Confidence Is as Confidence Does

"Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Sept. 6, 2006) - Chinese Sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) as they arrive in Pearl Harbor. Two ships representing China's Navy, the destroyer Qingdao and the oiler Hongzehu (AOR 881) arrived in Pearl Harbor for a routine port visit. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Joe Kane (RELEASED)" -Wikipedia
Much of America’s standoff with the Soviet Union was intensified by a paranoid lack of confidence in the American model. America is experiencing another crisis of confidence that could be even more damaging.
In 1947, George Kennan, an American diplomat in the USSR, sent his “Long Telegram.” It warned that the USSR saw no possibility for peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world. The US and its allies would therefore need to counter and contain it. The US might have chosen a narrow policy of containing the Soviet Union, but its policy instead became one of countering communism and left-wing movements in general, no matter how tenuous the link to the Soviet Union. This was based on the misguided belief that a country becoming communist or too left-wing would automatically become a Soviet proxy. The US's hostile response often helped make that belief true by driving left-wing governments into the arms of the Soviet Union. The US cannot afford to make the same mistake with China.
China does not seek to spread an ideology throughout the world and remake governments in its own image (unlike the US and USSR), so the confrontation with China is less ideological and less of an all-or-nothing struggle between two diametrically opposed models. This should make it easier to avoid the mistake of trying to contain an ideology or worldview rather than a state’s influence. There is plenty of room for paranoid overreactions, however. Such overreactions would risk alienating potential allies, leading to the very expanded Chinese influence the US fears.
Some expansion in China’s influence is essentially unavoidable as its economic, military, and diplomatic heft increases and it is almost certain that the US cannot continue to project as much power and influence in the Asia-Pacific indefinitely. Geography, proximity, and size matter. China is going to want more influence in the region and the US cannot stop its rise. With the right policies, however, it may be able to avoid violence and instability in the region. China's rise does not mean a total loss of US influence. China’s neighbors are wary of its power. They will continue to wish for the US to act as a hedge against overmighty Chinese influence. The US will be capable of fulfilling that role because it will remain an economic and military superpower for the foreseeable future.
It's not just about hard power, however: The US’s traditional support for the rule of law and fair conduct also has appeal. This also shows where the danger lies: If it lashes out, raises the drawbridge, and/or collapses into infighting, its political and economic models will lose their attractiveness. One of the best ways to retain US influence, then, is to focus on its true strengths: openness, democracy, and respect for the rule of law and a rules-based international system.
Weaker states want others to play by rules that promise equality between states. Powerful states are often tempted to ignore such rules because they can fend for themselves and the rules constrain them. Despite its strength, the US has long championed a rules-based order because it recognized that binding itself within those rules reduced the need to use force, eased trade, and brought worldwide benefits—not least to the leader of that system: the US itself. Other countries wish for the rules-based system that has protected their peace and prosperity to continue and for the US to continue to champion it. The US can retain its influence and promote a peacefully rising China by continuing to lead the rules-based system and to play by the rules itself. An open system based on laws and rules remains just as preferable to "closed" alternatives today as it was in the Soviet era. The US would do well to remember its own lessons.


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