Can the US Steer in Turbulent Waters?

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As I read the posts of two friends and colleagues, I realize how much I miss our conversations.  This exchange serves as a poor substitute.  The current prod for discussion is Henry Kissinger’s review of a new biography of Bismarck and what can be learned about how the US can manage a difficult and mixed-motive relationship (one that contains elements of conflict as well as cooperation) with China.  In his post, Alan Alexandroff puts the challenge as one of holding “irreconcilables together.”  And he concludes,

“If the policy is a product of a unique diplomatic skill – as proved to be the case with Bismarck – then such behavior and policy – keeping China as both a friend and a foe – will prove equally impossible.  The future then will be riven with competition and even conflict.  Not a happy thought.”

Dick Rosecrance’s reply to the possibility of an ambivalent and inconsistent policy towards China is to argue that the requisite Chinese reciprocity has not been forthcoming and that the US is already shifting towards a policy of linking with allies in the hope that “a stiffening of this enlarged Western position can produce a change in Beijing.”

I want to make only one observation, and that is to ask whether the kind of policy Bismarck pursued is possible in a polity such as the US.  Kissinger himself discovered, as National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State, that such inconsistency was difficult to sustain in the US political system.  In his review, Kissinger quotes from Jonathan Steinberg’s biography, noting that Bismarck accomplished what he did “without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience in government and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation.”  Moreover, he served for 28 years, first as minister president of Prussia and then as chancellor of Germany.  Neither such continuity in office, nor such an independent ability to craft policy exists in the US today.

On the other hand, without a coherent grand strategy, and given the shifts in recent administrations, the US has generated plenty of inconsistency and ambivalence in our treatment of China.

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