Much is made of the analogy between the relationship of the U.S. to China today and that of Great Britain to Imperial Germany before World War I. Just as Germany had risen quickly to become a world economic power, so has China. Germany, driven by nationalism, sought commensurate military, naval, and diplomatic power, as does China. As young powers, both Germany then and China now were sometimes brash in ways that were not in their own interest. Both challenged the dominant power at sea, though they had no pressing need to do so.

But there is another side to the analogy, one that cautions Washington. Britain handled Germany’s rise poorly. She waged aggressive war on the Boers, a people the Germans regarded as close kin, and alienated German public opinion. The Kaiser was left in the awkward position of being more pro-British than his people. In the Entente Cordiale, Britain entered into an extra-constitutional and strategically unnecessary alliance aimed at containing Germany. In 1914, while Kaiser Wilhelm II did not want war, some important Britons did, including Churchill and, disastrously, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

As Washington “rebalances” its military toward Asia, we too are handling a rising power poorly. The Obama administration’s resolve to build up American air and naval forces in the Pacific can be aimed at only one country, China. Our recent offhand guarantee to Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has a chilling echo of 1914. Like Britain before World War I, we appear unwilling to countenance the natural rise of a new power; we act as if foreign policy were merely a child’s game of king of the hill. Elements in the Pentagon see a sea and air war with China as a way to recoup their failures in recent land wars, as well as justify their budgets.

What would a conservative policy toward China look like, one that proceeded from Russell Kirk’s politics of prudence? It would arise from recognition of a paradigm shift of rare historic dimensions in the grand-strategic environment. The rise of Fourth Generation war—war waged by non-state entities—has made conflict between states obsolete.

As this kind of war spreads across the globe, defeating one national military after another, it puts at risk the state system itself. It also defines the 21st century as one in which the decisive conflict will be between order and disorder. The state represents order, and order is conservatism’s first objective. Conservatives are on the side of the state, and a conservative foreign policy seeks above all maintenance of the state system. That in turn requires an alliance of all states, including China, against non-state forces.

It is difficult to imagine a conflict with greater potential to damage the state system than one between America and China. We are currently witnessing the consequences of the disintegration of one small state, Libya. A defeated China, its central government delegitimized by military failure, could fall into a new period of warring states. What would be the fate of order in a world in which disorder ruled more than a billion Chinese?

Avoiding this nightmare scenario and creating an effective alliance with China requires that America accept, and indeed welcome, China’s rise. A stronger China can and should assume primary responsibility for maintaining order in a growing portion of the world. Such a relief of America’s burden—one increasingly beyond our financial strength to bear—is in our interest. Similarly, the maintenance of order is in China’s interest, as well as congruent with fast-recovering traditional Chinese culture and Confucian values.

Conservatives’ old friend realism offers a device for bringing harmony to Chinese-American relations: spheres of influence. As China’s expands, ours can contract, within the shared framework of upholding order. One Chinese admiral jokingly proposed drawing a north-south line through the Pacific, demarcating our respective spheres of influence. We should take him up on it, and add that as China continues its rise, the line will shift.

If this proposal seems radical, it in fact reflects the way Britain accommodated a rising United States. The possibility of war between America and Britain was taken seriously by both sides well up into the 20th century. But instead of clashing, as British power weakened after World War I and, more dramatically, after World War II, London incrementally passed the task of maintaining order to the United States. Britain eventually did this even in areas she had long regarded as vital to her interests, including the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

March/April 2013Just as a return to spheres of influence can replace conflict with alliance between the United States and China, so it can harmonize relations elsewhere, again with the goal of allying all states against the forces of the Fourth Generation. We should recognize Russia’s “near abroad” as her sphere of influence. We should work actively to bring Afghanistan into Pakistan’s sphere of influence. While contested spheres of influence can exacerbate conflicts, agreed spheres reduce them. By acting as an honest broker to facilitate such agreement—including between China and Japan—rather than joining either side, the U.S. can do more for her real interests, including her vital interest in maintaining the state system.

As the abominable snowman of foreign-policy idealism, made up of Wilsonians, globalists, and moon-gazers melts in the sun of serial failure, realism awakens from hibernation. The destruction of states in the name of “democracy” and “human rights” may not be an unmixed blessing. Results matter—not merely intentions.

Results have not been quite this important for a bit over 350 years, since the Peace of Westphalia. The state system established by Westphalia is under assault and may fall to non-state forces, ushering in Old Night around the globe. Realism, spheres of influence, and an alliance of all states against the Fourth Generation comprise the policy prudence recommends.

William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.