America’s New Great-Power Problem

America’s New Great-Power Problem

As an authoritarian state, contemporary China, much like the Nazi and Soviet regimes before it, has proven adroit at integrating the dimensions of state power to the extent that it appears more successful than the fatigued and exhausted liberal democracies.

We often seek lessons from history. Thucydides famously wrote that he wished for his History of the Peloponnesian War to be “useful for by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” Winston Churchill wrote that he sought to make his history, The Second World War, a “contribution to history that will be of service to the future.”  

And yet, no sooner is a comparison made than a critic responds that the historical analogy is malformed, citing major differences between those periods and our own. After all, not all diplomacy with an aggressor leads to a “Munich” moment, not every step, a step “across the Rubicon,” nor every rising power destined for a “Thucydides Trap.”

The imposition of broad sweeping comparisons from the past should, of course, be avoided, but this does not mean that lessons cannot be extracted from history when dealing with certain types of scenarios. So while history does not necessarily repeat itself, it can certainly echo. Structural variables work to influence complex political behaviors in ways that are repeated. The fact that practitioners themselves are immersed in history, accentuates this. So how can today’s policymakerattempting to design policies that deal with China’s risedraw from the past, without making category mistakes or sweeping generalizations? 

When seeking historical instruction, a starting point might be to isolate common structural conditions or variables for comparison. These might include the form of political leadership, regime-type, the form of international polarity, methods of competition, and the impact of specific technologies on escalatory logics (e.g. how do nuclear weapons limit choices?). 

If we apply this typology to the three most recent historical episodes of “rising-power challenges,” then we believe that we can extract lessons in relation to the emerging competition with China. These periods include the European rivalry before World War I, the global competition before World War II, and the era of geopolitical struggle now known as the Cold War. From there, it is clear that there are many commonalities between those periods and the one we are moving into. What do these three eras of competition offer American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers in terms of insight when dealing with the rise of China

  1. China has a leader around which power has become increasingly centralized to the extent that a cult-of-personality style of leadership has emerged. These behaviors might have been predicted in the first years of Xi Jinping’s regime by looking at his earliest speeches to the CCP cadre. As with other totalitarian leaders, such as Stalin and Hitler, Xi believes in the power of the party-state ideology to drive policy as well as consolidate domestic control. As we saw from those unhappy regimes, as power is centralized, intolerance towards pluralism grows, to the extent that minoritiesespecially those considered hostile by the regimecome under mounting surveillance and discrimination. Here there are echoes between the plight of the Uighurs and various ethnicities in Nazi Germany and the USSR. 

  2. Likewise, under Xi’s authoritarian leadership, more and more of China’s society has fallen under the power of an increasingly expansive party-state structure (similar to the totalitarian party-states of the 1930s), which utilizes an international ideology (socialism), combined with nationalism (with Chinese characteristics), to export the Chinese model abroad to reorder the international system. This approach is not unlike those of past regimes. Like the Kaiser, Xi believes China has the right to shine like the sun. Unlike Hitler, he shies away from open warfare as a means of policy. But, like the party bosses of the USSR, he believes in economic and political warfare to expand China’s power.

  3. In terms of regime type, we can see forces at work in China that were also found in Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany. This is because there are few mechanisms for legitimizing the leadership of the party, such as elections or referendums in one-party systems. Therefore, jingoistic nationalism begins to fill that spaceor is deliberately positioned to fill itand if allowed to become too virulent, can lead to domestic pressures for more aggressive, even expansionist, foreign policies.

  4. As an authoritarian state, contemporary China, much like the Nazi and Soviet regimes before it, has proven adroit at integrating the dimensions of state power to the extent that it appears more successful than the fatigued and exhausted liberal democracies. As we know from the struggles with those regimes, the United States, the UK and their allies in the Indo-Pacific region will need to develop greater internal cohesion and overcome many of the “critical” or “core” assumptions that have sapped them of their strength if they are to compete successfully against China. 

  5. In terms of polarity, the previous struggles were more focused. While Japan was a major regional power in the run-up to World War II, the key powers have been concentrated in the Euro-Atlantic region for the past three centuries. In the emerging period of competition, the major powers are spread out. China, India and Japan are in Asia, the United States is in the Americas, and Britain, Germany and Russia are in Europe. American, British and Indo-Pacific policymakers will need to look at an increasingly global theatre, one where the Euro-Atlantic region and the Indo-Pacific region are intrinsically linked. 

  6. Polarity matters, and whether this period is a transition to a bipolar U.S.-China era or a truly multipolar era will impact how states construct their national strategies. If China and the United States are the only superpowersor whether India and the Europeans are able to develop superpower metrics and the political will to use themthen that sill deeply impact alignment behavior, and correspondingly the leadership approach of the United States. 

  7. Methods of competition also have historical echoes. While China is, like the USSR, a communist regime, it has a much higher GDP relative to the leading democracy, the US, than the Soviet Union ever did. It is also, similarly to Wilhelmian Germany, deeply ingrained into global supply chains and the world economy. Therefore, rather than looking for examples of dealing with economic statecraft or coercion from the Cold War, policymakers might consider Wilhelmian Germany in 1914 which utilized dumping, finance, and trade for strategic ends across Europe. Thus, we should look to the policy options of France, Italy, and the UK for dealing with economic conflict with China.

  8. The West relied heavily on regional alliances to deal with the Wilhelmian and Soviet threats. And now, similar to what occurred in the 1930s, there is an aversion to developing regional alliances or collective defense measures against today’s revisionist: China. This is despite the fact that NATO kept the peace in Europe for nearly seventy years. In addition, there is an allergic reaction to giving Taiwan an open defense guarantee; however, the 1930s showed that the same style of strategic ambiguity by France and Great Britain toward Austria and Czechoslovakia encouraged Nazi ambitions. Indeed, as we think about how Nazi Germany went from attempting to unify German-speaking peoples to absorbing non-Germans, we should think about whether or not a failure to react to more “legitimate” claims can give encouragement to entirely illegitimate ones. While modern-day China is not as aggressive as Nazi Germany, allied weakness and lack of cohesion at critical momentsas when Berlin took the Ruhr region, undermined the governments of Austria and Czechoslovakia before using diplomacy to expand its powermade miscalculation more, not less, likely. When thinking about Hong Kong and Taiwan, this is a relevant lesson. 

  9. In terms of technology, the possession of nuclear weapons remains a huge variable in today’s great-power competition. As we consider the current competition with China, it is clear that the major powers are, as during the Cold War, in possession of nuclear arms, most with fully-established global second-strike capabilities. This means that, unless technology becomes available that can circumvent the danger posed by ballistic or high-speed cruise missiles, escalation can only be “horizontal” and “diagonal,” rather than “vertical.” If we consider how the U.S./UK and USSR were similarly discouraged from escalating to open war with each other, we can see that the emerging era of competition will be pushed into below-the-threshold conflict with conflict taking place in the information sector, the digital sector, technology, space, and across other nonmilitary sectors. 

  10. Despite early Soviet advances during the “space race,”the United States, UK and their western allies were often in the ascendancy in terms of technology during the Cold War. The contemporary era of competition, however, is more likely to resemble the struggles with Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany during the early twentieth century, when the chief revisionist was technologically equal to, or even superior to, the established powers. This is because China has moved forward rapidly with the development of telecommunications systems and other industries of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. 

Here are the two takeaway points: First, historical examples are useful but there has been a growing trend in the public arena to criticize such analogies because they fail to precisely match our present day. This approach makes perfect an enemy of the good. We might not be in a “cold war” that equates exactly with the historic events of 1949 to 1989, but by looking for similar variables we can look back to that period for those relevant policies that worked while avoiding those that did not. Second, in this commentary, we have put forward ten lessons from history that we believe are instructional for the contemporary era. No doubt, many will disagree with them or have slight variations. That is wonderful, and such points should be put forward to debate whether we have drawn the right conclusions or not. We have primarily used them to show our variables might inform our analogies, providing perspectives to help policymakers.