- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I’m in Beijing, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. Lots of interesting comments so far, but what has been most striking (to me, at least), is the willingness of the American participants to tell our Chinese hosts what their foreign policy ought to be. I think the Chinese government has made a number of foreign policy mistakes in recent years — mostly by throwing their weight around prematurely — but it’s not like American foreign and national security policy has been an untrammeled success for the past decade or so. In our case, a bit of humility would be so unexpected that it would leave our counterparts completely baffled.
This trip is the third time I’ve circumnavigated the globe (Boston-Newark-Singapore-Beijing-Chicago-Boston). That’s no great achievement in this day and age, but I mention it because I’ve been reading a fascinating book: Joyce E. Chaplin’s Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit. I’m only up through the voyages of James Cook, and the central lesson of the early attempts at circumnavigation is that it was fatal to most everyone who tried it. Magellan, as you probably know, led the first circumnavigation but didn’t survive the trip, and survival rates were typically less than 20 percent. Today we feel bad if we have to fly economy.
The book also reminds me how recent our awareness and understanding of the globe really is. Homo Sapiens has been around for maybe 50,000 years, but knowledge of the full expanse of the globe and the ability to traverse it in its entirely has only been known since the 16th century. In other words, humans have been aware of the full extent of our shared planetary home for only about 20 generations, or less than 1 percent of the human experience. Small wonder that all these far-flung peoples still have trouble getting along.