Tanned, rested, and ready, Norman Angell lives again—and he now wears US Navy khaki. He’s doubled down on his thesis that economic interdependence ought to end war, insisting that globalization has ended war between leading powers like China and the United States. Writing in the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Harper maintains that those of us who take China’s naval rise seriously gaze ‘through a spyglass, distortedly,’ omitting a ‘glaring detail’ about this momentous development—namely ‘the global economy.’
In particular, he writes, calling attention to Chinese weaponry like the DF-21D/CSS-5 anti-ship ballistic missile is ‘both overblown and unproductive for the United States and its military.’ Harper alleges that I and my co-author Toshi Yoshihara are among those pushing a skewed understanding of Chinese military power:
‘In Red Star over the Pacific…Naval War College professors Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes examine the rise of the Chinese military. However, they also appear to dismiss the wider ramifications of a Sino-American conflict. In describing the Chinese advantages of firing anti-ship missiles deep from inland China, the authors write, “the United States would risk a limited naval conflict escalating into a full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner.” While they note that China is America’s largest trading partner, they still imply a limited naval conflict over Taiwan is possible.’
We imply nothing. We say explicitly, in Red Star over the Pacific and many other forums, that such a conflict is possible. US-China economic ties elevate the costs of armed conflict for both belligerents, but can’t rule it out entirely. Other interests supersede economics at times. Conducting strikes on the Chinese mainland could carry vast economic and political consequences for the United States. Knowing this—and knowing that Washington knows it—Beijing can hope to deter the United States from coming to the island’s defence. Should a conflict come to pass, Chinese leaders hope Washington will stand aside for the sake of national self-interest.
Harper thus maintains categorically that even a limited naval conflict is impossible. Never say never. Among the foreign policy pundits the good commander tries to enlist in his cause is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The United States and China, writes Harper, inhabit Friedman’s ‘flat world’ of ‘increasing interconnectedness,’ where war among major trading partners is apparently unthinkable. The trouble is that Friedman actually doesn’t say this. Quite the opposite. He rolled out The World Is Flat, the self-same book Harper invokes, during a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose. During the interview, Friedman observes that globalization boosts the costs of geopolitical competition—including war—but can’t end it altogether. ‘I have no illusions,’ he says, ‘that the Dell theory or anything else will stop China from invading Taiwan if Taiwan declares independence tomorrow.’ Which sounds rather like, well, us. Interdependence discourages but can’t prevent war. If Prof. Yoshihara and I undersell the economic factor in international relations, we’re in good company alongside the bestselling Friedman.
But I digress. Norman Angell was an English intellectual who published a book titled The Great Illusion in the years immediately preceding the First World War. (As it happens, the third edition appeared precisely a century ago.) The fin de siècle world was even more economically interdependent than ours by many indices. By Harper’s logic, then, the Great War—a war among nations connected through trade and finance—should never have transpired. Angell was more realistic. Historians often claim that Angell predicted an end to war owing to the advance of globalization. Not so; he proclaimed that globalization should put an end to war, but for the false consciousness gripping the minds of world leaders and their constituents. That is, he believed that statesmen who truly comprehended and embraced the logic of economic interdependence would transcend military conflict.
Angell didn’t delude himself that his views on war and peace already held sway. He castigated the European imperial powers for flouting his argument that warfare was economically self-defeating. The great powers clung obstinately to the ‘great illusion’ that they could improve their national well-being by resorting to arms. He bewailed the fact that not ‘a single authority of note’ had gainsaid the axiom that force advanced national interests. Pacifists were ‘at one with the veriest fire-eaters on this point.’ The great powers, then, could never escape the cycle of power politics and war until they shed their most basic assumptions about international politics. In this he was prophetic. The outbreak of world war in 1914 speedily dispelled any fantasies about the irresistible pacifying effects of globalization. The great illusion—if illusion it is—endured in the minds of statesmen and ordinary citizens.
So Angell, unlike Harper, refused to succumb to wishful thinking. Likewise historians and practitioners from Thucydides to Sun Tzu to Clausewitz. Thucydides maintained that fear, honour, and interest drive states’ actions in the international arena. Sun Tzu saw a cutthroat world of warring kingdoms in which ambition, guile, and deceit were at a premium. Clausewitz accentuated the influence of dark passions like hate, anger, and fear on the resort to and conduct of warfare. It’s hard to assign numbers to intangibles like fear and honour, factoring them into cost/benefit calculations. Clausewitz places great weight on the rational calculus of war, but he insists that strategy and war can’t be reduced to simple algorithms.
Nevertheless, let’s suppose the United States acts on Harper’s recommendations, ceasing to pay the Chinese military build-up much heed. If in fact cost/benefit analysis renders war moot, then Washington can afford to leave Asia. It can shutter its bases and drastically cut back its own armed forces. Why go to needless expense and trouble in a self-regulating Angellian world? But we soon encounter contradictions. At the same time Harper implores US policymakers to lay down the sword, he urges US diplomats to ‘manage’ China’s rise. Why? If force is no longer the coin of the international realm, Washington should let the region to sort out its own future. An interconnected Asia will resolve its differences without armed strife. But if a US presence is necessary to guard against some miscalculation that embroils the region in crisis or conflict, then clearly economics is not all-important. An Angellian order of perpetual peace still eludes us.
And how should Washington manage China’s rise? Having set down the military implement, how could US leaders hope to shape anything? They could negotiate with China from a position of weakness, having renounced Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Big Stick.’ Or they could wage economic warfare in hopes of deterring or reversing Chinese misbehaviour. But history has been unkind to economic sanctions and inducements as a stand-alone instrument to persuade others to foreswear vital interests. Look no further than the sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990s, or the long-running nuclear standoffs with the Islamic Republic of Iran and China’s client North Korea. There’s little reason to expect Beijing to display less resolve than Baghdad, Tehran, or Pyongyang when national unity, geostrategic interests, and other critical goods are at stake. For something all-powerful, economics alone is an unreliable instrument of statecraft.
It would be pleasant to dwell in a world where decisions to fight for national interests derive purely from cost/benefit analysis and economics has repealed the logic of power politics. Sadly, Angell’s ideal world is not the world we inhabit. Beijing has forcefully, repeatedly, and apparently sincerely declared that it will use force to obtain or defend ‘core interests’ like Taiwan, Tibet, and—arguably—the South China Sea. In some cases, for instance the 2005 Anti-Secession Law vis-à-vis Taiwan, political leaders have transcribed this austere worldview into law. There’s little reason, then, to think Chinese leaders have discarded Angell’s great illusion. They tell us they believe military power remains a useful tool of a geopolitically minded foreign policy. China’s grand strategy and military build-up match the leadership’s words. The most prudent course is to take Beijing at its word—not wish away unpleasant realities.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of ‘China and the Commons: Angell or Mahan?’ (World Affairs, 2006). The views voiced here are his alone.