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.