Tragedy is acted by tragic heroes and heroines. One after another they die piteous and often unjustified deaths. Despite good intentions, they overreach and clash or succumb. Good men and women fall; evil ones prosper and the world suffers incalculably. History is replete with such scenes. Lloyd-George’s England did not intend to diminish the German Empire, but it went to war nonetheless. Even Hitler did not directly seek war with the British Empire; he preferred to imitate it and gain an empire of his own. He wanted to force Britain to cooperate with him against the Soviet Union. But Hitler’s bullying outraged the British people and evoked “the bulldog spirit.” Franklin Roosevelt did not want to enter the conflict, but he could not stand aside as Germany and Japan humbled country after country. Mao Zedong did not hate the United States but could not remain passive when American troops crossed the Yalu River in 1950.
Today neither America nor China wants war. Each has good intentions toward the other. They have similar objectives: to prosper, to maintain military strength and to earn the respect of other nations. Their growth depends upon peace and the continuance of economic interdependence. But British and German growth was equally dependent upon peace with each other and that did not suffice in 1914.
The key problem in most of these tragedies is national sentiment which grows as a nation develops and enhances its self image. Higher-ranking powers look like enemies; the dispossessed seem to be friends. People wonder why they cannot enjoy others’ freedoms or wealth. They envy others’ territorial positions. They rankle at the injustice of treatment they perceive. But overlords do not give ground or make way for the outsider. The ruling nations assert themselves against rising incumbents. The East rises against the West. China rises against the United States. What will be the result?
Five years ago, one predicted universal peace, at least among Great Powers. The spread of economic engagement meant that MADE (a state of mutual assured destruction capabilities against economies) would prevent conflict in the way that MAD (mutual assured destruction capabilities against societies) prevented conflict during the Cold War. Now we are not so sure. Each country could bring the other down economically, but only at great cost to itself. But in a territorial crisis or an unintended military engagement will the adversaries concede or yield? Fuelled by nationalism, will one stand aside and allow the other to pass? History does not think so. Since 1500 one after another, most of the hegemonic conflicts among Great Powers have led to war. Rising France warred with the Hapsburg Empire; Holland fought with Spain. Britain fought with Holland. Rising France attacked the British. Finally, Germany entered the lists against Britain, and then turned its ire on Russia. The successful Soviet Union was emboldened to wage Cold War against the United States, and nearly succeeded. Will the future see a Chinese challenge of the United States?
Those who initiated war did not always fare well. Aggressors lost more than they won. The seemingly innocent victims or the bystanders ultimately prospered as America did in both World War I and World War II while Germany and Britain failed.
But fruitless aggression has not deterred subsequent challenge. This is why international relations represent a genuine tragedy, a reenactment of previously failed strategies to little avail and with deadly consequences for the world at large.
China and the United States are now on crossing and perhaps conflicting paths. The main shift in the past five years has been China’s growing territorial claims and assumptions. Beijing now claims that islands whose ownership was formerly disputed are China’s province. Common economic interests have now been reduced to squabbling over US debt and Chinese exchange rates. No agreement has been reached to prevent further climate change and global warming. Many observers have noted that President Obama and Chairman Hu Jintao do not like each other. In China the PLA has taken an increasingly aggressive stance, deploying and testing new Stealth fighters without regard for visiting secretaries of defense. A stronger China sees less need to compromise or to moderate its claims. New pro-democratic developments in the Middle East, however, raise questions about China’s undemocratic character. Are we doomed to write a new tragic outcome to the story?
There is still time to change course. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan accepted globalization and moderated their political regimes. Their economic growth flourished along with political change. In the Middle East, it has been important to separate the basic nature of the regime from political leadership. Even if the first is maintained, the second could be altered. Only ‘personalist’ dictators at the top wedded the two together. Gaddafi and Mubarak could not reform and still remain in power. In China the acceptance of a broadly defined Communist Party could continue while individual leaders and policies shift as Yu Keping, Director of the Center for Chinese Government Innovations, Peking University, has recommended. But it would still be important to bring popular elements into the mixture. This infusion would also likely rewrite history vis a vis the United States. A globalizing and increasingly liberal China would find new points of accommodation with America, changing tragedy into a drama which ends felicitously for both nations and the world.
Richard Rosecrance is an Adjunct Professor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Senior Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.