|USGS topographical map. "Japan, Korea, and Northeast China." 2006. |
Image Source: koryostudies.com.
For centuries thinkers and strategists of the Western tradition have turned to Thucydides and his history to find answers to this question. The great historian speaks of Athenian envoys rising up in hostile halls to justify their city's course:
"An empire was offered to us: can you wonder that, acting as human nature always will, we accepted it and refused to give it up again, constrained by three all powerful motives, honour, fear, interest?" Fear. Honor. Interest.
These three terms are the cornerstone of the Western realist tradition. They are both the bedrock upon which hard-nosed theories of world politics are built and the grounds where actual realpolitick has been decided. To Thucydides's Athenians and those who have followed them these three words were not just forces "all powerful," but impulses innate to humanity, a defining feature of man and the driving cause of man's misery.
The realists of the Sinic political tradition do not have any one phrase they can point to as the foundation of their tradition. They did not leave the question unaddressed, however. One succinct summary can be found in the ancient Warring States era strategic text, the Simafa, or The Grand Marshal's Methods. The author forgoes Thucydides's tripartite division of human nature for a description in four-parts:
"Glory, profit, shame, and death are referred to as the Four Preservations." These four, it is implied, will be the force that moves men to preserve the state and assure its victory when arms are raised. Some of these match up quite closely to Thucydides's expression. "Profit" finds its way onto both lists, while the Marshall's Methods "death" states clearly what men most "fear." It is more difficult to find Thucydides's "honor" among the Marshal's Four Preservations. Both "glory" and "shame" seem to fit the bill, and it would be easy to conclude this matching game by concluding that the Marshal's Methods simply draws attention to two different aspects of honor and leave the matter at that.
I ask my readers not to do this. Considering each of these elements separately exposes some of the biases in the Western--and especially, American--patterns of thought. Shame, for example, a concept so central to both daily interactions and high politics across Asia, holds little sway in America. When it does register in the public consciousness it is usually in reference to some crusade to deny it any influence: thus a recent series of viral videos featuring overweight women dancing their hearts out is titled the "No Body Shame Campaign," while the word "shaming" has been largely appropriated to mean any bigoted sort of criticism you think shouldn't be tolerated (e.g. 'slut-shaming').
The ancient Greek sense of honor was a very public emotion. Those living in the honor culture of Thucydides's day believed that honor not earned was shame deserved. Not so for those living a Christianized, post-Enlightenment democracy!  Americans have a very different conception of honor than our classical forebears, and an even weaker sense sense of shame. In American discourse, shame is something you stand up against, not something expected to move or motivate you.
Glory is much easier to understand. The desire to win, to compete, to do great deeds and be lauded for them, permeates American culture. It is such a fundamental part of our world view that we sometimes forget that this drive to be undeniably better than the rest is not a universal desire.
Writes Richard Nisbett:
"An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus "creativity" test and then gave the students "feedback" indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how log the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed." 
There are large parts of the world that do not think--and more importantly--do not feel like Americans do. There are places where shame moves men to do heroic things and pressures them to committ heinous acts. As the Grand Marshal suggests, shame lies at the scarred heart of as many battlefields as interest or profit.
I do not think American statesmen are accustomed to putting the power of shame into their political calculations. This is unfortunate. Increasingly, ours is a world where the burden of shame will mean the difference between war and peace.
 Thucydides 1.76. Benjamin Jowett translation (1881). See also 1.74.
 Simafa ch. 3. In Ralph Sawyer, trans. Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993). p. 136.
 See James Bowman's discussion in Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), ch. 1-3.
 Nisbett, RIchard. The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians Think Differently... and Why. (New York: Free Press, 2003). p. 56.
The actual study referenced is: Steven J. Heine, Shinobu Kitayama, Darrin R. Lehman; Toshitake Takata, Eugene Ide, Cecilia Leung, and Hisaya Matsumoto, "Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81, Issue 4. (Oct 2000).