Why Realism Does Not Mean Pessimism
The rise of China will likely be the most important international relations story of the twenty-first century, but it remains unclear whether that story will have a happy ending.
These issues have been addressed by a wide range of experts -- regionalists, historians, and economists -- all of whom can claim insight into certain aspects of the situation. But China's unique qualities, past behavior, and economic trajectory may well turn out to be less important in driving future events than many assume -- because how a country acts as a superpower and whether its actions and those of others will end in battle are shaped as much by general patterns of international politics as by idiosyncratic factors. Such broader questions about the conditions under which power transitions lead to conflict are precisely what international relations theorists study, so they, too, have something to add to the discussion.
So far, the China debate among international relations theorists has pitted optimistic liberals against pessimistic realists. The liberals argue that because the current international order is defined by economic and political openness, it can accommodate China's rise peacefully.
The standard realist view, in contrast, predicts intense competition. China's growing strength, most realists argue, will lead it to pursue its interests more assertively, which will in turn lead
In fact, however, a more nuanced version of realism provides grounds for optimism. China's rise need not be nearly as competitive and dangerous as the standard realist argument suggests, because the structural forces driving major powers into conflict will be relatively weak. The dangers that do exist, moreover, are not the ones predicted by sweeping theories of the international system in general but instead stem from secondary disputes particular to
A GOOD KIND OF SECURITY DILEMMA
Structural realism explains states' actions in terms of the pressures and opportunities created by the international system. One need not look to domestic factors to explain international conflict, in this view, because the routine actions of independent states trying to maintain their security in an anarchic world can result in war. This does not happen all the time, of course, and explaining how security-seeking states find themselves at war is actually something of a puzzle, since they might be expected to choose cooperation and the benefits of peace instead. The solution to the puzzle lies in the concept of the security dilemma -- a situation in which one state's efforts to increase its own security reduce the security of others.
The intensity of the security dilemma depends, in part, on the ease of attack and coercion. When attacking is easy, even small increases in one state's forces will significantly decrease the security of others, fueling a spiral of fear and arming. When defending and deterring are easy, in contrast, changes in one state's military forces will not necessarily threaten others, and the possibility of maintaining good political relations among the players in the system will increase.
The intensity of the security dilemma also depends on states' beliefs about one another's motives and goals. For example, if a state believes that its adversary is driven only by a quest for security -- rather than, say, an inherent desire to dominate the system -- then it should find increases in the adversary's military forces less troubling and not feel the need to respond in kind, thus preventing the spiral of political and military escalation.
The possibility of variation in the intensity of the security dilemma has dramatic implications for structural realist theory, making its predictions less consistently bleak than often assumed. When the security dilemma is severe, competition will indeed be intense and war more likely. These are the classic behaviors predicted by realist pessimism. But when the security dilemma is mild, a structural realist will see that the international system creates opportunities for restraint and peace. Properly understood, moreover, the security dilemma suggests that a state will be more secure when its adversary is more secure -- because insecurity can pressure an adversary to adopt competitive and threatening policies. This dynamic creates incentives for restraint and cooperation. If an adversary can be persuaded that all one wants is security (as opposed to domination), the adversary may itself relax.
What does all this imply about the rise of China? At the broadest level, the news is good. Current international conditions should enable both
The overall effect of these conditions is to greatly moderate the security dilemma. Both
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ALLIES?
The preceding analysis, of course, overlooks a key feature of U.S. foreign policy -- the important security alliances
Advocates of selective engagement, in contrast -- an approach similar to existing U.S. policy -- claim that their chosen strategy is also consistent with the broad outlines of structural realism. Whereas neo-isolationists want
Examining how existing U.S. alliance commitments are likely to interact with China's rise is thus a crucial issue, with implications for both regional policy and U.S. grand strategy more generally. If
Back then, experts debated whether U.S. capabilities were sufficient to deter a massive Soviet conventional attack against
Confidence in the U.S. deterrent is likely to be reinforced by relatively good relations between
Some realist pessimists argue that in order to be highly secure, China will find itself compelled to pursue regional hegemony, fueling conflict along the way. However, China's size, power, location, and nuclear arsenal will make it very challenging to attack successfully. China will not need to push
ACCOMMODATION ON TAIWAN?
The prospects for avoiding intense military competition and war may be good, but growth in China's power may nevertheless require some changes in U.S. foreign policy that
A crisis over
Such dangers have been around for decades, but ongoing improvements in China's military capabilities may make
Given such risks,
The key question, then, is whether China has limited or unlimited goals. It is true that China has disagreements with several of its neighbors, but there is actually little reason to believe that it has or will develop grand territorial ambitions in its region or beyond. Concessions on
Whether and how
The broader point is that although China's rise is creating some dangers, the shifting distribution of power is not rendering vital U.S. and Chinese interests incompatible. The potential dangers do not add up to clashing great-power interests that can be resolved only by risking a major-power war. Rather, the difficulty of protecting some secondary, albeit not insignificant, U.S. interests is growing, requiring
THE DANGERS OF EXAGGERATION
Realist analyses of how power transitions will play out are based on the assumption that states accurately perceive and respond to the international situations they face. Realist optimism in this case thus rests on the assumption that U.S. leaders appreciate, and will be able to act on, the unusually high degree of security that
For example, the popular belief that a rising China will severely threaten U.S. security could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Should
Moreover, states have often overestimated their insecurity by failing to appreciate the extent to which military capabilities favored defense. Before World War I,
There has been no U.S. overreaction to the growth in China's military capabilities yet, but the potential for one certainly exists. The current U.S. National Security Strategy, for example, calls for
The danger of an exaggerated security threat is even greater in the nuclear realm. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review holds that "
There is no question that China's conventional and nuclear buildups will reduce some U.S. capabilities that
In sum, China's rise can be peaceful, but this outcome is far from guaranteed. Contrary to the standard realist argument, the basic pressures generated by the international system will not force
CHARLES GLASER is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. This essay draws on his recent book Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation.
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