The Responses to Power: Bandwagon, or Balance

John Mearsheimer’s ‘structural realist’ account of international politics positions two responses to a rising power by other powers: bandwagoning, or balancing. Bandwagoning is when other states join the new power’s club. Balancing is when other states form a coalition to contain the new power, often led by the existing ruling power. I have previously viewed the latter as the wisest policy. Is it?

George Kennan, diplomat and theorist of containment at the outset of the Cold War.

It depends on whether the rising power can win. If it can, then it is worth letting it rise until it has displaced the ruling power. This is the way of peace. The ruling power should step aside and let the new power take its place. This happened when Britain stepped aside to allow America to rule from the 1890s onwards — as America has shown its strength in the revolutionary wars against Great Britain a century earlier, in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and in world wars in the first half of the twentieth century.

America and Britain never fought each other. Indeed, they had a common enemy in the first half of the twentieth century: Germany, which was a rising power that lacked the naval foundations for global power projection. Germany couldn’t win, so it had to be contained. Alas, Allied powers failed to contain it in peacetime, so ended up fighting two world wars with it.

France had tried under Napoleon to achieve hegemony over Europe. But it failed because Britain and Russia stopped it on either side. A very similar phenomenon occurred with Germany.

Russia has often been indispensable to containing rising powers. But once it itself was a rising power, leading to the policy of containment in the Cold War, arising from George F. Kennan’s ‘Telegram X’. After the Cold War ended, the Russian economy went into a tailspin from which it has not recovered. Alas, the West made many mistakes after the Cold War ended, largely focused on global oil demand, justified in the mystifying language of humanitarian intervention. But when half of Rwanda was massacred by a racialised genocide in the 1990s, where was the West? Alas, it was nowhere to be found, as humanitarian concerns were a mere mask on its demand for oil, which was to be found elsewhere.

Carl Schmitt once said that he who invokes the name of humanity wishes to cheat. But what is the alternative? Power politics seems to divide us by interests, just as cultural politics divides us by identities. The wars of religion divided us by ideas. But as Schmitt’s inspiration Thomas Hobbes argued, ideas are expressed through material means. Speech itself has a material substructure. Schmitt’s idea of the German nation-state is itself an artefact of what Benedict Anderson called ‘print capitalism’, which laid the foundations for the ‘imagined community’ of the nation in the early-modern period.

China’s rise has been as accelerated as the rise of Germany was over a century ago, if not more so. I once thought China could win, that it could replace America. I no longer think this. America’s economy is too strong, its military too well-tested, despite many setbacks and poor political judgements in recent years. China’s political leadership is extremely savvy about great power politics. China is biding its time while building up its strength. It is also replicating the War on Terror in its own borders, interning one million people in Xinjiang, according to multiple reports. The West is less Sinophobic than it is Russophobic, so the chances of these reports being fabricated are lower than the chances that the western media’s portrayal of the Ukrainian civil war (which has many tragic parallels to the internationalised civil war in Syria in the 2010s) is completely one-sided.

But China cannot win. China does not have the foundations for power projection. All it can do is what France or Germany did: cause a lot of chaos. But France’s bid for hegemony allowed Britain to rise to prominence. American hegemony in turn is founded on its role in defeating Germany twice, and then the Soviet Union. The rise of China is unlikely to topple American power. It will simply test it. America will win. But that is why China’s rise is so worrying — not because it is all bad, but because it is no good. And the death toll of modern great power wars is more than bad — it is an evil we must avoid.

So avoid it. Contain China like America contained the Soviet Union. Give no concessions. Be as ruthless toward the Chinese government as the Chinese leadership is in all its dealings. Save the Chinese people from their tyrannical oppressors, and end this conflict before it can begin. This is the only way to safeguard international peace. It is also the only way to see if the other scenario — that China can win — is plausible. If China can win, it must be tested immediately, before it can have a better chance. For then, it will be too late for peaceful adjudication of the conflict by means of economic wrestling. Only violence and the spilling of blood would then reveal the true victor. And that is a price that is unacceptable to pay.

It may be argued that sanctions are also suffering-inducing. But if the Chinese government wishes to survive, it will not let the sanctions last long. It will denuclearise and demilitarise the state and bring it into the American alliance. For this is the only way to avoid war and safeguard peace from the ravages of trade — to bring unity to the people of planet Earth, once and for all. Peace, for all — there is no higher reward.

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