The other reality, which is perhaps more difficult to deal with, is that some of these issues of unpredictable reliability are internal and systemic. That gets back to the question of divisions within and between the political parties, back to the greater polarization of American politics. I think that can be harder to deal with. What you’re seeing in American politics, you see it in the composition of the Congress. You see it in some of our public debates. The middle is having trouble holding its own against the extremes. The danger there is that voices of moderation, or in the context of your question, voices of continuity, tend to get drowned out.
That to me is a danger. I simply don’t think we can be an effective, successful major power if our allies can’t bank on our predictability and credibility, and we’re not going to be in a position to deter others if they think we’re not serious when we make certain statements or commitments. It gets back, again, to the domestic basis of national security. I think there is some reason for concern.
OR: You talked in your book about the stabilizing force of multilateral institutions, be they the U.N. or the IMF. Do you think it’s fair to say that the U.S. needs to be primus inter pares among member states of multilaterals as a baseline condition for their efficacy?
Haass: Absolutely. What we’ve learned is the world is not self-organizing. Unlike the economic marketplace, there’s no invisible hand in the geopolitical marketplace. What you often need is the visible hand of the U.S. -- not to act unilaterally, but to lead. That means putting together coalitions. Starting off, it won’t be within formal institutions such as the U.N., given the structure of the U.N. and its voting rules and the rest, but there are other forums of multilateralism that have legitimacy and that have demonstrated effect.
A lot of these institutions are talk shops, or they simply can’t act in the absence of the U.S. leading and not just exhorting. We still represent somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s economic output, and we’re by far the world’s largest military power. We have a standing and stature and a tradition of leading that no one else comes close to matching.
This is not bragging, and I hope this doesn’t come off as arrogance. It’s simply a fact of life that the U.S. is by the numbers first among unequals. It may not be the case legally, but it is the case in reality, and very little tends to get done if the U.S. is not prepared to participate on a meaningful scale.
OR: China talks about peacefully rising. Do you think that that’s right, that they really are intending to do that? Do you see their current upsurge in militarist display as being connected to the slowdown of their economy and the backfiring of their various interventions in the market?
Haass: The phrase “peaceful rise” is important. I don’t take either side of it for granted. By that I mean that the level of incline, the pace, and the speed, so to speak, of China’s rise are by no means clear, much less assured. The character of Chinese foreign policy is also not assured. A peaceful rise is one trajectory, but one could imagine rises that are not peaceful. One could also imagine a Chinese trajectory that doesn’t have a lot of rise in it.
I think China faces enormous internal difficulties from trying to shift its economy from an export-led to a domestic-demand-led economy. It faces as well all sorts of demographic challenges, given the aging of the population, and some of the unintended consequences of its one-child policy. This is to say nothing of its environmental problems or the large-scale corruption it deals with. China wants a lot of the benefits of an open society without having an open society. They want a lot of the benefits of markets without really having markets. It’s very rare in life that you can have your cake and eat it, and my hunch is that the Chinese won’t be any more successful than anybody else at doing so.
And I do think what the military parade commemorating the defeat of Japan showed was the temptation potentially to turn to nationalism and demonstrations of the might of the state as a rallying cry or as a source of legitimacy as the economy slows. What I believe we need to make clear is that such a turn isn’t acceptable. We continue to support China’s peaceful rise, but they can’t, if you will, substitute nationalism or various forms of assertive -- much less aggressive -- behavior for economic improvement.
This is all the more important because China has a legitimate role to play in the region and the world. Indeed, they have an essential role to play in the region and the world. We’re never going to succeed in dealing with climate change or global health or setting the rules for cyberspace or in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable without a serious Chinese contribution. We should include them in these activities, encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. It turns out it’s going to be a very different century, depending upon the nature of China’s evolution.
We have an enormous stake in making sure they do experience a peaceful rise. I just don’t take it as a given. Encouraging it, to some extent, is beyond our power. They’re going to have to make certain internal decisions politically and economically. Yes, I think we can encourage certain types of behaviors, and we can make clear that we would welcome a stronger, active China, so long as it observes certain rules about regional and international life.
OR: Do you think there’s any possibility that China’s territorial irredentism in the region and the rhetorical brinksmanship going on between China and Japan might lead to an actual military incident?
Haass: Yes. Asia lacks a lot of the shock absorbers or confidence-building measures, much less the fully developed political-military framework, that you’ve historically had in post-World War II Europe. Plus, in Asia, you’ve got any number of territorial disputes, some over land, some over sea, some over air. You’ve got nationalism. You’ve got a historical dispute. You’ve got navies and air forces that often operate in close proximity to one another.
Richard Haass has served as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations for more than a decade. His most recent book is Foreign Policy Begins at Home.