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Realism About America’s Influence

Roger Cohen recently argued that despite “the enduring centrality of American power” and “the nation’s immense capacity for renewal,” “even all the right choices for the United States will not alter the rise of India and China.”  Cohen’s statement isn’t one of fatalism, but rather, of realism.  In defining the goals of U.S. foreign policy, it’s critical to distinguish between outcomes over which the U.S. could reasonably be argued to have some influence and those over which it doesn’t have much, if any.

China’s rise is among the more compelling illustrations of the latter.  Although Republicans and Democrats may differ in emphasizing engagement vs. balancing, it’s not clear that either of those approaches or a particular mixture thereof would fundamentally alter China’s economic trajectory or its course of military modernization.  Those phenomena will largely continue to ride on decisions that China’s leadership makes or does not make, just as America’s domestic health and defense posture will largely continue to ride on decisions that its own leadership makes or does not make.  If China’s GDP overtakes America’s under a Democratic administration, it would be unfair for Republicans to argue that the president “allowed” that outcome to occur; the same would go for Democrats if this outcome occurs under a Republican administration.  

I’m hardly suggesting that U.S. policy towards China is irrelevant.  While there’s little that the U.S. can (or should) do to stop China from accumulating power resources, it can (and should) try to influence how China uses those resources.  No country, after all, looms as large in China’s foreign-policy calculations as the U.S.  In an important essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell explain that it

is the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs, the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, the formal or informal military ally of many of China’s neighbors, and the primary framer and defender of existing international legal regimes.  This omnipresence means that China’s understanding of American motives determines how the Chinese deal with most of their security issues….U.S. military, economic, ideological, and diplomatic capabilities are relatively easy to discover—and from the Chinese point of view, they are potentially devastating.

The above considerations, of course, extend far beyond China.  In general, it makes little sense to view the rise of other countries—whether as reflected in higher per-capita income or military capabilities that are commensurate with growing prosperity—as failures of U.S. foreign policy. By that logic, the recovery of Germany and Japan after World War II would have been failures, as would the ascent of the Asian Tigers in the decades following, even though both of those outcomes were essential to cementing the postwar order that America continues to anchor. And, by that same logic, the rise of virtually any country today would constitute a failure.  While that judgment might hold in a hypothetical international system that was atomized and autarkic, it applies less in a highly interdependent one, wherein relative rises and falls of countries create challenges as well as opportunities.  

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Photo Credit: Steve Collender/


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