Putting China in a History-Free Zone

In confronting any policy problem, a grounding in the past is well nigh indispensable to accurately framing the present and plausibly projecting the future. (The case for the public relevance of the past has been admirably made in the recent The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage.) The current U.S. policy preoccupation with the China problem offers a glaring and disturbing example of the failure to take advantage of historical perspective.

Recent comments on the South China Sea controversy (prompted by China’s push to consolidate its claim to disputed islets and reefs and the U.S. push-back) reveal the failure in spades.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statements during his recent swing through Southeast Asia invoked a version of the past so divorced from historical reality that I’ve described it as “fairy tale.”

Amitai Etzioni, hardly a proponent of policy orthodoxy, gestured in the right direction when he observed that “history shows that states should be leery of stepping on an escalator without first asking how far they are willing to ride it and how to get off.” But then he failed to bring that point down to earth and consider the nature of the crises that have plagued U.S.-China relations or at least the lessons that might be drawn from them.

John Glaser writing from Washington for The Guardian tried to get a handle on the controversy by citing a string of authorities none of whom are historians. To his credit, he framed his account with an eminently historical concept — the idea of an American empire — but then provided no historical grounding. Thus left amorphous and ahistorical, empire means everything and nothing.

The Obama administration’s broader “privot to Asia” rests on the same presentist concerns evident in treatment of the South China Sea dispute. Washington seems perilously close to becoming a history-free zone even when it comes to dealing with China where behavior and outlook are famously shaped by the past.

Relevant work is available in abundance for anyone interested in cultivating a historically-informed position. Several generations of scholars have labored with considerable success to make sense of China’s past and suggest implications for the present. The long and often troubled record of U.S.-China interaction and U.S. involvement more generally in eastern Asia are also well developed parts of the historical literature.

Just looking at my book shelf, I see pertinent works of recent vintage:

–Mao: The Real Story as well as Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, both by Alexander Pantsov with Steven I. Levine and both excellent on the system these two dominant figures created and the enduring national visions they promoted;

–Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 , invaluable on the trajectory of a regional and global player;

–Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, which provides a more astute, historically informed treatment than its breathless title suggests; and

Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (which I co-authored with Levine), notable for highlighting the prolonged — and continuing — conflict between the U.S. and China over regional dominance.

The challenge, it seems clear, is not the paucity of appropriate works to consult but rather the resistance of those absorbed in making and talking about foreign policy to consult them — and in the process to open their minds to the broad insights and the cautionary tales they offer. If policy were all tactics, then history would be largely irrelevant and its neglect of no matter. But most in Washington insist they are committed to a “strategic” approach, and for that a good grasp of the past is not optional but mandatory.

The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale

The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)

The notion of the U.S. military as a force for peace and stability doesn’t hold historical water now any more than when Carter’s predecessor invoked it. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

From the late 1940s Washington extended the Cold War struggle from Europe to Asia and in the process spawned regional disorder. U.S. policymakers recruited clients, created dependencies, and resisted calls for revolutionary change wherever they were heard throughout the region. In defense of the status quo, U.S. forces fought in Korea and Vietnam, helped defeat insurgents in the Philippines, and devastated Cambodia from the air. These efforts twice resulted in costly military collisions with China, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. To the surprise and dismay of the U.S. political class and military leaders, neither confrontation with Beijing went well — and this at a time when Mao Zedong’s China was just getting on its feet. (Readers interested in the details are invited to consult Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, which I coauthored with Steven I. Levine.)

An important shift in the early 1970s has no place in Carter’s simple generalization about America in Asia. President Richard Nixon recognized the quixotic nature of this effort to maintain the status quo in what was even then a dynamic Asia. The U.S. might be dominant but, Nixon reasoned, China could no longer be marginalized. In 1972 he accepted China as a regional power in a world in which he saw regional powers more and more defining the international system. What Nixon left to his successors was how to adjust policy as China’s power waxed and U.S. power waned at least in relative terms. This has been no easy task for U.S. policymakers who recognize the strong impetus behind China’s rise but who also cling to a dream of global dominance and regard regional powers as threats to that dominance. Carter’s simple history conceals the fundamental contradiction facing U.S. policy not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, South America, and Eurasia.

Carter and others in the Obama administration who fancy themselves realists should not think in a historical haze however comforting they might find the official mythology. They would do well to base their grand strategy for Asia on real, not imagined, history.