If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again With Bigger Countries

Todd Gitlin alerts us to a new Robert Kagan book excerpt in The New Republic. Kagan’s idea, it seems, is that since neoconservatism has proven such a complete and utter failure as an approach to the challenge of transnational terrorism and WMD proliferation, we ought to use use it as a guide for dealing with Russia and China instead. If you’re a sociopath like Kagan, a renewal of Cold War-style conflict with other great powers is good news because, as Todd says, it serves the goal of “conjuring a proper target for unilateralist belligerence.”

A decent, humane person begins looking at this question by recognizing that a renewal of great power competition would be an enormous disaster. Arms races are a large waste of resources that could otherwise be invested productively. China’s integration into the global economy has brought some benefits to rich world consumers and enormous benefits to Chinese people. What’s more, though China has been in many ways a bad actor with regards to human rights issues in the developing world, it’s also true that the end of the Cold War has had enormous humanitarian benefits for the developing world in the form of a drastic reduction in the level of proxy conflicts.

To make a long story short, nobody can say for sure that a hostile US-China relationship can be avoided. But the costs of a cycle of hostility would be enormous. The sensible thing to do is not, in the first instance, to begin “preparing” for a cycle in ways that would likely make such a cycle inevitable. Rather, the sensible thing to do is to try to avoid entering the downward spiral through what, in Heads in the Sand, I call an effort to keep up the work of constructing a rule-governed world order oriented around cooperation.

At the end of the day, though the American and Chinese government are animated by different kinds of values, our interests are largely compatible. Both of us have a lot to gain through cooperation on security problems like climate change, transnational terrorism, and WMD proliferation as well as through continued trade and investment. What we need to work on, in the first instance, is devising rules of the road that secure our main interests but that are also compatible with a reasonable conception of Chinese interests. This doesn’t serve the neoconservative craving for the dubious glories of advocating that others engage in combat, but it will help us build a more prosperous, safer, and ultimately freer world.

U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Denver Applehans