The United States, China, and War:

Is History Destiny?

Great Hall of the People, Beijing (Carlos M. Vizcarra)

The United States, China, and War:

Is History Destiny?

A great piece came out in The Atlantic [The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?] last month on the increasing and generally unacknowledged threat of armed conflict between the United States and China. Written by Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Graham Allison, it put the tension between the two nations in the context of historical conflicts produced whenever a rising power becomes powerful enough in relation to the established superpower to threaten the world order of the day. The results of the analysis do not predict a rosy outcome for U.S.-China relations.

The framework for the analysis is built on 16 case studies of changing global power dynamics dating from the 1500’s through the present. The case studies, produced by the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, show that 12 of the 16 situations resulted in wars, often ruinous for both sides.

The author lays out a clear and compelling case for the central idea, which can be summed up in a single quote: “Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.”

I find this piece compelling, but I don’t know that the outcome of this situation today would be as bad as in the past. There are several reasons for this, in my opinion. One is that for the vast sweep of the modern era, nations typically sought power and thought of that power in terms of their standing with relation to other nations of the world. It seems that at least or especially with regard to western countries, that era is over.

The acknowledgement that GDP matters so greatly presses for solutions to international friction that do not involve actual war

Today GDP is typically seen as the most important way to measure one’s standing on the world. The Center’s case studies make extensive use of GDP in defining the rising powers, the column noting “[t]hese histories use ‘rise’ and ‘rule’ according to their conventional definitions, generally emphasizing rapid shifts in relative GDP and military strength.” But while GDP is definitely useful in measuring historical data, that particular use obscures that it is a very modern measure, one that may inherently diminish war.

GDP was established as a standard measure of countries’ economies only following World War II, which means that it did not even exist conceptually for most of the period covered by the case studies. Compared to the measures of earlier times, GDP was revolutionary. It turned previous measures on their head by capturing what a nation produced, rather than what it possessed. While previous centuries might have emphasized the contents of the national treasury, the size of the possessions, and the size and strength of the military, GDP sought to describe the entire economic output of every productive entity in a country, both public and private.

Once this measure took hold, increasingly the metaphorical arms races involved not so much actual arms but how quickly competing economies could grow. While rising economic might can certainly create rivalries and allow for increased space for posturing that could itself lead to conflict, say, actual military buildups and a greater assertiveness in foreign affairs for instance, the acknowledgement that GDP matters so greatly presses for solutions to international friction that do not involve actual war. This is because, to put it simply, war is bad for business, and that hurts GDP.

It is precisely for this reason that China may have to think the hardest about its increased assertiveness on the world stage. As China’s economy has liberalized over the last few decades, the so-called Chinese Communist Party has staked its legitimacy, and likely its continued existence, on its ability to create economic growth and improve the living situation for a large part of its citizenry. It will have to think extraordinarily hard about moving forward in the face of conflict that would almost certainly cause widespread damage to that implicit bargain with its populace.

[Today,] a country’s rise based on any particular measure might not threaten the existing order as much as it once could have

While GDP is the most widely used measure of a country’s largesse today, many have argued that it does not fully capture the health or prosperity of a nation, in effect noting that a rising tide does not actually or always lift all boats. Alternative standards have come a long way since Bhutan declared “Gross National Happiness” to be its measure of choice and there are now myriad measures of prosperity based on factors such as the state of the environment, the health and educational attainment of the citizens, and the level of income inequality in a society, with the most widely used of these being the United Nations-established Human Development Index, which is based on some of these and other factors. All of this is to say that, while China may even have the largest GDP in the foreseeable future, the increased awareness of a broader array of ways to measure a country’s rise or dominance means that a country’s rise based on any particular measure might not threaten the existing order as much as it once could have. China’s ability to rise as it has without becoming a quote-unquote developed nation helps to make this point and shows the justifiability of alternate measures.

America is increasingly reluctant to act like the reigning world power

With the use of GDP and its alternates only proliferating since World War II, I think it is probably not pure coincidence that three of the four cases where war did not result took place in the latter half of the 20th century. I think that this time period is history shows more nations becoming less willing view their prestige solely in relation to their relative standing with others, and less willing to perceive power or status as greater than economy or stability. Correspondingly, and ironically given the regularity with which China refers to America as the hegemon, America is increasingly reluctant to act like the reigning world power. This reluctance is particularly embodied by the Obama administration’s impulse toward multilateral action and engagement with the international community. It is exactly this unwillingness to take a hegemonic role in world affairs that gets the president branded as weak by Republicans.

Speaking of international engagement, I believe the rise of internationalism, especially the intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs, makes the comparison of China’s current stance in Asia to the US actions under the Monroe Doctrine ultimately unsatisfactory. The world of the Spanish American War was very different from today. I think the international response to these actions today would be completely different as well, coming increasingly from a perspective of legality and rights rather than one of jockeying and status. Many if not all of the examples given in the piece could be considered illegal and would today be condemned if not sanctioned. While any single action might be undertaken successfully, a continued campaign of unilateralism counter to international law would lead to increasing degrees of criticism, investigation and isolation and likely greater legal and political action. Obviously one can argue that U.S. activity in Latin America through the 1980s and in invading Iraq in the 2000s disproves the idea that an organization like the U.N. can have an impact in the face of a determined superpower, but I think that the stringency of the international order has developed as much or more in the 2000s as it did in much of the second half of the 20th century. Further, the isolating effect of the international response to American unilateralism in Iraq was greater than anyone had expected and had a definite impact on the U.S.’s standing in the world as well as on future U.S. decision-making, which shows the significance of even informal international action on a modern superpower.

This analysis means that using the Monroe Doctrine years as a type of, “Well, they did it so we can do it too” justification cannot work as a legitimate legal rationale, even in the moment. That is not to say that China would not try operating from that viewpoint — on the contrary, governmental rhetoric has shown that China has a long analytical memory for comparison with the West. However, calculating that an explicit comparison will prevent the international community from acting would be a serious error.

The repercussions of any miscalculations would have a faster and more deleterious effect on China than they would the United States

The is not to say that China will not make such an error as it rises. Miscalculations and misunderstandings are exactly the triggers that Allison notes are so dangerous. A good current illustration of this, I think, relates to the CCP’s stoking nationalist sentiment, which they have done at least in part to distract from declining economic fortunes and to justify vastly increasing military expenditures. But those nationalist sentiments, once inflamed, have shown a propensity for burning out of control. I was living in Beijing in 2012 when anti-Japanese protests ended up fomenting violent crowds who destroyed businesses and burned Japanese-branded cars in the street. Many uninvolved businesses closed during the protests and many workers stayed home. The fact that the protests were preplanned did not stop them from spiraling out of control. The economic impact of the protests, which came to encompass cities all over the country with no actual war in sight, must have been large.

A too fervent nationalism, especially one so easily taken to the streets as in China, can easily become corrosive rather than unifying

For this reason, I think the repercussions of any miscalculations would have a faster and more deleterious effect on China than they would the United States, not just because of the degree to which the Chinese public is evidently provoked to violence by government sentiment, but also because of the bargain implicit in the Chinese people’s current, and by some reports tenuous, acceptance of economic liberalization without a corresponding liberalization of rights. A too fervent nationalism, especially one so easily taken to the streets as in China, can easily become a corrosive rather than unifying force. I think it is realistic that an event such as a major mobilization, which seems to always combine intense nationalism with economic turmoil, could bring about serious unrest in China, even up to what some have written about — a sudden collapse of the state as a whole. Such a scenario would be ruinous for China, though not necessarily for its opponents. If the Chinese government applies that analysis, I think it would be hesitant to use its newly acquired international and military power and, if it does not, I think the use of that power might end up being self limiting.

Granted, the moderating power of modern U.S. diplomacy and internationally-oriented thinking might be wiped out in an instant if the current anti-government, belligerent line of thought embodied in the Tea Party and its adherents were to end up in the White House. The position of the most conservative Republicans is both desirous and defensive of America’s perceived status as a singular superpower. Combine that with the anti-intellectualism know-nothing streak of the “outsider” anti-government types in the party, and the results could be disastrous. I hope that is a bridge that we as a country do not ever have to cross.

Finally somewhat of an aside: I was very appreciative to see Allison emphasize, “[t]he preeminent geostrategic challenge of this era is not violent Islamic extremists….” It is great to see that in print from someone of such stature. It could not be more different from the political debate over world affairs going on today.

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