James Holmes

A Clash of Civilizations on the High Seas

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James Holmes

A Clash of Civilizations on the High Seas

“A common civilization is no guarantee of harmony; a different civilization is no guarantee of conflict or war.”

(Editor's Note: Our Naval Diplomat, James Holmes, continues to share his experiences at Duke University. The following is a question he was asked as part of a panel discussion.)

Q: According to various predictions, the Chinese economy will surpass the U.S. economy someday. How should the U.S. maintain and conduct its relations with China, a country that has different value systems, worldviews, and political institutions and that represents quite a different civilization?

A: A preliminary comment: we have to be careful about reducing “the Chinese” to a single worldview or body of thought. It drives me slightly nuts when I hear people say “the Chinese” think this or that. The strategic community in China is home to lively debates. Many voices clamor for policy attention on just about any topic under the sun. I am continually impressed by the quality of strategic discourses in that country.

Now, I think the question posed here is how the U.S. should deal with a great power from another civilization on terms of parity. From a maritime perspective, the historical guidance is mixed. We often look back a century, to the age when the U.S., Imperial Germany, and Japan rose to great sea power within a globalized system overseen by Great Britain, the world-straddling sea power of the day.

My advice to our leadership would be not to make too much of cultural differences. One of my professors, Michael Handel, came to doubt there exists an “Eastern” or “Western” way of international competition, embodied in the writings of Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. I have come to agree with Michael that a universal logic of strategy prevails. Cultural differences matter, but mostly around the margins. Different societies emphasize different things, but their ways of politics and strategy are not radically different.

So much for the philosophizing. If we do look back a century, we find that interests and geographic distance matter as much as culture, if not more so. A common civilization is no guarantee of harmony; a different civilization is no guarantee of conflict or war. Imperial Germany and Great Britain, two great Western naval powers situated near each other, fought. So, eventually, did Britain and Japan, two great naval powers situated far from each other and from very different civilizations. Only the U.S. and Britain managed not to fight during that time of upheaval at sea.

And yet … we might ask ourselves whether the U.S. and Britain would have managed the power transition amicably had there existed no German High Seas Fleet to threaten the British Isles, and beckon British attention—and the ships on the American Station—homeward. It is far from clear to me that Britain would have entrusted its interests in the New World to the U.S., let alone accepted the Monroe Doctrine, if not forced to do so by mortal danger close to home. It may have stayed in the Western Hemisphere if power permitted.Discord with a rising United States could well have resulted.

Unless my knowledge of North American politics is seriously out of date, there’s no counterpart to Germany demanding that U.S. leaders bring the fleet home. Canada and Mexico still look rather friendly to me. In a sense, then, the U.S. is playing the part of Britain a century ago and China is playing the American part—except that the U.S. today can afford to concentrate its attention and resource in faraway regions like East Asia. How this will all play out remains to be seen.

So my best counsel to Washington is, don’t surrender to cultural determinism. Culture is only one factor in the policy/strategy mix, and seldom the decisive one.