September 27, 2010
Tarkin's Paradox

To wit: "the more you tighten your grip, the more things slip through your fingers." I think the events cited in the article are concrete examples of the growing influence of military leaders with wacky ideas, but I also agree with the first article's assertion that such muscle-flexing is counterproductive to Chinese success.

The fundamental failure of the 19th century was Germany's inability to peacefully integrate itself into the world's economy. This led directly to the two spectacular bloodbaths of the 20th century. Today world leaders, especially in the US, have managed to successfully channel China's inevitable rise to great power status peacefully. Is this, however, simply a repeat of Germany's first thirty years? The dates (1870s to 1910s vs 1970s to 2010s) are rather forbidding, but there are some very important differences this time around.

One, Germany's rise occurred when the world was largely controlled by various forms of dictatorship. This meant that foolish men were routinely allowed solo access to the levers of state power. China is not a dictatorship in the conventional sense of the term... it is an oligarchy with a comparatively diffuse power base. The military forms an important part, but it is not the only part. The country is certainly not beholden to the whims of just one man.

Two, the United States, even when run by Democrats, is fully engaged with China and has a clear understanding of the need for China to be both peaceful and prosperous. We will not, as we did a century ago, stand by as a formerly peaceful power transforms itself into a military blunderbuss.

Three, the unexpected (and in the eyes of established powers, undesired) rise of a great power is not unprecedented, as it was in the 1870s. The world has seen this happen several times now, and the consequences of each of those failures has informed the next attempt. Germany was an utter disaster for a huge part of the world. The mistakes made with Japan also led to apocalypse, but one that affected a region instead of a globe. The Soviet Union was a malignancy that literally threatened all of civilization, but that's all it ever really did, and with extremely careful management and more than a few mis-steps, that threat did go away. The world is getting better at this.

Four, India is rising at the same time, and right next door. The near-simultaneous rise of two nations with a common border to great power status actually is unprecedented in world history, but (so far) this seems to be acting as a stabilizing counter-weight. In other words, always remember China is much more concerned about the billion-plus brown people just to the south than they are the about round-eyed barbarians across the sea.

Five, nukes. The existence of nuclear weapons was and is, especially early in the Cold War, instrumental in maintaining world peace. Leaders are allowed to make war because the people directly beneath them see the opportunity for massive gains at no real personal risk. Nuclear weapons change this equation, forcing even the men who worked for Stalin to see that allowing unfettered aggression would result in very real, very personal risks to themselves and those around them. It's fun to drop matches in a barrel filled with gasoline if you can do it from far away. It's not so much fun when everyone who has matches is standing in the stuff up to their waist.

All of this makes me cautiously optimistic that the world can continue to manage China's expansion. Can we jigger it all up anyway? Are you kidding? This is the country that gave Democrats complete control of two thirds of the government. We're capable of screwing anything up. That said, I think we still have a very, very good chance of herding China along into its rightful, and most importantly peaceful, place at the head of an Asian balance of power.

Via Instapundit.

Posted by scott at September 27, 2010 11:00 AM

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