In great power diplomacy, is China beating US at its own game?

In great power diplomacy, is China beating US at its own game?
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Washington can learn something about not letting ideology get in the way of conflict resolution and economic development.

by Graham E. Fuller |

It makes only a modest story in the U.S. news media. Yet China has just pulled off a paradigm shift by facilitating a diplomatic rapprochement between the two powerful but bitterly hostile states of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Time will tell, but the event not only shifts power relations in the Middle East but also signals a new phase in the growing diplomatic role of China.

Perhaps even more important, it might hopefully spark new thinking on the “inevitabilty” or “permanency” of conflict in U.S. strategic thinking, especially at a time when Washington has steeply downgraded diplomacy in favor of exerting influence through military power and punitive sanctions, as well as a readiness to declare other states “out of line” with U.S. ambitions and its notion of a “rules-based international order.”

This really raises one of the oldest questions of history: why do countries actually fight? Scholars offer a range of answers: Desire to expand power and seek domination, struggle over resources, out of insecurity and fear, or conflicting ideologies, faiths, and worldviews. Or maybe countries wage war just to fulfill the dangerous ambitions of monomaniacal leaders. Perhaps it’s all just written into the human DNA — to covet, compete, fight, destroy, and kill.

But of course these “deeper” interpretations of the origins of conflict can also be dangerous. It can lead to acceptance. Yet there is rarely anything predestined or predetermined about conflict or war. Human beings always have choice; leaders have agency.

Is war inevitable? It was once “well known” that the English and the French were simply sworn enemies, fighting 23 wars from the 13th century and into the 19th. Then suddenly they stopped fighting. Then it became “well known” that France and Germany, from the 16th century to the end of World War II, were bitter geopolitical enemies. Today we find France and Germany working in close cooperation.

“History teaches us” that Russia and China are in inevitable competition over power and influence in eastern Siberia — “natural enemies.” But times change and suddenly today we find Russia and China in a state of close strategic cooperation.

In other words, there is nothing “inevitable” about any of these conflicts. Times can and do change. Leaders change. Opportunities for settlement arise — or can be created. That is partly what China has done with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

So how easily can states and leaders transform long-term hostile relations? An interesting case in point is the dramatic change in foreign policy in Turkey roughly from 2000 to 2016. Under the intellectual guidance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s erstwhile theoretician and foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey declared a turning point in its foreign policy. After some 50 years of bad relations with regional countries, Davutoğlu declared a new foreign policy vision of “zero enemies.” Almost overnight, Ankara began to address long-standing frictions with nearly all its neighbors. It was a policy choice. Of course, it cannot be a panacea. And unfortunately Turkey partly abandoned some of these policies in the Syrian civil war.

It would be naïve to assume that war comes to an end if human beings simply decide to go to war no more. Some degree of friction and competition is written into all human relationships at the personal, national, and international level. The question is, how do you act on friction? When and for whom does war become desirable?

Unsurprisingly, U.S. policymakers were uncomfortable with Davutoğlu’s foreign policy vision. They wanted him to adhere to the America-driven NATO game plan to compel all other countries to acknowledge and support America’s perception of enemies.

Now, however, comes China declaring its willingness to do business with all countries where mutual benefits are to be gained. (Taiwan is a conundrum in progress.) In stark contrast to Washington, Beijing finds itself able to deal with all kinds of warring countries. China talks to Iran and Israel and Palestinian leaders, as well as with warring Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

In contrast, the number of countries with which the U.S. cannot seriously engage grows ever larger: it will not talk with Cuba, Iran, or the important Palestinian political party Hamas. Nor will it engage the governments of Venezuela or Syria. This would appear to be a self-inflicted diplomatic wound that effectively limits our own diplomatic maneuverability. At a time when our relations with both Russia and China border on crisis, our secretary of state maintains virtually no personal contact with his counterparts in either country over long periods of time. Our top diplomats seem not to understand what the meaning or purpose of diplomacy is. They may believe that refusing to talk to others or threatening others projects strength. But it also deprives us of leverage.

China gains access through its ability to act without the ideological blinders with which Washington sees the world. And that is what China has now appeared to achieve in overseeing the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet, rather than welcoming this offramp from a major and dangerous regional conflict, Washington seems palpably dismayed at the rapprochement. (Watch to see what China will do in Africa next.) Is there something wrong here?

One might argue that China seeks only to cynically capitalize on Washington’s weaknesses, that China has no concern for values of human rights and democracy that Washington claims to champion — the same Washington, one might note, that is notorious for its hypocrisy in its selective support for democracy and human rights and uses these values as weapons against its enemies, never as a gift bestowed upon friends.

What would happen if the United States suddenly decided to adopt a policy similar to Turkey’s of the past decade that also included the idea of the indivisibility of security; that is, that there can be no true regional security unless all players in the region feel secure? (Think Ukraine.) Or adopt China’s pragmatic policies of today? Would we not gain a great deal more flexibility instead of slapping endless ineffective sanctions on those we do not like — and even, for that matter, on friendly countries that fail to enforce our sanctions abroad?

This is not to say that the foreign policy of Turkey or China is the ideal. There are many grounds on which to be critical of some of China’s more heavy-handed policies in the South China Sea, for example. Overall, however, China places its major priorities on economic development and the reduction of conflict — messages that resonate very effectively in the Global South.

These were once American ideals until the fall of the Soviet Union at which point Washington became inebriated with the idea of being the “world’s sole superpower.” Since then, Washington has been obsessed with doing everything it can to maintain that status — even as the world changes. It has thus adopted what can only be described as a fundamentally negative geopolitical vision: do what it takes to block Chinese and Russian influence in the world in a desperate attempt to prove that we can still call the shots. By contrast, China, for all its faults, now seems to be finding fertile ground to play as a more pragmatic, non-ideological global diplomat.

Should this not elicit a deep rethink in Washington?


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