By James Holmes
Some China watchers look to Bismarck as a comparison for China. It’s a less reassuring analogy than they think.
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.
Image credit: Matt Morgan