April 29, 2005

When Intellectuals Attack

Praktike had a really good post about Robert Kaplan's new Atlantic cover story, on the coming war with China. In the grand style of bloggers everywhere, I'll offer the "money quote" while still exhorting you to "read the whole thing":
But the main question begged by and not answered in the piece is: Why We Would Fight China, a question that is above PACOM's collective paygrade and therefore not asked by Kaplan. I have to say that it would be deeply unfortunate and downright foolish if America and China backed themselves both into a "second Cold War," as Kaplan puts it. It could only be the result of a mutual miscalculation. There's no doubt that we should be prepared militarily, and we shouldn't be naive in scrutinizing Chinese intentions.... [But] U.S. policy ought to be about finding ways to create a win-win situation in Asia rather than on blundering into a pointless new Cold War that can only make everyone poorer and stupider. We shouldn't be afraid of China, but rather we should be afraid that U.S. China policy will be determined by people who think in zero-sum terms.
Indeed, Kaplan's main problem seems to be that he thinks all our relationships with other countries need to be zero-sum. More on that some other time. But praktike's post reminded me of a National Interest essay by David Lampton of CSIS from two years ago (sorry, Nexis-only) where he noted that, in the past, Chinese intellectuals used to crank out very Kaplan-esque books that touted the coming conflict with America, such as China Can Say No (1996) and Unrestricted Warfare (1997). Or, I should say, John Mearsheimer-esque books, since he's the big proponent of the "inevitable war with China" thesis here in America. But lately, Lampton says, "[t]he fashion among Chinese intellectuals is to talk about 'win-win,' rather than 'zero-sum' thinking." So one of the factors that may well prove crucial on both sides of the Pacific is what sorts of intellectuals and strategic thinkers actually end up influencing government policy.

Unfortunately, this is always a tricky thing to figure out. Clearly some intellectuals do end up shaping government policy—most histories of the neo-cons will attest to that—but from a distance, it's often impossible to tell where the real centers of influence actually are. For instance, I read lots of essays about France that quote all sorts of French political tracts to make a point about this or that new French ideology emerging, but obviously the only books that matter are those that actually affect the way the Paris government thinks about stuff. And no one can say which ones do. Likewise, I have no way of telling, and Lampton doesn't say, whether Unrestricted Warfare actually had any influence beyond a small circle of Chinese academics, or whether these new 'win-win' intellectuals have Hu Jintao's ear. Nor, for that matter, do I know whether the White House and Pentagon are more likely to be thinking along the lines of John Mearsheimer or, say, Tom Barnett (who is extremely dovish on China), or whether they even care about what any of these thinkers are saying. But that seems awfully important to figure out.

...the worst possibility, of course, is that rising military hawkishness towards China is being driven by the Pentagon's need to justify buying a bunch of high-tech new equipment. i.e. "We really want these new nuclear subs, but Congress will never go for it. But they might if we start talking about the coming war with Beijing..." Obviously it's not quite as flagrant as that, but at least subconsciously that might be what's happening.

MORE: fascinating stuff on China from praktike, who happens to know everything about everything, apparently.
-- Brad Plumer 8:37 PM || ||