As early as 2005 John Gersham and Melvin Goodman alerted against the trend of an over-militarized US foreign policy. The warning has been a recurrent theme of American debate, although it gained little traction. The debate recently spilt into mainstream media with The Economist averring that “an over-militarized foreign policy that embraces unrealistic objectives is liable to fail.”
In fact, in the past, it was clear that politics was the overarching concern, and recourse to using the military was just one of its tools. There were agreements in diplomacy buttressed by economic or commercial benefits. Investments, technological transfers, migration, education, et cetera, were cheaper tools than the military, which was and remains extremely expensive and thus should be avoided at all costs.
The Cold War and the possibility of a totally destructive nuclear conflict brought about the extreme unlikelihood of recourse to traditional war, for fear of uncontrolled escalation. But this opened to the possibility of other, different kinds of attrition. The Cold War went as far as erasing a clear distinction between war and peace. There are now many forms of war: influence war, political war, commercial war, cyberwar, psychological war, et cetera.
After the end of the Cold War, there was a general peace but for some local fights that, no matter how devastating, didn’t have a massive global impact. Almost two decades of wars and revolutions from North Africa to Afghanistan never seriously affected the price of oil and thus world economic development. Even the flight of millions of refugees from war-torn areas weighed only marginally on European countries, the desired destination of those emigrants.
This general context may have contributed to a deep misunderstanding about why China’s “peaceful rise,” the theory proposed by China’s chief guru Zheng Bijian, worked for over a decade. The “peaceful rise” was possible because Americans were convinced—or tricked into believing, i.e. was this a form of Chinese influence war?—that in this way China would become “like America.”
When the Americans stopped trusting this notion, because they felt China was upending the American world, they started shutting down on China.
Many Chinese officials now cry, “the USA shouldn’t shut down; it’s wrong” and give an endless list of reasons. Yes, maybe it’s wrong, but can China convince Americans to change their minds? And if not, then what next?
Americans don’t want to admit it because they are a reluctant empire, unwilling to say it, but they are. On Hong Kong, the US and the UK think China has betrayed the international agreement underpinning the 1997 peaceful return of Hong Kong to Beijing. It may be correct or incorrect, but objectively this is a break in the necessary trust in the global fabric of confidence which is built and operates on keeping the mutual trust between the countries that originally undersigned and supported the agreement.
In international politics, as there is no real adjudication authority, trust is maintained only as all parties involved are happy with the result. If one party is unhappy, this “unhappiness” breaks international confidence, buttressing global peace. Can the US and the UK regain trust in China? If not, China is lonelier and in an adversarial role.
Meanwhile, the trillions invested by the US and its allies in the recovery from Covid might well bring about an industrial and technological revolution, which will have massive geopolitical implications. How and when will these technologies be transferred to third, developing countries? What to do with China in the middle of this fight? This is already happening with the EU plan to shift away from fossil fuels, which is kindling potential trade spats.
Moreover, the two main players of this complex game are ridden by their own different “prejudices.”
This way of thinking is made of “prejudices”: unstated and often even unperceived assumptions. In China, the prejudices are about a half-hidden but marked difference between guonei, in the country, and guowai, abroad. From that derives the omnipresent distinction between zhongguoren, Chinese, and waiguoren, foreigner, where the greatest compliment to a foreigner is that he almost looks or sounds Chinese and not foreign as if being a foreigner were somewhat “bad.” Other countries also have integration problems but not to the same extent and the country has not China’s global heft.
In the present struggle, the Chinese understand it as between us (Chinese) and them (the foreigners who are envious of Chinese success).
In contrast, America feels like an almost elected nation, something that refers to the history of Israel. It is something very clear in the Western world, the offspring of the Judaic-Greek-Latin tradition, but almost incomprehensible outside of that. America is changing rapidly from a promised land made of WASPs. In the elected circles, other whites, not just Protestants but Catholics as well, have been admitted.
Still, it excluded Asians (Chinese were expelled after building the railway; the Philippines was taken over from Spain and set free rather than giving it the status of a state) and Hispanics (Cuba was occupied and also did not become a state). Blacks were “second-class citizens” until the 1960s, even without slavery. This built a special relationship between the US and Europe—first Protestant Europe and then even Catholic Europe. Now, to find a new identity the US must fully culturally include Africans and Asians, but how can the US do that without radically changing America’s social and cultural fabric?
A similar process is going on in China. Although “foreigners” are aliens and thus “bad,” foreigners (guowai, strictly American-European) are also a model of beauty and sophistication. Some 40% of all western luxury goods are sold in China, which admires their elegance. How can this strive to be “like a European or American” get reconciled with the deep differences in the political systems between Chinese authoritarianism and US-EU democracies? Beauty and sophistication are not superficial. They are extremely deep, in fact, deeper than politics, as Thai philosopher Pansak Vinyaratn underlines.
The short answer, in either case, is that reconciliation is extremely hard and challenging, but it is also the only way forward. This is the real war to fight, and the military is not totally out of it, but largely so. Who reconciles its contradictions first and better wins it all, as always happened in history.
 See my The American Empire, Part 1: Reluctant hegemon on Asia Times, October 16, 2002.
 See also A.G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History, 2019.