Is There Hope for the US-China Relationship?

A strategic rivalry that results in military conflict would be disastrous for all.

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In March 2016, Pew Research published the results of a study on American and Chinese perceptions of each other. The study, which was conducted in 2015, concluded that just 38 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of China, while 44 percent of Chinese citizens have an unfavorable view of the United States. These numbers are far beyond the normal levels of negative perceptions that Chinese and Americans have toward other countries. On this front, at least, China and the U.S. have something in common.

The Pew results did, however, note an age-based divergence. About 55 percent of Americans aged 18-29 had a favorable opinion of China, whereas only 27 percent those 50 and older thought well of China. The same age discrepancy was evident on the Chinese side: some 59 percent of young people view the U.S. positively compared with just 29 percent of those over 50.

Sino-American Perceptions

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Unsurprisingly, those views have hardened since the study was conducted. Pew Research does not have more recent data for Chinese perceptions of the United States, but in the U.S., 60 percent of Americans now hold an unfavorable opinion of China. Even so, the age gap remains. Only 34 percent of Americans aged 18-29 now have a favorable opinion of China – a steep decline from the 55 percent who viewed China favorably in 2015. The 50 and older group’s favorability rating of China has decreased as well, from 27 percent to 22 percent.

It makes intuitive sense that younger generations in the two countries would harbor less animosity toward each other than previous generations. A 29-year-old American or Chinese citizen was not alive during the Korean or Vietnam wars. He or she was busy drooling on the floor during Tiananmen Square. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War is, for them, at most a fragmentary memory devoid of coherence and meaning. China and the U.S. have had their issues in the last 30 years, but for the most part – the current trade war excluded – the last three decades have been times of enormous prosperity for both countries. The most consequential military conflicts between the two sides have been squabbles over island-building and freedom of navigation exercises – neither of which are worth going to war over.

The hardening of the U.S. and Chinese national positions seems also to be resulting in the hardening of hearts in those respective nations. This seems to suggest, as Graham Allison and countless others have predicted, that the United States and China are in a Thucydides trap; that geopolitics has preordained their eventual struggle for global supremacy; that both sides must (and appear to be) preparing for a zero-sum conflict to maximize their interests at the other’s expense. This is one of the great flaws of geopolitical thinking. It is easy to lapse into a deterministic worldview that sees a conflict as inevitable – a worldview that reinforces the chances of the very conflict it predicts. In this case, there is little difference between a fanatically applied analytical framework and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I believe a U.S.-China conflict is still avoidable. I also believe the window of opportunity to prevent such a conflict is closing fast, and that a strictly national interest-based geopolitical approach will only hasten that conflict. I think the 18-29-year-olds in the U.S. and China might be on to something, and that perhaps it is worth trying to understand why young people on both sides are more likely to think better of the other side – even what insights policymakers might be able to glean from that fact. I know this will be controversial to many who enjoy blaming all of their problems on millennials, but U.S.-China relations are in desperate need of a reframing, and current approaches are patently not working.

Romeo and Juliet

To begin this reframing, I will start in an odd place: William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Almost a decade ago, while still at Stratfor, George wrote a piece entitled “The Love of One’s Own and the Importance of Place.” The essay begins with a textual analysis of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and argues that the play is not a celebration of romantic love, but rather one of the sharpest and most profound critiques of the Enlightenment ever written. The Enlightenment celebrated individualism and posited that youth knew best, that the old world was being swept away and that a new one was emerging out of it. Romeo and Juliet, children of families at war with each other, break the first rule of traditional society by not honoring their fathers and mothers, indulging instead in the lust of elective and romantic affinity. The result is death for the lovers and newly invigorated war between the families. Human beings cannot run away from who they are, which is defined by where they come from and who their parents are.

At the time, this argument was extremely compelling to me, and indeed it has informed much of my work over the last four years. But in recent months, I have found myself thinking quite differently.

I concede that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a celebration of two teenagers in love. There is something flippant, dangerous and even unnatural in their affection. There is also, however, something noble and virtuous in their love: a rejection of a conflict between two warring families whose cause is never discussed in depth and which Shakespeare spends no time attempting to define. The conflict between the families is in a very real sense meaningless. It could be that the House of Montague committed unforgivable atrocities against the House of Capulet, or vice versa. It could also be that a Capulet and a Montague got drunk and had a bar fight generations ago, never buried the hatchet, and passed an irrational hatred down the generations just because two people didn’t like each other. Hate can be as irrational and random as the love that brings Romeo and Juliet together. Romeo and Juliet reject the boundaries of that conflict. Romeo and Juliet declare their belief in each other and refuse to accept limits imposed by family members whose only argument that their hate is more legitimate than Romeo and Juliet’s love is that it is older.

Shakespeare’s solution is not that Romeo and Juliet should not love each other. As David Hume said, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” There was and is no holding Romeo back from Juliet. Today, we might simply say that you don’t get to choose who you love. The lesson to learn from Romeo and Juliet is not that one must obey one’s family in all matters. That leads to war and tragedy of its own. In fact, Shakespeare gives no clear guidance as to what the lesson should be. All that can be said for certain is that neither position is defensible when judged by the extremeness of their outcomes. The challenge is to find a path of moderation.

Moderation

There is a phrase used often in conversation today, that one should pursue “everything in moderation.” This oft-used phrase is a bastardization of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s approach to moral philosophy. You can tell it is a poorly constructed idea by the fact that “everything in moderation” is itself an immoderate statement. My rejoinder: “Yes, everything in moderation – especially moderation.”

Aristotle did believe moderation was extremely important, but what he meant was that the practice of virtue has a moderating effect on extremism. For Aristotle, ethics are not abstract. Human beings should aspire to virtuousness, but virtuousness is achieved by being virtuous, not by talking about how virtuous one is. When one faces danger, for example, the virtue one must possess is courage. Aristotle’s approach teaches two things about courage. First, to possess courage, one must practice courage. Cultivate courage in action and it will become a part of who you are. Second, courage is not an extreme. The result of too much courage is not more courage – it is rashness. Charging a heavily defended position may seem glorious, but it is more virtuous to win the battle than to prove one’s manliness (or womanliness!) in a meaningless charge. The result of too little courage is cowardice – the inability to do what one must even if the result will be painful.

The love of one’s own is not a virtue in and of itself. This is because love of one’s own is not a choice. Human beings do not get to choose their families, and they do not get to choose whether they love them. A mother will love her son even if the son does terrible things. The son may become an axe murderer and the mother will still love the son, even while recognizing his immorality and his danger to those around him. The bond of having given birth to this life cannot be severed by sitting on a couch and talking to a psychologist. Falling madly in love with another person also cannot be a virtue in and of itself. One does not choose how one feels about another person. One can decide not to pursue a relationship for any host of practical reasons – age, distance, different religious or political beliefs. But the attraction, the irrational force that draws two people toward each other across a crowded room, is not in one’s conscious control.

The solution to the problem Shakespeare poses cannot be to deny romantic love any more than it can be to betray one’s family. Romantic love and love of one’s own are part of what it is to be human. When practiced, these affections have a moderating effect on each other that prevents either from proceeding in too radical a direction. Romeo and Juliet practice only their love for each other, neglecting to honor their mothers and fathers. The Capulets and the Montagues practice only loyalty to their family, without any independent standard of what is just, or even an attempt to understand what is happening to their children in front of their very eyes. It is when the Enlightenment becomes so smug that it believes it has left tradition behind that the Enlightenment fails, just as tradition fails when it cannot grasp that it is not human nature for the way things were to be the way that things always are. Life evolves and changes, and to hold on to the past simply because it’s the way things were before leads to calamities of its own.

If I were to write as Aristotle did, I might say “with respect to relations between different nations, peace is a mean between an excess of irresponsibility and a deficiency of self-interest.” Put more simply: peace is the halfway point between loyalty to one nation and faith in the shared humanity of all nations. The tragic story of Helen of Troy is what an excess of irresponsibility looks like. Troy is destroyed because Helen and Paris love each other, and to hell with the consequences. Nazi Germany is what an excess of self-interest looks like – a fervent belief in the superiority of one’s own race which when practiced manifests as the dehumanization of all those who aren’t lucky enough to be thought of as “superior.” The aim of loving one’s own is making sure one’s own are protected from harm. The feeling of loving another human means recognizing on some level that all human beings are in some essential and mystical way the same. The middle ground between them is a state in which one’s own are safe and one’s passions are not forbidden.

The mean between love of one’s own and romantic love is not maximum joy for the individual, though that may be a byproduct in certain circumstances. The moderation of the two sentiments we are discussing results in peace, not ecstasy. Responsibility is the virtue that is cultivated by the practice of the two loves. There may be times when practicing loyalty to one’s family will cause great personal hardship or necessitate not pursuing a relationship with another person no matter how strongly one feels. There may be times when pursuing a relationship with another person will produce heartbreak because the relationship goes against the wishes of the families involved. The point is that one cannot amputate one sentiment and live only at the altar of the other. That is what Romeo and the Montagues do: In this sense both Romeo and the Montagues are incomplete human beings. Romeo and Juliet may not have ended up together in the end, but perhaps, had both the young lovers and the families been more moderate in their passions, a path toward coexistence could have been opened, or at least imagined. That would have been a boring ending for a play, but it is the lesson to be learned.

Implications

Romeo and Juliet represent the power of elective affinities. The House of Montague and the House of Capulet don’t represent tradition so much as they represent elective hatreds masquerading as tradition. The moment Shakespeare describes is the moment at which the two sides are blinded by the complete assuredness that they are right, no matter how real the actual threat or the actual feelings involved. The result is that everyone dies.

The novelty of Romeo and Juliet is not that Romeo and Juliet exist. It is that the world was and is being upended more and more by the clash between Romeo and Juliet on one side and Montagues and the Capulets on the other. Language, culture, religion and values have divided human beings into different tribes, families and nations for as far back as history is recorded. But humanity has also always shared certain common experiences. All human beings are born and die and experience much happiness and suffering in the intervening years. Every day in the United States and Germany and China and Israel and Saudi Arabia people celebrate marriages, mourn losses, create art, and think of how they can try to pass a better life on to their children.

The impulse and hope to broaden the definition of one’s own is rooted in these shared experiences, in the gut feeling and not unreasonable conclusion that, for as many things make nations different from each other, there is something universal in the experience of being human and that a better political order can be constructed on what is shared. It is the vice and virtue of romantic love that its precondition is the innocence and naivete necessary to believe that this is sufficient starting point for a relationship or a political structure. It is the vice and virtue of love of one’s own that the protection of one’s own family should take precedence over all other considerations. Stray too far in either direction and the impulse becomes a deadly form of extremism – and right now, both the U.S. and China are straying far too much toward the latter.

The true dream of the Enlightenment was not that everyone should love and hate whoever they wanted based on fickle and arbitrary human emotions. It was that human beings should be free. The problem is that freedom is an extreme, and when not moderated by duty, it fails to produce a society that is any less violent than the one that came before it. The result is that information has been democratized, but knowledge has not. Romance has been democratized, but responsibility has not. Love of one’s own feels like the only solid thing left for many, but without anything to moderate against it, the result is uncritical devotion to it. It is precisely that sort of uncritical devotion that leads to ideas like “America First,” or “The Great Renewal of the Chinese Nation.” “Romeo and Juliet” is not a warning about the perils posed by elective affinities to traditional society. It is a warning against radicalism in all forms, indeed, against the very kind of radicalism that is infecting both sides of the U.S.-China relationship today, a radicalism that is causing both hearts and minds, diplomats and politicians, soldiers and strategists, to prepare for a rivalry from which only one side will walk away intact.

As a result, China and the U.S. are becoming more and more like the Capulets and the Montagues each day. Neither side seems capable of understanding the other, and each increasingly thinks only the worst about the other’s intentions. The U.S., which is the stronger power, looks at China’s Belt and Road Initiative and sees a mercantilistic Eurasian hegemonic challenger. It looks at China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and its rapid naval modernization and sees a 21st century incarnation of Wilhelmian Germany. It sees Uighurs forced into reeducation camps, centralization of power in the hands of a single man and an emphasis on Chinese nationalism, all of which seem odious echoes of other U.S. rivals of decades past. China, meanwhile, looks at the U.S. and sees the heir to the British Empire and an active participant in China’s century of humiliation. It sees a country that justifies intervention around the world by paying lip service to ideas like freedom and liberalism while employing a far more calculating and cold-blooded set of policies in practice. It sees a revisionist economic powerhouse that was once happy to outsource manufacturing to China and now is crying foul because the only system that is a good system seems to be one that keeps America strong and China weak.

Moderation is desperately needed. The U.S. could instead see China as the ancient and proud civilization that it is, whose cultural heritage has reasserted itself after the failure of the Maoist attempt to purge China’s history via continuous revolution. The U.S. could understand that China is undergoing a period of massive economic restructuring and political instability and that Chinese political legitimacy has always been defined by maintaining harmony, not preserving individual freedom. The U.S. could look in the mirror and consider what it would do if, say, China decided to start arming Hawaiian separatists with F-16 fighter jets and sailing Chinese aircraft carriers around the coast of Oahu. China could look at the U.S. and see not the heir of the British Empire, but a country that, however imperfectly in practice, has devoted itself to ideals that transcend national borders, ideals like an individual right to life, liberty, property and freedom of worship. It could view the United States’ military strength not as an existential threat, but as a guarantor of a global trading system that could help China manage its economic transition. China could also be far more honest about its intentions in the South and East China seas – and refrain from the furtive belligerence and hostility that have characterized its activity there during Xi Jinping’s presidency.

Perhaps I betray my own youth when I confess my hope that both sides find a way to look beyond a provincial understanding of their respective national interests and to think instead of the human interests that would be damaged if we continue down this path. If so, that is fine (I am guilty as charged), and if I am wrong, I can’t say I want to be right. A U.S.-China strategic rivalry that results in a kinetic military conflict (or a series of conflicts like the Cold War) would be disastrous for the world, for the United States, and for China. There is a time for peace and a time for war and perhaps war must come but, in the meantime, I think both sides should try a little tenderness. This is a time for Shakespeare, not Churchill; for Otis Redding, not Sun Tzu; for Aristotle, not Mackinder; for young love, not old hate.

Jacob L. Shapiro
Jacob L. Shapiro is a geopolitical analyst who explains and predicts global trends. He is the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures, a position he has held since the company’s founding in 2015. He oversees a team of analysts, the company’s forecasting process and the day-to-day analysis of important geopolitical developments. Mr. Shapiro is a regular speaker at international conferences and has appeared both in print and on television as an expert on international affairs in such places as MSNBC, CNBC, the New York Times and Fox News. Prior to Geopolitical Futures, Mr. Shapiro worked at Stratfor as an analyst and as the director of the operations center. He joined Geopolitical Futures to help found a new company dedicated to publishing excellent analysis and accurate forecasts based on the geopolitical method Dr. Friedman pioneered. Mr. Shapiro holds a master’s degree from Oxford University, where he won an award for his dissertation on the link between philosophy and mysticism in 20th century Jewish thought. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Near Eastern studies.