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Foreign Policy

Analogies, American Thought, and China’s Rise

Jul 27 , 2016
  • Jared McKinney

    PhD student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

It’s no secret that humans like to use analogies to help them understand phenomena. By saying one thing, which presumably we have some comprehension of, is like another, which perhaps we know less well, we can infer certain conclusions. Because analogies simplify and familiarize, they are powerful interpretive devices. Yet this very power can lead us to distort the past and misunderstand the present.

In the United States, a handful of analogies have tended to dominate thinking on international politics: the “lesson of WWI,” which is typically understood to be that inadvertent war can be catastrophic and so crises must be carefully managed; “the lesson of Munich,” which is that aggression must be opposed straight away lest it triumph; the “lesson of Vietnam,” which is that it’s foolish to invade far-away lands of which we know little; and the “lesson of the Gulf War,” which is that a supposed Revolution in Military Affairs has revived the ability of the U.S. military to achieve political objectives.

Famously, Barbara Tuchman’s account of the causes of the First World War, The Guns of August, weighed heavily on JFK’s mind during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet as David Stevenson has pointed out, Kennedy also had a second analogy close at mind: that of Munich, or of letting aggression triumph, on which he had written his senior thesis at Harvard. This second analogy has undoubtedly exercised the most influence in American politics. We invaded Vietnam in order to prevent another Munich, and the analogy continues to dominate American discourse, even though most commentators have long forgotten what actually happened at Munich. Vietnam, meanwhile, exerted a powerful pull on the American psyche, though for President Bush senior and most Washington, D.C. elites since, it has been something to overcome (“kick”) rather than to learn from. And finally, the Gulf War (which was seen by Margaret Thatcher and Bush as a response to a modern-day Munich) instilled in American policymakers the efficacy of air power, fostering support for bombing campaigns in the Balkans and drone campaigns today.

In a new “Penguin Special,” Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, has sought to illuminate China’s rise with some unusual analogies. Against a strain of thought that tends to see contemporary China as uniquely unique—i.e., Chinese exceptionalism—Wasserstrom contemplates eight years in China (2008-2015) by using analogies that are perhaps unfamiliar but that are intended to acquaint readers with the commonalities a rising China shares with states of other eras. Happily, Wasserstrom ignores the four American analogies discussed above. Even so, his short book stimulates without satisfying.

To begin, Wasserstrom suggests that the PRC’s forceful modernization of Tibet is akin to Japan’s colonization and forced modernization of Manchukuo and even America’s invasion of Iraq. In 2008, the year of the Olympics, he says, Bush and Hu Jintao “could have found some common ground. Each man, thinking of different quagmires – for Bush there was Afghanistan and Iraq, while for Hu there was Xinjiang and Tibet – could have commiserated with the other about how vexing it can be when people you ‘liberate’ aren’t properly grateful for what you have done for them.” The idea is simple: empires around the world have faced similar problems, and failed in similar manners, and that’s something China has in common with Japan, Russia, and even the U.S.

For 2009, both the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC and the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wasserstrom observes that the improbability of collapse in Berlin in 1989 facilitated the fall while the probability of collapse in China following Tiananmen, which stimulated the Party to “shrewd diagnostic efforts to avoid suffering that predicted fate,” enabled its continued rise. Learning from someone else’s mistakes is much preferable to learning from your own.

For 2010, Wasserstrom looks to the Shanghai Expo, the largest in world history, and wonders if Chinese society is more Orwellian—defined by the state watching people—or Huxleyan—defined by what the people watch—and concludes it’s somewhere in between.

For 2011, the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wasserstrom compares post-Communist Russia with still-Communist China, and finds the similarities compelling, if imperfect.

For 2012, the year Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Wasserstrom reflects on the endlessly reoccurring Western response to Chinese prizewinners: are they merely dreary drones of the Chinese regime or, on the other hand, bold dissidents, deserving of recognition? Wasserstrom seeks to complicate this overdrawn dichotomy by inquiring where Mark Twain in his day would have fit: as a dissident, no, but a critic, yes.

For 2013, Xi’s first year as President, Wasserstrom compares the Western dichotomy of chicken or beef with commonly asked questions about Xi and China more broadly. “Reformer or conservative?” “Rule the world or collapse?” But of course, in China, chicken and beef is a common selection.

For 2014, the centenary of the First World War, Wasserstrom observes that other anniversaries are burnt into the Chinese psyche as the Great War is in the European psyche. The Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895 and the Korean War of 1950-53 are far more important anniversaries, it would seem, and teach different lessons.

And finally for 2015, Wasserstrom compares “the People’s Pope and Big Daddy Xi.” Both took office in March 2013; both were widely heralded as reformers; and both personalities were fêted with wide popularity, even veneration.

What should be made of these eight admittedly “imperfect analogies”? Wasserstrom’s juxtaposition of a seemingly strong Soviet Union that collapsed and a seemingly tottering China that thrived is well warranted, if not uncommon. It’s worth reflecting on the four principal explanations Chinese scholars offered for why the Soviet experiment failed: slow economic growth caused by the Party’s anti-market philosophy; the generation of poor information because of ideological and propagandistic blinders; the centralization of decision-making, which led to slow and inefficient policies; and the prioritization of “political reform,” i.e., the reduction in the Party’s absolute control. The legacy and status of these four lessons would be well worth a separate essay.

Yet it remains an open question in my mind whether the occasional obscenity of Wasserstrom’s analogies is a virtue or vice. Should the Japanese invasion of China and the American invasion of Iraq, both bloody and lawless, really be compared with China’s reassertion of control in Tibet, a region long-connected to China, most recently in the Qing Dynasty? Comparing a declining Russia with a rising China, though of course some similarities can be found—for example, both are obsessively focused on status—is likely to obscure more than it uncovers, particularly basic facts. China’s population is nearly ten times larger, its economy is diverse while Russia’s is dependent on oil, and China is not, at least yet, alienated from the West. A wiser tack would be to imagine a China estranged from the global economic and political order, yet with ten times the resources and strength of contemporary Russia. In this picture, we have not a tottering midget but an angered giant: both may be unstable and dangerous, but in terms of comparison, they are not even in the same league.

So how should we understand China today? There is no obvious and memorable answer, at least not in Wasserstrom’s book. The most analytically powerful answer indeed remains that of John Mearsheimer: we should compare China today to America in the late nineteenth-century. Then, the U.S. suffered from tremendous inequality, as does China today. Then, industrialization dominated the landscape, as it does in China today. Then, American cities rapidly expanded, and noise, slums, pollution, traffic jams followed; China today encounters these same realities. And then, geopolitically, the U.S. sought to control its “near seas”: the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean (and conquered a few islands in the process).

Today, as all the hullabaloo of the Hague arbitration case dominates the news, it’s worth remembering this fact: so far, China’s rise, broadly conceived, is following in the footsteps of its neighbor across the Pacific. America’s rise was not entirely peaceful, and yet it is often remembered fondly today; a century hence, it just may be that the territorial disputes that dominate discourse today will have been forgotten, and China’s rise will be remembered matter-of-factly by most of the world. The alternative is almost too terrible to ponder.

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