Westerners make much of China’s obsession with “winning without fighting.” As though any sane statesman, Eastern or Western, relishes losing or longs to take up arms with all the dangers, hardships and perverse turnabouts of fortune that come with combat. Winning without fighting is what we call “diplomacy,” and it is a mode of interaction that spans all countries, civilizations and times.
Now, Chinese Communist diplomacy does display distinctive characteristics. For one, it’s a 24/7/365 enterprise. Beijing wages “three warfares” in peacetime, shaping opinion constantly through legal media, and psychological means. For another, there’s a warlike edge to Chinese diplomacy seldom encountered among the pinstriped set. It is about winning, and it aims to deliver gains normally achieved on the battlefield without so many hazards.
This single-mindedness doubtless stems from Chinese strategic traditions—in part. After all, it was China’s own iconic general Sun Tzu who taught that the commander or sovereign who wins without fighting has reached the zenith of strategic artistry. Master Sun’s maxim is engraved on China’s way of diplomacy.
Ancestral traditions don’t tell the whole story, though. Chinese communists are communists as well as Chinese. Marxism-Leninism must also mold Beijing’s strategic outlook. Chinese Communist Party founding father Mao Zedong helped set the tone. Mao riffed on Clausewitz’s famous dictum, proclaiming that “politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” His foreign minister Zhou Enlai concurred that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” Communist potentates erased the line separating diplomacy from war. These are simply different means to the same ends.
But even ideology and history cannot explain the winning-without-fighting ethos in full. It must arise in part from the nature of strategic competition among nations. An aspiring great power like China must strike a single-minded attitude to overtake an established hegemon like the United States and emplace itself atop the global order. It fears the hegemon will strike first to cut its ascent short—and thus prefers to win without the perils of war. China has that way of thinking in common with past aspirants to regional or world supremacy.
Aspirants such as fin de siècle America. The United States ushered Victorian Britain out of the Western Hemisphere, more or less, by the turn of the twentieth century. It did so by making itself the strongest contender in the New World, harnessing its burgeoning industrial might to build a navy able to command the waters Washington cared about most. And it took advantage of new threats gathering in Europe. Threats to Britain in particular. In 1898 Imperial Germany set out to construct a High Seas Fleet capable of vying with the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Big-gun German steamships posed a direct menace to the British Isles, prompting London to summon home Royal Navy squadrons from the Americas and the Far East to meet that menace. German battleships siphoned British attention and energy from imperial pursuits—and made things easier for challengers to British rule of the waves in the Americas and Asia.
Germany’s seaward turn thus constituted America’s opportunity. It’s worth noting that the United States won the bloodless Anglo-American struggle—not just without taking up arms, but without overtaking the British Empire by most indices of national strength. It didn’t need to. American policymakers and strategists were content to command the approaches to the Central American isthmus, where an interoceanic canal would be dug. Engineering efforts had achieved only fitful progress since midcentury. In 1902, however, American diplomats concluded a treaty empowering Washington to dig and fortify a canal. That riveted attention on the isthmus and adjoining seas.
The artificial waterway would need protection. Accordingly, U.S. maritime thinkers fashioned a strategy designed to make the U.S. Navy supreme in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, where the sea lanes connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the canal—and thence with the Pacific Ocean and Asia—would pass. This was “America’s Mediterranean,” and it would soon take rank alongside the Mediterranean Sea among the world’s great nautical thoroughfares. Managing events in this middle sea transfixed sea-power strategist extraordinaire Alfred Thayer Mahan, along with likeminded naval enthusiasts such as Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Howard Taft.
Southern waters constituted the focal zone for U.S. maritime strategy, but defending them didn’t demand an open-ended, ship-for-ship arms race against Britain or any other European rival. Mahan hewed out a yardstick for measuring whether the U.S. Navy was up to the task of managing affairs in the Caribbean and Gulf. Namely, was the American navy stronger than the fraction of a hostile navy that some European government was likely to commit to action there? If properly sized and configured, maintained Mahan, the U.S. Navy could take to the sea and “fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against” it. The fleet sufficed if it met that modest standard.
In those days, after all, Washington saw no need to command the North Atlantic, or the Mediterranean, or the Indian Ocean. It would have been strategic malpractice to waste taxpayer resources on a fleet bulky enough to outmuscle European navies in far-flung seas where few vital U.S. interests stood at risk.
Forecasting the size of hostile Caribbean fleets and fitting the U.S. Navy to the threat they posed demanded empathy with prospective adversaries. To estimate how much U.S. naval power was enough, leaders had to acquaint themselves with competitors’ strategic priorities, and with the opportunity costs those competitors would incur if they sought to outcompete the U.S. Navy in the Caribbean and Gulf. On American home ground, in other words. The opportunity costs would prove steep. Statesmanlike European leaders would blanch at leaving their homelands bare to foreign attack to pursue adventures in the Americas. Nor would they forfeit imperial commitments spanning the world for the sake of a single theater unless the interests at stake in that theater were so crucial that defending them warranted sacrificing lesser interests.
Seldom does one region command such surpassing importance. Rather, strategic leaders tend to parcel out contingents of military forces in an attempt to uphold manifold commitments. How much they prize a commitment determines how large a contingent they assign to guard it. Only if London or Berlin designated the Caribbean and Gulf as its sole strategic priority would the entire Royal Navy or High Seas Fleet appear on this oceanic battleground—and become the benchmark for U.S. naval adequacy. That was never a real prospect, and it receded by the day as Britain and Germany glared at each other across the North Sea while wrangling for advantage in remote quarters of Africa and Asia.
Americans, then, merely needed to estimate what Britons and Germans wanted in the Caribbean and Gulf and how much they wanted it, calculate the fraction of the British or German navy they might dispatch to the New World to get their way, and amass combat power sufficient to prevail over that fraction. That was easier than it sounds. With only local interests to defend rather than a globe-spanning empire, Washington had the luxury of pitting the entire U.S. Navy against a subset of a foreign navy. Once the United States put a regionally predominant force to sea, reasoned the Mahans and Roosevelts, European leaders might acquiesce in local American primacy rather than pay the heavy price necessary to outface this rising great power on its own turf.
This is the Mahanian logic of winning without fighting. And it worked. The German navy never staged a serious presence in the Americas. The Royal Navy drew down its American station, more or less vacating the Western Hemisphere by the turn of the twentieth century. In effect Washington agreed to tend to British interests in the Western Hemisphere in return for a British pledge to go home. London acknowledged U.S. Navy preeminence while taking solace in relative American goodwill. Or as Yale historian Samuel Flagg Bemis put it, the British leadership “rather definitively acquiesced in the predominance of the United States in that part of the world.”
China should take cold comfort in this parable. While Beijing believes that History with a capital “H” is on its side, history refuses to play favorites. It is not foreordained that rising powers—an America then or a China today—win without fighting. Heck, it’s not foreordained that they will win at all. Many past challengers have made trouble for reigning hegemons for a spell only to founder. Consider a bit of alt-history. Suppose the German emperor never made the rash decision to field a battle fleet able to contend for maritime supremacy. There would have existed no High Seas Fleet to divert British fighting ships from the Americas. Britain would have clung to its maritime suzerainty in the Americas—and then who knows what would have happened? War, perhaps. It’s doubtful Anglo-American relations would have taken the amicable turn they did.