There are two contests currently underway in global affairs. In each the stakes of the game are nothing less than planetary preeminence. One of the two "games" is between adherents of political Islam, particularly violent political Islam, and the civilized states both great and small. The other is between the US and the Peoples Republic of China.
Both are dangerous. Both directly threaten the US and We the People. Without going unacceptably far out on the limb of doom laden speculation, each--and particularly the second--are existential in the sense that should the US be on the losing side, life will change for Americans, and not for the better.
As was the case in World War II when the US was faced by war on two fronts, war conducted by two qualitatively different enemies, a choice must be made as to which enemy deserves priority. In 1941 the leadership of the US and UK correctly estimated that Nazi Germany constituted the greater threat and thus merited the greater effort by the Western Allies. Now, the leadership of the US must make a similar decision. It must evaluate which threat--violent political Islam or expansionist China--is greater and, thus, must take pride of place in American efforts.
It is not an easy choice to make. There is no doubt but violent political Islam constitutes a clear and present danger. There is no arguing against the proposition that should the adherents of this objectionable religion based political philosophy gain greater influence around the world, the consequences for the US and other civilized states would be unpleasant and all too often lethal. However, the potentials of violent political Islam pale when compared to the threat contained in Chinese expansionism.
Unlike the majority of those who advocate the triumph of political Islam (which are actors of the non-state sort), China is a fully functioning state with all the appurtenances of statehood. Not only is China a nation-state, it is an authoritarian one, which means it has automatic advantages in long term planning and execution of policy. China is not only a nation-state with an authoritarian political system, it is a country with both a long history and an equally long record of being quite historically conscious. Historical consciousness implies that policy is more often than not based on trajectories and world views of very long standing, backed as it were by the power of time.
Given its advantages of organization, economic and technological predicates, population size and cohesiveness, unitary political will, and the very real force of time, China possesses a number of advantages in the Great Game of Nations which are denied to the adherents of political Islam. In short, China is today's equivalent of Nazi Germany in 1941 while the practitioners of political Islam are the contemporary version of Imperial Japan in 1941--a major annoyance, an enemy which must be defeated in the fullness of time but not a true existential menace.
When considering the match up between China and the US, it is clear that China has a number of very potent advantages. Some of these have been examined in earlier posts such as Beijing's severely narrow focus on Chinese national and strategic interests, its capacity to assure monolithic political will, or the Trolls' well demonstrated ability to plan and execute foreign policy with an emphasis on the long term.
There are other factors which amp up China's tactical capacities which merit close consideration since without effective tactics even the best strategy will fail. A second justification for scrutinizing certain tactical matters is that the differing approaches taken by the US and China are illustrative of larger factors which militate against American success in the current contest.
Consider for the moment the notion of "doing good." The notion of "doing good" is inherent in the concept of "nation-building." And, as has been demonstrated by our interventionary operations in the post-World War II decades, the slippery critter called "nation-building" has been a centrality. Actually, the roots of nation-building go back nearly a century when Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines ashore in Mexico in order "to teach the Mexicans to elect good men."
Nation-building is one of those ideas which reads well in academic conferences or policy discussions by ad hoc inter-agency working groups sitting around highly polished fine wood tables in some chancery somewhere. In the real world, particularly among those benighted folk upon whose backs a nation will be built, the idea is not so well received.
The idea is even less well received when it is presented--as it always is--with overtones of condescension, of the well intentioned expert parachuting in with salvation for the heathen contained in his briefcase or on his flash drive. The wannabe nation-builder does nothing to enhance the favor with which his efforts at uplift are received when--as inevitably it must be--hectoring replaces mere condescension.
No one likes to be told he is somehow lacking, somehow inferior, somehow in need of guidance, moral uplift, political transformation. No member of a traditional society and culture enjoys hearing how it is deficient and what he must do to "build" his nation. The universal crustiness of the human critter assures that the most well intended nation-building will fail unless the "builders" limit their role to that of provider of money and other goodies.
The Americans (and other Westerners as well) have never gotten the message no matter how often it has been delivered by different recipients of our nation-building efforts. In Afghanistan today as in South Vietnam fifty years ago or Mexico a half century before that, Americans are committed to nation-building complete with the ribbons and bows of hectoring and implicit superiority. The result is simple: No matter how much "good" we do, the efforts are invariably resented and rejected by the objects of our succor and assistance.
The Chinese are not so high minded. Perhaps because China was the target of nation-building in bygone days, the Trolls and their agents are willing to simply pass out money and urge that Chinese companies be hired for infrastructure projects. China does not seek to build nations but rather to secure influence within existing governments and the states these rule. To this end the Trolls will distribute money, seek to recoup as much of the dole as possible through the awarding of contracts, and in the process gain and retain influence within both the government of the target state and its associated elite(s.)
This is a coldly realistic process of pursuing Chinese national and strategic interests. The Trolls have no lofty aspirations of uplifting the heathens, of changing the local culture, society, or polity for the "better" or otherwise doing "good" for the local "masses." Chinese national and strategic interests in no way require the transformation of the recipient country into a simulacrum of China.
This diplomatic philosophy is in sharp opposition with that of the US (and some other Western states.) It doesn't matter if neocon ninnies or High Minded Progressives are running the White House or congress, the US always demands the recipient become some sort of Western style democratic polity with a society marked by the full panoply of "rights" enjoyed by Americans today and an economy having all the features of a well regulated, "rule of law" approach.
The implications of this sharp set of distinctions are too self-evident to require elucidation. Or, at least, they should be.
For the Deep Thinking Denizens Inside the Beltway, the distinctions and their impact do not seem so self-evident. This dynamic comes into sharper focus in another area of difference between the methods of the Trolls and those favored by the US government and its fellow travelers within our domestic elites.
The second illustration of the differences between the Chinese and American ways of 'nation-building" is the role of corruption. To Americans at the policy level corruption is anathema. To the Trolls it just another way of acquiring and keeping influence. To us it is a sin. To the Chinese it is a fact of life to be used in the pursuit of interest.
In many places around the world graft, corruption, nepotism, and a lack of transparency are a normal and expectable part of life. When these features of quotidian existence become a problem for the local elite or the citizenry generally, it is usually because the fruits of corruption are not distributed equitably. It is not the corruption per se but rather its lack of breadth which cause outrage.
The American answer to corruption is to stamp it out with the moral fervor of a health Nazi facing a McDonald's warehouse. The Chinese response is to build corruption in as a normal cost and try to make sure it is spread around appropriately. The more spreading the better as such assures more people will be tied in effectively to the Chinese program.
Our approach is more--more laws, more regulations, more courts, more commissions, more oversight, more investigators, more cops. The Chinese approach is also more--more money and more widespread distribution.
Pop quiz: Which approach is more likely to produce more positive results with more people in the recipient traditional society?
This brief consideration of two tactical advantages enjoyed by China over the US today illustrates why it is critical for us to stop and take a hard look at the two threats facing the Americans today. It also helps in understanding why China is the larger, more important threat as well as why the US is not likely to prevail in the contest underway today.
To put it all quite simply, when the deck is stacked against you is it is with respect to the Trolls time is not on your side. The US does not have the luxury of sitting back and wondering what we should do--if anything. The real deal is the Obama administration has no viable option other than to remove its collective head from the sand and realize that the Chinese are cruising on by us on the fast track to global preeminence.
Really, Mr Obama is that why you received the Nobel Peace Prize?