Monday, May 23, 2011

Ferguson + Kissinger = Mush

. Monday, May 23, 2011

This has to be the worst thing I'll read this week. Niall Ferguson slobbering over Henry Kissinger for discovering... wait for it... the security dilemma:

Such fundamental cultural differences may give rise to conflict with China in the future, Kissinger warns: “When the Chinese view of preemption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result: acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement. The United States and China wrestled with this dilemma repeatedly during the Cold War; to some extent they have not yet found a way to transcend it.”

Could the United States and the People’s Republic come to blows again? The possibility cannot be excluded. As Kissinger reminds us, war was the result when Germany rose to challenge Britain economically and geopolitically 100 years ago. Moreover, the key factor that brought America and China together in the 1970s—the common Soviet enemy the Chinese called “the polar bear”—has vanished from the scene. Old, intractable differences persist over Taiwan and North Korea. What remains is “Chimerica,” a less-than-happy marriage of economic convenience in which one partner does all the saving and the other does all the spending.

This is the most basic principle in IR, and remains the orthodox story for how major power conflicts occur. Of course there are big problems with it -- Germany challenged Britain, but the U.S. did not -- but it's the basic story. For this staggeringly simple insight, which any of my Poli 150 students should be able to regurgitate in their sleep, Ferguson writes that Kissinger "remains without equal as a strategic thinker". I sure hope not.

The worst part is that Kissinger hasn't appropriately internalized his own lesson. The bulk of his new book On China (per Ferguson's description) seems to focus on cultural and psychological explanations of China's behavior and the possibility of Sino-US conflict. The Korean War happened because of a "cultural gap"; China entered into it to "change the psychological balance" by changing the US's "calculus of risk". In other words, China was signaling resolve. But there's nothing cultural or even psychological about that. It's pure information revelation, of the sort Schelling (and plenty of others) described.

And cultural explanations are notoriously fraught; why would cultural differences cause conflict with China, but not other Asian (or non-Asian) countries? Why have major European countries, about as culturally similar as nations will be, historically been antagonists? Why would the US get along with India in the future, but not China?

How about this sophistry:

The Chinese value patience; as Mao explained to Kissinger, they measure time in millennia.

I recall being told that the most notable thing about China's rise was its rapid pace. I remember hearing that China's advantage was that its authoritarian government was able to more quickly adapt to new circumstances, and more perfectly practice mercantilism. This was how they'd win the future. These cultural "explanations" sure get confusing... forgive me if I continue to think that conflicts occur because power shifts are not accommodated by governance structures, and bargaining under anarchy is perilous.

I'm not sure how much of this is Kissinger and how much is Ferguson. After all, Kissinger does pick up on the fairly important fact that China has no intention of challenging the US' order:

Yet Kissinger remains hopeful that cooler heads will prevail in Beijing: thinkers like Zheng Bijian, who urges China to “transcend the traditional ways for great powers to emerge” and “not [to] follow the path of Germany leading up to World War I.” Rather than attempting to “organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade,” the United States would do better, Kissinger suggests, to work with China to build a new “Pacific Community.”

In fact, it seems like the opposite is of the nightmare scenario is true, as China seems perfectly happy to integrate more fully into the US-led system:

China’s economic rise has been facilitated by the regional security provided for by the United States since the end of Cold War hostilities in the region. Ashely J. Tellis, former advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, similarly states that American protection provided a “stable security environment” which allowed Asian states to “mitigate the most acute tradeoffs between guns and butter.” U.S. hegemony has allowed China to benefit from globalized trade without having to incur costs for maintaining the necessary stable environment. In a 2008 diplomatic cable from the Beijing Embassy, U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt recalls a conversation with an unnamed Chinese party: “when it comes to the basic Chinese interest in securing energy supplies and raw materials for our economic growth, free-riderism works for us right now.”

Free-riderism will continue to work for China for the foreseeable future. China is still a poor country, facing a number of internal adjustments that will test the new political leadership in the coming years. Moreover, China's economy has grown faster than its political capital. China has a lot of business partners, but not a lot of allies. Certainly not many allies that would take its side against the US in an attempt to overturn the post-WWII order. China will continue to build up goodwill in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, but it will be quite a long time before China has a set of allies that rival the US's. During that period, China may become one of the US's allies, as other formerly antagonistic regional powers have done.

I haven't read Kissinger's book, but based on Ferguson's recommendation it doesn't sound like there's anything new or profound in it. I know the man has plenty of disciples, and it may be good for some of them to read this stuff, but for people who study IR in an academic context this is pretty weak sauce. This take, by Princeton political science Prof. Aaron Friedberg, is better. Still too pessimistic, I think, but greater clarity of thought and all the appropriate caveats.


Emmanuel said...

Cultural explanations of differences in long-term outlook are not "sophistry" but fact.

If you look at findings from anthropology and social psychology, Americans have significantly shorter long-term outlooks than their Chinese counterparts. If you want a review of this body of work, see Richard Nisbett's book. It's recommended by none other than Peter Katzenstein--I think he has something to do with IPE.

Unless IR scholars study these things, I'll stick with the work of those who do. Need I add differences in national savings rates as well?

Kindred Winecoff said...

Perhaps but that's a far cry from WW3. And savings rates could be a product of culture... Or maybe a series of political and economic developments.

Ferguson + Kissinger = Mush




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