Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Hal Brands, who is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and also a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written several very good pieces of late on the U.S. strategic competition with China, including one for the American Enterprise Institute about which I’m going to ask him, as well as about his impending books and perhaps about his most recent book of last year. So, Hal, thanks so much for joining us.
Brands: Thanks for having me.
Tooley: In your AEI piece you speak of America’s competition with China being a clash, not just of interest, but also of systems. What do you mean by that?
Brands: Sure. I basically mean that while the deepening U.S.-China competition is driven by conflicting geopolitical interests, such as conflicting interests in the Western Pacific, for instance, it’s also driven at a very deep and fundamental level by the fact that the United States and China organize their societies and their policies in fundamentally different ways. And much of American foreign policy, not all of it, but much of it, traces back in one way or another to the fact that the United States is a liberal democracy and would like to create a world in which liberal democracies flourish. Much of Chinese foreign policy, or I should say the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party, ultimately traces back to the desire to create a world in which autocratic regimes, such as the one run by the CCP, will be protected at a minimum, and perhaps even privileged. And so, if you look at a variety of Chinese behavior in recent years, and going back even further than that, a lot of them trace back to the fundamental insecurity that autocratic regimes feel in a world that is led by a democratic superpower.
Tooley: You say that looking at the strategic competition with China strictly through a “realist lens” is perhaps not sufficient unto itself, and really the competition should be seen through a lens of regime realism. What is the distinction between the two?
Brands: So, realism is a school of thought. It’s a theory of international politics based on the idea that power, relative power, and power shifts are really what drive conflict in the international system. And the great predictive insight that realism brings to bear when it comes to Chinese foreign policy is that it’s utterly predictable. That as a country like China sees its power rise dramatically over the past 30 years, it would become more willing to use that power to shift the international system as conducive to its own interests. I think where realism falls short in explaining Chinese behavior is that China would probably behave differently if it had a different type of regime. So, if China were not governed by an autocratic regime, it would show far less interest in changing the way that international organizations understand human rights. It would show far less interest, I think, in defending embattled authoritarian regimes in places from Latin America to Southeast Asia, and it would certainly show a far less interest in touting the virtues of Chinese government, of the perceived virtues of Chinese government, as an argument against liberal democracy and in favor of the sort of autocratic capitalism that the CCP practices. And so, I argue that the idea of regime realism comes in because you also have, you absolutely have, to take power realities and changing power dynamics into account in explaining the increasingly assertive turn in Chinese behavior. But that only gets you part of the way. And if you want to understand why China behaves the way it does, and in fact, why it sometimes behaves in self-defeating ways, a lot of that traces back to the nature of the regime.
Tooley: And on a related point, you note that the U.S. is a threat to the Chinese regime not because of anything it actually does, but intrinsically because of who we are as a democracy. If you could expound on that?
Brands: I think the way I phrase this is that it’s very difficult for the United States not to threaten the Chinese Communist Party. It’s very difficult for the United States to reassure the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party believes, not entirely wrongly, that American officials will never see an autocratic self-described socialist regime as being fully legitimate, because it is not fully derived from the freely given consent of the government. They’re not wrong about that. I mean, for a long time, American policymakers made clear their hope that China would evolve in a more liberal direction that would presumably be bad news for the CCP. I would simply point out that that tension is essentially inherent in the clash between U.S. and Chinese governing models. It’s very difficult for American policymakers, and for Americans writ large, over a long period of time to have the sort of relationship with an autocrat and aspiring autocratic superpower that they would have with an aspiring democratic superpower. And moreover, it’s not just what the U.S. government does that is threatening to the Chinese Communist Party, it’s what American civil society does. And so, there’s a wonderfully illustrative incident almost a decade ago where the New York Times and Bloomberg did some wonderful reporting on corruption within the Communist Party elite and even within the family of Xi Jinping. And the response of the Chinese government was to allege that the United States was trying to undermine the Chinese regime. Now, this wasn’t the result of anything the U.S. government did. It was simply the functioning of a free press in the United States, and that gives you a sense how things that we think of, the kind of normal functions of American society, can be perceived as threatening by an entrenched autocratic government.
Tooley: Now, we commonly think of China as being endlessly assertive and confident, but you note that it suffers from the insecurities of an elaborate autocracy. What does that mean?
Brands: It really comes back to the point I made a second ago, which is that autocratic rulers realize in many ways that there is no retirement plan, that staying in power is essentially a life or death proposition for them. And so, there’s always a degree of insecurity built into that situation. Moreover, Chinese leaders believe, again not entirely wrongly, that 30 years of American policy toward China was premised on the idea that the United States could subtly but unmistakably move China in a more liberal direction. This was the point of the American engagement policy that the United States followed for 25 years after the Cold War. The idea that economic engagement with China would not simply draw China into an international system which it would then come to support, but that it would also hasten political liberalization within China. And so, there is a long, a deep, residue of insecurity on the part of the Chinese Communist Party, in part because of the perception of hostility from the United States, but also because there’s built-in insecurity in any situation where leaders realize that they may not actually command the authentic loyalty of the people they rule.
Tooley: Now, you mentioned the quarter-century attempt by the U.S. and by the West to lure China into the international liberal global system. Was that attempt inevitable given what the U.S. is? Or could that direction have been averted realistically?
Brands: I think realistically it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the United States would not have tried to engage China in some way after the end of the Cold War. I mean, it wasn’t simply naive pie in the sky thinking that led us to hope that we could draw China into the international order, and encouraged the liberalization of that regime. Remember, these decisions were made during the 1990s and early 2000s. This was at a time when the so-called “third wave” of democratization was reaching its peak. It was a time when a variety of countries around the world had in fact democratized after reaching a higher level of socio-economic achievement, and so it wasn’t foolish to think that something similar might happen in China. It especially wasn’t foolish to think that because we had seen something like that scenario play out during the 1980s. In some ways, this was the backdrop to the unrest that preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre. But as that massacre indicated, the Chinese Communist Party proved to be pretty resourceful and pretty ruthless in its willingness to put down challenges to its own power. And it essentially used the prosperity that it was able to deliver, in part through its membership in the global economy, to buy off dissident, to essentially create a new social compact in which Chinese citizens would become more prosperous than ever before, so long as they stay out of politics and so long as they did not challenge the political supremacy of the CCP.
Tooley: Do you believe the U.S. strategic competition with China will be as persistent, as intense, as the Cold War was with the Soviet Union across 45 years, or will it be more indirect and subtle?
Brands: It’s hard to put sort of a precise link, or precise expected link, from the US-China rival, right. I think it could be quite protracted. I think it could be quite enduring. I think that the conflicts of interest and the conflicts of values that are the heart of that competition are likely to prove somewhat intractable, at least until the balance of power shifts in a significant way or until the nature of the Chinese regime changes. That’s not to say that I think the United States should be pursuing a strategy of regime change. I think that would actually be quite dangerous and unadvisable. But I do think that American leaders should understand that there is a certain built-in tension in the relationship that comes from the nature of the regime. In terms of the intensity of the competition, I think it will wax and wane over time. This was true of the Cold War, by the way. The Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s was much more intense than the Cold War of the late 1960s and 1970s. The nature of long-term competitions is that they do tend to wax and wane in terms of their volatility over time. And I think it’s likely that we would see something similar in a protracted U.S.-China competition.
Tooley: Your last book Lessons of Tragedy makes some points that seem to relate very directly to the U.S.-China strategic competition. What were its major premises?
Brands: So, the major premise of that book was that tragedy is the norm in international relations. That we shouldn’t think of the arc of history bending inevitably towards progress and justice, because over a couple thousand years at least, the story of international relations has been recurring crack-ups of the international system that have just catastrophic consequences for everyday people. And so, the good news is that those crack-ups tend to lead to geopolitical and strategic innovation. Many of the international systems that have been most successful in restraining international conflict were set up in the wake of great geopolitical catastrophes, whether the Napoleonic Wars or World War Two. And in fact, the international system in which we live right now, the post-World War Two international system, was a response to the breakdown of the international system during the 1930s and 1940s and the threat that we might see a similar breakdown due to the Soviet threat in the late 1940s and after. That system has been wildly successful in bringing about the relatively peaceful, prosperous, and democratic world that we inhabit today. But unfortunately, that success can read complacency. It can make us forget all of the efforts and exertions that are necessary to maintain international peace and security in the first place. And so, that was the essential thrust of that book.
Tooley: And finally, are you overall confident and hopeful that the United States has the internal resources and character to prevail in this competition, as it has in previous competitions?
Brands: I am. I think that there are certainly significant geopolitical challenges that the United States faces today. There are significant internal challenges that the United States faces as well. But when I ask myself whose position would I rather be in, the position of the United States or the position of any of America’s challengers, I would take the U.S. position every day of the week and twice on Sunday. This is still, I believe, a relatively healthy democratic system. The United States still has a thriving and incredibly dynamic economy. It has alliances that link it to many of the most important and powerful countries in the world. And when you put all of that together, I think the United States does have the capabilities to defend its interests in the international system in the coming decades.
Tooley: If I could get personal, you would self-identify as a realist, or is there another category that better describes you?
Brands: You know, I’ve never really thought of myself in those terms, perhaps because I was trained as a historian rather than a political scientist. As I mentioned earlier, I think that realism brings tremendous insights to bear on what drives parts of international conduct and the global system, that it’s an incomplete school of thought. And so, if you want to understand what drives great powers and if you want to think about how the United States can best make itself secure, you have to have a focus on values. Unfortunately, realism too often leaves that out.
Tooley: Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University and the American Enterprise Institute, thank you so much for a very informative conversation.
Brands: It’s my pleasure.