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Can U.S. "Manage" Other Nations?

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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.

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