Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Digested Read

The Power of Unintended Consequences: Strategic Naïvety, China and the End of the US Empire

Chris Ogden and Mark Bhaskar

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zhang kaiyv

| 8 mins read

Despite the best of intentions, US policy towards China has left its global empire in seemingly terminal decline. The unintended consequences of US policy mean Beijing now threatens to usurp US hegemony. As with many major empires throughout history, this rests upon acts of strategic naivety, grounded in the pursuit of wealth, an overconfidence in their ability to assimilate potential rivals and an inability to extrapolate the consequences of such errors into the future. This last point belies a repeated unwillingness by the most powerful countries to learn from the example of history.

Whilst the international system evolves over time, it fundamentally rests upon the fluctuation of material power between the world's foremost powers. The persistence of this competition and need for dominance underlines the interconnection of different empires over time. It shows how the actions of different empires at their peak, and the unintended consequences that they facilitate, resonate across history. How might these dynamics play out across a range of historical cases? How might these analogies predict how Washington's strategic naïvety may eventually pan out?

Strategic naïvety in historical perspective

The naïve approach of Carthage towards the rising Roman Republic involved at least three treaties of friendship whilst Rome was the weaker partner in military and economic terms. Carthage deepened this cooperation to its own economic benefit, whilst remaining ignorant to the larger ambitions of Rome. Seeing it as just one of many, roughly equal city-states, they failed to appreciate that it had created a military machine superior to any prior Latin or Greek polity. By increasing cooperation with China while remaining ignorant to its larger ambitions, the US has repeated this strategic error.

Strategic naïvety does not always result from overly optimistic assumptions towards an erstwhile ally, as the Byzantine Empire’s mishandling of the Rashidun Caliphate shows. They contained threats emanating from Arabia through a policy of divide and rule. The Ghassanids served as a Byzantine vassal, securing Trans-Arabian trade routes. This approach began to fail at the Battle of Mu’ta which, whilst a victory for the Ghassanaids, required substantial Byzantine military support. Yet there was no attempt to change strategy, despite encountering a more capable and organised adversary. The US may find itself in a similar position if it continues to pursue deterrent strategies that no longer apply given China's power parity.

Another example involved the Venetian Republic's approach towards the Ottoman Empire. As a hegemon in the Mediterranean region, Venice sourced much of its wealth from exploitative trade with the ailing Byzantine Empire. As the Ottoman Empire rose in their place, the Venetians believed they could maintain dominance by cultivating cooperation with the rising power. Through hubris and naïvety, Venice ultimately became increasingly reliant on one-sided trade with the Ottomans for its own survival. The US could find itself in a similar position should it ever become wholly economically dependent upon China.

The Mughal Empire’s trusting approach to the East India Company (EIC) in the eighteenth century is particularly reflective of the US and China. In both, the status quo power presumed itself superior, while the rising power amassed strength and learnt its opponents’ weaknesses. After victory in the Anglo-Mughal War, the Mughals clung to a belief in their innate superiority vis-à-vis European powers. Yet by the time of their victory at the Battle of Plessey, the EIC fielded a standing army trained in the tactics of the European military revolution and were able to exploit divisions amongst nawab Mughal governors. In not revising its assessment of the EIC’s capabilities, the Mughal Empire was unable to abate the loss of its sovereignty. This over-reliance on capabilities validated in the last systematic war is shared by the United States.

Lessons can also be drawn from the North American continent. The Comanche Empire was a great power by the late 1700s but displayed strategic naïvety towards the US by not responding to American territorial ambitions. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the annexation of Texas in 1845 both served to rebalance US-Comanche relations. The Texas Rangers would go on to conquer Comancheria and resettle Comanches on reservations. Paying for its blunders with the loss of its independence foreshadows the kind of internal collapse that would allow the US to be absorbed into a China-led world order.

The final historical example comes from the Dutch Empire. They profited from the Rangaku period, in which they were the sole Western power permitted to trade and interact with Tokugawa Japan. Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan turned to the Dutch Empire as they sought to accelerate their military modernisation. As Japan embarked on a dramatic expansion in power, the Dutch naïvely believed that these longstanding ties would endure. Yet the Dutch lost their weakly defended colonies to the Japanese after only three months of fighting. Ignoring the challenge of a rival until the balance of power has shifted decisively in their favour may be the strategic error that provides China with the opportunity to accelerate US decline.

Learning from the past

The US is not the first empire to think that its colossal power had the capacity to incorporate rivals into its global vision. Its policy of integrating China into the international order has instead led to an authoritarian-capitalist system that diverges from the liberal economic ideal and showcases to other autocratic leaders that economic development does not need to come via political democratisation. US support has allowed China to amass world-leading economic power that has now translated into considerable institutional prowess, challenging the exclusivity to Western-created international organisations and reorientating the international order along more China-centric lines.

Whilst the US has failed to learn from the past, Chinese leaders appreciate the lesson of history. Across the many Chinese empires of the last 2,000 years, Beijing has been less prone to acts of grand strategic naïvety. Over time, China has found the correct strategy to manage, if not outright defeat, its opponents. This suggests that China's coming hegemony may last far longer than the outgoing Pax Americana. However, it is important to note that imperial decline is rarely fixed in its outcome. Rebirth of the US remains possible, given the importance of its financial institutions and scientific community. Such efforts would benefit from recognising the naïvety that has guided American thinking and its unintended consequences in buoying the danger emanating from the Chinese Empire.

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