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Foreign Policy

Great-Power Awareness of Crisis and Tragic Sensibility

Oct 10, 2019
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

American scholars have recently trumpeted a geopolitical “tragic sensibility.” They believe that the United States has been reluctant to squarely face the challenges posed by China and Russia – a result of the loss of its tragic sensibility and awareness of crisis needed to create a collective sense of responsibility and take decisive action.

The so-called tragic sensibility originates from the obsession and reflection of tragedies in ancient Greece. The country had many popular tragedies and playwrights. Tragedies were not only the main form of the Greek people’s cultural life and entertainment, but also the source of the awareness of crisis that kept them concerned about the rise and fall of their country.
The ancient Greek historian and naval general Thucydides wrote a long, convincing paper about the strategic competition between Greece and Sparta, and the fact that the two sides did not deliberately pursue war but still ultimately failed to avert the scourge of the Peloponnesian War. He hoped that future leaders of great powers would maintain a tragic sensibility and learn from historical tragedies in order not to fall into the trap of war, or the Thucydides Trap.

Following World War II, U.S. Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt and social elites were deeply affected by U.S. involvement in the two world wars and the huge price it paid. Their appreciation of tragedy and drive to keep the United States – and the world – from being affected by war again led to the establishment of a governance system and international order backed by American power and capable of containing and restraining great-power actions.

To this end, the United States advocated for the establishment of the United Nations and the Security Council, a collective security system based on the consensus of five great powers (the veto power). In addition, beginning with NATO, the United States has woven a large number of bilateral and multilateral military alliance networks in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, flexing its strong military strength and global military deployment capabilities as a deterrence to any attempt to change the political map of the world. The global security architecture established by the United States to date consists of three levels: more than 30 allies, about 30 quasi-allies and a greater number of security and diplomatic partners. The United States and its allies together account for more than 60 percent of global GDP and military spending.

The United States also believes that international security mechanisms alone are far from enough to prevent war. It maintains that international political and military security depends on international economic security and prosperity and that they complement each other and are inseparable.

The Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 is therefore of epoch-making significance. The United States led the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to provide comprehensive support for its system of collective security (Pax Americana). It thus produced a global governance system relating to international politics, security, economics, finance and trade. What is striking is that, centered on the dollar gold standard, the Bretton Woods system stabilized the international monetary system and made it work.

These were the necessary costs for the United States to establish an international order largely under its control. The subconsciousness that drove this U.S. foreign strategy was the tragic sensibility or the awareness of crisis. The U.S. strategic arrangement and its vision for international order after World War II have been very successful, especially after the Cold War. They have lasted for more than 70 years, of which the U.S. Unipolar Moment has lasted for 30 years.

In 2003, the United States launched the Iraq War, which, according to Friedman, Zakaria and other famous scholars, marked the end of the American century and the beginning of U.S. decline. The resulting U.S. foreign strategy debate largely blamed U.S. self-deceit and complacency, resulting from the long-term peace of more than 70 years, for its decline. American elites hope that by regaining a tragic sensibility, the United States can prevent excessive contraction and isolation.

U.S. foreign strategy is now focusing again on competition with other big powers, especially China and Russia, which is inseparable from its regaining a tragic sensibility. It is also this awareness of crisis that is now uniting the United States. American elites therefore urge their fellow Americans to accept these views: It is necessary to prevent the United States from losing its world hegemony and to maintain the U.S.-led international order; the United States has to face the challenges to its core interests such as the South China Sea, Ukraine, Syria and Iran; and, to curb the “offensive” measures of “revisionist countries” such as China and Russia, the United States must fight back. There is a big market for these statements and actions.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the Chinese people have worked hard, pursued reform and opening up, and made tremendous changes. China is already the second largest economy in the world. Its achievements in politics, economy, military, science and technology, culture and education are obvious to all. China is at a historical turning point toward becoming a world power.

The history and reality of the United States are a mirror to China. The hundred-year humiliation China had suffered from the Opium War to the eve of the founding of the People’s Republic, the exploration by the Communist Party of China since its founding, and the 70-year struggle since the founding of the People’s Republic have all demonstrated that it is essential for the Chinese to stay aware of crisis. This will help the Chinese to keep a clear head of the current international environment, which is extremely complex, sensitive and full of traps. It will help them think and plan more for peace and stability in China and elsewhere. They must also get ready to exert more efforts or even to sacrifice themselves when necessary.

It is necessary for China to do the following as a world power:

1. Persevere in doing its own things well.

Upholding the Party’s leadership and maintaining political stability, social harmony and economic development is fundamental to China’s national rejuvenation, long-term stability and significant contributions to world peace and economic prosperity.

2. Struggle and strive for cooperation.

To avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap of conflict between emerging and hegemonic power, China should seek cooperation through necessary struggle, strive to expand cooperation and properly handle relations with other great powers, especially the United States. In today’s Sino-U.S. relations – characterized by both competition and cooperation, but primarily competition – China needs to prepare for the worst, abandon illusions and continue to do its best in what suits it the best. It should actively seek peaceful great-power competition instead of all-out confrontation and establish a new type of great-power relationship. In the near term, considering the factors such as the U.S. presidential election and impeachment possibility, Chinese should continue to observe calmly but not jump to conclusions.

3. Update global governance systems and safeguard world peace.

China should strive to unite with all international forces that can be united with, safeguard world peace and existing global governance systems, including the free trade system, and make necessary adjustments to the systemic arrangements such as the World Trade Organization in response to the structural changes of globalization. China should continue to promote a new security concept of collective security and cooperative security and oppose the “zero-sum game” mentality for security. This is an excellent tradition of Chinese diplomacy.

4. Continue to uphold a greater morality while pursuing shared interests.

China should promote the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, the global partnership network and the shared future of the human community, and provide global public goods that benefit all countries. China should approach its role in shaping the future world order and reforming and maintaining the global governance system as a great power, offering ideas and options to exert influence. China has established 110 partnerships in various forms and participates in almost all intergovernmental international organizations and more than 500 international conventions. The future world is a common world of all countries. Promoting democracy in international relations, making the global governance system more fair, just and reasonable and participating in the improvement of the new international order should become an important goal of China’s diplomacy.

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