The statesmen of Singapore in the tradition of Lee Kuan Yew are known for their foreign-policy realism, and they know Asia much better than do Westerners. We should assess their geopolitical advice with that perspective in mind. Bilahari Kausikan, a former top official in Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has written an essay in Foreign Affairs that for all of its eloquence and obeisance to history is nevertheless reminiscent of Norman Angell’s 1910 work The Great Illusion, which argued that the economic interdependence of great powers would lessen the chances of a major war — three years before the outbreak of World War I.
Kausikan rightly asserts that great powers have competed and, at times, collaborated throughout history. And sometimes competition turns into conflict. We live in such times now, he writes, but that doesn’t mean a great-power war is inevitable. Indeed, instead of heading into a cold war between China and the United States, he explains, “the world is returning to its natural state” in the aftermath of the U.S.–Soviet Cold War and America’s brief unipolar moment. “The war in Ukraine and the U.S.-China rivalry,” Kausikan writes, “conform to established patterns of state behavior.” If the great powers “remain calm and exercise reasonable prudence,” he suggests, “there is no reason why” war cannot be avoided, especially because it is in the material and economic interests of both China and the United States to do so.
Economic interdependence and globalization does not lessen the likelihood of war or the need to prepare for it.
Kausikan characterizes the portrayal of the China–U.S. rivalry as “a new Cold War” as “one of the most intellectually lazy tropes,” which “misrepresents the nature of the competition” and relies on a “historical analogy that is … altogether inappropriate.” “The United States and the Soviet Union,” he explains, were two “separate” and competing “systems,” whereas the China–U.S. rivalry plays out “within a single system.” What he means is that there exists a single economic system in which “China and the United States have been progressively and intimately enmeshed with each other and the rest of the world through supply chains of a density and complexity never before seen in history” — in a word, globalization. So, Kausikan concludes, China, while intent on replacing the United States as the leader of the world system, does not pose an existential threat to the United States because both powers are content to coexist in the same globalized system. Unlike the Cold War, this is not a “struggle between capitalism and communism.”
That, however, is not what Chinese President Xi Jinping has told his Communist Party colleagues since assuming power in 2012. Xi has called Karl Marx “the greatest thinker in human history.” Marxism, he said, will “change the destiny of human history.” He has urged CCP cadres to “struggle for communism our entire lives” so as to shape a “collectivized world.” CCP-approved texts in China state that the country’s “ideology and social system are fundamentally incompatible with the West” and note that “our struggle and contest with Western countries is irreconcilable.” According to Xi, therefore, the U.S.–China rivalry is a clash of two social systems just as in the first cold war.
But even if Kausikan is correct that the current great-power rivalry exists within a single system, economic interdependence and globalization does not lessen the likelihood of war or the need to prepare for it. That was what Angell believed when he wrote The Great Illusion, the publication of which produced a stinging rebuke from the American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan agreed with Angell that great powers “are under no illusion as to the unprofitableness of war,” but he noted that wars are fought for causes and reasons other than economics, including “ambition, self-respect, resentment of injustice, sympathy with the oppressed, hatred of oppression.” Globalization and economic interdependence do not eliminate these causes of war or others, such as the Thucydidean trilogy of fear, interest, and honor.
Angell’s work, Mahan wrote, was “itself an illusion based on a profound misreading of human action” — “[t]o regard the world as governed by self-interest only is to live in a non-existent world” and to hew to an idea that “the concrete facts of history are against.” Mahan was right. The globalized world of 1910 drifted into that of the Great War. Kausikan is right to recommend prudence and an attention to history. Let us hope that his assessment of the dangers of great-power war does not suffer the same fate as Angell’s “great illusion.”
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