Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 05:01 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 05:01 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Foreign policy conservatism

18 March 2011 11:12

Some thoughts on Sam Roggeveen's three-part series. Below, a response from Brian Reilly, but first, Peter Layton writes:

This is an interesting if I imagine for some people an esoteric debate. However, American decline is not something many Americans would believe in. Americans have a strong and robust faith in their exceptionalism and this shows no sign of ending. While the bloggers may think only the far right willfully refuse to see the evidence of decline, this faith is much more widespread. 

Earlier this month, the liberal internationalist scholar Joe Nye wrote that:

"Nor is China likely to surpass America anytime soon. Yes, barring political uncertainties, China's size and high rate of economic growth will almost certainly increase its strength relative to that of the United States. Still, China won't necessarily become the world's most powerful country as a result. Even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, many of the current projections based on GDP growth alone are too one-dimensional. They ignore what are likely to be enduring U.S. military and soft-power advantages, as well as China's geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power."

China is another incomplete superpower. In its Cold War competition with the USSR based around military might, the USSR deliberately out built the US in arms in an attempt to be treated as an equal power. Washington led by the arch-realist Henry Kissinger was not having a bar of it.  After many years of publicly saying military might was all, the US turned around in the early 1970s and observed that military power was only one part of being a superpower and not the most important part and so the USSR could never be considered equal in that sense to the US.

Fast forward and the same game is being played, and with some logic.  China like Russia will surpass the US in a particular single measure of national power. America is no danger though of being soon surpassed in diplomatic, military or soft power; American values remain attractive and American alliances remain strong. China seems very distant on these measures.

American realists and their followers here will continue to warn that Chinese economic growth will at some stage be translated into vast military might comparable to that the US has given a similar GDP. But this is an assumption not a fact. Realist thinker John Mearsheimer warned post-cold War that Germany and Japan would re-arm and get nukes; that did not happen, they did not use their economic might to build military might. It is not set in stone that the Chinese will try to translate their economic power into military power - although there are some realist missteps we could take that could make it so. 

Arguing that Americans should embrace Hedley Bull's international society paradigm rather than the realist Hobbesian one has merit on its own. Linking it to American decline is bound to fail though, Americans would much rather take on board linking Bull to continuing American exceptionalism and primacy.

Brian Reilly:

I read your post in Jim Fallows space at The Atlantic.  It seems to make the case that conservatives (the right sort of conservatives, as you and Mr Sullivan define them.) should embrace a post-US hegemonic world, relying on proceduralist international bodies.  All well and good I suppose. I guess where one stands on this depends on where one sits.

There are damn few conservative politicians of any real devotion in the United States. The by-far dominant stripe of self-described conservative politician is of the 'Don't break my rice bowl' variety.

There is in the US a mass of citizens who would be described as conservative that think the US ought to basically concentrate a lot less on what other governments and international bodies think, relying an (ideally, now) a friendly but not embracing relationship with most of the rest of the world. 

Exceptions to this no embrace policy are reserved for the nations that we share real cultural affinity with, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, and surely some others.  We (and I put myself in this group) think that free trade and greasing local palms (as is the custom in great swaths of the world, like it or not) with generous private charity working as the charitable see fit is the way to go.

Do I really care much about China, their people, population problems, or desire (if it exists) to dominate the western Pacific' No. One way or another, the Chinese are players, and want to play. They will be somewhat heavy handed perhaps, but there is 1.3 billion of them. 

What are you going to do' If the US Navy no longer has carrier task forces, does that necessarily mean that the Chines Navy will dominate' If they do, will they charge tolls or something' Maybe, I suppose. Would the US be well advised to prevent the Chines Navy from expanding into blue water force projection' If so, why' I think that the Chinese get he best part of the deal now, and so do they.

The world is changing. The role of the United States in the world is changing. Conservatives recognize this. We (the mass, not the politicians) tend to think that a mighty nice world, plenty safe for all, can be had with a much smaller global US presence. A much smaller presence STILL leaves us with a huge presence in the world, and this is not bad. We can be responsible practicers of liberty, allied with others who share our love of liberty, encouraging others to join us, and treat the others with disdain short of insult.

We also tend to think that the international bodies you lightly refer to are no more than organized gangs of thieves.  Nice thieves, mind you, but thieves nonetheless.  If the UN moved out of New York tomorrow, not one in twenty Americans west of the Hudson would shed a tear.