Monday, November 16, 2009

Going West to the East

I always find it strange that one flies west from North America and arrives in the Far East.  Anyhow, Obama is making the Asian rounds. 

In China, Obama said:
"Our relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty, but the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined,"
The notion is certainly predestined, but the question is whether the reality is going to be so. Well, that depends on which theory of international relations to which one subscribes. [And as someone who knows very little about China, the following is mostly wild speculation]
  • Various variants of Realism would certainly predict exactly that--that a bipolar system--one in which two countries are much more powerful than the rest--would be characterized by tensions between the two.  Ideology, good will and the rest matter not.  War may not happen, but rivalry is certain.
  • Power transition theory, which as one of my undergrads reminded me, still exists and is often ignored.  The basic idea is that as the dominant player declines and a new country rises to take its place, conflict is inevitable.  First, the old hegemon may launch a preventative war to forestall its decline.  And second, the old king created rules of the game that tend to favor itself, so that the new king will seek to revise the rules.  Gilpin's War and Change was one of the most fun books to read in grad school as it provided an interesting blend of Realism and Marxism to predict that the inevitable contradictions of the system will provoke war.
  • Democratic peace theory predicts peace among democracies but not necessarily war amongst mixed dyads (pairs of countries not sharing the same political system).  But the logic is still there--if countries of the same regime type are less likely to fight with each other, then we should not be surprised by tensions, crisis and even war amongst mixed pairs.  Of course, since they are multiple causal logics to the DemPeace, this can play out in different ways.
    • If it is about democratic norms--that within and between democracies disputes are resolved through negotiation, litigation and persuasion, then we might expect China/US to have a hard time since only one side of this dyad has such norms at home.
    • If it is about structural constraints, including elections, then again, it is likely that only one side of this pairing will be constrained by public opinion.  I wonder if it is better to have two unconstrained leaders or two constrained ones, rather than one of each.
    • If it is about transparency, then only one side is transparent, and thus confusion and misperception is likely.
  •  Liberalism focuses on the convergence of interests.  The good news is that the mutual dependence of the two should provide plenty of incentives to both sides to keep their cool.
  • Constructivism is a broader category with no real predictions, but one could ask what could it say here.
    • We may see tension as inevitable because they disagree on what is appropriate and legitimate--that they have different values.  Even when cost-benefit calculations might suggest that cooperation is the correct course, we may find that one side views certain paths are seen as being wrong and invalid.
 "Still, Obama said, there are certain core principles that all people must share. According to the president, those principles include equal rights for everyone, a government that reflects the will of the people, open commerce and free access to information, and the rule of law. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation," he told the gathering."
    • If we take identity seriously and the process of identification, one of the challenges here is that the natural them for China is the US.  The US has its own identity but can focus on other "thems" so that China is not necessarily the principal antagonist--the US has a full menu of potential antagonists!  However, China may also focus on some other Them--Russia perhaps.
 On the bright side, both sides have heaps of nuclear weapons so mutual assured destruction should continue to play the role it has in the past--deterring both sides. However, the downside is that deterrence at the strategic level might facilitate assertiveness at lower levels (the stability-instability paradox), and that is where Taiwan fits in. 

One last note of pessimism--one can easily imagine politicians on either side seeking to rise to power by promoting themselves as the best defenders of their country's interests.

1 comment:

blenCOWe said...

Is the adversarial notion really different from reality and how it is influenced by the view or theory of IR that we subscribe to? To say that China and the US are predestined to exist in an adversarial relationship requires that the international system naturally conditions actors to oppose each other. One could potentially argue a counterfactual case where the scarcity of resources and the varying availabilities of these resources could naturally could naturally provoke states to work as allies, rather than adversaries, in order to acquire the resources one needs to survive without the resource expensive act of war. In both situations, these predispositions can be viewed as socially constructed by the parties involved. An actor's agency cannot be separated from the shape that the international system takes. Therefore, I would argue, that nothing is predisposed and as such China's adversarial relationship with the United States is very much the result of the theoretical assumptions that one uses to model their behaviour, which in this case would be the strands of realist thought that have traditionally been dominant in US foreign policy and IR. It is impossible to predispose something without making a commitment to some form of world-view (e.g. theory of IR).