8 The Culture War10 The Culture WarThe Culture WarChapter 7: US-China Relations and Wars2020-10-18Journal
In thinking about practical principles that we might agree on I wonder if Americans and the Chinese and you and I can agree on the ones that are true (putting aside whether or not we would like them to be true). If we can that will help to determine the desired path forward.
Everyone needs to know their position, and one’s power determines one’s position. If there are questions about who has what power, there will be a conflict to resolve that. Ideally that happens without a hot war, but when it is not clear and it is important it generally isn’t resolved peacefully. Over time evolution will make it clear who has what power, so if those with less power know that they have less power, they should slip into the subordinate position so the power and position change takes place without fighting. If they refuse to slip into the subordinate position, there will be fighting and the painful defeat of the weaker power. That is what makes transitions of power so painful.
The only real rule in international relations is that there are no rules. That is because internationally there are no mutually agreed-upon laws, no police, no courts, no judges, and no other protocols that are followed in order to judge what’s fair and what’s not fair and to penalize those who are playing unfairly and are more powerful than the individual powers. What counts most is whether you win or lose. For example, in the American Revolutionary War, when the British lined up in rows for the fight and the American revolutionaries shot at them from behind trees, the British thought that was unfair and the revolutionaries won believing the British were foolish and that the emerging Americans did the right thing. That’s just how it is. So can we agree that our leaders and we should stop whining that the other side is playing unfairly and instead focus on playing the game smartly to deal with what’s going on?
Winning means getting those things that are most important without losing those things that are most important to us, so wars that cost much more in lives and money than they provide in benefits are stupid.
While there are no rules in international relations other than those who are the most powerful impose on themselves (e.g., rules about morality in warfare), there are different approaches that are more likely to lead to better outcomes. For example, there are approaches that are more likely to produce more win-win outcomes and approaches that are more likely to produce more lose-lose outcomes, and those that are more likely to lead to win-win outcomes are better. To get more win-win outcomes one needs to negotiate well with consideration given to what is most important to the other party and to oneself and to know how to trade these well.\[11\], \[12\]
It is far too easy to slip into stupid wars (i.e., wars that cost much more in lives and money than anyone sensible would say they’re worth) because of a) the prisoner’s dilemma, b) the tit-for-tat escalation process, c) the costs of the declining power backing down, and d) misunderstandings existing when decision making has to be fast. Regarding the prisoner’s dilemma imagine that you are dealing with someone who can either cooperate with you or kill you and that you can either cooperate with them or kill them, and neither of you can be certain of what the other will do. What would you do? Even though the best thing for you and your opponent to do is cooperate, the logical thing for each of you to do is to kill the other before being killed by the other. That is because self-preservation is of paramount importance and you don’t know if they will kill you, though you do know that it is in their interest to kill you before you kill them. That is the situation rival great powers typically find themselves in; they need to have ways of assuring that the other has no ways of killing them in order not to go down the path of trying to kill them first. Another big reason that stupid wars happen is because there is a tit-for-tat escalation process that requires each side to escalate or lose what the enemy captured in the last move and be perceived as weak. For peace to prevail these must be avoided by both parties. Related to this, declining empires tend to fight rising empires more than is logical for them to do because the fight/retreat calculation tends to lead one to prefer fighting more than is logical on the basis of the expected outcome alone because a retreat is a defeat. For example, even though the United States fighting to defend Taiwan would seem to be illogical (e.g., if there is a 70% chance of the US losing), not fighting a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be a big loss of stature and power over other countries who won’t support the US if it doesn’t fight and win for its allies. Additionally such defeats can make leaders look weak to their own populations, which can cost them the political support they need to remain in power. And, of course, miscalculations due to misunderstandings when conflicts are transpiring quickly are dangerous. All these dynamics create strong pulls toward wars accelerating even though such mutually destructive wars are so much worse than cooperating and competing in more peaceful ways.
Untruthful and emotional appeals that rile people up increase the dangers of stupid wars so it is better either to a) have the leaders be truthful and thoughtful in explaining the situation and how they are dealing with it (which is especially essential in a democracy in which the opinions of the population matter) or b) choose the best leaders possible and blindly trust them. The worst thing is to c) have the leaders be untruthful and emotional in dealing with their populations. When the populations get riled up and want to fight that increases the risk of war beyond what is logical. Political leaders often do rile their populations up to build political support. Because negative sentiment takes time to reverse, it can increase the danger of war. This is now happening in both the US and China, though more in the US. For example, in a recent Pew survey a record 73% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of China, 73% believe the United States should promote human rights in China, and 50% believed the US should “hold China responsible” for the role it played in COVID-19.\[13\] Though I don’t have surveys of Chinese public opinion of the United States, I am told by many people that it has deteriorated. It wouldn’t take much to have these people demand accelerations of the conflicts.
The smartest way to fight and win a war is to outcompete the opposition in order to have the power to negotiate with them from a position of strength. Can we agree that a) the US and China are in a competition of systems and abilities, b) each will inevitably follow the system that they believe works best for them, c) Americans have a slight lead in power that is shrinking and they’re outnumbered, and d) history has shown that while numbers of people can matter a lot, other factors (e.g., the 17 I showed in Chapter 1) matter more so even small-population empires become leading world powers if they manage themselves well? That all implies that what’s most important to be strong is how we are with ourselves.