Stephen M. Walt

Reading Hu Jintao’s mind

Hu Jintao is simultaneously President of China, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. Last year Newsweek labeled him the “second most powerful man in the world,” and he has undoubtedly watched the events of the past few years with keen interest and no small amount of satisfaction. ...


Hu Jintao is simultaneously President of China, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. Last year Newsweek labeled him the “second most powerful man in the world,” and he has undoubtedly watched the events of the past few years with keen interest and no small amount of satisfaction. Here’s what I imagine he’s thinking these days…

“We are realists here in the People’s Republic, and in a sense we have been for centuries. Even during the most radical phases of our history — such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution — our foreign policy was prudent and keenly attuned to the balance of power.
The United States has had the world’s largest economy for more than a century, and despite some self-inflicted wounds, it is still the world’s most powerful country. We recognize this fact, and our current strategy of “peaceful rise” reflects what we have learned by studying the U.S. experience. America became a great world power by remaining aloof from the quarrels of the other major powers and letting them destroy each other in ruinous wars, while it built its own economic strength and gradually established itself as the dominant power in its own region. When it did fight wars, it picked weak and easily defeated opponents or it waited until the last minute to get involved in wars with other great powers. The United States was the last major power to enter both World War I and World War II, and it made sure that other states bore the heaviest burdens during the fighting. As a result, both wars ended with the United States in the strongest position.
Our strategy of “peaceful rise” reflects a similar set of calculations. We want to stay out of pointless quarrels with others and avoid costly military commitments, at least until our economic strength equals that of America.  For this reason, we are happy to let the United States take the lead in troubled regions like the Middle East or Central Asia. Why shouldn’t we want them to squander their strength trying to fix intractable global problems, while we retain good relations with all parties? It just makes sense.

I do miss President George W. Bush, of course. We had good relations with the United States while he was president, and he even came to visit us during our Olympics. I probably should have thanked him personally for all the foolish things he did, like letting Bin Laden and the Taliban slip through his fingers in Afghanistan and then invading Iraq in 2003.  He did cultivate closer ties with India and that development didn’t make me happy, but on the whole, his threats and bluster frightened many U.S. allies and made U.S. relations with states like Iran even worse than they were before. Needless to say, these policies created valuable opportunities for China, and we’ve been quick to take advantage of them. While America was distracted and wasting hundreds of billions occupying hostile countries — we were establishing profitable commercial ties in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and quietly expanding our influence in our own Asian backyard.
President Bush also helped us by presiding over scandals such as Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, and the treatment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. To be frank, I never understood why some Americans are so obsessed with protecting “rights.” In fact, I was pleased to discover that former Vice President Cheney agrees with me; he understands how a strong executive deals with potential troublemakers! I sometimes think he’d make a good Vice President here. 

Anyway, the good news for us is that these events made the United States look both incompetent and hypocritical and made it harder for Washington to criticize my own domestic policies. I owe former president Bush a real debt of gratitude; I should probably call him and say thanks.
I confess that I wanted John McCain to win the 2008 election, because I thought he would keep America on the same failed course. And having someone like Governor Palin as Vice President was almost too much to hope for. So naturally I was worried when Barack Obama got elected; he seemed smart and level-headed and is obviously a gifted politician. He’s much more charismatic than Bush and to be frank, he’s a lot more charismatic than I am. So I asked myself: Would he be able reverse America’s recent missteps and restore its international reputation? And at first, it seemed like he might do just that.

But now I’m not so concerned. President Obama may have good instincts and intentions, but his aides don’t seem to be giving him very good advice. He is going to get most U.S. troops out of Iraq (a smart move for him, but not so good for me) but he’s getting a lot of pressure to put more troops and money into Afghanistan. I hope he does, because that will leave the United States with fewer resources to devote to containing China.  Moreover, President Obama doesn’t seem to be making any headway with Iran or the Middle East peace process, and failure there will make that big speech in Cairo look rather silly. Obama also wants China and India and other developing countries to make big concessions on greenhouse gas emissions, but he’s having trouble getting his own Congress to adopt a serious program and I doubt we’ll face much genuine pressure at the upcoming summit in Copenhagen. That’s a relief.
And I can’t help smiling to myself whenever I think about America’s domestic political system. Americans like to lecture China about the importance of “free speech” and other quaint Western concepts, but at least I don’t have to deal with madmen spouting nonsense on television and radio and special interest groups making it impossible to enact reforms that the nation as a whole badly needs. I may have some minor problems in Xinjiang, but I hear states like California are rapidly becoming ungovernable and that the universities we used to envy are losing their edge. I even hear that Harvard isn’t so rich anymore. This makes me smile too, because a well-educated population is the key to future power and a society that is content to be ignorant cannot remain a world power for long.

Meanwhile, my economy is beginning to grow rapidly again, while the United States piles up debt and lots of people there are looking for work. I do like that nice young Treasury Secretary; he understands that he needs my help to keep the world economy afloat and he isn’t going to try to browbeat us very much.  The silly new tariff on imported tires is annoying and we will of course issue a loud protest, but even that reactionary magazine The Economist said it was “bad politics, bad economics, bad diplomacy, and hurts America.”

So from where I sit, the view looks pretty good. America likes to say that it is the “leader of the free world” and I’m happy to let them have that title — for now — provided they stay focused on other issues and let China’s peaceful rise continue. The more “global leadership” they insist upon taking, the more resources they will expend, the faster they will decline, and the sooner we will be in a position to supplant them.

I do have one lingering concern, however. America’s leaders may come to their senses, and go back to the unsentimental realism that guided their rise to greatness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They might discover what Sun Tzu taught — “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare” — and stop insisting on bearing all the world’s burdens themselves. But then I remember what their foreign policy “debate” is like, and I recall that both Democrats and Republicans seem equally eager to interfere all over the world, and suddenly that danger doesn’t seem very great. In fact, the future looks bright.”


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola