Why I Read Thucydides  

Posted by T. Greer in ,

Note to readers: The following post was originally published at Zenpundit as part of the on-going Thucydides Roundtable. I encourage you to follow the comment thread there and read the other participant's posts as they are published throughout the week.

On a summer night, nearly three thousand years ago, three hundred men of Thebes, wet and mud soaked, snuck into the town of Plataea with murder on their minds. Their attempt to launch revolution in Plataea was futile: most would die before the night was over. If their aim was political change, they failed, and failed utterly. But if their aim was undying fame, they succeeded. Perhaps they did not know that their deeds would echo through time, but they have. These were the men who began the Peloponnesian War. What they did is still read and written about thousands of years later.

Why is this?

Why is this war so well remembered?

Thucydides answers these questions in terms of scale:

This was the greatest movement yet known in history…there was nothing on a greater scale, either in war or other matters (1.1).

Perhaps this was true in Thucydides day, but to moderns who have witnessed millions perish in global wars, the scale of the Peloponnesian War is minuscule. Even by classical standards, it can claim no special title in size or extent.

Thebes and Plataea were separated by only seven miles. That is barely a shadow on the frontier of the greater ancient empires. Even the fabled Sicilian campaign, whose distance robbed Athens of her empire, was only half as far away as Caesar wandered from Rome, and only a fourth of the distance Han warriors traveled from their capitals at Chang’an or Luoyang to the farthest frontier of their empire.

A bit less than three hundred Thebans died that day. This was a fairly normal casualty count for the war. Even Athens at her greatest could only put ten thousand hoplites into the field. In contrast, in one day of fighting at Cannae, Rome lost more than 50,000 men. Emperor Ashoka lamented that he killed more than 100,000 enemy soldiers in the conquest of Kalinga.

Seen in this perspective, the Peloponnesian War was a tiny conflict, fought between the small towns of a fractious, tribalistic, and self-absorbed people. Despite this, it is not only remembered, but earnestly studied and carefully reconstructed. Many wars of far greater scale languish unremembered.

Perhaps the key to the war’s hold on our minds is its complexity? This was a war that involved dozens of polities. It pitted land powers against sea powers, oligarchs against democracies, coalition against empire. Culture and ideology played their part in this war; so did domestic strife and civil conflict. This war spawned great contests for food, for wealth, and for power; it witnessed both plague and starvation. No matter what angle you wish to take, the Peloponnesian War has something for you.

Yet the Peloponnesian War’s complexity is hardly unique. American history began, after all, with a war that stretched across land and sea, entangling enemies both domestic and foreign, flinging diverse cultures, ideologies, and political regimes into one violent contest. This sort of multi-sided warfare, one-part wheeling-and-dealing on the international stage, another part grandstanding on the domestic one, is the historical norm. It describes all great wars found in our records—and its shadows haunt the legends and ruins of wars who had no historian to record them. To parse through the tales of the Iroquois oral tradition, or piece together inscriptions from Mayan steles and tombs, is to be struck with wonder. It is wonder at the intricacy of their wars, the complexity of their alliances, and the drama of their betrayals.

Above all, it is to wonder what classics these events might have produced if these peoples and places had a Thucydides to write about them. Alas! They had no Thucydides. There has been only one of him. That is all that truly sets the Peloponnesian War apart from the other wars of human history: this was the war witnessed by Thucydides.

It is difficult to peg this Thucydides. Political scientists, historians, and military theorists all claim him as the father of their craft. Whenever one of these disciplines is infected with a new "path breaking" paradigm, a blizzard of articles are written to graft the latest fashion onto his work. This literature is enormous. Forgive me for quoting none of it. So many of yesteryear’s intellectual fads have died. They are forgotten. Thucydides and his history live with us still. He will outlast them all.

In any case, their purpose for consulting Thucydides differs from mine. They approach his work like miners on the mountainside, drilling narrow shafts down through hardrock until they find something marketable. The results are predictable: Thucydides’ book is more often referenced than read, and when read, more often in part than in full. The quote is what matters.

There is nothing entirely wrong with this. Analogies to Thucydidean events can be revealing; pithy Thucydidean one-liners add punch to all essays in need of it. But those who limit their acquaintance with Thucydides to a few snapshots miss a great opportunity. There is more to Thucydides than a frantic search to find another model for all time. If they look hard enough, the seeker of evergreen political models or eternal laws of war will find what they are looking for in Thucydides, though it is hard for me to believe that any thinker as subtle as he would smile on this quest. What I value in Thucydides is something different altogether. I do not turn to him for templates "for all time," but for an escape from my time.

We all live in the moment. A cacophony of words and sounds follow us wherever we go, broadcast into our cars, our workplaces, our homes, and our pockets. We live in an unescapable echo chamber—an echo chamber relentlessly focused on the now.

Not so with Thucydides! His history is about many things, but 2016 is not one of them. Here then is a chance to put the present to the side. Cast away that dreadful election! Muffle the droning of the news reports. Close the Twitter stream. Before us is a world that has never heard of the twenty-first century nor imagined its problems. Your guide to this world will be a man from an alien past; his values and assumptions will be starkly different than your own. Wrestle with him—let your beliefs and assumptions be tested. What better chance to assay the building blocks of your politics than by exploring the politics of a different age, removed from the passions of the moment? Thucydides does not spell out his lessons for you. Instead he invites you to follow along with him and find what lessons history allows by yourself.

This is a long process, for Thucydides’ history is a long book. But it does not go on forever. When you come out the other end, you will be ready to face the present again, hopefully more thoughtful, wise, and penetrating than when you began. My hope is that I will carry a little of what I have learned with me wherever else I go. In reading Thucydides, I aim for what Joseph Sobran once described as the real purpose behind reading ‘old books’:
To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing…you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.

When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof…

When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.”

But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.1
Thucydides earned a place at my “internal council” table. A spot has been saved for him near the doorway, between the seats given to Xunzi and Ibn Khaldun. One day he might sit opposite to Tocqueville; the next he will debate with Madison. In all cases I will be glad to hear his voice. But Thucydides is a wily one, and I am not quite ready to let him in yet. I have too many questions that must first be answered. So I invite him instead (or, at least, so I imagine) to a cozy side room, warmed by a great fire place and graced with two old armchairs. I ask him to sit down and bear kindly the interrogation that is to follow.
  • “How should I read your book?"
  • "Should it be understood as a work of what we call history, or literature, or social science?"
  • "How can I distinguish between your narrative of events and the events themselves?"
  • "Could your explanations be wrong? How would I know?"
  • "And why, for heaven’s sake, did you not tell us when and how the Athenians passed the sanctions on Megara?”
Thucydides smiles, pulls out his manuscript, and begins his reply. I listen carefully, questioning here, prodding there, occasionally crying out, “You rascal, you almost fooled me!” and then arguing furiously against what I hear. I know these questions will not all be resolved in one sitting. It will go on for weeks, I think, and even then some queries will remain unanswered. But by then the old Hellene will be ready to take his seat place at my table. I, in turn, will have learned a great deal about the world and its workings that I'd never considered before.

Luckily for you, Thucydides no longer lives in flesh and blood. I cannot secret him off to my study for weeks on end to prevent others from stealing his company. Everyone reading this has an equal claim to the historian; all can spend their evenings considering his words. I invite you to do so. Question him about his work, argue with him about war and power, badger him about what he might think of the wars in Vietnam or Iraq. Ask away! Just remember to write down what you have learned. Share with us what you have gained by wrestling with Thucydides.

I will have more to say about Book I later this week. For now, welcome to the Thucydides Roundtable.


Joseph Sobran, "Reading Old Books," The Imaginative Conservative (8 July 2013).

Are You Prepared For November 9th?  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

We rush towards disaster and greet it with a smirk.

I sketched out what this disaster might look like when Bloomberg broke the story of Andrés Sepúlveda, a man who claims to have help hack elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela, this spring:

Andrés Sepúlveda is a challenge that neither our political institutions nor our political philosophy have prepared us to meet…. If [the hackers] performance is done just right no one in the audience will know if the electoral victories they witness were justly won or were delivered by puppeteers in the shadows.

It is this ambiguity that makes Sepúlveda's methods so dangerous. His is a poisoned dart aimed at the heart of liberal democracy. For the governing regimes of the Western world are built on a myth, and it is a myth that goes like this: in democracies, decisions of state are made by the will of the people. That actual policy making in democratic regimes is only tenuously connected to popular will is immaterial. A belief in the 'consent of the governed' preserves the peace. It allows for factions to compete for control of the state without violence. It is a useful myth (and if limited to the selection of candidates, one that has some truth to it), but one that depends of a transparent system of electioneering to sustain it. The democracy of the election hackers is not transparent. They muddy the system. The more infamous cases like this become, the muddier the system gets. It is important to understand that no team needs to consistently succeed in hacking their preferred candidates into victory for this to be true--all that is needed for democracy to lose its luster is a belief that a given electoral system could be hacked. [1]

I ended that piece with a few speculative hypotheticals:

Just what does American democracy look like when foreign syndicates and intelligence agencies can manipulate social media and internet platforms to boost the candidates they prefer? An even more important question: what does American democracy look like when Americans believe foreign syndicates and intelligence agencies are manipulating them to boost the candidates they prefer? What happens when the losing side of any electoral contest believes they lost because someone on the other side hacked the election to their advantage?

We will soon find out. [2]

At the time I feared my words were a tad too dramatic. I fear this no longer. My hypotheticals are no longer hypothetical. We now know exactly what it looks like when foreign intelligence agencies manipulate American social media and internet platforms to boost the candidates they prefer. We also now know exactly what it looks like when Americans believe that foreign intelligence agencies are manipulating our election cycles.

Welcome to the war, America.

What we do not yet know is how America responds after actual voting on election day has been manipulated. We will know soon. 

Are you prepared for November 9th?

The vulnerability of voting machines to outside hacking is at this point long proven. Among many circles it is well known. Well versed tech junkies post articles like this to their Facebook and Twitter profiles with the same smugness they usually call on to ridicule lesser beings who’ve never heard of Truecrypt or password managers. With a smirk they say things like, “septuagenarian officials prove they don’t understand technology, case #2,038!”

Does their smugness prepare them any better for November 9th?

Voting machines are not just hackable—over the last week it has become clear that the infrastructure around them has already been hacked. But the important thing here isn’t how successful Russian attempts are at penetrating the vote tallying machines. All they need to accomplish their goal is to instill the fear that they might have penetrated them.

Every news report on the issue makes the situation that much more serious—every new headline is a new challenge to ambitious hackers looking for international-level lulz; every fresh dispatch is a fresh temptation to campaigns and their sympathizers to ensure that their candidate wins where he or she must; every new broadcast is a potential inspiration for the next radical or terrorist.

Hacking is not technically necessary to pull this sort of operation off. John Robb suggests that a few dozen false bomb threats would be enough to start this ball rolling. I suppose real bombs would do the trick as well.

Are we prepared for November 9th?

We live in a country on edge. Trust in political and social institutions are at historical lows. Social life is atomozied. Politics are polarized. Within the last year radicalized groups from both sides of the aisle have resorted to the force of arms to achieve their ideological agendas. In this shattered state we face a wounded but still powerful enemy who seeks revenge for America’s interference in her own internal affairs, a power who actively works across the globe for a future of diminishing American power.

The time for smugness is over. It is now time for every American of national prominence—the presidential aspirants, of course, but also party and congressional leaders, journalists and media moguls, officials up an down the executive branch—to plan what they will do if the voting of November 8th is disrupted by hidden hacking or open attack. If an hour so grim as this arrives, these careful and measured responses, planned well in advance, will be all that stand between momentary political disruption and a violent social eruption.

 Now is the day to prepare for November 9th.


[1] T. Greer, "Hacking Democracy," Scholar's Stage (1 April 2016). For the Selpuveda story, see Jordan Robertson, Michael Riley, and Andrew Willis, "How to Hack an Election," Bloomberg Newsweek, 30 March, 2016 (print edition, 4 April, 2016).

[2] Greer, "Hacking Democracy,"

There was once a time when the first thing I would do in the morning was rush to the computer so that I might check the comment threads of the five to ten blogs I followed on national security and strategic theory. It was the golden era of the old Strategy Sphere: a time when the debates swirling around the internet had real intellectual heft and all arguments were conducted with a fierce sense of urgency. I have written about era—what it was like to be a participant in its debates, and what caused that old community to slowly fall apart—before. That retrospective ended on a sad note, questioning whether or not the spirit of those days could ever be recaptured.

I think it might just be possible.

One of the most compelling forums for discussion in those days were the statecraft roundtables. The idea behind all the roundtables was to gather together a diverse group of strategy and history focused bloggers to read and discuss a classic in the field. We would read the book chapter by chapter, each participant chronicling their reaction to the author’s—and each other’s—arguments as we read. Part long distance book club, part public forum, every roundtable was a cocktail of different ideas and perspectives that anyone would learn from, be they newcomers to the strategy scene, practitioners in the field, or well credentialed experts dwelling in think tanks and ivory towers.

Last week the editors of the Clausewitz Roundtable—held eight years ago on Chicago Boyz—published an edited version of the roundtable tour through Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. It can be purchased for $3 on Amazon. For its price it’s a fine little read, both for the insights each author brings to On War and its theories, but also because it gives you a peek into what the blogosphere once was—and what it once again might be. The wide ranging discussions of politics, history, war, and power had in the comment threads of that roundtable are exactly the kind of thing that deserve to return to blogosphere.

And so it will.

I am proud to announce the upcoming Thucydides Roundtable, to be hosted at the group blog Zenpundit in October 2016.

Thucydides is a man of firsts. He has been called the father of realism, the first “theorist of war” in the Western tradition, the inventor of political science and international relations, the first man to ever attempt an objective and evidence based history of the world he lived in, and many other things besides. In the two thousand years since they were first written, his words have been used and abused by historians, poets, social scientists, and statesmen from one side of the Earth to the other. His chronicle of the thirty year war waged between his native Athens and her rival Sparta has just about everything in it. I really do mean everything. No great or enduring theme of the human experience is left untouched—war and international order of course make their appearance, but so do meditations on statesmanship, bargaining, courage, partisanship, justice, ethics, ambition, greed, honor, religion, culture, history, and so much more. His History of the Peloponnesian War is not just the story of a quarrel between Athenians and Lacedaemonians in the 5th century BC. It is a story about all of mankind. 

Or at least this is what Thucydides hoped it would be.

I invite you to discover for yourself if Thucydides' ambition was realized by reading his work with us. We will officially kick off the roundtable discussion at Zenpundit in mid-October. In the weeks to come we will publish the full list of official participants as well as the Roundtable's official rules of engagement. Until then, I encourage you to go out and purchase the Landmark Thucydides to get a head start on the reading. It’s a big book, but one well worth reading.

In the meantime, add Zenpundit to your feeds or like our Thucydides Roundtable Facebook page to stay updated on the roundtable's schedule and progress. 

Update (23/8/2016): Cross posted at Zenpundit.

"Let us go forward as with other matters and other measures similar in aim and effect - let us go forward in malice to none and good will to all. Such plans offer far better prizes than taking away other people's provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."

 --Winston Churchill, "The Gift of a Common Tongue," September 1943

One of the more interesting unsolved puzzles of world history is why the region of the world now known as "China" has spent most of the last millennium united under one political regime, while all other centers of civilization, be they in Europe, the Near East, or the great Indic river basins, passed their days divided. Some push the unity of "Inner China" (modern China sans Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan) back even further than this, and speak of a single Chinese empire stretching back to the beginnings of antiquity. This is not warranted. While inner China was united under one political regime several times in the first millennium, it was just as often divided between many warring nations and claimants. Were world historians writing their tomes in the 4th century AD, they would conclude that China was a land just as prone to division as Europe. In the millennium that preceded the Sui Dynasty's conquest of Inner China, the Chinese world had spent more centuries divided than united.

Things did not stay this way. In 581 AD he Sui Dynasty brought all of inner China brought under one regime's control for the second time. Over the centuries this feat that would be repeated by the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing in turn. Western history has no parallels to this. There was only ever one Roman Empire. Once it fell, no caliphate has ever matched the glories of the Umayyads.

Explanations for China's peculiar path are many. Some of these theories are more popular than others. The most popular is that Chinese unity was a product of Chinese geography. I debunked that notion in one of the more popular posts on this website. Read that post here, if you are interested; I will not retread that argument in this post. Here I want to tackle another common explanation for Chinese unity: China persisted through the centuries, this theory goes, because the idea of China as a unified empire persisted through all that time as well.

China during one its eras of disuion, the age of "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms."

Map by Ian Kiu  via Wikimedia Commons

Though its proponents don't really put it in these terms, their essential argument is that the ideal of Chinese unity was a Schelling point for conquerors. Every Chinese warlord and mandarin had a mental map of what needed to be controlled to in order to claim the Mandate of Heaven for themselves. "All Under Heaven" is what they called these lands, though even in ancient times it was quite apparent that there was far more under heaven than any emperor could administer. But the idea that certain areas were the natural inheritance of empire stuck around, as did the belief of the people who lived in those areas that they were really part of the same system and culture, even if it was temporarily divided between many regimes.

Europe lacked such a Schelling point, and this is why we talk of Napoleon and Hitler conquering Europe instead of reunifying it. That distinction is not just a semantic game: people treat foreign invasions and civil wars differently, and nations oft fight with greater fury to defend their homeland from foreign conquerors than domestic rebels. By this logic, part of the reason the conquests of tyrants like Hitler and Napoleon were so ephemeral was the fact these tyrants were perceived as conquerors, not reunifiers. Historians who study the war-torn history of China's republican era often bring up this distinction. The battles waged between warlords and political parties of that era were simply of a different character than the battles fought in China's war with Japan a few years later. Wars fought to reunify China fall in a different category than wars fought by outsiders to conquer her. [1]

However, there was nothing objective about the Japanese forces that made the Chinese people and their leaders treat them differently than they treated the forces of a Chinese warlord--in many cases, the soldiers of a warlord were just as alien to the 'natives' they conquered as the Japanese were. The Chinese soldier of the early 20th century, like his Japanese counterparts, usually spoke a different language and followed different customs than the people he fought amongst, and found himself just as bewildered by the climate and diet of the lands he was sent to fight for. The distinction between Japanese-led invasion and Chinese-led reunification existed only in the minds of those who made it. It was an idea--or rather, an iteration of an idea that had existed in some form for a thousand years of Chinese history.  In the end it was the idea that there is one China and that this one China ought to be one and indivisible that made it so.

Or at least that is how the argument goes.

The most sophisticated versions of this argument pay special attention to how important ideas and the texts that held them were to the structure of imperial Chinese society. Mark Edward Lewis's account is compelling:
The Han imperium had created a new type of elite that was tied to the state through its economic dependence on salary and an intellectual commitment—more or less sincere—to the literary culture sanctioned by the court. However, the insecurity of office which the state used to assure the obedience of the officials meant that they were obliged to protect their futures, and those of their children, by finding resources outside the state sphere. Having obtained these resources, they ceased to be creatures of the state and became semi-independent local powers in the image of the great clans destroyed by Emperor Wu. 
This became the classic form to the imperial Chinese elite, able to maintain itself only by balancing service to the state with the development of local bases. This type of elite was crucial to the conditioning of the state, which could never collect tax income sufficient to maintain a bureaucracy that was able to control the entire population. Instead the state maintained a bureaucracy that could preserve a degree of public order ad secure a sufficient income, and then relied on local powers to keep the peace where the state lacked the manpower to police The loyalty of these powers, in turn, was secured through the possibility of gaining crucial supplementary income through holding office or providing other services to the state. 
In this system where the polity was created through the combination of paid agents and local allies, the texts of imperial canon served as the central cord binding the state proper to the powerful families on who it relied. Most families of the Eastern Han elite enriched themselves through office gained by study, or taken up study to secure wealth already gained. The canonical texts thus provided a major route by which families remained in states service. As the texts came to dominate the intellectual sphere, and serve the lingua franca of citations in which public debate was conducted, they also defined an intellectual frame in which state and families united in a common vision of society. The canonical texts instituted as a means of recruiting and controlling officials, thus became the core of a political system in which officials and dynasties were equally bound, and on which both depended. [2]
I do not disagree with Lewis' description.  He has rather impressively distilled the entire imperial system into three paragraphs, and this stylized description of traditional China's political economy and social structure is probably the best I have seen. His account parallels historical sociologist Jack Goldstone's suggestion that we understand the traditional political and intellectual structures of Old War civilizations as "complex systems... [that had] the property of stable equilibria. even when greatly disturbed, they had self-restoring features, such as an elite committed to a core culture, key sacred defining texts that maintained their role at the center of that culture, and principles of rule including hereditary leadership, elite privileges and religious support for both." [3]  Those looking to paint the inner workings of the early Islamic system, or its counterparts in Christendom, could do worse than take Lewis' three paragraphs as their guide.

However, it is knowledge of the history of these other civilizations that makes me question Lewis' final conclusion:
 When the state defined itself through a group of texts, and justified itself through their teachings, then these writings could be invoked to criticize specific policies, or ultimately to condemn the state itself. These texts, however, also provided the means by which the imperial order could survive the demise of each of its incarnations. To the extent that this order was implanted in the values and aspirations of the powerful families, and that it was crucial both to their economic survival and their claims to superiority over rivals with no traditions of imperial service, the dream of empire would be carried forward and a new dynasty established in the rubble of the old. Thus writing was not only crucial to the administrative functioning of the state, but more important it served as the seed which, planted in the soil of local society, produced a new state each time the old one fell. [4]
Had we no knowledge of the other civilizations outside of China, this narrative would be a convincing one. We do have such knowledge, however, and it puts this theory into doubt. Simply stated, the ideology of imperial unity is not a Chinese invention. The Roman political system was just as dependent on an ideology that "dominated the intellectual sphere, and serve the lingua franca of citations in which public debate was conducted, they also defined an intellectual frame in which state and families united in a common vision of society" as the Chinese one was. This intellectual frame did not die with the Western Empire. It continued to dominate European politics and society for hundreds of years after Rome's collapse. Remember, the last man to claim the title Holy Roman Emperor died in 1835! The political and intellectual system of the Early Islamic empires has cast just as long a historical shadow. Men are killing and dying in the name of a resurrected Caliphate as you read this.

The problem was not that men and women in Mediterranean world stopped believing in the ideal of universal empire, nor even that elites stopped identifying with a broader imperial identity. The real problem was that those who inherited the intellectual legacy  of Catholic Empire and Universal Caliphate did not also inherit the administrative tools needed to administer one. The Dark Ages was a time where men could dream of empire but could not build one. In Europe the decisive moment came piecemeal to different parts of the continent, first as the Carolingian empire collapsed, then when the Caliphate of Cordoba followed in its footsteps, and finally after the Investiture conflict and the civil war that followed left the Salians in only nominal control of their realm.  Power was so forcefully decentralized in the decades that followed each collapse that some historians argue we should not describe the feudal structures that followed as "governments" at all. [5] Europeans of this era did not forget how to dream, but they had forgotten how to govern. It would take centuries of state building until Europeans had regained the ability to field armies, administer taxes, and incorporate new conquests into their kingdoms. The slate was wiped clean clean. By these new states became strong enough to extend their control over distant lands, the memory of Rome ha dimmed and identity had reverted to the centers of local power where state building had begun. [6]

This process never happened in China. The Chinese also continued to dream of unity--but more importantly, they never completely lost their capacity to transform their dreams into reality. The imperial center was destroyed, but the bureaucratic structures that held the imperial system together at the lower levels of society lived on. The structures used to govern China and wring taxes from the Chinese people did change over the course of Chinese history, but there was never anything comparable to the total administrative collapse seen in early medieval Europe or the late medieval Near East .The old regime had been decentralized, but not destroyed. This not just made it easier for the next generation of Chinese warlords to mobilize the armies needed to reconquer all of China, but it also made it far easier for them to incorporate what they conquered as fiscally productive parts of their domain. 

Each period of unification deepened the connections between different regions of China, making it that much easier for warlords, rebels, and foreign conquerors to administer their new conquests then next time China fell apart. It's a classic example of virtuous cycle at work. The more time China spent unified the easier it was to unify it in the future.  This led to one of the more striking patterns of Chinese history: each major period of disunity was shorter than the last.

The logic of Schelling points and the ideals of universal empire played a part in all this, and of course the longer China was unified the stronger these ideals would be. However, as the Western experience suggests, imperial ideology may have been a necessary condition of unification, but it was not a sufficient one. Ideas alone do not make empires. China was never an empire of the mind. Like all else built by the hands of man, China was a creation of  blood, toil, and fear.


[1] For a lucid example, see Arthur Waldron, From War to Nationalism: China’s Turning Point, 1924-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 48-49.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Ancient China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 361.

[3] Jack Goldstone, "The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans," Cliodynamics 4, no 1 (2013), 63.

[4] Lewis, Writing and Authority, 361. 

[5]  Thomas Bison, The Crisis of the Thirteenth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of
European Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-22.

[6] The literature on European state building in the medieval and pre-modern eras is vast. Charles Tllly's Coercion, Capital, and European States is the classic account, though this gloss--particular the details regarding the onset of systematic collapse--is indebted to Thomas Ertman's Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe.

Readers may also be interested in seeing my white paper comparing the state building experiences of early modern Europe, ancient China, and medieval Japan for a more thorough review of the literature.

This will be my final post in the "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" series. You can read the original post that started the conversation here and the first follow up discussion here. In this post I will focus on a comment left back on the original essay by Andrew Chubb. Chubb is just about the sharpest analyst working South China Sea issues on either side of the Pacific. I first discovered him at his tragically under-updated blog, South China Sea Conversations, but you can find his writings in all sorts of places. Here is what he wrote in the original post's comment thread:

I agree that China has good reasons to want to demonstrate US unreliability, but how important is this really as the cause of the PRC behaviours you cite versus, say, geostrategic gains (i.e. control of maritime space), resource insecurity and its increased material capabilities? At Scarborough Shoal, as we know, the PRC didn't initiate the standoff, it was precipitated by a confluence of developments, including the Philippines' use of its new navy ship, and the fact that CMS ships happened to be nearby on a patrol nearby at the time - this being a function of the PHL navy having a new ship courtesy of the US Coastguard, and the PRC's shipbuilding projects initiated in 1999. As far as I'm aware, it's also not clear what level of the PRC state the authorization for "rescuing" the fishers was made - the CMS ships on patrol apparently received the distress call and asked for authorization before acting, but they evidently got it pretty quickly, so it seems plausible that it may have been authorized at the level of CMS or SOA headquarters and the Navy. So as a demonstration of US unreliability it's at most opportunistic and, as the PRC's subsequent behaviour in the area has suggested, motivated strongly by the desire to actually control the surrounding maritime space. I'm also not sure how the PRC could have been sure that the US would not have intervened more strongly - if they weren't sure, then that aspect of China's motivation may be better categorized as a probe, designed to test the US reaction (a line of thinking that i believe is important in explaining the 2090 Impeccable incident). 
As for the HYSY-981 and island-building, they were both massive logistical operations with enormous financial costs and complex inter-bureaucratic coordination, so the resources and actual maritime control motivations again seem more persuasive (and in the case of the island building, a perceived need to "dig in" in the Spratlys, and perhaps make use of some excess construction capacity). If the aim was demonstrating US unreliability, there surely must be much cheaper ways of doing that?

Also, China's reasons for to demonstrating US unreliability only hold up to a point, right? For example, the point at which Japan decides it needs its own nuclear deterrent. If the PRC were to actually ruin the US's credibility, the region would likely become very unstable, and that would clearly threaten the PRC economy - and we know for sure and certain that rising living standards is an agreed-upon strategy in Beijing (a core interest, no less). I reckon the hardheads in Beijing are well aware of the benefits that current arrangements have brought, as expressed in terms like the "period of strategic opportunity" for economic growth, and a "relatively peaceful external environment" with "opportunities greater than challenges" etc language. What's your take on that? [1]
One of the worst mental habits of the American analyst is an ingrained assumption that everything that happens in the world is a direct response to something the United States has (or has not) done. This sort of analysis is lazy at its best and blind at its worst. I usually condemn it when I see it. Chubb is right to call me out—though he has the grace to do it subtly—when I fall into this trap myself. There is more to what is happening in the West Pacific than American and Chinese rivalry. Claiming anything to the contrary was not my intent.

I mentioned, either in detail or in passing, five specific instances where Chinese actions have subverted the system America created and is now trying to uphold in the region: the 2012  Scarborough Shoal standoff, the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu incidents, 2012's hung ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh,  the 2014 HYSY-981 oil rig incident, and dredging and construction in the Spratly Islands over the last four years. Each of these events had different proximate causes. Most of these are unrelated to American actions in the region. Chubb's description of  the events surrounding the seizure of Scarborough Shoal, for example, match my own understanding of the incident. The Chinese decision to begin the Scarborough Shoal standoff was made in response to Filipino operations around the shoal. America did not enter the story until much later. Crises have a momentum of their own, and it is far more likely that the momentum of the moment, not a carefully calculated grand strategy emanating from the halls of Zhongnanhai, dictated the course of that summer's crisis.

This critique does not apply as well to the other incidents under discussion. As Chubb notes himself, both the HYSY-981 rig and the dredging in the Spratlys were made possible by massive investments in infrastructure and technology development. These were the products of years of planning. Their development could not possibly be a tit-for-tat responses to decisions made by other countries years after their procurement cycle began. Does it make sense to understand them in terms of signaling at all?

Before we address that question it is wise to consider the alternatives. The first alternative is geostrategic: building up a presence on South China Sea reefs and islands will help China control the sea in the event of future conflict. I have trouble taking this argument seriously. These island and reefs are indefensible bits of rock and sand. They cannot be hardened. Their assets cannot be hidden. In the first round of conflict with any power armed with precision guided munitions, they will be destroyed. Lyle Goldstein said it well in a short piece for the National Interest last year:
In the age of precision strike, any and almost all fixed targets can be destroyed with ease, even by lesser militaries.  Much has been made of Beijing’s new opportunity to fly surveillance aircraft, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and even fighter aircraft from the airstrips now being built. Supposedly, China could base small frigates, fast attack craft and even submarines at these new facilities, but that approach still seems far-fetched. Never mind that it would be nearly impossible to store a strategically significant amount of fuel and munitions on these reefs, but such forces would have little and more likely even negative war-fighting value since they would be so exposed to hostile fire. In other words, a squadron of Su-27s flying out of Fiery Cross Reef “base” would most likely be smoking wrecks within hours of the start of any South China Sea conflict. To this author’s reckoning, a facility can be termed a “base” when it has some prospect of playing a useful operational role during armed conflict. By that definition, these facilities are not bases, but rather outposts of a merely symbolic nature. [2]
The second alternative is resource insecurity, especially energy insecurity. There is some evidence connecting the HYSY-981 incident to China's energy needs, and obviously no country (or company) will take the effort to build a deep oil rig they never plan on using in the first place.[3] However, placing the rig in disputed waters is not a wise path to energy security. Ultra-deep offshore oil rigs have a notoriously low Energy Return on Investment (EROI), and the fuel needs of sixty ship flotilla assigned to guard the rig night and day will only lower this number. [4] Offshore oil rigs also have an extremely long payback time even when oil prices are high. Recovering the capital invested in the rig's construction and operation costs requires decades—much longer than the three months China National Offshore Oil Corporation originally announced HYSY-981 would explore the disputed areas close to the Paracel Islands.

Image taken from Sue Goodridge, "Offshore Drilling Unveiled: Your Quintessential Investment Primer,"  
Market Realist (1 February 2016).

The rig's two month stint in Vietnam's declared EEZ raises an issue easily obscured by looking solely at the rig's entire procurement cycle. When CNOOC announced in 2008 that it planned to invest $29 billion (USD) over twenty years to develop the South China Sea, it was acting on a decade long time scale far removed from the twists and turns of day-to-day diplomacy. Their announcement did not specify when individual CNOOC assets would be deployed, much less when they would be deployed in disputed waters. CNOOC and its Party backers realized that those decisions must take into account changing international conditions and could not be made years in advance. As such, the timing of the rig's deployment should be understood in the context of those conditions. Just as the United State's decision to invest in THAAD anti-ballistic missile system should be distinguished from its more recent decision to deploy this system in South Korea, so should China's decision to invest in deep-water drilling technology be distinguished from all later decisions to deploy this technology in disputed waters. That such an attempt would be made was more or less inevitable; the timing and location of this attempt, in contrast, was not ordained in the heavens, and could be decided on a much shorter notice. As it turned out, the Chinese timed the deployment of HYSY-981 very cleverly, successfully demonstrating the impotence of both the United States and ASEAN in one go

Finally, the mere fact that China is willing to invest the time and capital needed to build artificial atolls, undersea labs, and advanced oil rigs is itself an important form signalling. International relation theorists often write about the importance of "costly signaling" in foreign policy. International diplomacy is game of lies. Every actor on the international stage wishes to look more committed and fearsome than it truly is; after all, the more committed one is to a goal, the harder it will be to deter you from pursuing it. The harder it is to deter you, the less likely other nations will even make the attempt. But how do you inform other countries you are actually committed to the course you have declared, when they know you have every incentive to bluff? One answer is to send costly signals—that is, adopt policies which cost you money, time, or prestige to implement, and so display that your commitment to the goal at hand is more than just hot air. The classic example usually cited is military mobilization, which carries material costs no amount of bluster can compare with. [5]

The international relations theorists of the future may well use island dredging, not army mobilization, as the go-to example of costly signaling in great power politics. The one thing that threads together reclaiming islands, constructing billion dollar rigs, and building military bases on barren atolls is their cost. The high cost of these projects is an effective way for Beijing to show just how committed it is to the South China Sea. It knows that most of the rival claimants do not have a spare $30 billion to throw at resource development in the region. It also knows that every reef dredged and runway built by Chinese hands makes it that much harder for Chinese feet to walk away from their claims. These long term investments also reinforce the broader narrative Chinese diplomats use when bargaining with other powers across the region. Singapore's foreign ambassador at large understands this point:
While the artificial islands are inconsequential in military terms, they are a potent reminder to ASEAN that China is a geographic fact whereas the US presence in the South China Sea is the consequence of a geopolitical calculation. This is an idea that China never tires of seeding in ways subtle or direct. [6]
The islands also meet what I have argued is the most important goal of China's rule bucking in the East and South China Seas. The CPC legitimizes its rule through an inherently revanchist nationalist narrative. The most important audience for Chinese actions in these seas is not the Americans, or even the Southeast Asians and the Japanese, but the Chinese public. This narrative requires the Chinese to come off as the winners somewhere. The South China Sea is the least dangerous pace for them to make the attempt. They continually test and probe, seeking small chinks in the armor where they can expose U.S. hypocrisy and display Chinese power to their lesser neighbors, because this really is the only place they can hope to stand up to America and win at it. 


[1] Andrew Chubb, comment (5 June 2016) on T. Greer, "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," The Scholar's Stage (4 June 2016).

[2]  Lyle Goldstein "The South China Sea Showdown: 5 Dangerous Myths," National Interest (29 Septemeber 2015)

[3] See discussion in James Manicom, "The Energy Context behind China’s Drilling Rig in the South China Sea," China Brief 14, iss. 11 (June 2014); Erica Downs, "Business and Politics in the South China Sea: Explaining HYSY 981’s Foray into Disputed Waters," China Brief 14, iss. 12 (June 2014).

[4] Adam R. Brandt, et. al., "Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for Forty Global Oilfields Using a Detailed Engineering-Based Model of Oil Production," PLOS One (December 2015); David J. Murphy, "The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 372, iss 2006 (January 2014);

[5] James D. Fearon, "Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs," Journal of Conflict Resolution 41, no. 1 (1997): 68-9.

[6] Bilihari Kausikan, "ASEAN and U.S.-China Competition in Southeast Asia," (Lecture, delivered as part of the IPS 2015/16 Nathan Lectures series, Singapore, 30 March 2016). Online transcript here, see p. 18.

Last week's post "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" created a stir. Many who read it were inspired to write up their own view in response; some of these have been posted in the comments thread to the original post, others on Twitter, and yet others have been sent to me in more private forums. I have not had time to properly respond to this flood of commentary, and I doubt I will ever have time to respond to it all. However, a few of the critiques I have seen are too good to languish in comment threads unnoticed. I have collected the best of these here, along with a few of my own thoughts in response.

First off, multiple readers have pointed out that my post makes essentially the same case Peter Mattis made a year ago in a National Interest essay titled "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads." [1] I was unaware of Mattis's column. Had I known of it I would have cited it, for its message is almost exactly the same as mine, just stated in far less sensational language. This stylistic choice on my part has been criticized by some, but this sort of criticism misses the mark. There is a purpose behind the pungency. Americans have been declaring that China is at a crossroads for three decades now. This is the default setting, a frame of thought that Americans conjure up effortlessly even when (perhaps especially when) the distractions of a busy world press upon them. It also happens to be wrong. Simpy stating that is not sufficient. It is not enough whisper that the emperor has no clothes. The truth must be shouted at him.

This brings me to Nick Prime's critique of my argument, sent to me in a private message. Prime has one of the most interesting research programs in the field of strategic studies, and if strategic theory is your thing his research is worth delving into. His comment here is typically astute:
I think your assessment of everything here is pretty accurate, but I'm not sure you're viewing the significance of it in the appropriate mindset. I don't question the idea that China has chosen its path, and that that path runs perpendicular to the liberal rules based order for which the US has been the guarantor for more than half a century. The evidence at this point is consistent and pretty much irrefutable.

That being said, the choices they've made make this something of a Mexican standoff, if not now then something that is quite clearly headed in that direction. The constant reminder of choice is thus not naive or ignorant of the path China's pursuing but is instead a very tactical form of positional bargaining. The US will not *choose* to break international norms and start a war with China. But the US will, I believe, stand firm and watch as China creeps towards that precipice and it doesn't hurt us at every stage to remind China that each choice is bringing that eventuality ever closer. One can justify the rhetoric you're criticising even if they except your premise because if what you say is true then the courses are set and the game is now about credibility and legitimacy. By calling out every choice China makes we highlight their illegitimacy and strengthen ours. Ideally this would amount to (if not an actual deterrent, than at least) a effort towards compellence.

This all goes hand in hand with countering China's broader regional strategy of trying to forestall attempts at collectively counter-balancing their rise through multi-lateral regional alignment and engagement. China's long running dismissal of, and their subtle attempts to undermine, ASEAN also make this pretty clear. We need to be standing firm behind some sort of line in the sand that shows we're not going to let them dismantle the international system we've built. It's both the right thing to do and in our national interest, at a grand strategic level it also seeks to provide the bulwark around which that counter-balancing can solidify and set in its heels.
Prime's argument is expressed in the language of conflict bargaining, and his main ideas should be familiar to anyone who has read Schelling's Arms and Influence or The Strategy of Conflict.[2] Prime asks the first question anyone should ask when an international actor tries to signal its intentions in an incomplete information scenario: do the things said genuinely reflect the beliefs of those saying them, or are they simply rhetorical tools in a bargaining game? Does all this talk of choice reveal actual American sentiments, or is it a more cynical attempt to maneuver the Chinese into having the "last clear chance" to avert war?

Readers who do not regularly delve into the tomes of strategic theory can be forgiven for not knowing what this 'last clear chance' business is all about. Schelling introduces the idea by asking us to imagine a special game of chess:
A chess game can end in win, lose, or draw. Let’s change the game by adding a fourth outcome called “disaster.” If “disaster” occurs, a heavy fine is levied on both players, so that each is worse off than if he had simply lost the game. And the rules specify what causes disaster: specifically, if either player has moved his knight across the center line and the other player has moved his queen across the center line, the game terminates at once and both players are scored with a disaster. If a white knight is already on the black side of the board when the black queen moves across to the white side, the black queen’s move terminates the game in disaster; if the queen was already across when White moved his knight across the center line, the knight’s move terminates the game in disaster for both players. And the same applies for the white queen and the black knight.  
What does this new rule do to the way a game is played? If a game is played well, and both players play for the best score they can get, we can state two observations. First, a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster, and he would not. Second, the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics. White can effectively keep Black’s queen on her own side of the board by getting a knight across first; or he can keep both Black’s knights on their own side by getting his queen across first. This ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective, so effective that the disaster never occurs. In fact, the result is no different from a rule that says no queen can cross a center line if an opponent’s knight has already crossed it, and no knight can cross the center line if an opponent’s queen has already crossed it. Prohibitive penalties imposed on deliberate actions are equivalent to ordinary rules.  
The characteristic that this chess game shares with the tripwire diplomacy, and that accounts for its peculiar safety, is the absence of uncertainty. There is always some moment, or some final step, in which one side or the other has the last clear chance to turn the course of events away from war (or from disaster in our game of chess) or to turn it away from a political situation that would induce the other to take the final step toward war. The skillful chess player will keep the knight across the center line or near enough to cross before his opponent’s queen can get across, with due allowance for the cost of having to devote resources to the purpose. Skillful diplomacy, in the absence of uncertainty, consists in arranging things so that it is one’s opponent who is embarrassed by having the “last clear chance” to avert disaster by turning aside or abstaining from what he wanted to do (emphasis added)[3]
Is this the aim of American rhetoric on "China's choice?"

Possibly. It is likely that statements by Senator McCain, Secretary Carter, et. al. are a bit of bargaining and a bit of honest belief rolled together into one. However, if one part dominates, it is the second. I say this because the "China is at a crossroads" meme is not just rhetoric that rings from the pronouncements of America's highest policy makers or the podium's of her official spokespeople and press secretaries; it is a way of thought that permeates American officialdom. Talk to think tank fellows, naval officers, congressional aids, even grad students, and you will hear these same notes repeated. I believe this accounts for the popularity of the original post. The analysts and reporters who have reached out to me after I published it all had similar stories to tell: they thanked me for saying what I did because they feared their colleagues genuinely believe China is still waiting "at the crossroads." This is a deeply ingrained belief, not a carefully chosen bargaining position.

However, even if it this sort of rhetoric is a carefully designed signal, it is not effective at reaching its aims. To return to Shelling:
But off the chess board the last chance to avert disaster is not always clear. One does not always know what moves of his own would lead to disaster, one cannot always perceive the moves that the other side has already taken or has set afoot, or what interpretation will be put on one’s own actions; one does not always understand clearly what situations the other side would not, at some moment, accept in preference to war (emphasis added). [4]
Deterrence and compellence only work if the rules of the game are known and understood by both parties. On this count the Americans have been sloppy. They have never clarified the rules of their game. The constant talk of choice is never coupled with clear descriptions of the exact consequences of choosing wrongly. Mostly American officials frame the choice in ornate and abstract language; if China chooses to disrupt the ruling order, they say, China will "create a future that resembles Asia's darker past." How are the Chinese supposed to interpret this kind of rhetoric? Is not a return to the dynamics of Asia's past the entire purpose of their project?

Offering China a choice to join the international order does not bolster American credibility, nor does it pass the last clear chance to jump off the escalation escalator to Beijing. The Chinese who listen to American lectures about the choice they face are most likely to conclude that Americans are either 1) too foolish to realize that they made their choice long ago, or 2) are smart enough to realize this, but lack the gumption to do anything meaningful about it.

The second interpretation is strengthened by an uncomfortable fact: the Chinese are far more committed than the Americans are or ever can be to the narrow disputes at the fringes of the American led order. There are many theories for why China does what it does in its near abroad, but I am particularly partial to explanations that focus on the narrative the Communist Party of China pitches to its cadres and its subjects to justify its rule. Here Bilahari Kausikan is eloquent:
China's use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China's sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong's phrase, "stood up" under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China's "Great Rejuvenation". 
The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing's rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan's long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China's interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification. 
That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP's version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China's "new normal". The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose. 
The costs and consequences of chest-thumping and acting tough in the SCS are minimal. Deterrence or its lack works both ways. If the Chinese cannot deter the US from operating in the SCS because the risks of doing so are too high to be credible, by the same token, neither can the US deter or reverse Chinese activities in the SCS. China is not going to dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea or give up what it says was Chinese territory since "ancient times". Critical statements by the US, Europe or other countries from around the world calling on China to respect international law - even Botswana has issued a statement on the SCS - can be brushed aside. On the SCS, the only opinion that really matters to the CCP is that of its own people.  (emphasis added). [5]
Kausikan is more sanguine about all of this than I am, but the take away is the same. For the Communist Party of China, territorial disputes over God-forsaken atolls in the middle of the ocean are an existential question. These islands are directly related to the legitimacy of the Party, and thus the survival of the Party itself. Whether or not 'legitimacy' as a concept makes much sense does not matter here. What matters is that the Chinese think it does and they act accordingly. The United States simply does not have that level of commitment to these atolls. It cannot have that kind of commitment—no matter what any American says, everyone in the region knows that America could withdraw entirely from Asia (and for that matter, Europe) without fear of domestic revolution or external invasion. The American republic is blessed with enormous privilege: for her, international politics does not mean walking the knife's edge between survival and extinction.

The world looks different when viewed from Beijing. China's ruling regime occupies a precarious position, and the dangers they face are reflected in the policies they pursue abroad. This emerges as a recurring theme when the different points of contention that divide China from the West are examined. Most the aspects of the 'rules based order' that China rejects are things they view as an existential threat to the rule of Party. The root problem then is not China's rise, but the nature of the Chinese regime that guides it. As much as we may like to talk about making China a "responsible stake holder" in our order, the brightest minds in Zhongnanhai know that full participation in the American system means relinquishing their grip on power. The Arab Spring was a horrible shock to the Chinese leadership for just this reason. The speed with which long respected, rule-abiding members of the liberal order were abandoned by the United States once the street protests began convinced Beijing that American promises about the benefits of "responsible" participation in the American system were lies. Nor could the Chinese ignore that cherished aspects of that order, such as technological integration with the wider world, the free flow of information between borders, and an international network of activists and journalists, were critical to the collapse of governments across the region. Our rules based international order is a liberal one, and full participation in it will ultimately be fatal to any illiberal regime that joins it. The Communist Party of China recognizes this. The Party's real choice has always been to either give up their control over China in order to join the existing order or to try and create a new order more friendly to their continued hold on power. 

Given these existential stakes at play, I am extremely skeptical that our rhetorical nicties will make any difference in the Party's calculations. They have decided that our order and their regime are fundamentally incompatible. This judgement is probably correct. Our choice then, is simple: we can change the nature of the international system we have built so that it has space for illiberal regimes within in it, or we can try to actively oppose the rise autocratic powers who wish to overturn the order. Compromise or containment. 

From the perspective of Asia, the "China choice" rhetoric furthers neither end. Where it might make a difference is inside the United States itself. As mentioned earlier, America could lose her entire alliance system in East Asia and still live without fear of foreign invasion, and Chinese salami slices in the South China Sea are far less dramatic than a disaster of that scale. Thus even without the growing isolationist sentiment in American politics, regional allies have good reason to doubt whether America is actually committed to the international system she has built. This doubt substantially strengthens the Chinese position.  If United States wishes to maintain a credible presence in the Western Pacific, then its own people need to be sold on the project. The pageantry of declaring that the Chinese have to choose between a rules based order of the present or a return to the dark anarchy of the past might just be necessary to get the American people on board. 

I am going to stop with that for now. There are a few other comments and reactions I want to respond toespecially Andrew Chubb's comment on the original post, and Mark Safranski's response post at Zenpundit—but this piece is already long as it is. I will have to save my thoughts on their comments for a separate post later this week.  


[1] Peter Mattis, "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads," National Interest (7 August 2015).

[2] It is possible that he is pandering to my biases here; I have said before and affirm now that Schelling is the most important thinker we have for understanding U.S. and Chinese decision making in the South China Sea, and that you will be better prepared to analyze what is happening there after you have read him than if you had the Sunzi or Clausewitz.

[3] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 100-101.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Bilahari Kausikan, "Pavlovian Conditioning in the South China Sea," The Strait Times (1 April 2016).