This post was edited by markwu at 2017-10-18 09:51|
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
China vs. America: Managing the Next Clash of Civilizations
As Americans awaken to a rising China that now rivals the United States in every arena, many seek comfort in the conviction that as China grows richer and stronger, it will follow in the footsteps of Germany, Japan, and other countries that have undergone profound transformations and emerged as advanced liberal democracies.
In this view, the magic cocktail of globalization, market-based consumerism, and integration into the rule-based international order will eventually lead China to become democratic at home and to develop into what former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once described as “a responsible stakeholder” abroad.
Samuel Huntington disagreed. In his essay “The Clash of Civilizations?,” published in this magazine in 1993, the political scientist argued that, far from dissolving in a global liberal world order, cultural fault lines would become a defining feature of the post–Cold War world.
Huntington’s argument is remembered today primarily for its prescience in spotlighting the divide between “Western and Islamic civilizations”—a rift that was revealed most vividly by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. But Huntington saw the gulf between the U.S.-led West and Chinese civilization as just as deep, enduring, and consequential. As he put it, “The very notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies and their emphasis on what distinguishes one people from another.”
The years since have bolstered Huntington’s case. The coming decades will only strengthen it further. The United States embodies what Huntington considered Western civilization. And tensions between American and Chinese values, traditions, and philosophies will aggravate the fundamental structural stresses that occur whenever a rising power, such as China, threatens to displace an established power, such as the United States.
The reason such shifts so often lead to conflict is Thucydides’ trap, named after the ancient Greek historian who observed a dangerous dynamic between a rising Athens and ruling Sparta. According to Thucydides, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”
Rising powers understandably feel a growing sense of entitlement and demand greater influence and respect. Established powers, faced with challengers, tend to become fearful, insecure, and defensive. In such an environment, misunderstandings are magnified, empathy remains elusive, and events and third-party actions that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable can trigger wars that the primary players never wanted to fight.
In the case of the United States and China, Thucydidean risks are compounded by civilizational incompatibility between the two countries, which exacerbates their competition and makes it more difficult to achieve rapprochement. This mismatch is most easily observed in the profound differences between American and Chinese conceptions of the state, economics, the role of individuals, relations among nations, and the nature of time.
Americans see government as a necessary evil and believe that the state’s tendency toward tyranny and abuse of power must be feared and constrained. For Chinese, government is a necessary good, the fundamental pillar ensuring order and preventing chaos. In American-style free-market capitalism, government establishes and enforces the rules; state ownership and government intervention in the economy sometimes occur but are undesirable exceptions. In China’s state-led market economy, the government establishes targets for growth, picks and subsidizes industries to develop, promotes national champions, and undertakes significant, long-term economic projects to advance the interests of the nation.
Chinese culture does not celebrate American-style individualism, which measures society by how well it protects the rights and fosters the freedom of individuals. Indeed, the Chinese term for “individualism”—gerenzhuyi—suggests a selfish preoccupation with oneself over one’s community. China’s equivalent of “give me liberty or give me death” would be “give me a harmonious community or give me death.” For China, order is the highest value, and harmony results from a hierarchy in which participants obey Confucius’ first imperative: Know thy place.
This view applies not only to domestic society but also to global affairs, where the Chinese view holds that China’s rightful place is atop the pyramid; other states should be arranged as subordinate tributaries. The American view is somewhat different. Since at least the end of World War II, Washington has sought to prevent the emergence of a “peer competitor” that could challenge U.S. military dominance. But postwar American conceptions of international order have also emphasized the need for a rule-based global system that restrains even the United States.
Finally, the Americans and the Chinese think about time and experience its passage differently. Americans tend to focus on the present and often count in hours or days. Chinese, on the other hand, are more historical-minded and often think in terms of decades and even centuries.
Of course, these are sweeping generalizations that are by necessity reductive and not fully reflective of the complexities of American and Chinese society. But they also provide important reminders that policymakers in the United States and China should keep in mind in seeking to manage this competition without war.