Stephen M. Walt

Who’s the rogue superpower?

Here’s something that probably won’t shock you: I tend to agree with Paul Krugman more than I disagree with him. But not always. Case in point is his column last Sunday, which condemned China’s hardline response to Japan’s seizure of a Chinese trawler that had violated Japanese waters, and especially its decision to pressure Japan ...

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s something that probably won’t shock you: I tend to agree with Paul Krugman more than I disagree with him. But not always. Case in point is his column last Sunday, which condemned China’s hardline response to Japan’s seizure of a Chinese trawler that had violated Japanese waters, and especially its decision to pressure Japan by cutting off the export of rare earth materials. He went on to criticize some other Chinese actions (including its chronically devalued currency), and said this added up to a picture of China as a "rogue economic superpower, unwilling to play by the rules."

I agree that China’s overheated response to the trawler incident was foolish, if only because it will reinforce Asian concerns about China’s rising power and make it more likely that other states will start taking concerted action to resist its influence. It’s normal for great powers to throw their weight around — if you don’t believe me, just read a good history of U.S. relations with Latin America — but doing so before one’s power position is fully consolidated is a bad idea.

By the way, with the exception of the War of 1812, avoiding stupid quarrels with powerful countries was one of the smartest things that the United States did in its rise to superpower status. Not only did it avoid tangling with other major powers until after it had created the world’s largest and most advanced economy, it also let the Eurasian powers bloody each other in ruinous wars, jumping in only when the balance of power was in jeopardy and leaving itself in a dominant position after both world wars (and especially WWII). This wasn’t a perfect strategy, or even a noble one, but it was supremely self-interested approach that ensured U.S. primacy for decades.

If China’s leaders are really smart, they’d act in a similar fashion today. They’d let the United States run itself to exhaustion in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere, while they stayed out of trouble, cultivated profitable relations with everyone, and made sure that their long-term development plans didn’t get derailed. Picking fights with neighbors over minor issues is pointless, especially now, and on this point Krugman and I are in synch.

Where I part company is his characterization of China as a "rogue economic power," and his conclusion that "China’s response to the trawler incident is… further evidence that the world’s newest economic superpower isn’t prepared to assume the responsibilities that go with that status."

For starters, this view assumes that China (or any other great power) has "responsibilities" to the global community. U.S. leaders like to proclaim that we have enormous "responsibilities" and "obligations" to the rest of the world, but this is usually just a phrase our leaders use to justify actions taken for our own (supposed) benefit. The leaders of any country are primarily responsible to their own citizens, which is why international cooperation is often elusive and why conflicts of interest routinely arise between sovereign states.

Moreover, the declaration that China is a rogue power that isn’t "playing by the rules" neglects to mention that 1) many of these rules were devised by the United States and its allies and not by China, and 2) the United States has been all too willing to ignore the rules when it suited us. We went to war against Serbia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003 without authorization from the U.N. Security Council, for example, even though we helped write the U.N. Charter that says such actions are illegal. Similarly, the US played the leading role in devising the Bretton Woods economic system after World War II, but it abandoned the gold standard in 1971 when this arrangement was no longer convenient for us.

The real lesson of the trawler/rare earth incident is that great powers can ignore the rules when they think they have to, and they can often get away with it. We should therefore expect China’s leaders to pursue whatever policies they believe are in their interests, whether or not those policies are good for us, good for the planet as a whole, or consistent with some prior set of norms or rules.

Here’s a penetrating leap into the obvious: sometimes China’s interests will converge with ours; at other times, they will diverge sharply. Sometimes China’s leaders will calculate their interests carefully and adopt smart policies for achieving them; at other times they will make costly blunders. Ditto their counterparts in Washington: sometimes U.S. leaders will act with insight and foresight and sometimes they will stumble headlong into disaster. Welcome to the real world. The bottom line is that it’s neither illuminating nor helpful to hold China to a standard of "responsible" behavior that we fall short of ourselves. I mean, which country is currently detaining foreigners without trial in Guantanamo, and firing drone missiles into any country where it thinks al Qaeda might be lurking?

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

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