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Edward Luttwak Explains Why China Should Be Nice to People

November 12, 2013

Edward Luttwak always writes interesting stuff – a couple of my favourites are his Strategy and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.  I’ve just come across his 2012 book on The Rise of the China vs the Logic of Strategy.  I don’t think that this is one of his best but there are a couple of public diplomacy angles that deserve comment.

The argument is that if China thinks that using its rapid economic rise to fuel its military build-up will increase its influence in the world it’s wrong.  In order to increase its influence China should minimize the expansion of its military forces and revert to a policy of peaceful development.

His argument is essentially the lateral pressure view that I wrote about here but put in a rather more pungent version involving fat people in a lift.  The economic rise of China affects other people regardless of what China does but coupling the economic expansion to a military one guarantees a negative reaction.

As others have done he points to the analogy with the rise of Germany before the First World War but he also points out the extent of German cultural, industrial and scientific prestige at the end of the 19th century.  What derailed Germany’s rise to world power was their decision to build a navy to challenge Britain.  In this argument Luttwak is echoing the debate that did take place in Germany before 1914; was it was possible to become a world power without war – the position advocated by Karl Lamprecht and which formed the basis for the post 1918 cultural foreign policy.  Although Luttwak does not refer to this debate he is arguing that weltmacht with and without war were not alternatives for Germany as it was only the peaceful version that would maximize influence in the world.

Does he think that China can learn from the German case?  The short answer is no.  In his view all great powers tend towards ‘strategic autism’ but China has some disadvantages.  Firstly, because it sees itself as the middle kingdom it lacks a well-developed understanding of how to deal with other countries as equals and as such fails to see how its actions appear to others.  Secondly, its much vaunted tradition of strategic thinking represented by Sun Tzu simply provides a set of stratagems that may have worked within the common culture of ancient China but which are much less effective in a context dominated by nation states.  Thirdly, China just isn’t very good at strategy which explains why it’s been ruled by foreign dynasties for so much of its history.   Luttwak also takes a dig at Henry Kissinger for being far too impressed with the claims of China’s ancient wisdom.

The result is that Luttwak expects China to keep on annoying the neighbours and for an anti-China coalition to emerge.  The second half of the book is a country by country examination of how this is happening.

Following on from yesterday’s post if we want to think about China’s public diplomacy we have to keep the structural dimension in focus.  Whatever CCTV or the Confucius Institutes say about China they are operating in an environment structured by the reality of China’s increasing weight in the world.  While communication and psychology matter in public diplomacy they’re not the whole story.

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