Foreigns affairs American think tanks are actively discussing the rise of china.
Those speaking events while being a must if you are interested in those subjects seems to cross on an important point, the question is almost framed as follow : China is very probably a revisionist power, and if so,then there’s how things are going to unravel. Thenceforth it seems logical to think alongside well known historical precedents. The story line that follow is simple. Germany and Japan were strong and powerful revisionist powers do you remember how it ended ?
These are bright people to be sure; yes historical precedents are almost all we have. but one can wonder why they use such an easy way to elaborate on a complex and versatile situation. Our answer is two fold, such an angle is easy listening for the audience as everybody know what was going then, more importantly, framing the subject in such a way lead to reassuring conclusions. Our opinion is that sadly the second argument is probably the one to keep in mind.
Even, as we are not an expert in that field we can suggest that other parts of history could have been invoked convincingly. Ashton Carter reminded us of the dreaded thirty years war comparing it to the messy business in the middle east, pointing particularly the conflict between Shiites and Sunnites. We saw there a powerful historical parallel that he probably didn’t have in mind.
Framing the discussion in an other direction.
At the dawn of the 17teen century Spain was still the most powerful western empire. Charles Quint split his empire between his heirs in order to create manageable estates, administration was so cumbersome and byzantine that the term state is probably too strong. The western estate took with it the Americas and Philippines as well as Spain, the Low Country and various places in Italy. The eastern part was an even stranger peace of statecraft. The Holy Romain Empire found itself ruled by a Habsbour who found his power on Austria and Bohemia witch were imperial lands as well as parts of Hungarian and Croatia. All in all the second branch inherited considerable prestige from the imperial title as the western branch enjoyed the generous stream of revenues coming from the Americas.
With time it was inevitable that each one of these greats houses would go in his own way, guided by the flow of a changing world. But two things played a powerful role in keeping the international politics of the two Habsbourg branches being played in a cooperative mode. The Habsbourg played a very strong role in the counter-reform, religious bias were shared, those people thought they were defending the true faith and in the case of Spain Inquisition was there to enforce what was a state policy. More importantly both had a powerful neighbor on the rise again after having suffered terribly from the religious trouble : France.
That country was a producer of wheat, wine, lumber, textiles and so many others things, it’s population was great and more important it’s state was very strong and competent if compared with the state of affair prevailing in the habsbourgs estates. Worse, having remained catholic by the grace of Henry IV senses of real-politic it was a contender in the matter relatives to the holy roman church. France had been a foe during the 16teen century, it would be again now and it was dangerous for both houses.
But the Holly Roman Empire was too weak to risk a direct confrontation. First it had to build a powerful administrative structure, Protestant had to be put in their place, and princes had to bend before the emperor. Then and only then it would be possible to take on the only power that could oppose them. That’s what Ferdinand Of Habsbourg embarked on, starting what would be known as the thirty year war.
At first France could and would do nothing, but time passing it became obvious it couldn’t allow Ferdinand’s scheme to be allowed. So it’s started to spend money and to give a push to every protestant ready to fight. War in Germany became uglier and uglier despite a very promising start for the Habsbourg. Then at the tipping point, Gustav Adold’s the swede guy camed in a rush making the odds of a positive outcome for Ferdinand less and less possible. It’ was time for Spain to put it’s weight in the balance, France could do no less that to follow suit. What was a very nasty war by proxy had become a full blown war between the great powers of the time. The conflict was now clearly out of control. Spain ran out of men and treasure, Austria was exhausted, the disaster of Rocroi made it clear to the world an entire army could be wipe out in one engagement. It was hard to see a positive outcome on the side of the Habsbourg it was time to search for a settlement.
Incidently it’s worth noticing that the long search for it founded the institutional framework that some in the USA though outdated, who is revisionist ?
What is the point ?
Spain had both the best army (the feared tercios) and money (gold and silver from the americas), it was too strong at sea to be seriously challenged. But in the end it would never be able to manage a come back from what was a devastating enterprise. France was a producer of goods and raw materials, it edge it’s opponents in population and management, it played a long strategic game keeping it’s options opens. It’s game became clear late in the process.
15 year ago USA felt threatened by the rise of China, it was already foreseeable that it was becoming formidable again after a two century eclipse. So it felt compelled to put it’s hand on the world greatest prize (middle east oil) without sharing “fairly” with it’s old gang, against the international community. Doing so, it entered a world of hurt as every power had an interest to make their life harder in those place not even counting the locals which were reluctant to say the least. Now another great player entered the game using his considerable strength to make his point, Russia, the one that was supposed to be tamed. China is not even officially involved and things are already going very sour. Prestige, money and innocent people blood have been spend in enormous amount. Meanwhile the social fabric of that great nation suffered heavily as the current election cycle underscore . Here it is : that’s my theory of the reluctant declining great power. It should be said that the passing of the torche was relatively easy between the two Anglo-Saxon powers, thanks to the Germans thumbling their hand again and again. One century sooner the defeat of France under Napoleon came at a great cost for everyone, and as i just reminded the reader: the Habsbourgs fall in a blood bath. Perhaps those in Washington should better to think along those terms from time to time.
It’s time for humility
Every comparison could be used, up to a point. We do not think that our example is that pertinent but it has some things playing in his favor. The question is now simple, why our American thinkers are using such a simplistic geopolitical framework of reference ? I can understand that public and academic life being what it is, being polite is an important part of the exercise but i suspect a more sinister reason behind this bias : those people really believe what they are saying, not in every point of course, but the framing is a good way to understand their point of view nothing could go very badly. Perhaps that the powerful think-tanks as wise and knowledgeable as they are have a very difficult time to embark on a real critical discussion of what’s going on. That would be sad, a failing global strategy can’t be address by an intellectual elite that apparently started to believe in it’s own pie in the sky stories. As you can imagine by know I think those stories are dangerous, sadly, probably a warning of more blunder to come. But who knows what is going to happen, our strongest guess is it will surprise the good people of the Wilson center, CFR and many more and, if things go smoothly, even myself.