The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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China, the Weak and the Restless
Published on November 20, 2012

The United States confronts two major foreign policy challenges: China, and the weak and restless. The alternatives for China are well known, and there is consensus about which of these is most attractive; Romney would not have followed a different course from the one that has been chosen by Obama. In contrast, there is no consensus on the severity of the challenges posed by the weak and the restless—poorly governed states with limited capacity and no sympathy for the United States or its policies. Nor is there consensus on the way in which these challenges should be addressed. Interests and the international distribution of power dictate our policy toward China. Uncertainties about threats and opportunities leave many more options open for policies toward the weak and the restless.

ChinaAt some point in the not too distant future China’s GDP will rival that of the United States, even though its per capita income will remain far smaller. Power transitions can lead to military conflict if the rising power is dissatisfied with extant territorial allocations, spheres of influence, or international regimes. The exemplary case is Germany at the end of the 19th century and its efforts in the first and second world wars to re-draw boundaries, redefine spheres of influence, and create radically different international regimes. Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, however, offer limited guidance for the contemporary world. Given its internal challenges China will remain a status quo rather than a revolutionary power. China may not become a responsible stakeholder, at least not for some time, but its leaders will offer no alternative vision for how major international regimes should be structured. China’s territorial ambitions are troubling but modest and its leaders are more concerned with internal disintegration than they are with external expansion. China would like to weaken America’s role in East Asia, but even with growing military capability it would face formidable challenges if it tried to dislodge the United States. The discipline that nuclear weapons forced upon the Soviet Union and the United States during the 20th century will apply to China and the United States in the 21st.

Every American administration for the past forty years has opted for integrating rather than excluding China from the existing international order. This implies opening space so that it is more attractive for China to participate in rather than challenge that order. This policy has been very successful in the economic realm, moderately successful in security affairs, and unsuccessful with regard to democracy and human rights.

On economic matters the United States will press China on trade and currency issues, continue the mostly cooperative relationship on financial sector reform initiated through the G-20, and fail to reach agreement on macro-economic management, which, for both countries, is too deeply enmeshed in domestic politics to allow for flexibility in international negotiations. Despite differences, the economic gains for both countries are large and obvious, and specific disputes will not derail continued engagement within the current rules of the game. A breakdown in cooperation would be costly for both countries but more threatening to China because the domestic legitimacy of the regime is so heavily dependent on economic performance.

On security issues China’s first, best long-term outcome would be to establish its own sphere of influence in East Asia. This would mean ending the American security treaties with South Korea and Japan and moving the American Navy far over the horizon, leaving China free to deal with Taiwan and its territorial claims in the South China Sea. American capabilities and interests will prevent this from happening. South Korea and Japan will prefer the friendship of the United States to the close embrace of China. American military tactics and force deployments will change, but its commitment will not waiver. China will not achieve military dominance.

On issues of human rights and democratization Chinese and American leaders have almost no shared interests. American rhetoric speaks primarily to a domestic political audience. Nevertheless this show will not close under President Obama and would not have closed had Governor Romney prevailed.

American relations with China are driven by enduring interests and power configurations. Presidential preferences only matter at the margins.

The Weak and RestlessAmerican relations with poorly governed states with limited capabilities whose leaders and citizens are antipathetic to the United States and its policies pose a far more difficult foreign policy challenge for President Obama. Complete success—that is, the development of prosperous liberal democratic regimes—is beyond reach. The best that can be hoped for is states with enough capability and authority to prevent transnational threats from emanating from their own territory. Even this more modest goal will sometimes be elusive, and the best American policy may be economic sanctions or the use of force targeted at specific regime policies or transnational actors beyond a regime’s control.

The weak and the restless pose several different threats to American national security. The most serious is transnational terrorism involving nuclear or biological weapons. The chance of large scale terrorist attacks on the United States that could result in thousands or tens of thousands of casualties is small, but we have no way of confidently estimating whether it is vanishingly small or some much higher figure. This is a world of uncertainty not of risk—a world in which we cannot estimate probabilities. (Moreover, such attacks could emanate from any place, including the United States itself.) States with weak political authority could also be the source of humanitarian crises, regional instability, oil supply disruptions, criminality and pandemics.

Most of the weak and the restless can best be understood as polities in which domestic power brokers, relatively unconstrained by laws or constitutional structures, compete for resources and control: the Muslim Brotherhood and the army in Egypt; various regional leaders or warlords in Afghanistan; the Kurds, Sunni and various Shi‘a parties in Iraq; regional tribal groups in Libya; the Christians, Sunni and Shi‘a in Lebanon; the military and diverse regional and ethnic groups in Pakistan. 

There is no grand strategy that can address the problem of the weak and the restless, but there is a best-case specific goal and a worst-case fallback that can be used to orient American foreign policy. The best case is to support political actors who can sustain states that have good enough governance—namely, good enough to control transnational security threats and to offer some possibilities for economic growth. The worst-case fallback is to use economic or military coercion to degrade the capabilities or change the policies of specific groups within or without the state, but with no expectation of improving domestic governance.

If American policymakers are lucky, they may be able to identify a local baron whose preferences are compatible with their own. More often than not the United States has been left with betting on the least bad option: Karzai (or the Afghan National Army) in Afghanistan or Maliki in Iraq. In Egypt President Morsi will not be sympathetic to American policies, but he may be able to govern effectively and he does have an interest in promoting the economic well-being of his own citizens. The criteria for evaluating leaders should not be the quality of elections, the treatment of women or the level of corruption, but rather their ability to maintain control of activities within their own boundaries and to open space for social and economic progress.

In some cases there may be no one to support. The administration’s reluctance to place bets in Syria reflects not only an aversion to becoming involved in another armed conflict in the Islamic world but also an inability to identify a group on which a stake might be placed. The best possible outcome in Syria would be a Lebanon-like agreement, but such an agreement will be out of reach until the competing groups within the country share the same understanding about the internal distribution of power.

In Iran the best that the United States can do is to continue its punishing economic sanctions with the hope that this will undermine support for the regime, although a more likely outcome is the conclusion of an agreement that would give Iran control of the full fuel cycle for low enriched uranium if it agreed an open inspection regime.

With regard to China, there is a clear strategy: integration into the existing international order. With regard to the weak and the restless, there is a hard to achieve, best-case objective of regimes with good enough governance; and then there is a less attractive goal of altering specific policies through the use of economic or military coercion. This is not a world that lends itself to another Mr. X or Y or Z article.

Stephen D. Krasner, an AI board member, is Graham H. Stuart Professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution. He served as Director of Policy Planning in the State Department from 2005–07.