Irrational order in the international system

Critiquing the FT Weekend’s stance on US-China relations and the future of journalistic methodologies.


In the second FT Weekend of October the editorial had bad news about the future of US-China relations. Spiralling tensions between the two great states, if continued, would cause a new cold war and divide the globe. Still worse, tensions could lead to conventional war. To prevent these two scenarios the FT suggested how the US and China could ease tensions and come to better relations. I disagree with this analysis.First, I lay out the FT’s argument with its underpinning logic and assumptions. Then I suggest why the argument is unfounded by questioning the assumptions using offensive realist theory. Finally, I describe the possible methodological reasons behind the FT’s conclusions in the editorial, before exploring the benefits for further interdisciplinary work between journalism and International Relations (IR). My argument relies on taking the main tenets of J.J. Mearsheimer’s offensive realism for granted, namely:


1. The international system is anarchic; states can exercise their own free will and sovereignty to do what they like because no higher authority exists to control them.

2. States inherently posses some offensive military capability and are therefore potentially dangerous to other states.

3. States can never be sure of another state’s intentions, whether hostile or benign.

4. The primary goal of a state is survival - to maintain its territorial integrity and the autonomy of their domestic political order.

5. States are rational actors and think through the best strategy to maintain survival.


There is a debate as to how dependable these assumptions are for explaining how states behave; offensive realism is by no means a perfect theory. But here I find Mearsheimer’s work a useful tool to contrast against the FT’s thinking and investigate its reasoning. The editorial argues that relations between the US and China are in a downward spiral, which could cause the global order to divide into two hostile camps in a ‘new cold war’. This is undesirable because it could lead to economic damage and military conflict. Avoidance of this scenario is dependent on the US and China deescalating tensions for which it gives a suite of policy recommendations. China should realise that military intervention in Taiwan threatens economic ties with the west, accept the UN panel on territorial disputes, agree to a UN inquiry into the causes and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and not use its business abroad as tools for national security. Conversely the US should not stop the rise of China ‘purely for the reasons of power politics’, not harass Chinese ‘businesses, researchers or journalists’ and not view its trade deficit with China as something wrong with their relationship. The first assumption is that with escalating tensions other states would align themselves with either the US or China. The second assumption is that security competition is irrational because it causes more problems than it solves. Finally, the third assumption is that non-security related issues have a bearing on security related outcomes. I take each of these assumptions in turn and explain why they are not reliable.


US-China tensions – a world problem?

Increasing tensions between the US and China is said to lead to the ‘global order’ being divided into two ‘hostile camps’ in a re-run of the cold war. I find a cold war-type scale and severity of division unlikely for two reasons. First, the geography of the cold war is very different to the geography of US-China relations. One of the reasons why the US and western Europe, including the United Kingdom, found themselves balancing against the Soviet Union is that the Soviet Union was adjacent to the European continent which it could invade forming a Eurasian hegemon. This hegemon could then pose a significant threat to the US across the Atlantic. China however is further east, posing a much smaller threat to the European continent as its regional hegemonic potential only stretches to Asia. Nevertheless, future Chinese control of Asia could one day lead to further expansion westwards into the European continent. But for now the threat seems a long way off as this requires many hypothetical beliefs – that other regional Asian powers (like India or Japan for example) could not successfully balance China, and that China having dominated Asia would not be successfully balanced by the European powers, including the United Kingdom and the US. US-China tensions are concerning for the US and China but generate no immediate existential threat to Europe. To split the ‘global order’ would mean that the European powers would ally with the US against China. This seems unlikely given that the European powers do not face immediate security concerns from China.


Second, the pan-global formation of alliances and implementation of collective security is doubtful. If tensions did escalate, would it mean that other states in the international system with relatively less power than US and China form a balancing coalition with either? It is highly unlikely that other powers in the international system, unless they themselves faced an existential threat,would want to form a balancing coalition. As we have seen, a significant chunk of the international system does not face an immediate threat from China. No other power would want to tie itself into alliance commitments at a time of peace, only later to get dragged into a conventional war it could have avoided. It would also avoid the risk of nuclear targeting by whichever state – the US or China – it chose to balance against. Moreover, if a smaller power did not balance against the US or China, it would not have to cut commercial relations and end any economic gains it might yet accrue in trade. In other words, there are benefits to not forming alliances and no power would ally with US or China against the other unless it had to for survival. In growing tensions, concerned Asian powers (and Australia), feeling their survival threatened by a China on the brink of launching full control of the South China Sea would likely form a balancing coalition with the US, or buck-pass. But the majority of the world, because they faced no equivalent threat, would absent themselves from such arrangements. Two rival ‘camps’ but by no means the world divided comparable to the cold war.


It might be suggested that in the event of conflict, Article V of the NATO treaty (1949) would divide the world into at least one camp hostile to China, but this is not necessarily the case. Article V states that if one member is attacked it is an attack on all other members who will then bring assistance. Since the nature of that assistance remains ambiguous it is theoretically possible in the event of the US being attacked by China for a member to denounce the act in their state media and do nothing further, while continuing trade with China and striking mutually beneficial bipartisan deals. Using the same realist logic as above, why should a state help another if doing so only brings existential threats it could have avoided, and end any economic gains it might yet accrue in trade? Due to an anarchic system, there is no guarantee for any NATO member to abide by the terms of the NATO treaty.


Even if there were no immediate prospect of conventional war would rising tensions between the US and China divide the world in a softer way? If not into two adversarial balancing coalitions then simply states that were ‘pro-US’ or ‘pro-China’, that would cut off some economic, diplomatic and cultural ties with the other? The US and Chinese economies are deeply intermeshed in the global economy. For a state to totally end its economic relations with the US or China, unless that state’s survival was threatened by either, seems unlikely due to economic interdependence, especially at a time when most are trying to rebuild their domestic economies after the impact of Covid-19, and may depend on crucial US and Chinese trade. A state’s move towards protectionism is possible with increased tariffs on specific US or Chinese goods. This would signal displeasure with US or Chinese actions without a significant loss to its own domestic economy. In terms of cutting diplomatic and cultural ties it is difficult to accurately predict what would happen because relative gains are harder to discern than with economic activity or security competition. It might well be that growing tensions would as the editorial fears, ‘restrict the life chances and horizons of people all over the world, who would find their opportunity to study…and travel’ limited. Even if this did occur, this would not be comparable to cold war division as I have already suggested that a state would be reluctant to cut economic ties with the US or China.


Security competition and power-maximisation

The editorial sees security competition as irrational because rising tensions could lead to war which is undesirable. It therefore fears military tensions over Taiwan and argues that ‘the US should reign in any instinctive desire to block the rise of China purely for the reason of power politics…[which] has a legitimate right to development and prosperity’, while China itself ‘should pursue less aggressive policies aboard’. There is no discussion of why policy makers have made these decisions. There is an allusion to a cause - ‘hawks in Washington and Beijing might accept or even embrace this new rivalry’, the implication being that some policy makers have a foolish penchant for discord and conflict between another nation, and so engage in security competition. However, under offensive realism security competition even if it came to war is entirely rational.


As Mearsheimer argues: all states want to survive and the best way for a state to survive is to maximise its share of power in the international system. The more powerful a state is relative to its rivals, the less likely those rivals will attack the state and threaten its survival. The ultimate achievement for a state would be to become a regional hegemon in the international system. Then every other regional state would be less powerful and therefore unable to pose an existential threat to the hegemon. The editorial denounces Chinese aggression, but regional hegemony and US naval presence in the South China Sea are mutually exclusive. Pushing the US navy out of the South China Sea would be necessary to achieve hegemony. China would weaken other states in the region by denying them US naval assistance and remove any future possibility of US aggression from the Asia-Pacific. Avery Goldstein in ‘China’s grand strategy’ has an excellent overview on how Xi Jinping has pursued a more aggressive foreign policy. China has become stronger in asserting its sovereignty and maritime claims in the South China Sea. After assuring President Obama in 2015 that the Chinese-made Spratly islands would not be militarised, Xi has pushed ahead with militarising them nevertheless. In 2016 China refused to participate in an International Tribunal adjudication on its maritime disputes with the Philippines. The Chinese have also worked hard to develop their navy. As concluded by the 2020 US Department of Defense report, China now has the largest navy in the world and has increased the distances its capabilities can reach. The new aircraft carriers especially provide extension for air defence coverage and shipboard missile ranges.


The editorial calls for the US to allow the rise of China because blocking it could cause war. But letting China become the most powerful state in the international system could create a threat to the survival of the US. As the US is the most powerful state in the the Western Hemisphere it makes sense for it to try to prevent other states in the region from accruing more power than itself to maintain security. This is especially true in its policy towards China because China is the closest state in the international system to achieve hegemony in its own region of Asia. Another regional hegemon, even though it poses no direct existential threat due to distance and the stopping power of water, is still undesirable to the US. China could influence the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere which would then pose a threat to US security. Containment of China is therefore crucial. The US maintains a strong naval presence in the South China Sea and carries out naval exercises there with other states. On 19 October 2020 the US, Australian and Japanese navies conducted a joint exercise that included ‘surface, subsurface…air defense exercises, and a variety of other training events to strengthen regional maritime security operations.’ Far from being the product of irrational policy makers the logic of power-maximisation helps to explain these Chinese and US developments.


Non-security issues and security outcomes

In the suite of policy recommendations, the editorial included six that revolve around non-security issues and two that are directly related to security. Let us take both groups in turn. The six that revolve around non-security issues include China understanding that a military assault on Taiwan ‘would end normal commercial relations with the west’, and that the US should not harass Chinese ‘businesses, researchers and journalists.’ The assumption here is that non-security issues have an impact on the decisions of policy makers. If the US does stop harassing Chinese businesses, it does not remove the security incentives China has to become a region hegemon. Nor would realising the economic impact of invading Taiwan make China want to give up its goal of power-maximisation in Asia. For their part, even if the US did ‘drop the idea that the…existence of a trade deficit proves something amiss in US-China relations’, Washington is still going to be extremely anxious of the emergence of another regional hegemon in the international system that could upset the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere against the US’s favour. In other words, security policy for both states is informed by power-maximisation alone. Non-security issues do not affect security policy. The second group of policy recommendations do pertain directly to security – China ‘should pursue less aggressive policies abroad’ while the ‘US should rein in any instinctive desire to block China purely for the reasons of power politics’. These recommendations result in a tautology – the US and China should stop competing for security by stopping competing for security. But as we have seen, due to the nature of the international system it is in their best interests that the US and China compete for power and thereby security.


Conclusions: Journalistic methodologies, IR theory and the ‘silent’ liberalism

So where does this leave the FT editorial? The world would not split as distinctively as it did during the cold war. Security competition is not a product of unwise policy hawks but a rational choice made from attention to the balance of power. And issues that do not affect power cannot be manipulated to provide solutions that will settle down tensions between the two nations. The editorial’s function seems a moot point – it predicts an imagined future of a hostile world divided, then puts forward policy recommendations that probably aren’t ever going to be adopted by either state and even if they were, would not solve the underlying cause of tensions without engaging with why policy makers have made their decisions in the first place. The question then becomes – how did this happen? I suggest two contributory reasons. First, the idea of a potential new cold war has been circulating in the global body of reportage and commentary of late. From June to this month of October, The Guardian, the BBC, CNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reuters have all written articles on this potential. Because the topic was in the public sphere it is likely the FT wanted to add what it had to say and the comments by Henry Kissinger mentioned at the start of the editorial will no doubt have provided some impetus to suggest that a new cold war is indeed likely. As he said in November 2019, the US and China were in the ‘foothills of a cold war’. To suggest the idea is certainly a commercial one given that a large body of the FT readership will have lived under the cold war.


Second, journalistic methodologies tend not to engage with IR theory. News publications often find themselves host to IR theorists for sure, but journalists at-large avoid discussing the key theories to hang their augments on. That is not to say that theorists or journalists could not genuinely believe that a new cold war is likely between the US and China, but a rebuttal of the theoretical counter-arguments found in IR to the possibility of a new cold war and the solutions to stopping it has not occurred. The FT’s thinking might be that readers want to digest positions on foreign policy, but ultimately don’t want to get bogged down in a full-blown academic discussion. Journalistic engagement with IR theories would be greatly advantageous. Many readers would only be too pleased in the context of the brief editorial to visit new ideas they perhaps have not yet encountered or heard put in a particular way. IR theory to an extent helps simplify world events making seemingly disparate and varied phenomena fall into particularly neat categories of causation and structure – one can make sense of the world quickly without losing any nuance in analysis. And yet, there is a trace of IR theory. The hope that economic gains would stop war, the chance for China to be more ‘open…at home’ and trust in the supranational abilities of bodies like the UN - liberalism makes its way noiselessly through foreign policy journalism almost without leaving a trace. The theory has become so mainstream that journalists wouldn’t necessarily name it as a distinct body of thought and instead take it for common-sense or may have subscribed to a particular IR position without realising it. Rather than keeping it ‘silent’, a clear declaration of liberalism while comparing it with other theories would make moments where liberal arguments are deployed – such as the economic interdependence argument – more robust. A discussion on why some of liberalism’s underlying assumptions might trump those of offensive realism, or any other branch of realist IR thought for example would greatly bolster the policy recommendations section. The editorial is certainly of merit in its own right – it raises key issues over the urgently contested South China Sea and the future of the US-China relationship as a whole. But when journalism engages directly with IR theory, it greatly benefits foreign policy discussion for all.



Irrational order in the international sy
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