Does History Repeat Itself?

The Crowe Memorandum
A number of commentators, including some in China, have revisited the example of the twentieth-century Anglo-German rivalry as an augury of what may await the United States and China in the twenty-first century. There are surely strategic comparisons to be made. At the most superficial level, China is, as was imperial Germany, a resurgent continental power; the United States, like Britain, is primarily a naval power with deep political and economic ties to the continent. China throughout its history, was more powerful than any of its plethora of neighbours, but they, when combined, could – and did – the security of the empire. As in the case of Germany’s unification in the nineteenth century, the calculations of all these countries are inevitably affected by the re-emergence of China as a strong, united state. Such a system has historically evolved into a balance of power based on equilibrating threats.

Can strategic trust replace a system of strategic threats? Strategic trust is treated by many as a contradiction in terms. Strategists rely on the intentions of the presumed adversary only to a limited extent. And the essence of sovereignty is the right to make decisions not subject to another authority. A certain amount of threat based on capabilities is therefore inseparable from the relations of sovereign states.
It is possible—though it rarely happens—that relations grow so close that strategic threats are excluded. In relations between states bordering the North Atlantic, strategic confrontations are not conceivable. The military establishments are not directed against each other. Strategic threats are perceived as arising outside the Atlantic region, to be dealt with in an alliance framework. Disputes between the North Atlantic states tend to focus on divergement assessments of international issues and the means of dealing with them; even at their most bitter, they retain the character of an interfamily dispute. Soft power and multilateral diplomacy are the dominant tools of foreign policy. And for some Western European states, military action is all but excluded as a legitimate instrument of policy.

In Asia, by contrast, the states consider themselves in potential confrontation with their neighbours. It is not that they necessarily plan on war; they simply do not exclude it. If they are too weak for self-defense, they seek to make themselves part of an alliance system that provides additional protection, as in the case with ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian nations. Sovereignty, in many cases regained relatively recently after periods of foreign colonization, has an absolute character. The principles of the Westphalian system prevail, more so than on their continent of origin. The concept of sovereignty is considered paramount. Aggression is defined as the movement of organized military units across borders. Non-interference in domestic affairs is taken as a fundamental principle of interstate relations. In a state system so organized, diplomacy seeks to preserve the key elements of the balance of power.
An international system is relatively stable if the level of reassurance required by its members is achievable by diplomacy. When diplomacy no longer functions, relationships become increasingly concentrated on military strategy—first in the form of arms race, then as a manoeuvring for strategic advantage even at the risk of confrontation, and, finally, in war itself.

A classic example of a self-propelling international mechanism is European diplomacy prior to World War I, at a time when world policy was European policy because much of the world was in colonial status by the second half of the nineteenth century; Europe had been without a major war since the Napoleonic period had ended in 1815. The European states were in rough strategic equilibrium, the conflicts between them did not involve their existence. No state considered another an irreconcilable enemy. This made shifting alliances feasible. No state was considered powerful enough to establish hegemony over the others. Any such effort triggered a coalition against it.

The unification of Germany in 1871 brought about a structured change. Until that time, Central Europe contained—it is hard to imagine today—thirty nine sovereign states of varying size. Only Prussia and Austria could be considered major powers within the European equilibrium. The multiple small states were organized within Germany in an institution that operated like the United Nations in the contemporary world, the so-called German Confederation. Like the United Nations, the German Confederation found it difficult to take initiatives but occasionally came together for joint action against what was perceived as overwhelming danger. Too divided for aggression, yet sufficiently strong for defense, the German Confederation made a major contribution to the European equilibrium.

But equilibrium was not what motivated the changes of the nineteenth century in Europe. Nationalism did. The unification of Germany reflected the aspirations of a century. It also led over time to a crisis atmosphere. The rise of Germany weakened the elasticity of the diplomatic process, and it increased the threat to the system. Where once there had been thirty-seven small states and two relatively major ones, a single political unit emerged uniting thirty-eight of them. Where previously European diplomacy had achieved certain flexibility through the shifting alignments of multiplicity of states, the unification of Germany reduced the possible combinations and led to the creation of a state stronger than each of its neighbours alone. This is why Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli of Britain called the unification of Germany an event more significant than the French revolution.

Germany was now so strong that it could defeat each of its neighbours singly, though it would be in grave peril if all the major European states combined against it. Since there were only five major states now, the combinations were limited. Germany’s neighbouring states had an incentive to form a coalition with each other—especially France and Russia, which did so in 1982—and Germany had a built-in incentive to break the alliances.

The crisis of the system was inherent in the structure. No single country could avoid it, least of all the rising power Germany. But they could avoid policies that exacerbated latent tensions. This no country did—least of all, once again, the German empire. The tactics chosen by Germany to break up hostile coalitions proved unwise as well as unfortunate. It sought to use international conferences to demonstratively impose its will on the participants. The German theory was that the humiliated target of German pressure would feel abandoned by its allies and, leaving the alliance, would seek security within the German orbit. The consequences proved the opposite of what was intended. The humiliated countries (France, in the Moroccan crisis in 1905, and Russia, over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908) were reinforced in their determination not to accept subjugation, thereby tightening the alliance system that Germany had sought to weaken. The Franco-Russian alliance was, in 1904, joined (informally) by Britain, which Germany had offended by demonstratively sympathizing with Britain’s Dutch settler adversaries in the Boer war (1899-1902). In addition, Germany challenged Britain’s command of the seas by building a large navy to complement what was already the most powerful land army on the continent. Europe had slipped into, in effect, a bipolar system with no diplomatic flexibility. Foreign policy had become a zero-sum game.

Will history repeat itself? No doubt were the United States and China to fall into strategic conflict, a situation comparable to the pre-World War I European structure could develop in Asia, with the formations of blocs pitted against each other and with each seeking to undermine or at least limit the other’s influence and reach. But before we surrender to the presumed mechanism of history, let us consider how the United Kingdom and German rivalry actually operated.

In 1907, a senior official in the British Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe, wrote a brilliant analysis of the European political structure and Germany’s rise. The key question he raised, and which has acute relevance today, is whether the crisis which led to World War I was caused by Germany’s rise, evoking a kind of organic resistance to the emergence of a new and powerful force, or whether it was caused by specific and, hence, available German policies. Was the crisis caused by German capabilities or German conduct?

In his memorandum submitted on New Year’s Day in 1907, Crowe opted for the conflict being inherent in the relationship. He defined the issue as follows:
For England particularly, intellectual and moral kinship creates a sympathy and appreciation of what is best in the German mind, which has made her naturally predisposed to welcome, in the interest of the general progress of mankind, everything tending to strengthen the power and influence—on one condition there must be respect for the individualities of other nations, equally valuable coadjutors, in their way, in the work of human progress, equally entitled to full elbow room in which to contribute, in freedom, to the evolution of a higher civilization.

But what was Germany’s real goal? Was it natural evolution of German cultural and economic interests across Europe and the world, to which German diplomacy was giving traditional support? Or did Germany seek ‘a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the coexistence of England?

Crowe concluded that it made no difference what goal Germany avowed. Whichever course Germany was pursuing, ‘Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.’ And once Germany achieved naval supremacy, Crowe assessed, this in itself—regardless of German intentions—would be an objective threat to Britain, and ‘incompatible with the existence of the British Empire.’

Under those conditions, formal assurances were meaningless. No matter what the Germans government’s professions were, the result would be ‘as formidable a menace to the rest of the world as would be presented by any deliberate conquest of a similar position by ‘malice aforethought.’ Even if moderate German statesmen were to demonstrate their bona fides, moderate German foreign policy could ‘at any stage merge into’ a conscious scheme for hegemony.

Thus structural elements, in Crowe’s analysis, precluded cooperation or even trust. As Crowe wryly observed: ‘It would not be unjust to say that ambitious designs against one’s neighbours are not as a rule openly proclaimed, and that therefore the absence of such proclamation, and even the profession of unlimited and universal political benevolence, are not in themselves conclusive evidence for or against the existence of unpublished intentions.’ And since the stakes were so high, it was ‘not a matter in which England can safely run any risks.’ London was obliged to assume the worst, and act on the basis on its assumptions—at least so long as Germany was building a large challenging navy.

In other words, already in 1907 there was no longer any scope for diplomacy; the issue had become who would back down in a crisis, and whenever that condition was not fulfilled, war was nearly inevitable. It took seven years to reach the point of world war.

Were Crowe to analyse the contemporary scene, he might emerge with a judgement comparable in his 1907 report. I will sketch the interpretation, though it differs substantially from my own, because it approximates a view widely held on both sides of the Pacific. The United States and China have not been so much nation-states as continental expressions of cultural identities. Both have historically been driven to visions of universality by their economic and political achievements and their people3’s irrepressible energy and self-confidence. Both Chinese and American governments have frequently assumed a seamless identity between their national policies and the general interests of mankind. Crowe might warn that when two such entities encounter each other on the world stage significant tension is probable.

Whatever China’s intentions, the Crowe school of thought would treat a successful Chinese ‘rise’ as incompatible with America’s position in the Pacific and by extension the world. Any form of cooperation would be treated as simply giving china scope to build its capacities for an eventual crisis. Thus the entire Chinese debate recounted and the question of whether China might stop ‘hiding its brightness,’ would be immaterial for purposes of a Crowe-type analysis: someday it will (the analysis will posit), so America should act now as if it already had.

The American debate adds an ideological challenge to Crowe’s balance-of-power approach. Neoconservatives and other activists would argue that democratic institutions are the prerequisite to relations of trust and confidence. Nondemocratic societies, in this view, are inherently precarious and prone to the exercise of force. Therefore the United States is obliged to exercise its maximum influence (in its polite expression) or pressure to bring about more pluralistic institutions where they do not exist, and especially in countries capable of threatening American security. In these conceptions, regime change is the ultimate goal of American foreign policy in dealing with nondemocratic societies; peace with China is less a matter of strategy than of change in Chinese governance.

Nor is the analysis, interpreting international affairs as an unavoidable struggle for strategic pre-eminence, confined to Western strategists. Chinese ‘triumphalists’ apply almost identical reasoning. The principal difference is that their perspective is that of the rising power, while Crowe represented the United Kingdom, defending its patrimony as a status quo country. An example of this genre is Colonel Liu Mingfu’s China Dream. In Liu’s view, no matter how much china commits itself to a ‘peaceful rise,’ conflict is inherent in U.S. China relations. The relationship between China and the United States will be a ‘marathon contest’ and the ‘duel of the century.’ Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum; the only alternative to total success is humiliating failure: ‘If China in the 21st century cannot become world number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler that is cast aside.’

Neither the American version of the Crowe memorandum nor the more triumphalist Chinese analyses has been endorsed by either government, but they provide a subtext of much current thought. If the assumptions of these views were applied by either side—and it would take only one side to make it unavoidable—China and the United States could easily fall into this escalating tension. China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy. The United States would try to organize China’s many neighbours into a counterweight to Chine3se dominance. Both sides would emphasize their ideological differences. The interaction would be even more complicated because the notions of deterrence and pre-emption are not symmetrical between these two sides. The United States is more focused on overwhelming military power, China on decisive psychological impact. Sooner or later, one side or the other would miscalculate.

Once such a pattern has congealed, it becomes increasingly difficult to overcome. The competing camps achieve identity by their definition of themselves. The essence of what Crowe described (and the Chinese triumphalists and some American neoconservatives embrace) is its seeming automaticity. Once the pattern was created and the alliances were formed, no escape was possible from its self-imposed requirements, especially not from its internal assumptions.

The reader of the Crowe Memorandum cannot fail to notice that the specific examples of mutual hostility being cited were relatively trivial compared to the conclusions drawn from them: incidents of colonial rivalry in Southern Africa, disputes about the conduct of civil servants. It was not what either side had already done that drove the rivalry. It was what it might do. Events had turned into symbols; symbols developed their own momentum. There was nothing left to settle because the system of alliances confronting each other had no margin for adjustment.

That must not happen in the relations of the United States and China insofar as American policy can prevent. Of course, was Chinese policy to insist on playing by Crowe Memorandum rules, the United States would be bound to resist. It would be an unfortunate outcome.

I have described the possible evolution at such length to show that I am aware of the realistic obstacles to the cooperative U.S. China relationship I consider essential to global stability and peace. A cold war between the two countries would arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the pacific. It would spread disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when global issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy security, and climate change impose global cooperation.
Historical parallels are by nature inexact. And even the most precise analogy does not oblige the present generation to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. After all, the outcom3e was disaster for all involved, victors as well as defeated. Care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies. This will not be an easy task. For, as the Crowe memorandum has shown, mere reassurances will not arrest the underlying dynamism. For were any nation determined to achieve dominance, would it be offering assurances of peaceful intent? A serious joint effort involving the continuous attention of top leaders is needed to develop a sense of genuine strategic trust and cooperation.

Relations between China and the United States need not—and should not—become zero-sum game. For the pre-World War I European leader, the challenge was that a gain for one side spelled a loss for the other, and compromise ran counter to an aroused public opinion. This is not the situation in the Sino-American relationship. Key issues on the international front are global in nature. Consensus may prove difficult, but confrontation on the issues is self-defeating.

Nor is the internal evolution of the principal players comparable to the situation before World War I. When China’s rise is projected, it is assumed that the extraordinary thrust of the last decades will be projected into the indefinite future and that the relative stagnation of America is fated. But no issue preoccupies Chinese leaders more than the preservation of national unity. It permeates the frequently proclaimed goal of social harmony, which is difficult in a country where its coastal regions are on the level of the advanced societies but whose interior contains some of the world’s most backward areas.

The Chinese leadership has put forward to its people a catalogue of tasks to be accomplished. These include combating corruption, which President Hu Jintao has called an ‘unprecedently grim task’ and in the fight against which Hu has been involved at various stages of his career. They involve as well a ‘Western development campaign,’ designed to lift up poor inland provinces, among them the three in which Hu once lived. Key proclaimed tasks also include establishing additional ties between the leadership and the peasantry, including fostering village-level democratic elections, and enhanced transparency of the political process as China evolves into an urbanized society. In his December 2010 article, Dai Bingguo outlined the scope of China’s domestic challenge.
According to the United Nations’ living standard of $1 per day, China today still has 150 million people living below the poverty line. Even based on poverty standard of per capita income of 1,200 Yuan, China still has more than 40 million people living in poverty. At present, there are still 10 million people without access to electricity and the issue of jobs for 24 million people has to be resolved every year. China has a huge population and a weak foundation, the development between the cities and the countryside is uneven, the industrial structure is not rational, and the underdeveloped state of the forces of production has not been fundamentally changed.

The Chinese domestic challenge is, by the description of its leaders, far more complex than can be encompassed in the invocation of the phrase ‘China inexorable rise.’
Amazing as Deng’s reforms were, part of China’s spectacular growth over the initial debacles was attributable to its good fortune that there existed a fairly easy correspondence between China’s huge pool of young, then largely unskilled labour—which had been ‘unnaturally’ cut off from the world economy during the Mao years—and the Western economies, which were on the whole wealthy, optimistic, and highly leveraged on credit, with cash to buy Chinese-made goods. Now the China labour force is becoming older and more skilled (causing some basic manufacturing jobs to move to lower-wage countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh) and the West is entering a period of austerity, the picture is far more complicated.

Demography will compound that task. Propelled by increasing standards of living and longevity combined with the distortions of the one-child policy, China has one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations. The country’s total working-age population is expected to peak in 2015. From this point on, a shrinking number of Chinese citizens aged fifteen to sixty-four need to support an increasingly large-elderly population. The demographic shifts will be stark by 2030, the number of rural workers between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine is estimated to be half its current level. By 2050, one-half of China’s population—roughly equivalent to the entire current population of the United States—sixty-five and older.

A country facing such large domestic tasks is not going to throw itself easily, much less automatically, into strategic confrontation or a quest for world domination. The existence of weapons of mass destruction and modern military technologies of unknowable ultimate consequences define a key distinction from the pre-World War I period. The leaders who started that war had no understanding of the consequences of the weapons at their disposal. Contemporary leaders can have no illusions about the destructive potential they are capable of unleashing.

The crucial competition between the United States and China is more likely to be economic and social than military. If present trends in the two countries’ economic growth, fiscal health, infrastructure spending, and educational infrastructure continue, a gap in development—and third party perceptions of relative influence—may take hold, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. But this is a prospect, it is in the capacity of the United States to arrest or perhaps reverse by its own efforts.
The United States bears the responsibility to retain its competitiveness and its world role. It should do this for its own traditional convictions, rather than as a contest with china. Building competitiveness is a largely American project, which we should not ask China to solve for us. China, fulfilling its own interpretation of its national destiny, will continue to develop its economy and pursue a broad range of interests in Asia and beyond. This is not a prospect that dictates the confrontation that led to the First World War. It suggests an evolution in many aspects of which China and the United States cooperate as much as they compete.

The issue of human rights will find its place in the total range of interaction. The United States cannot be true to itself without affirming its commitment to basic principles of human dignity and popular participation in government. Given the nature of modern technology, these principles will not be confined by national borders. But experience has shown that to seek to impose them by confrontation is likely to be self-defeating—especially in a country with such a historical vision of itself as china. A succession of American administrations, including the first two years of Obama’s has substantially balanced long-term moral convictions with case-to-case adaptations to requirements of national security. The basic approach remains valid; how to achieve the necessary balance is the challenge for each new generation of leaders on both sides.
The question ultimately comes down to what the United States and china can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed—in part because china is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbours. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.
The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is less partnership than co-evolution. It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complimentary interests.

The United States and China owe it to their people and to global well-being to make the attempt. Each is too big to be dominated by the other. Therefore neither is capable of defining terms for victory in a war or in a Cold War type of conflict. They need to ask themselves the question apparently never formally posed at the time of the Crowe Memorandum: Where will a conflict take us? Was there a lack of vision on all sides, which turned the operation of the equilibrium into a mechanical process, without assessing where the world would be if the manoeuvring colossi missed a maneuver and collided? Which of the leaders who operated the international system that led to the First World War would not have recoiled had he known what the world would look like at its end.

On China by Henry Kissinger, published by Penguin Group, Toronto Canada 2011

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