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Ideology and Rivalry

Deep-seated patterns of power politics are thus driving the United States and China toward mistrust and competition, if not necessarily toward open conflict. But this is not all there is to the story. In contrast to what some realists claim, ideology matters at least as much as power in determining the course of relations among nations. The fact that America is a liberal democracy while China remains under authoritarian rule is a significant additional impetus for rivalry, an obstacle to stable, cooperative relations, and a source of mutual hostility and mistrust in its own right. ~Aaron Friedberg

The new issue of The National Interest has several interesting articles, including Friedberg’s article on China, and on TNI’s site there are tworesponses to Friedberg’s article that are also worth reading. Friedberg sees some form of U.S.-Chinese rivalry as more or less inevitable, and I’ll come back to that, but I first wanted to address the idea that “some realists” don’t think ideology matters that much in international relations. If anything, realists are wary of “values”-driven policies because they believe that ideology is a powerful and dangerous factor in obscuring the national interest and subordinating that interest to the dictates of ideology. If there is an “additional impetus for rivalry” between America and China on account of ideology, whence does this impetus come? Does it not come mainly from the American push for political change inside other countries? In other words, as Andrew Nathan says in his response:

As long as the West wants to change the Chinese political system, Beijing’s rulers will, as Friedberg says, quite rationally “believe that they are engaged in an ideological struggle, albeit one in which, until very recently, they have been almost entirely on the defensive.”

The question that comes to mind is this: why does the U.S. insist on waging such an ideological struggle, when it is likely to intensify any rivalry with China? There’s no question that ideology matters as much as power, but what remains puzzling is why states permit themselves to be held hostage to the dictates of ideology when these promise to fuel dangerous rivalries with other major powers. It is all the more puzzling when the state promoting political change abroad is supposedly the status quo power and the allegedly “revisionist” rising power mostly favors the status quo domestically and internationally.

I recently finished reading Orlando Figes’ impressive history of the Crimean War, and I was struck by the extent to which the reigning ideologies in Britain, France, and Russia all drove their respective governments to undertake policies that were obviously irrational and contrary to the interests of all belligerents. Of the three major non-Ottoman belligerents, France was probably the least ideologically-driven, but it is also true that France would likely not have participated in the war except that Napoleon III saw it as an important way to solidify his position as emperor and to secure Catholic support for his regime. The British actually had the least directly at stake, and they committed the smallest number of soldiers of any of the major powers, but they were also curiously the most enthusiastic and unreasonable in their desire for conflict with Russia. The British framed the conflict in the most absurdly ideological terms imaginable by portraying themselves as defenders of liberty, when they were, in fact, supporting the prerogatives of the Sultan. British hostility to Russian autocracy was linked together with the paranoid fear of a Russian threat British imperial interests in Asia. For their part, the Russians were swept up in the profoundly unwise enthusiasm on behalf of Orthodox Christians inside the Ottoman Empire, which propelled them into a war that ended up earning them humiliating defeat and cost them hundreds of thousands of lives, and which presaged later interventions in the Balkans that ultimately brought the Russian Empire crashing down in WWI.

The “gains” made by either side were risibly small and for the most part transitory and couldn’t begin to equal the costs. As Figes argues, the Crimean War was a very significant conflict, and one that foreshadowed many of the major military and political developments leading up to WWI. Like WWI, it was also an irrational, pointlessly destructive and wasteful conflict, and one that came out of the “atmosphere of suspicion” fueled by ideological preoccupations. If we can see that such an “atmosphere of suspicion” poisons relations between major powers, and we see the potentially disastrous effects of an escalating rivalry between them, shouldn’t we be repudiating the ideological obsessions that create it?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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