Friday, October 14, 2005

Brzezinski versus Mearsheimer: Take II

Previously I pointed to a debate between Brzezinski and Mearsheimer on the prospects for a "peaceful rise" for China. Now, for some comments on that discussion.

Mearsheimer's central thesis, spelled out at great length in his The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (for a review by yours truly see here), is that the behavior of great powers is explained over the course of modern history by their desire to achieve continental hegemony and to keep others from doing so in their own regions. Of all great powers only the United States has actually succeeded but others have tried (e.g. Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia) and China will try as soon as the means come within reach.

Brzezinski's counter is not in terms of an alternative theory, but instead has the realism (small r) of the practioner. In his analysis one finds the following claims;
a) Theory in international relations is not theory in Physics (if I may paraphrase him)
b) China's leadership consists of very smart people who've already read Mearsheimer's book
c) They know that they cannot challenge the United States for a very long time and hence won't even try ('minimum deterrence")
d) They will settle for a Bismarckian policy of "appropriate" influence without seriously challenging the United States - something Hitler and Tojo could have done but didn't because they were too stupid - unlikely the gifted people running China.
d) Nuclear weapons make great power war impossible
e) Pushing the US out of Asia will cause Japan to militarize and nuclearize and China would rather not have that
f) China will not push Taiwan for fear of antagonizing the US
g) China's "focus remains on economic development and winning acceptance as a great power."

The trouble with this set of responses is that they do not really engage the core of the Realist argument, which is that when the hegemonic temptation arises it will not be resisted. For Brzezinski's take to be comforting it would be helpful if there was evidence that China was unwilling to challenge the status quo even when it has the means to do so. It seem to me that in the case of its military spending in recent years and its buildup on Taiwan, China has attempted to punch at or above its rising economic weight, not below it as Germany and Japan have done under US umbrellas in the postwar period. At its economic weight rises further, where is the evidence that it will not punch harder?

If you are convinced that the US will outpunch China for the next several decades (and I hope to return to predicting measures of national power soon) and you trust in the Bismarck scenario then this is grounds for believing that a serious conflict between China and the US is indeed unlikely. But even under the Bismarck scenario the Prussians (the Chinese) would still expect to be granted a few victories over the French (the Japanese?) and the Austrians (the Indians?) as Chinese power rises. For instance, the widely noted Goldman Sachs study suggested that China may overtake Japan in dollar GDP in a decade. Will the Chinese also resist the temptations that arise at that point? It would appear from (d) that Brzezinski believes that such a development will lead to a smooth transfer of influence from Japan to China with US acquiescence and then China will wait its turn for another decade and a half (again taking the Goldman numbers on dollar GDP as a basis for argument) till 2040. Then again from (e) and (f) it might appear that he feels that China will be "well behaved" regardless. More likely, he simply isn't taking the numbers that seriously.

On (d) Mearsheimer notes quite rightly that nuclear weapons do not eliminate security competitions - the cold war was all about this predicament.

Altogether, Brzezinski's responses don't quite add up to a convincing rebuttal. There do not appear to be purely realist/Realist grounds for optimism on China's rise in this debate.


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