Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Mark Helprin's reminder about the rise of China is useful, but Helprin seems to assume that China will inevitably be hostile. He argues that

[I]n the longer term, China is bent upon and will achieve gross military and economic parity with the United States.

and that

When China was great, it sent out military expeditions by land and sea into a large part of what was for it the known world, and despite robotic protestations to the contrary it will do so again.

so he agonizes that

This and a persistent blindness in regard to China's probable trajectory are wounds gratuitously self-inflicted, for no country, ever, has had both the mass and income at the margin that the United States has now, but rather than anticipate, meet, and discourage China's military development, as it easily could, the U.S. has chosen to ignore it.

Helprin seems to feel that it is self-evident that Americans should want more power for us, less for them. I disagree. Whether more Chinese military power is good or not depends on what China will do with that military power once they have it. Probably they'll want to re-order the world somewhat. Newly emerging great powers usually do. I think the present world order is far from perfect (too much poverty is one problem, largely a result of restrictions on migration) so I'm open to the possibility that a Chinese superpower might change it for the better.

Helprin sees it as ominous that:

[China] has already begun what it itself might at one time have called imperial expansion, driven not by ideology but the need for markets and raw materials. Major crude oil importation, begun only recently, is already one-quarter the volume of U.S. crude imports, leading China to compete for petroleum not only in the Middle East but in South America and at least six countries in Africa.

It is great that China is consuming increasing amounts of raw materials. Commodity prices, broadly speaking, have been falling for decades now, which has been devastating for many developing countries that rely on commodity exports. By buying up not only oil but aluminum, tobacco, cotton, steel, etc., China will spread the wealth of its spectacular growth.

Because of the rising threat of China, Helprin hints throughout the essay that it's a big mistake that we've been distracted by the venture in Iraq. First he writes:

what passed for unipolarity is emphatically over [in part] because the strategy of the moment has allowed a small force of primitive insurgents in Iraq to occupy a large proportion of American military energy...

It's true, of course, that we have less slack in our military capacities than we did a few years ago. We're less able to defend Taiwan or South Korea, if need be, or to intervene in Sudan. That argument will apply against any military venture. But China hasn't invaded Taiwan, and over the next few years our Iraq presence will presumably wind down. When it does (unless stop-loss creates recruitment problems down the road) our military will be strengthened by the operation because of the experience we have acquired. Helprin realizes this but thinks that

America's vision has been knocked out of focus by its ideals, and when China does develop the powerful expeditionary forces that it will need to protect its far- flung interests, the U.S. will probably have successfully completed transforming its military into a force designed mainly to fight terrorism and insurgencies.

I don't think we're under-investing in our dazzling air superiority. But we're also acquiring capacities for counter-insurgency and urban warfare that we lacked in the 1990s, which crippled us strategically in Yugoslavia and against the rising threat of al-Qaeda. In a hypothetical global struggle with China, urban warfare and counter-insurgency are likely to be an important element, so it's to our advantage that we are acquiring those skills. But hopefully the US and China will never be hostile anyway.

I see China as potentially a benign successor-hegemon to the US, as the US was for Britain. Our task for now (and the transformation of the Muslim world is part of that task) is to prepare the world by infusing it with the best of our ideals while we are dominant, while grooming the Chinese to infuse it with the best of theirs.


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