about whether Beckley's optimism is fully warranted.
All of which leads to stand by my original post. Of course we should pay attention to the balance of power between the U.S. and China, and Beckley's original article is an important contribution to that effort. But it would be a mistake to read Beckley's reassuring conclusions as evidence that everything is just hunky-dory with current U.S. foreign and defense policy, and to conclude we hadn't spent a lot of the past decade wasting a lot of blood and treasure on fools' errands.
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As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.
As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.
Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
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Chinese President Hu Jintao waded into the culture wars yesterday, but not the same culture war that has distorted American politics. No, Hu's worried that Western powers are waging a cultural war against China, and that advanced Western weaponry like Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, and the Transformers franchise are eating away at the cultural foundations of Chinese unity. According to various news sources, he has called upon Communist Party leaders to expand China's own cultural output and achieve a global cultural influence "commensurate with its international status."
Forgive me, but China's leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game. It's not that I think the Chinese people couldn't cast a larger cultural shadow both at home and abroad, it's that this goal is not something that a bunch of middle-aged Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats can mandate and control, especially in an era where culture spreads via decentralized mechanisms like YouTube and file-sharing software. Government leaders don't create new and innovative art; it springs up from unfettered human beings, and often from fringe elements in society. And as Hu surely knows, some of the most creative artists are dissidents. Oops.
What Hu doesn't understand is that you can't just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech. Nobody in Washington told Louis Armstrong to redefine the art of jazz solos, a government official didn't order Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to invent be-bop in order to increase America's global influence, and the Beatles didn't spend all those hours in the Cavern Club or in Hamburg because somebody at the BBC had been told to create a "British invasion." Instead, these things happened because these various individuals were free to assimilate influences from all over, and to work on their art for essentially selfish reasons.
Other authoritarian bureaucracies offer similar lessons. Stalinist Russia produced "socialist realism" (not to be confused with realist IR theory!) and a lot of clunky middle-brow fiction, but hardly any lasting cultural products. There were great artists in the Soviet Union, to be sure, but the best (Shostakovich, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) fell afoul of the authorities at one time or another and those who retained official favor didn't exactly set the world on fire. Soviet efforts to insulate themselves from outside cultural products backfired completely, as Western jazz, rock and roll, and other forms of contemporary art became clandestine objects of desire and emulation, all the more desired for being taboo.
Similarly, the Nazis attempts to stamp out "degenerate art" and to impose a uniform Nazi culture produced a predictable cultural wasteland. Adolf Hitler may have fancied himself an artist, but his tyrannical regime produced virtually no works of lasting cultural significance and mostly a lot of trashy kitsch.
Hu's attempt to order up cultural influence by directive faces another problem. Innovative cultural products usually draws on diverse influences: artists borrow ideas and inspiration from various sources and combine them in new ways, adding their own genius to the mix. That's what Picasso did, and every other major artist, writer, or composer I can think of. True of movie-makers, playwrights, and poets too. But as Hu's warning suggests, China's leaders are leery of opening their society completely to outside influences and unwilling to permit a completely free exchange of ideas inside China itself. By stifling creativity, these restrictions will inevitably inhibit the ability of Chinese artists to reach the cutting edge of global culture or to devise artistic products that will cast as long a shadow as open societies do.
Ironically, if Hu really wants to win a culture war, he'd have to abandon some of the other social control mechanisms upon which CCP rule now depends. So if he wants to launch a culture war, I'd say "bring it on." Even a Rick Santorum presidency wouldn't eliminate our many advantages on that front. Heck, it might even enhance them, at least in the areas of comedy and satire.
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What are some potential game-changers in contemporary international diplomacy? By "game-changer," I mean a bold and risky initiative that fundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities and forcing others to rethink their own positions.
I'm thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handel analyzed in his book The Diplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested in how certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpected maneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Nixon's opening to China, Sadat's surprise announcement that he was willing to go to Jerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and helped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advance planning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and had dramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.
So I've been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaders could take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiative can be risky, of course, and there's no guarantee that a bold gamble will succeed. With that caveat, here's a short list of five potential "game-changers," in no particular order.
Read the rest of the article here.
There's a must-read
op-ed in today's New York Times by
Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as
Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan
acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an
idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states
that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable."
He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to
international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan's essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There's a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America's current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America's past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China's understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power's interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you've got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn't mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn't be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He's right in theory -- neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them -- but that is no guarantee that they won't happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction -- the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" -- is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China -- a competition that is already underway -- were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP's stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they've got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.
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If you've been paying attention -- and maybe even if you haven't -- you'll have noticed that U.S. strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. The United States has already moved the bulk of its naval deployments towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that future defense cuts won't be felt in Asia, and the Obama administration announced the other day that it is sending 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. Today, we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to visit Myanmar, a move clearly intended to encourage the military regime there to continue its recent reform efforts and to try to wean the government from Beijing's embrace.
This trend reflects several developments: 1) the recognition that Europe faces no significant security threats and thus doesn't need U.S. protection, 2) the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have gradually convinced even die-hard liberal imperialists and a few neo-conservatives that using thousands of U.S. troops to do "nation-building" in the Middle East or Central Asia is a fool's errand; 3) Asia's growing economic importance, and 4) the widespread perception -- both in Washington and in the region -- that China's power is rising and needs to be countered by the United States (and others).
But why? Even some astute commentators are puzzled why Americans should care about Asian security. Writing on his blog over at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan inquires:
What on earth are we doing adding a military base in Australia to piss off China? Why shouldn't China have a sphere of influence in the Pacific? ... I see no way that putting a base in Australia somehow defends the homeland of the United States. It does nothing of the kind. It just projects global power."
In fact, there is a perfectly sound realist justification for this strategic shift, and the clearest expression can be found in George F. Kennan's book American Diplomacy. Kennan argued that there were several key centers of industrial power in the world -- Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- and that the primary strategic objective of the United States was to keep the Soviet Union from seizing any of those centers of power that lay outside its grasp. That's what containment was really all about, even if it was distorted and misapplied by people who thought areas like Indochina were critical.
More broadly, this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.
The point isn't a moral or ethical one: it is straightforward realpolitik. As long as the United States is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, it is much safer and doesn't have to worry very much about territorial defense. If you don't think this is important, ask Poland or any other country that has lots of powerful neighbors and has suffered from frequent invasions. And as long as Eurasia is divided among many contending powers, these states naturally tend to worry mostly about each other and not about us (except when we do stupid things, like invading Iraq). Instead, many Eurasian states have been eager for U.S. protection against local threats, which is why the United States has been able to lead successful and long-lived alliances in Europe and in Asia. In fact, it is the combination of enormous security here at home and compliant allies abroad that has enabled the United States to meddle in many corners of the world, sometimes to good purpose but often not.
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Here's a question for you: does it make sense for the United States to open its best universities to students from China (or any other potential long-term rival) and to help them to acquire advanced scientific and technical knowledge?
On the plus side, you could argue that all universities ought to admit the best and brightest applicants no matter where they come from, because that will help these universities do better work. Having smart students is a powerful spur to continued progress, no matter where they come from. Moreover, this practice might help the United States cream off some of the best foreign talent by convincing them to remain here after they graduate, where they will be of great benefit to the U.S. economy. And even if some of the best foreign students get trained here and then go back home, they can help their own societies develop, generate economic growth, and create bigger markets for everyone, so that the whole global economy grows and we all benefit.
But the downside is obvious too: if more and more of these well-trained people head back home, then U.S. universities will be transferring knowledge that might reduce America's comparative advantage. Even worse, we might be making it easier for other states to catch up or eventually surpass us in areas of advanced technology that have military implications (including cyber-security). So maybe we ought to be limiting foreign access to U.S. higher education, in order to preserve our own advantages for as long as we can.
There, in a nutshell, is a key difference between realists and liberals. Although the latter concede that there is a competitive element to world politics, they tend to downplay it and to focus primarily on the gains to be had from mutual cooperation. This tendency is evident in the emphasis placed on "engaging" China, which has been a hallmark of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. This view stresses the need for cooperation and the benefits that the United States (and others) will gain as China becomes wealthier, and one dimension of that would be opening up U.S. institutions of higher education and collaborating with Chinese universities.
By contrast, realists tend to worry more about long-term shifts in the relative balance of power between the two sides, and warned that enabling Chinese growth could eventually place the United States in a position where its own influence is reduced. If you believe that Sino-American rivalry will be hard to avoid and potentially costly, then you'd want to start think hard about ways to slow China's rise. But nothing is cost-free: taking steps like that could reinforce Chinese suspicions-- duh! -- and at a minimum means consigning millions of Chinese citizens to lower standards of living. And guess what? It would probably also reduce U.S. standards of living too, although perhaps not by as much.
Here's one way to think about these starkly contrasting worldviews. For liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are. Among other things, this means that helping your fellow players improve is good for the group as a whole; if your bass player or drummer gets better, then the overall group sound gets better too. So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are. And while there can be elements of rivalry or jealousy within a band (or between different groups), it's usually not a zero-sum activity. If La Scala improves and makes opera more popular, that's good for the Met; just as the Beatles and other English groups kicked the door open for lots of other bands too. Similarly, if Wynton Marsalis becomes famous and reignites interest in jazz, then other jazz musicians benefit too.
Musicians obviously have to agree on what piece of music to play, and it helps to have rules to guide them, whether it's fully orchestrated score, a lead sheet, or even just a loose arrangement with a list of solos. Even more abstract forms of improvised jazz depend on hours of training and a shared understanding of musical language. Such norms or rules or tacit understandings facilitate cooperation, and make it possible for lots of individuals to play together without a lot of prior rehearsal.
Thus, music is a pretty good metaphor for the liberal view of world politics, which is why liberals emphasize the importance of international law, institutions, and hegemonic leadership. And that's why most American liberals like to talk about the indispensability of the United States: in their view, the world orchestra needs a conductor, and who is better positioned to play that role than Washington DC? But the underlying image is still one where all will be better off if they work together; and where everyone has a common interest in helping others improve. No wonder E.H. Carr famously characterized idealist (i.e., liberal) approaches as emphasizing the "harmony of interests."
By contrast, realists see international politics as less like music and more like sports. We're not talking about exquisite harmonies and seamless group dynamics; we're talking NFL football or World Cup Rugby. There are clear winners and losers, the competitors sometimes cheat, and athletes are fools if they spend any time helping rivals improve. Players have an interest in helping teammates get better, but you wouldn't expect Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to be giving hitting tips to a member of the Texas Rangers right now, and you wouldn't expect Roger Federer to call up Andy Murray and offer him some advice on how to improve his serve.
Unlike music, the essence of sports is inherently competitive, and the winners normally get a lot more benefits than the also-rans do. Rules exist to define the nature of the competition, but everyone understands that some people might cheat. By comparison, it's not even clear what it would mean to "cheat" when you're trying to play music, or how "cheating" would be of any benefit.
So which view provides a better metaphor for world politics? Although both metaphors can offer some revealing insights, it won't surprise you to learn that I think foreign policy is a lot more like sports than it is like music-making. Even if states can gain from collaboration, the benefits of collaboration are not evenly distributed and relative power still matters. More importantly, the occasional periods of close cooperation are occasionally disrupted by all-out struggles that redistribute power and leave the winners better off and the losers licking their wounds. When that occurs, of course, the rules tend to fall by the wayside. Imagine an NFL game played for high stakes, and with no referees on the field.
And because states now that such struggles can occur at any time, the possibility casts a grim shadow over much of their behavior.
Finally, let's not forget that relative power matters in the supposedly collaborative world of music. Conductors and bandleaders (and sometimes financial backers) get to decide what pieces to feature, and minor players just play what they are told. It was Duke Ellington's orchestra, not Johnny Hodges', and there's a reason why most of the songs on the Beatles' albums are by Lennon or McCartney and not George Harrison or Ringo. Over time, changes in the distribution of power world-wide will determine who gets to call the tune, and we might want to think about that before the set list changes in ways we might not like.
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I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.