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Foreign Policy

“Not Required to Choose” – A Strategy for US-China Relations

Apr 07, 2011
  • Alan S Alexandroff

    Director of the Global Summitry Project, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

I was reminded again this weekend of the complexity of  international relations behavior with Henry Kissinger’s  rare review in the NYT book review section of Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck a Life.  Many observers have argued in the past that Kissinger pursued Bismarck in theory and practice throughout his academic and policy life.  So I suppose it isn’t all that strange.

In any instance, Kissinger uses this Steinberg book on Bismarck – which he describes as “the best study of its subject in the English language” – as an opportunity to reflect on Bismarck’s complex nineteenth century statecraft.

While attracted to the book review given the fame of the author, it was really a soft spot for Bismarck’s statecraft that drew me to the piece.  My thesis “many moons ago” The Logic of Diplomacy focused on Bismarck’s European diplomacy following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to his departure in 1890.  But it was not longing to reread the book – heaven forbid – but a far more current concern – that is the course of US-China relations.

I have on a number of recent occasions in China and here at this blog argued that the best characterization for US-China relations is:

While still insubstantial a phrase I remain comfortable with the characterization of the bilateral relationship as yi di, yi you’ (亦敌 亦友)- both friend and foe (See my earlier confidence in this characterization in the blog post “China Cannot Rise Peacefully” on John  Mearsheimer.

But as my mentor, and long time colleague, Richard Rosecrance – currently at the Belfer Center at Harvard – has argued you have to describe what that means and he has suggested that ultimately there needs to be a choice.  And it was with those comments that I thought again about Bismarck.

The genius of Bismarck was to hold opposites together.  I am not thinking here of his revolutionary early career, forging a Germany – beating both Austria and France in quick but decisive conflicts – but in his diplomatic legerdemain in generating alliances with Germany at the center and antagonists especially Austria-Hungary and Russia circling around this new and newly created European “heavy weight”.  As Kissinger characterized Bismarck’s diplomatic efforts:

He sought to counter it [hostile coalitions] by involving Germany in a dizzying series of partly overlapping, partly conflicting alliances with the aim of giving the other great powers – except the irreconcilable France – a greater interest to work with Germany than to coalesce against it.

The point here is not some linear replication or adaptation of Bismarck – the tools of diplomacy – are no longer classic balance of power – though many colleagues can’t seem to forget classic balance of power – but instead to hold irreconcilables together.  Thus US diplomacy toward China must accept and acknowledge China’s competitiveness in a number of arenas while seeking to work with China in other areas – G20 global governance for instance and even regionally in Asia.  The US must be able to hold the “China Threat School” at bay or it is likely that perception of a security dilemma with China – as described by Harvard’s Alaister Ian Johnston in the recent blog post – Stability and Instability Once Again – Could it Be …? – will become a self fulfilling reality.

The concept I think is real enough.  The dilemma posed is that this Administration may not be able to hold irreconcilables together.  If the policy is a product of a unique diplomatic skill – as proved to be the case with Bismarck – then such behavior and policy – keeping China as both a friend and a foe – will prove equally impossible.  The future then will be riven with competition and even conflict.  Not a happy thought.

Alan Alexandroff is a research director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation (PCMN) at the University of Toronto.

Source:, reprinted with permission

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