Is China the best friend of American power?
Beijing’s recent missteps in Asia — moving ahead with reactor sales to troubled Pakistan and crudely threatening Japan over the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain — are swiftly solidifying America’s Asian alliances. The new Japanese government came into office hoping to rebalance Japan’s foreign policy and reduce tensions with China. That dream is now dead. And China’s deepening relationship with Pakistan, intended in part as a counter to America’s nuclear opening to India, is driving Asia’s other emerging nuclear power closer than ever into the arms of America (and Japan). South Korea, once drifting peacefully toward China, has moved back towards the United States following China’s support for Pyongyang after the sinking of a South Korean naval boat.
In all this there is one clear theme. America isn’t containing China. China is containing itself. As China’s economy grows and its military develops new capacities, it is looking for ways to turn that potential power into actual power over events. In the past, China has tried to attract its neighbors into its orbit with sweeteners like trade deals and aid.
But these measures apparently strike a new generation of Chinese policy makers as unsatisfactory. China is too great a power to play nice, they think. So they assert their territorial claims more and more boldly, and blow up disputes with Japan out of all proportion.
The last great power to make this shift was Imperial Germany. Once Wilhelm I had put his empire together (defeating Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War), he and his brilliant chancellor Otto von Bismarck realized that Germany’s greatest danger was to unite the surrounding powers against it. It was time for sweet talk and flowers, or as the last generation of policymakers in Beijing used to put it, “peaceful rise”. Wilhelm and Bismarck were nice to everyone who might join a coalition against them: Russia, England, Austria, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, America — and even France. This was an exhausting policy and German foreign policy sometimes looked like a French bedroom farce as Bismarck hid Austria in the closet when Russia stormed into the bedroom. Nevertheless, it worked. Germany rose peacefully after 1871; it overtook Britain in manufacturing and its exports filled the world. German financial firms developed a world reach and Germany even built up a colonial empire with dependencies in Africa and the Pacific.
But the old Wilhelm died and a new Wilhelm (Wilhelm II) brought a new generation of Germans into power. Firing the elderly and crotchety Bismarck, Wilhelm read Admiral Mahan’s Importance of Sea Power in History and dreamed of the blue water navy that would turn Germany into a true Weltmacht, world power. Moreover, ‘Willi’ was sick and tired of deferring to all the neighbors. Enough of this insipid “Dreikaiserbund“, the complicated three-way alliance between Russia, Germany and Austria! And enough of this being nice to France. The French were losers, has-beens. It was time they were made to feel it. Germany was the greatest power in Europe and it was high time people accepted this fact.
Wilhelm’s new policies led to series of unsettling crises in Europe and to the shocking development of a firm alliance between staunchly republican France and the arch-conservative Russians. The unthinkable happened; the autocratic Tsar of all the Russias stood for La Marseillaise (the bloody-minded French revolutionary hymn that his ancestors had once banned) and the Republic and the Tyrant joined forces against the Bully.
That was only the start; German ambitions ultimately turned this odd couple into an even unlikelier ménage à trois; first the French and then the Russians composed their differences with the hated Brits to form the Triple Alliance — the only combination of powers that could possibly thwart German ambitions. Germany was left with the most decrepit and useless European powers: the imploding Ottoman state, the ramshackle Austrian monarchy and (temporarily) the disorganized but appealing mess known as the Kingdom of Italy.
Chinese policy today seems bent on following Wilhelm’s road to ruin. Chinese pressure is pushing countries like India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia towards closer cooperation with the United States. China’s regional allies are substantially weaker and more problematic: North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan. It’s a picture Wilhelm II would recognize.
Worse, from a Chinese point of view: it will take many years to live down the unpleasant impression its current actions are making. Twenty years of scrupulously patient effort at getting its neighbors to embrace China’s peaceful rise are being squandered by six weeks of aggressive diplomacy. Just as Soviet bullying periodically strengthened the NATO alliance by reminding Europeans just how much they needed American protection, so China today is unintentionally solidifying America’s Pacific alliances at no cost to us.
Personally, I am not gloating about this. America’s goal in Asia is not to win diplomatic or, God forbid, military contests with China. Our long term goal remains the development of some kind of stable international system in Asia that creates the same kind of long term peace and prosperity there that the European Union (with all its faults) has brought to Europe. Our interests will be best served when and if China ceases to throw its weight around in a sterile quest for Wilhelmine Weltmacht and seriously dedicates its power and wealth to the construction of a peaceful Asian system with appropriate protections for its neighbors. The rise of a peaceful German democracy plus an American presence and German memberships in NATO and the EU has helped other Europeans overcome their well founded fear of their Teutonic neighbors. For all the EU’s many problems, Germany today enjoys more real influence and has more security than the kaisers ever knew. One only hopes that China can learn these lessons without repeating the inexpressible suffering that Germany both inflicted and endured in the twentieth century until Konrad Adenauer (in my view the greatest German statesman in 1000 years) finally set the country on the true path to peace and self respect. (If you really want to worry about Europe today, don’t worry about Greece and the euro. Worry that the new generation of post-unification German politicians think of Adenauer’s foreign policy as an expression of weakness rather than wisdom.)
Lessons for American Power
These developments in Asia illustrate an important truth about America’s world role: the foundations supporting our power are much stronger than many people here and abroad understand.
We have had a decade of hand-wringing about American power. First, 9/11 was seen by some as a deadly blow against the citadel of American strength and the collapse of the World Trade Towers was seen as the start of the fall of America’s economic and political domination. Then the unpopularity of the Bush foreign policy was alienating our friends. In the Arab world in particular, we were so hated that not even friendly governments could continue to work with us. Then we had lost the war in Iraq, and leading foreign policy analysts and politicians (most of whom had endorsed the war at the beginning) called for ignominious retreat as the best and indeed the only possible strategy. After that came the stock market crash and the financial meltdowns of 2008, and the “Anglo-Saxon” model of cutthroat capitalism was said to have decisively failed. After that came the rise of China, the hot new superpower in the east that owned our debt and therefore owned us — and that was going to sweep all Asia into a new economic and political bloc that would leave us in the cold.
This was and is all a bunch of hooey. Americans do make mistakes in our foreign policy and these can be costly both for us and for other people, but American power is more durable than it sometimes appear. American power is not eternal, and the world political order is not unchanging, but strong and deep forces in world affairs have brought the United States to its present position of influence and power; those forces will not disappear overnight. Rome wasn’t burned in a day.
The latest round of events in Asia provides a textbook case of just how strong the foundations on which American power rests in Asia really are. The more China rises, the more Asian countries rally to the American side. We are a balancing power in Asia; we have neither the ability nor the desire to conquer any Asian countries or break them up. We do not support any boundary changes and we are promoting an economic system that has led all of Asia to its greatest prosperity ever. This is a golden age for Asia, and American foreign policy aims to keep it that way.
In the Cold War, many Asian governments rallied to America’s side because they feared communist revolutions and Soviet domination. During the interval between the fall of the Soviets and the arrival of China in the first rank of the great powers, many Asian countries were less interested in relations with the US. Countries like Japan, South Korea and even Australia began to speculate on whether they would do better by drawing closer to China. A few diplomatic flirtations ensued, and the world’s chattering classes started yammering about the eclipse of American influence in Asia and the rise of China.
Surely enough, however, the rise of China changed things. The Chinese grew less cautious and restrained; their neighbors took fright. Distancing yourself from America no longer looked quite so attractive. America’s warts seemed less ugly, less unappealing — while, viewed close up, China’s faults and blemishes seem much more off-putting.
Something quite similar has happened in the Middle East. A few Sunni Arabs (mostly in Kuwait) welcomed the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but most were violently opposed. The Arab street hated the invasion for all the obvious reasons; the political elites and the clergy hated it because the replacement of even a secular Sunni state in Iraq with a Shi’a-friendly government was a strategic defeat for the Arab nationalist dream in its Sunni incarnation. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq: some of the most culturally, politically and economically important Arab states and cities are now, in many Sunni eyes, under Shi’a rule. Look at the great cities of Arab history: the last generation of Sunni leaders have ‘lost’ Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut (as Hizbollah grows in power) and Jerusalem.
Yet what we see now in the Middle East is a rallying of many Arabs to the American side in the confrontation with Iran. Compared to the perceived menace of an aggressive Persian Shi’a regional superpower, the United States and even Israel look less threatening and horrible than they once did. Israel may be a blot on the region, but realistically its ambitions are confined to the West Bank — a moral outrage from an Arab point of view but not a strategic threat. And the Americans, for all their stupidities and blunders, are a known quantity and precisely because the Americans are so unpopular with the Arab street, the Arab governments are confident that they can always deal with any American attempts to introduce unwanted reforms. The recent massive arms sales to the Gulf states and the steady Arab support for the current round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians do not reflect a new Arab love for the United States, but they do show that the region’s power brokers understand their need for the US to maintain the regional balance of power that protects their standing and security.
Paradoxically, if the US confrontation with Iran should end in total victory (which I would define as a peaceful revolution in Iran that establishes a non-nuclear democratic state that eschews confrontation with the United States), the consequence would be to undermine our relations with our current Arab friends. With the Iranians less of a threat, the Arabs would feel freer to concentrate on what they don’t like about the United States and Israel. It is likely that at least some Arab countries would start looking to China and even India to reduce their strategic ties to the US. Arms deals and aerospace contracts would go to the Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Russians. The pundits, I have no doubt, would start yammering about the decline of American power in the Middle East.
American power in the world has both a ceiling and a floor. If America gets too powerful and the world looks too unipolar, then countries around the world start acting in ways that cut America down to size. If China collapsed into years of internal dissension, turbulence and instability, India, Japan and South Korea might well take the opportunity to distance themselves from America. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the NATO countries (and especially Germany and France) looked for ways to stake out a more independent world role.
In George W. Bush’s first term, many officials foolishly did and said things that triggered ‘ceiling behavior’ around the world. They created the impression that America had the power and the will to reshape the entire international order to its taste. In truth, we lacked both the ability and the will to carry that through; the Bush rhetoric alienated other countries and set off negative reactions around the world in part because it did not fully grasp the dynamics of America’s world role.
But American power has a floor as well as a ceiling. Just as the defeat in Vietnam ended up by strengthening our ties with Asian countries who were suddenly terrified we would abandon the region in a general retreat, the difficulties the Bush administration experienced did not, as so many of its critics predicted, lead to a general collapse of America’s world position. A chastened but still powerful America is more or less what most of the world really wants: an America that is strong enough to defend regional power balances in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but not so strong and cocky that it believes it can remake the world in the short term.
Many Europeans (especially in Germany and France) told me during the first Bush term that they hoped that America would win in Iraq once the war started — but that they hoped the win would be slow and painful enough that we would not want to repeat the experience. This, more or less, is what happened and today many of those same Europeans are more worried about the possibility that President Obama will not be assertive enough with American power than they are worried about American arrogance and pride.
For American policy makers, the point here is that we should understand both the natural strengths and the natural limits of America’s position. We want and need to operate in that middle ground between feckless retreat and hubristic assertion. If we do that, we will still face problems in the world, but more often than not we will face them with friends and allies at our side.
Over the long term, what American policy makers need to remember (and what I fear too many have forgotten in both parties over the last couple of decades) is that America’s international standing and security ultimately depend on health of our domestic economy — and that the economy in turn ultimately depends on the dynamic, self-reliant, entrepreneurial and, yes, virtuous character of the American people. Unless our educational, cultural and political institutions reflect and support these characteristics, American power could rot away at the core.
It is hard to know in advance whether the consequences of that would be worse for the Americans or for a world, whose fragile peace and prosperity so largely depend on what we do. But I have no doubt that the consequences for both Americans and the wider world would be much, much grimmer than anything the world witnessed in the dreadful century now receding into the rear view mirror.