Is Bismarck China’s Man?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy , Matt Morgan

Is Bismarck China’s Man?

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Would a China that models its diplomacy on that of Otto von Bismarck qualify as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the globalized, US-led international order? Not unless it takes Bismarck’s conservative statesmanship out of historical context, ignoring what it took to bring about a German-led order in Europe, how the ‘Iron Chancellor’ managed that order, and what befell Germany and Europe after he left office. Taken as a whole, German unification and its aftermath represent more a cautionary tale than an example worth imitating.

Yet China watchers in the West are still debating this question, studying the implications of the Imperial German experience for China, Asia, and the United States. Those leery of Chinese ambitions warn that a strong, revisionist China could distort the regional balance of power, giving rise to intense rivalries across Asia. They typically point to the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which marched Europe over the precipice in 1914. Those of a more optimistic bent proffer Bismarck as the executor of a benign, low-profile grand strategy that preserved peace in Europe for two decades. A Beijing enamoured of Bismarck, they maintain, will try its best to foster cooperative—or non-confrontational, at any rate—relations with fellow Asian powers while deflating worries about its capabilities and intentions.

Many Chinese agree that Bismarck offers an example worth emulating and that Beijing must avoid the recklessness of Wilhelm II. In 2006, for example, China Central TV, an outlet run by Beijing’s State Council, produced a 12-part series entitled The Rise of Great Powers, which was accompanied by a series of eight books. The TV series includes a particularly instructive episode on Germany, one of nine countries it examines from the past 500 years. Worshipful filmmakers credited Bismarck with securing 20 years of peace for newly united Germany. The book series, similarly, showers praise on the Iron Chancellor for muting envy and fear in European capitals, enmeshing German security with that of other great powers, and keeping a vengeful France—from which German armies seized the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870-1871—mainly in check.

The uncanny parallels between the German and Chinese experiences help explain why the Iron Chancellor has beguiled Chinese audiences. Tang Yongsheng, the deputy director of the Strategy Institute at China’s National Defense University, urges Beijing to adopt the Bismarckian paradigm to consummate its peaceful rise. ‘Recalling the end of the 19th century,’ maintains Tang, ‘Bismarck in Germany drew up a complex geosecurity system; by building a dazzling alliance network with countries on the periphery, he eased the strategic pressure of European powers on Germany, avoided the predicament of having enemies on both sides, and successfully isolated France.’ China should replicate Bismarck’s feat on a worldwide scale, anchoring itself in multilateral alignments spanning the globe in order to establish an ‘unassailable position’ for itself. Chinese strategists’ enthusiasm for Bismarck may not be universal, but Beijing is clearly investigating German history as one source of inspiration.

Cold Comfort

But Western observers intent on divining China’s future course should take little solace from the German analogy. True, Bismarck prosecuted a foreign policy aimed at preserving the European status quo. But he did so only after he had wrought a revolution within Germany and Europe, wrecking the old status quo and replacing it with something more favourable to Germany. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observes: ‘The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.’ True to Arendt’s logic, the object of post-unification German diplomacy was to conserve gains won not through peaceful means, but through warfare he had instigated. Bismarck’s Berlin, in short, was a responsible stakeholder in a system it created through destruction.

Nor was it a stable system. Bismarck forged a unified German Empire by staging limited wars against neighbouring Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871). In doing so, he forcibly banished Austrian and French influence from the German states while shattering the Concert of Europe, the diplomatic mechanism by which European capitals had managed their disputes since the defeat of Napoleonic France (1815). Overturning the great power concert—in effect rewriting the rules of the diplomatic game—was a revolutionary act. Not for nothing did Henry Kissinger dub Bismarck a ‘White Revolutionary’ who destroyed an old regime in order to found a new one more to his liking. Kissinger’s White Revolutionary is not the Bismarck who entrances audiences in China and the West.

Replacing the European concert was a relatively flimsy balance of power rife with suspicion, enmity, and the hedging behavior and arms races to which fear gives rise. The system Bismarck had founded, then, scarcely constituted an improvement on the concert system. Only a statesman with his diplomatic artistry—and dubious scruples—could manage constantly shifting alignments among the great powers. The Iron Chancellor sought to manage foreign expectations about how the muscular new Reich would conduct itself, and he went to extraordinary lengths to portray Germany as a satiated power with no further territorial demands. In today’s parlance, Bismarck launched a charm offensive designed to repair the Reich’s image as a predator while palliating fears of new German aggression.

His soft power campaign bore fruit for a time—much as Beijing’s has in recent years, depicting a rising, seagoing China as an intrinsically benign great power that Asians need not fear. While downplaying German ambitions, Bismarck also sought to keep prospective adversaries at odds with one another while encouraging rivals like France to channel their energies into colonialism—away, that is, from countering German ambitions on the Continent. In short, he eased fears of a Germany that was stronger and more prosperous than any of its neighbours while sowing suspicion among European powers, and thereby preventing prospective enemies from forming a community of interest to balance against German power.

But the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the Iron Chancellor from office in 1890, following the death of Wilhelm I. None of the Iron Chancellor’s successors possessed his political dexterity or his ability to prevail over the sovereign on policy matters. Without an able ‘system administrator,’ to borrow a term from defence analyst Thomas Barnett, the Bismarckian system calcified into the alliance system that fought World War I. The Treaty of Versailles sealed the downfall of Imperial Germany, but not until after the bloodletting on the Western Front. A regime dependent on the gifts and longevity of a single person is a regime that is apt to fail.

Anatomy of Revolutions

The Bismarckian precedent therefore should offer little comfort to Washington and its Asian allies. A China that follows Bismarck’s example would be willing to destroy the existing international order for the sake of national unity. Skilful Chinese leadership might sustain the ensuing order peacefully for a time, if indeed the Chinese Communist Party boasts statesmen of the skill and stature of a Bismarck. But a Chinese Bismarck would divide up opposing alliances, presumably including the longstanding pact between the United States and Japan. And even if a statesman of such skill takes the diplomatic helm, it remains to be seen what kind of system would come next. No likely replacement would benefit Asian powers to the same degree as has the liberal order, which is premised on international commerce, ready access to markets, and freedom of the seas and skies. Indeed, a new Asian order could prove as brittle as the one the Iron Chancellor bequeathed to Wilhelmine Germany.

In retelling the history of German unification, Henry Kissinger reveals much about the anatomy of revolutions. Revolution is a fight to the finish between revolutionaries and the guardians of the status quo. What he says about revolutionaries and their foes should disquiet China watchers with Bismarckian leanings.

‘Revolutionaries almost always start from a position of inferior strength,’ writes Kissinger, much as China commenced its ascent to political, economic, and military power from the impoverishment of the Mao Zedong era. How do the weak defeat the strong? ‘They prevail,’ continues Kissinger, ‘because the established order is unable to grasp its own vulnerability. This is especially true when the revolutionary challenge emerges not with a march on the Bastille but in conservative garb. Few institutions have defences against those who evoke the expectation that they will preserve them.’

In short, the gatekeepers of the status quo suffer from a blind spot, especially toward challengers that claim, with apparent sincerity, that they simply want a share in enforcing that status quo. Nations that portray themselves as responsible stakeholders can nonetheless harbour goals inimical to the existing order. To their credit, status quo powers often try to adjust the rules of the system to peacefully accommodate rising powers—even ones that make no effort to disguise their radical aims. Yet Kissinger cautions that it is ‘a mistake to assume that diplomacy can always settle international disputes if there is ‘good faith’ and ‘willingness to come to an agreement…’

For powers long accustomed to tranquillity and without experience with disaster, this is a hard lesson to learn. Lulled by a period of stability that had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework.

In effect, those who preside over the current order exclaim, ‘Oh, you’re serious?’ when confronted with an attempt to rewrite the rules of the game, especially when those rules appear to favour the challenger. They find this incomprehensible. Kissinger concludes that, ‘The bane of stable international systems is their nearly total inability to envision mortal challenge.’ This does not, however, mean that revolutionaries always get their way—much as upsetting the European concert saddled Germany with an unsteady system that ultimately proved unmanageable. ‘The blind spot of revolutionaries,’ concludes Kissinger, ‘is their conviction that they can combine all the benefits of their goals with the best of what they are overthrowing. But the forces unleashed by revolution have their own momentum, and the direction in which they are moving cannot necessarily be deduced from the proclamations of their advocates.’

The lessons of Bismarck, then, are far more mixed than Tang Yongsheng and likeminded scholars acknowledge. Established powers should take the prospect of a challenge seriously, however much the challenger may protest that it only covets a stake in the system. And revolutionary powers should beware of what they wish for. They may get it, and the world may be worse off for it. Demolishing the system is the easy part. Improving on it may not be so easy.

A Metric for Chinese Diplomacy and Strategy

None of this is to say that Beijing entertains unambiguously revolutionary designs. Chinese policymakers may be developing physical power—ships, aircraft, missiles, and the like—to hold open the option of a Chinese revolution while they debate the wisdom of such a course. Kissinger himself is an eloquent spokesman for the view that China has little desire to upset the US-led order, which—from a pure cost/benefit standpoint—advances Chinese interests as well as those of the United States, its allies, and the region writ large. But as shown above, the guarantors of the status quo—in this case Americans—find it difficult to fathom radical challenges. One of the United States’ most astute scholars of international affairs may fall victim to his own logic of how revolutions unfold.

Scholar Elizabeth Economy takes the opposite view, proclaiming that China’s course is already set. Writing in Foreign Affairs late last year, she declared:

‘After decades of following Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Hide brightness, cherish obscurity”…Beijing has launched a “go out” strategy designed to remake global norms and institutions. China is transforming the world as it transforms itself. Never mind notions of a responsible stakeholder; China has become a revolutionary power. Rhetorically promoting a “peaceful international environment” in which to grow their economy while free-riding on the tough diplomatic work of others is no longer enough. Ensuring their supply lines for natural resources requires not only a well-organized trade and development agenda but also an expansive military strategy.’

Judging by these words, Economy considers China a Bismarckian power on a global scale, and that is certainly one possibility. But Beijing could have more limited goals in mind. By reinterpreting the law of the sea in novel ways, extending its military reach seaward, and taking other measures to bolster its influence in maritime Asia, China’s leadership may attempt to replicate Bismarck’s feat on a regional level while leaving the larger US-led system undisturbed. In effect, it would carve out a zone of Chinese exceptionalism where the rules of the system operate differently than they do elsewhere across the globe. If so, China is what international-relations scholars call a ‘revisionist’ power, determined to adjust the system in its favour rather than upend it entirely. Even so, this would transform the Asian order in ways inimical to US and allied interests. This is a prospect Washington, Tokyo, and other Asian powers must not take lightly.

Germany’s Iron Chancellor was a statesman of extraordinary ability. He also offers China watchers an instrument to chart China’s diplomatic and strategic trajectory. How Chinese scholars and officials interpret the pros and cons of the German legacy could say much about future Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese Communist leadership, for instance, is a collective leadership. It would likely prove inhospitable to the virtuosity of a Bismarck, but at the same time could provide a cushion against the erratic policies of a Wilhelm II.

But China also faces a conundrum. Beijing could see itself as pursuing a Bismarckian policy of self-restraint, while fellow Asian powers could see a power like the Kaiser’s Germany at work. This would be the worst of all possible worlds from the Chinese standpoint, but it is a real risk following China’s rash behavior in the China seas in 2010. Many permutations are possible. It behoves Washington to watch for evidence that Beijing is indeed patterning its rise on Bismarck—and to consider whether Beijing understands what that may portend.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and the co-author of ‘History Rhymes: The German Precedent for Chinese Seapower,’ in the journal Orbis, December 2009.

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