Can U.S.
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Can U.S. "Manage" Other Nations?


What’s in a word? Quite a lot, sometimes. Exhibit A: “management.” U.S. officials and pundits oftentimes talk about “managing” China’s rise to great power. Are they guilty of hubris – the outrageous arrogance that the Greeks of classical antiquity insisted goes before a fall? To what extent may one nation oversee another’s rise to great power?

Good question. One of my department’s gray-haired eminences raised it during a recent faculty meeting. His point of departure was a famous – or was it infamous? – Pentagon memorandum compiled in 1992 under the supervision of Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Written shortly after the Soviet Union’s demise and leaked to the press, the draft Defense Planning Guidance enjoined the United States to “endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union and Southwest Asia.”

The language in which the Pentagon document was phrased set the foreign-policy community atwitter. Sen. Robert C. Byrd pronounced it “myopic, shallow and disappointing.” For Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. the memo represented “literally a Pax Americana.” Biden prophesied that “It won’t work. You can be the world superpower and still be unable to maintain peace throughout the world.” Today, though, the idea that the United States should supervise the emergence of China, India, or some other new contender occasions scarcely a murmur. It may now be woven into the assumptions protagonists bring to strategic debates. It’s an axiom we no longer think to question.

Exhibit B: in a recent column for private intelligence firm Stratfor, Robert Kaplan applauds the Obama administration’s much-heralded “pivot” to Asia for helping Washington manage China’s ascent. Kaplan offers a workmanlike vision of international management. The United States acts as a superintendent of the Asian order it inherited through its conquest of imperial Japan. “China,” he writes, “is an altogether dynamic society that is naturally expanding its military and economic reach in the Indo-Pacific region.” But “the rise of any new great power needs to be managed.”

This is especially true in Asia, maintains Kaplan, because new sea powers are taking shape there while old ones reinvent their seagoing forces to cope with new, more stressful realities. India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia entertain seafaring ambitions of their own, while established powers Japan and South Korea are outfitting their sea and air forces with the latest technological wizardry. For Kaplan, this adds up to an arms race that distorts the regional maritime order. As the overseer of navigational freedoms, the United States must pivot to the “Indo-Pacific” region lest disequilibrium degenerate into something far worse.

The truth quotient is significant in both of these arguments. Nor are they irreconcilable. As Kaplan contends, it behooves the leading power in any system – in this case America, the keeper of the international maritime order – to try to adjust the system gracefully to the rightful demands and interests of new entrants into that order. A wrenching transition is apt to give rise to conflict – perhaps violent conflict. To expect the international system to be self-administering in times of flux is to expect too much.

And while the Wolfowitz memo could have been more artfully worded, it mostly cleaves to U.S. diplomatic traditions. For at least the past century, two axioms of U.S. statecraft have held that Washington must preserve access to important regions, and that it must do so while preventing any overweening power from gaining control of Europe, Asia, or, worse still, the entire Eurasian landmass. At the turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries, Secretary of State John Hay circulated an “Open Door” diplomatic note imploring the imperial powers not to partition China or shut rivals out of the Asia trade. Statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt fretted that the Kaiser’s Germany, having built the world’s finest army, might conquer the British Isles – and thereby gain command of the world’s preeminent navy, Britain’s Royal Navy. Such developments could constitute a direct threat to the Western Hemisphere – triggering defensive reflexes in Washington. For the Roosevelts of the world, it made sense to essay some preventive management.

Yet there are two reasons policymakers and pundits should beware of the terms they use. First, introspection helps forestall self-defeating behavior. A word used in policy discussions can speak volumes about the assumptions held by the user. And, once accepted as workaday parlance, it tends to short-circuit introspection about those assumptions. It never hurts, and can often help, to reexamine the language used in discourses about weighty matters like war and peace. Otherwise leaders may set the wrong priorities, misallocate resources trying to achieve those priorities, or give needless offense in foreign capitals. Worst of all, they may retard their intellectual nimbleness. Conceptual laggards fare poorly in times of change.

Second, the term management is bound to grate on foreign sensibilities. Even benign management has a whiff of coercion about it, as anyone who’s worked in a bureaucratic institution knows. For the United States to claim the right to set the terms of a fellow sovereign nation’s ascent to great power sounds presumptuous. Similarly, Robert Kaplan has called attention to the U.S. military’s “Unified Command Plan,” which allocates responsibility for every region on the face of the earth to a U.S. combatant command. Does this mean Washington asserts universal dominion? Not at all. Still, such seemingly innocuous command arrangements may rankle with important audiences overseas. Words have unintended consequences.

While humility remains a virtue, finally, it’s worth noting that many foreign policy scholars and wonks have a reciprocal tendency to define all forms of persuasion, beyond simple talk, as coercive. Thinkers of such leanings deplore the routine give-and-take of international negotiation – for example, offering an interlocutor inducements in exchange for certain concessions – as strong-arm tactics. As the world’s preponderant diplomatic, economic, and military power, the United States has a special responsibility to avoid appearing haughty toward other sovereign states. That’s a different thing entirely from abandoning the time-honored practice of horse-trading. Whether this is “management” or simple negotiation, carrots and the occasional stick remain the tools of the trade.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-editor of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press. The views voiced here are his alone.

April 28, 2012 at 03:54


apologies. please make it clear whom you are writing to next time.

April 28, 2012 at 02:28

kodo April 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm wrote:

Just go ask any Vietnamese to see what they think.
1000 years of China’s invasion is not enough. That is why they, China, took Paracel from Vietnam by force in 1974. Then in 1988 they attached Vietnam again over Spratly Islands.
Liang1a’s response:
Speaking of 1988 massacre, China´s massacre 64 unarmed Vietnamese sailors in Spratly islands, filmed the whole even and posted on YouTube as trophy. U.S should learn from China. U.S killed Bin Laden and no one sees a picture. What’s the matter, America?

John Chan
April 28, 2012 at 02:10

NK. China supplies NK military with tons of weapons. China was behind NK sinking SK’s submarine.

April 27, 2012 at 20:33

@cninsider: For starter, try the below link…

April 27, 2012 at 18:13

@a_canadian_observer: “China’s atrocities towards Vietnam?” When and how many? Name something specific please, even in 12th century is ok. Don’t be too general.

And don’t confuse with 3 million Vietnamese deaths during the Vietnam war and hundred thousands more who were drown in high seas after the U.S. “Peace of Honor” exit!

April 27, 2012 at 14:04

Leonard R.,

Thanks for that link to your previous comment. I agree totally.

I remember someone once saying the best diplomat would be a gangster from the street. They understand human nature and truly how to intimidate or otherwise influence their adversary without resorting to violence but will resort to violence at the drop of a hat. Modern diplomats I fear just don’t really understand the most basic things of intimidation and fear and how to instill it in your adversary to get what you want without outright violence. Gangsters are indeed perpetually at war with each other and they have learned to be “street smart”. We need diplomats who understand human nature and how to influence our adversaries but obviously not gangsters. A book smart type is not exactly the kind of guy you need to break up a fight or prevent any fight. The “look” for example is a form of diplomacy which can intimidate the other into backing down. The US needs to convince China to back down preferably without violence but with violence if necessary.

Might be an uncomfortable truth for many (even me) and not saying book smart people don’t have a role. Something to think about anyways.

April 27, 2012 at 12:35

@ ACT,

My comments were not to you to but mishmael due to this statement “China will be a far less aggressive nation”.

But since you replied to me, tell me which statement of my post about china long proven history of aggression to smaller neighbors was not true. Which country attacked others in the South of china Sea? Go ahead, I dare you and any of the readers to do so.

Those that fail to learn from history will doom to repeat it.

Leonard R.
April 27, 2012 at 09:07

This thread is about Professor Holmes article. It’s not about my views.
But since you’ve been pestering me about this ACT, here is a link where I list
some but not all of the facts that led me to my conclusions.

But I don’t think it’s on-topic to repeat my views in this thread or in any other.
I listed them there, because the author had been kind enough to quote me along with Thucydides.
So my views were on-topic in that thread.

My conclusions are based on facts. The facts are clear enough.
Others may reach different conclusions.

April 27, 2012 at 06:14

@Leonard R.


many times on this forum you have said that a military clash between the PRC and the USA is inevitable and that, indeed, we are already at war. I would like to ask if you could flesh out these assertions with current and past conditions, relations, ties, et cetera, as well as how they might lead to war.

April 27, 2012 at 06:10


i am well aware of what china has done and continues to do. I studied its history, and i’m a 3rd year history major. if you had bothered to read my post in full, you would have realized that i pointed out that in its current iteration the Chinese Empire is far more agressive than the United States, at least locally. I also pointed out that what history we know of the Chinese Empire–the one that dissolved in 1911–is most likely colored by cultural fascination; i am well aware of what the old chinese empire did to korea and vietnam, and attempted to do to Japan. you yourself used flawed logic. you assumed, tried to read in between the lines, and failed to properly interpret what i said. in essence, you pulled a rather immature Too Long; Didn’t Read. the one who is wasting their mind, observer, is you.

April 27, 2012 at 01:27

@cninsider: It’s you that needs serious research and soul searching. The recent VN war was terrible and unfortunate, but comparing to china’s attocities towards VN throughout history, it’s miniscule.

Leonard R.
April 27, 2012 at 01:27

@Matt: “For the US to wield a veto over China’s ambitions is for the US to learn from a bloody Pacific Campaign and ensure such a catastrophe never happens again.”

Very well said.

@Prof. Holmes: “…the term management is bound to grate on foreign sensibilities. Even benign management has a whiff of coercion about it…”

Besides ‘manage’, another loaded verb best left unused might be ‘accommodate’. The PRC has lately been demanding that the US accommodate it in the West-Central Pacific and in various other parts of the world. And this really shows how ignorant CCP leaders are of Western history.

A diplomat might suggest the PRC not use the word ‘accommodate’ & the US not use the word ‘manage’. But that’s what diplomats do. And ultimately, diplomats won’t change any outcomes between the PRC & the US. At best, they might delay the inevitable.

April 27, 2012 at 00:32

LOL @ the comment that china is less aggressive.

Obviously, you have no clue because if you do, you would ask people from Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia. Spare me the “historic evidences” because if you use that line, then china is a part of Mongolia, Britain, and Japan.

Then ask smaller neighbors of china such as Vietnam and Korea and ask them how many time bully china repeatly tried and tried to invade and swallow their countries?

A mind is a terrrible thing to waste, use it.

April 26, 2012 at 23:12


granted, the Chinese empire was–relatively–one of the less violent regional powers throughout most of its existence; on the whole, the european christian powers and their descendants have been far more assertive and aggressive throughout their histories. Generally, however, Eastern Cultures–Japan, Korea and China most notably–have been somewhat more xenophobic in the extreme, and this reflects in their foreign policies and actions to this day.

for example, Japan went out into the world at the end of the Meiji restoration determined to remove the curse of the white man from Asia, to remove their stain from the Asia and to rule over all the “mudmen” (read: other Asians and peoples of African descent, [the term is not my own but theirs]). Japanese men and women still protest violently at any attempt to change the immigration laws to allow non-japanese peoples into the island nation

what Matt commented on was what he had observed of Japan and the behavior of the current Chinese empire (read: the PRC), the example of Japan stated above and the example of north korea, which is perhaps the most xenophobic and racist regime to date, barring the Nazi government in germany; The PRC has practiced–and continues to openly practice–a policy of nationalist and racist genocide in Tibet and the Xinjiang (Uighur) Autonomous Region via the deliberate disenfranchisement and removal of local Tibetans and Uighurs from their homes and jobs while han peoples are moved to take their place in what is perhaps the most ignored atrocity of the modern era barring North Korea’s treatment of dissidents, which its regime sends to live out the lives–and the lives of the two succeeding generations–in what can only be described as a network of concentration camps that dwarfs even those of Nazi Germany in their brutality.

Has the United States done increasingly foul things? yes, and these actions can be traced back to two origin points: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. With pearl harbor, the need arose in the minds of american strategists to eliminate potential threats before they could strike at the american mainland. Furthermore, the United States was locked in battle against the Soviet Union, a power that threatened to end free human innovation and the very way of life as americans understood them to be. Thus, American actions from Iran in the 1950′s to the end of the Cold War can be justified in the view of prevention: any nation perceived to ally itself with the Soviet Union–especially if it had critical resources–was deemed to be a direct threat to the American people themselves. on the other hand, the United States as per the Truman Doctrine was willing to support dictatorships in the hope that they to would become democratic; in order to survive, the United States needed–above all–guaranteed trading partners. The policy makers of the period believed that free trade was necessary for lasting world peace. 9/11 only reinforced the policy of threat prevention, and if anything made the American people that much more paranoid and willing to use force.

On the other hand, the PRC–despite knowing no direct threats to its survival–has deliberately adopted a policy of both diplomatic and kinetic agression, striking down through diplomacy or via military force any who would dare challenge its word. Furthermore, the PRC is–as observed via the 1979 Vietnam invasion–very much willing to use military force to defend peoples perceived as Chinese, and its peoples are far more willing to call for the use of military force to solve perceived injustices committed against them while in other nations. I would argue that the reason why we have not seen more of this out of the PRC is due to the fact that the nations that it would bully further are backed by the United States, which the PRC does not yet have the power to comfortably defeat in any protracted conflict. once that is possible, however, i have no doubt that the PRC will adopt a use of open military coercion that is very much worse than what the United States does; while it may not seem as such, the actions of the United States in terms of military conflict have by and large (with the exception of Iraq) been reactionary rather than proactive. the same cannot be said of the PRC, which in the observable span of its existence has been far more willing to harass, escalate tensions and make conflict with other nations. Far from being peaceful, the PRC has used what military power it has to force its will upon other nations for much less than the United States in similar situations (see its many conflicts with other nations over the SCS islands).

going back to the old chinese empire, i am almost sure that what picture we have now of its history is very much colored by a fascination of the “otherness” of its morals and culture. i have no doubt that the history of the old chinese dynasties, upon specific examination, would be in many ways just as violent as the european histories of old. we must remind ourselves that the Chinese Empire before its fall in 1911 was very much a forced amalgamation of various peoples that had either been absorbed or directly conquered, albeit given time to form a cohesive whole.

April 26, 2012 at 20:43

@a_canadian_observer, I suggest you do more serious research about history between China and other neighboring countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India, etc. Don’t just take hearsays or comments from the internet or a few individuals. One of the most terrible wars in the world is the Vietnam war. Do I need to tell you who all started this war, and how it was ended up?

April 26, 2012 at 19:37


April 26, 2012 at 19:33

@mishmeal: I suggest that you take in perspectives from china’a neighbors as well as those invaded by china before writing this.

April 26, 2012 at 19:27

China will be far less aggressive, and through 2000 years they did not practice what Japan did. Yes RIGHT

Just go ask any Vietnamese to see what they think.
1000 years of China’s invasion is not enough. That is why they, China, took Paracel from Vietnam by force in 1974. Then in 1988 they attached Vietnam again over Spratly Islands.

Guess what? In 1979 China burned thousands of its men to do what you know? To teach Vietnam a lesson.

And go Google South China Sea and see what they have been doing to Vietnam and Philippine.

Compare China vs America is a joke. How many friends does China have?
Which China’s neighbors prefer China over America?

April 26, 2012 at 18:23

“Matt” calls it relativism, but from the perspective of most non-Americans there is indeed moral equivalency between ca country like China and the US.

The US has demonstrably invaded more countries than any other state. It too tolerates, nay unabashedly supports, brutal dictatorships (Saudi Arabia comes to mind). “Matt” would have us believe that because Imperial Japan was the “last Asian empire” that somehow all orders created by Asians would be tyrannical. Not only does that claim go beyond moral relativism, it goes directly into the realm of racism. Might I point out that Imperial China, in its two thousand-year history, did NOT practice the same imperial policy as Japan? For that matter, a thorough analysis of the internal politics of Imperial Japan would have revealed that traditionalists (including perhaps the emperor) were against overt militarism while nationalists imbued with the aggressive, expansionist attitudes of their WESTERN models were the ones who pushed for conquest?

Great powers are not all the same. Looking only at the record of China and that of the US. I believe that China will be a far less aggressive nation. It has few desires to affect political events elsewhere in the world, in stark contrast to the busybody known as the US, and while it does have territorial disputes with many countries it has almost never resorted to the use of force (the last major example was fighting with Vietnam in the 1970s). Again, in stark contrast America invades sovereign nations at the drop of a hat, such as their invasion of Panama or more recently Iraq. Claims that China is “bad” because of some unsophisticated one-line claim backed up by heuristics and hearsay is meaningless to any student of history or politics. On the other had, ample evidence exists documenting the actual criminal actions of the US. Of late, it has begun to extra-judicially execute anyone and everyone it doesn’t like with robotic assassins.

April 26, 2012 at 15:49

Great read.

However, I detect a relativism. All great powers or wanna be great powers are not the same. The last Asian Empire acted horrificly. North Korea would treat it’s neighbors just as bad as it treats it’s population. China has no problems with such N. Korean attrocities and is proving to be far more troubling than many wanted to believe.

For the US to wield a veto over China’s ambitions is for the US to learn from a bloody Pacific Campaign and ensure such a catastrophe never happens again.

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