Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

History, Strategic Commitments and Signalling

Matt Yglesias has a post up talking about Chinese perceptions of America’s strategic rationale in Afghanistan, noting that – shockingly – they tend to think it has a lot to do with the U.S.-China relationship and an American effort to “encircle” China. My first thought was to wonder which  Chinese people really think this (for example, is this a common view among Chinese political leaders? Chinese businesspeople? Academics? All of the above?), as that would matter a lot for how this view does or doesn’t influence policy. Given the U.S.-centric way in which so many American pundits and leaders interpret international events of all stripes, though, on reflection it doesn’t surprise me that such an interpretation would be common even among the Chinese policymaking elite. Yglesias’s statement that “Americans don’t pay enough attention to foreigners’ oft-paranoid, oft-misinformed views of what it is we’re doing” is thus right on the money.

Robert Farley pivots, noting that such misinterpretations have a high potential to mushroom into really terrible policy:

If you want to see how foreign policy commitments metastasize, think this through: If the Chinese believe that the United States is in Afghanistan in order to encircle China (and to be sure, I don’t think this), then a US withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes a “win” for China, even if Chinese beliefs were without foundation. If the Chinese believe that the American encirclement project has failed, then they might be inclined to take more aggressive steps in some other part of the world that touches on “genuine” US national security interests.

And thus, we need to stay in Afghanistan in order to make the Chinese believe that we’re committed to the encirclement project, even if we’re not interested in the encirclement project.

There are a few things to note here. One is that the U.S. does have the opportunity to interrupt this logic by reducing its commitments in Afghanistan and then doing something else to let the Chinese know that it does have vital interests that it will vigorously protect. Maybe some subsidized arms sales to some crucial pacific allies would be in order. If the objective is to signal vital interests, the U.S. should signal vital interests, not continue counterproductive policy to overstate its commitment to non-vital interests in order to make sure China stays away from the really important ones. Draw red lines where they actually exist, rather than prolonging war in pursuit of some imagined strategic opacity.

To Yglesias’s point, it’s also important to keep in mind how American actions look to foreigners in light of their own history. In China’s case, after the Chinese Revolution the U.S. did pursue a policy in East Asia that was designed in part to encircle and contain China. There was the Korean war which, name aside, was largely a conflict between the U.S. and China fought on Korean soil. An American theater commander in that war, by the way, explicitly advocated bombing China with nuclear weapons. Quite a few of them. Then there was Vietnam which, whatever the American perceptions of the conflict, probably looked to the Chinese like another American attempt at tightening the noose.

Such levels of enmity have, thankfully, cooled over the years. But historical perceptions linger, especially among policy elites. Think about American perceptions of Russia two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Memories of the Cold War die hard, as one might expect. Americans aren’t the only ones who allow such memories to carve the lens through which they view other countries’ actions.

One more reason why aggressive, status-quo-upsetting policies, whatever their intention, can have lots of unintended consequences.

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