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Institutionalized: China and Superpower Status

June 6, 2013

Decline and power transition create curious anxieties. For many those who insist that it is a choice which we must not relinquish, leadership simply exists within the international system, waiting for some nefarious power to take up the metaphorical crown and gain, in spite of material realities to the contrary, imposing their will through a leadership the U.S. cannot actually cede to others. Now, from Fareed Zakaria, we have something of an opposite, liberal, institutionalist spin – the idea that being a superpower must come from conforming to American leadership and preferences:

China is the world’s second-largest economy and, because of its size, will one day become the largest. (On a per-capita basis, it is a middle-income country, and it might never surpass the United States in that regard.) But power is defined along many dimensions, and by most political, military, strategic and cultural measures, China is a great but not global power. For now, it lacks the intellectual ambition to set the global agenda.

Up until the last sentence, this paragraph is true. China is a great power, and it has the potential to become more powerful, but it is yet unable to translate its economic might into military dominance over its own region, let alone beyond its own region, nor does it have the political clout that the USSR ever held among much of the communist bloc. However, describing China’s inability to set “the global agenda” as a lack of “intellectual ambition” is particularly strange. The matter of China’s political and military difficulties (especially power projection), along with its need to devote a large amount of resource and attention to controlling and policing its own country is certainly a check on ambition. It certainly has intellectual implications, as all forms of material circumstance inevitably too. Yet those hard difficulties we cannot intellectualize away.

Zakaria quotes David Shambaugh (who I was lucky enough to study under as a student), who describes Chinese difficulties this way:

“China is, in essence, a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior (except its much-vaunted doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries). Its economic policies are mercantilist and its diplomacy is passive. China is also a lonely strategic power, with no allies and experiencing distrust and strained relationships with much of the world.”

There is a strong case to be made that Chinese policy is counterproductive for several Chinese interests. If a country cannot usurp the global order, it may very well be the case that acquiescing to certain aspects of it will improve its diplomatic standing, decrease military tensions, and increase opportunities for economic growth. That is a worthwhile case to argue. It is also not one rising powers are particularly willing to heed, especially when a hegemonic power tells you what your own best interest is. (“What do you mean, we decided? My best interest?”)

Zakaria insists, though, that if China wants to be a superpower, and wants to be treated like a superpower, it needs to start doing more to defer to the interests of other powers:

The United States should seek good and deep relations with China. They would mean a more stable, prosperous and peaceful world. Further integrating China into an open global system would help maintain that system and the open world economy that rests on it. But this can happen only if China recognizes and respects that system and operates from the perspective of a global power and not that of a “narrow-minded” state seeking only to maximize its interests.

One could say that establishing security in an international system led by a hegemonic superpower requires playing by the rules and through the institutions that superpower has erected. It is much harder, however, to convincingly argue that this is where superpower status emerges from. In a ten-year old assessment of China’s supposed superpower status, Lyman Miller defines what a superpower is (the definition holds up well, even if the assessment needs updating):

a “superpower” is a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemon.

The reasons that China cannot project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world are manifold. China’s blue-water naval capability has yet to achieve total dominance over its neighbors, let alone develop the robust capability to deploy expeditionary military forces in major conflicts on other continents. China must still spend more money on internal security, monitoring its population and cracking down on Tibet and Xinjiang, than it does on external military activity. China’s ascendant status in a crowded neighborhood of competing powers elicits anxiety, while American alliances reinforce a status quo many second-tier powers find satisfying or at least tolerable. We could go further. The point is, though, is that acting like a superpower as Zakaria describes it does not remedy these problems, indeed, by legitimizing an international security and political architecture that privileges the United States, it exacerbates them to a certain extent.

Being a superpower is not defined by acting in accordance with the preferences of others, it is about possessing the capability to impose your preferences on them. We may not find this way of thinking particularly life-affirming but that’s how the sausage is made. Perhaps we should examine past power transitions, and see whether rising superpowers rose through recognition and respect of global governance and the preference of foreign powers, or by selective engagement dictated by narrow-minded national interest?

The Soviet Union was never as deeply integrated into the global economy or institutions as it China is today. It engaged with international institutions selectively, only joining the League of Nations in 1934 (more out of narrow-minded self-interest with regard to Eurasian power politics) and flaunting it by invading Finland five years later (again, out of narrow-minded self-interest), resulting in an expulsion that did jack squat to help the Finns, let alone check its political ascent. After German invasion, the USSR’s pursuit of global power was hardly contradictory with its national interest. The USSR’s idea of recognizing and respecting the international system was the outright conquest of significant swathes of territories it first gained invading Eastern Europe alongside the Nazis, and installing horrific vassal governments with only the most marginal pretenses of the democratic principles of its two major allies.

Sure, the USSR joined the United Nations, but it had a privileged position in this organization, one not bequeathed as a reward for the enlightened nature of its self-interest or intellectual ambition, but for coming out on the winning side of a war. The USSR’s military did more to defeat Hitler than any single country, and it did so after Stalin cooperated with Hitler in opposition to the Western capitalist powers. You could have made a great many critiques of the mockery Stalin put the international system through at the end of World War II, where Soviet troops belied the lofty pretensions of a new democratic orders. What you could not have effectively said was that this somehow obviated Soviet superpower status or the need to accord them one in matters of diplomatic and military consideration. Superpower status was not something the rest of the world could grant or rescind from the USSR, it, in any practical sense, simply was, and that factual standing came with the empirical proof of military might, ideological clout, and, at the time, economic capacity. The Soviet Union could have preferences as narrow or cosmopolitan as it preferred, but it had them because of the power it acquired through ruthless, calculating manipulation and usurpation of the old international order, and the exploitation of its own advantages.

The United States, too, hardly followed Zakaria’s described path to superpower status. Its pushed its own norms in the Western hemisphere, launched imperial wars in Asia and Latin America, and participated only reluctantly in the Great War. Its participation in global governance often followed lofty ideals, but practical engagement was selective, fitful, and frequently self-interested. Its ascent to superpower status did not come from vigorous engagement with and deference to global governance. It became militarily powerful enough that it could impose, in the aftermath of an even greater war, the norms, institutions, and standards of global governance it preferred. Even institutions as innocuous as Bretton-Woods were arguably part of an attempt to seriously displace Britain as a power, as an institutional arbiter, and as a normative leader within international affairs, a project which began decades before and would continue at least through the Suez Crisis.

When Zakaria and others are talking about participating in global governance and the need to abandon its narrow-minded interests, they are talking about a system a superpower created, not one that creates superpowers. There are many good things about the American-built liberal international order. Certainly it is clever enough in design to give other countries incentives to participate beyond the coercive variety. But countries that integrate deeply and follow its rules simply don’t become superpowers in any reasonable sense of the term. The international system that Zakaria wants China to accede to requires more acquiescence to American security preferences as integration deepens. There is a chance this could result in a more prosperous, safe, China. But if China becomes a superpower by being even less subversive of international governance and norms in the face of a predominant power, it will be the first superpower to do so. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to treat China like a superpower because it is not one. While it is something of a noble lie to tell countries that they can attain such a status by acting in a way that benefits our interests, and arguably cosmopolitan interests by preventing the subversion or collapse of a liberal international system, it’s still, well, not true.

While I strongly doubt Xi is reading the op-eds in advance to his summit, if he wants China to be a global power on par with the U.S., this advice obviously isn’t particularly helpful. It would be even more of a mistake for a country seeking to become a superpower to assume an anti-revisionist world order is the path to achieving such a goal. There are a lot of good reasons not to seek superpower status, especially if the material and political foundations for it are weak. But promising superpower status through compliance to hegemonic interests is historically unheard of and diplomatically, a risky proposition to sell. That is a road to dangerously divergent expectations, and from there, the breakdown of international systems.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. TrT permalink
    June 9, 2013 3:56 am

    “but it is yet unable to translate its economic might into military dominance over its own region, let alone beyond its own region”

    Military Dominance, not yet, although the USSRs military dominance was less solid than claimed, both China and Yugoslavia managed to remain independent of the USSR remember.

    But Economic Dominance is in full swing, its simply not backing down when its facing the EU in trade disputes, its escalating the situation.

  2. June 14, 2013 6:52 pm

    Zakaria would probably agree w a lot of this post. He’s using “superpower” in a journalistic way, though, not in the IR-academic way to mean a country able to project global influence anywhere it wants (or whatever comparable definition you want to adopt).

    ‘Superpower’ and ‘hegemon’ are often mushy terms and in an op-ed column one shdn’t usu. expect clear definitions.

    He’s being, in short, a journalist, a pundit in this column and doesn’t really have his IR scholar’s hat on. But Zakaria must be under few illusions about the US’s imperial past or about how the US projected its power abroad as a consequence (partly) of growing central-state capacity. He wrote his dissertation (and first bk) about it, after all.

  3. LFC permalink
    June 14, 2013 6:58 pm

    oops I didn’t mean to post the picture of the cover — I guess that’s what Amazon linking does these days. Sorry.

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