One of the authors we political science majors would read was John Mearsheimer. His articles on the structure of international relations served as teaching tools in explaining the realist point of view. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on Brent Scowcroft, I agreed completely with the realist school, and thus saw alternate perspectives that promoted international institutions and non-governmental organizations as naïve. I still see things this way, but now I’ve come to see that culture influences a country’s foreign policy as much as the preservation stability by force. When I came across this article by one of my early influences, I was struck by how mechanically abstract realism appears to those who believe that cause and effect are a bit more ambiguous and complicated.
With his realist lens, Mearsheimer predicts the coming Chinese crisis:
The question at hand is simple and profound: will China rise peacefully? My answer is no.If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the US and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. Most of China's neighbours, to include India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia and Vietnam, will join with the US to contain China's power.
To arrive at such a conclusion Mearsheimer restates the basic workings of the international realist system. It is a world governed by the balance of power, in which each country calculates the advantages between assuming more power and influence within a geographic area and maintaining a practical equilibrium of competing foreign powers.
My theory of international politics says that the mightiest states attempt to establish hegemony in their own region while making sure that no rival great power dominates another region. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximise its share of world power and eventually dominate the system.
The international system has several defining characteristics. The main actors are states that operate in anarchy which simply means that there is no higher authority above them. All great powers have some offensive military capability, which means that they can hurt each other. Finally, no state can know the future intentions of other states with certainty. The best way to survive in such a system is to be as powerful as possible, relative to potential rivals. The mightier a state is, the less likely it is that another state will attack it.
The great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest great power, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon, the only great power in the system. But it is almost impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony in the modern world, because it is too hard to project and sustain power around the globe. Even the US is a regional but not a global hegemon. The best that a state can hope for is to dominate its own back yard.
States that gain regional hegemony have a further aim: to prevent other geographical areas from being dominated by other great powers. Regional hegemons, in other words, do not want peer competitors. Instead, they want to keep other regions divided among several great powers so that these states will compete with each other.
There is much above that I won’t refute. But just as Newtonian physics is elegantly simple in describing most of all natural phenomena, there are always a few outliers that require a new theory such Einstein’s. With realism, I have some doubt in accepting that great powers want to eventually dominate the system. I believe that people are too tied to the land they identify with to have any concern in wanting their culture to dominate the distribution of power in far away places. Isolationism is a default position for most people, since their daily life takes place within a limited geographical area. The maintaining of empires is difficult work, with many being perfectly happy if they would not intervene abroad if it wasn’t necessary.
What characterizes the current American hegemony is not because it actively sought to become one, but rather that it fell into its own lap. From its deep isolationism in the 1930s, World War 2 brought forth the collapse of European power and a vacuum that the Soviets promptly took advantage of. The U.S. meant to only stave the losses of countries to the Soviet sphere of influence. Becoming a competing superpower was not its goal, but a reluctant byproduct of the war. The Americans nevertheless took the responsibility, not because of the power, but because its belief in the promotion of democracy and freedom through guaranteed individual rights was a better alternative to all people than what the Soviets were offering.
Gauging, for me, the imminent Chinese threat depends significantly in understanding the culture of Chinese policymakers. The isolationism in the oldest of nations is well known, and the rejection of its people to adopt a Western mindset over tradition continues to this day. It is not an internationalist outlook, as attention is focused within the country and the curiosity of foreign cultures is mostly demonstrated by the potential to copy. Rarely is it the kind of culture that values analysis and tries to explain what makes people tick.
Through its massive military buildup, China has ensured its continuity as an important nation state. It is a populous country, which pressures the state to obtain the resources necessary to accommodate growth. But it is not desirous of world domination, nor of much regional domination. It is surrounded by trading partners that benefit it too much. I’m also convinced that certain aspects in Chinese culture prevent it from managing any form of complex international system, much less the obligations of a hegemon. It is a miracle that China has remained in one piece given the number of contrasting regions within it. It is from the resulting internal conflicts that will prevent the “Middle Kingdom” from maximizing its share of power on the world stage.