Why Great Powers Procrastinate

Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers
David M. Edelstein
Cornell University Press (2017)

In 2001 political scientist John Mearsheimer unleashed a scholarly fusillade on the optimistic complacency that characterized American strategic thinking in the years after the Cold War. Mearsheimer’s tome, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics¸ warned that while the United States had bested the Soviets, great power competition never ended. In our self-help international system, he argued, a rising China would seek security by maximising its power, just as the United States once had. This accumulation of offensive military capabilities would, in turn, threaten America, likely leading to confrontation and crises.

In his concluding chapter, Mearsheimer called on America to abandon its “misguided” attempts at economic engagement and “do what it can to slow the rise of China.” Yet Mearsheimer’s advice went unheeded. The 9/11 attacks came soon after the book’s release, marking the beginning of a long American strategic distraction in Afghanistan and West Asia. That December, China joined the WTO even as American eyes were turned to the Battle of Tora Bora. In the years since, China’s GDP has ballooned to nine times what it was in 2001, enabling it to build a navy ready to take on America’s.

Why has the US aided the rise of a potentially hostile China, asks political scientist David Edelstein in his book, Over the Horizon, instead of choosing to “strangle the baby in the cradle”? While Mearsheimer might see trade with China as the result of naïve hopes of shaping Chinese behaviour, Edelstein argues that such short-term cooperation is often pragmatic, and that existing powers have frequently collaborated with a rising power in the past.

The Dilemmas of Uncertainty

According to Edelstein, cooperation between existing and rising powers is a result of the time horizons of their leaders, which are often in inverse proportion to each other. When a rising power plays the long game, hiding its capabilities and biding its time, as Deng Xiaoping was fond of counselling, existing powers are less concerned about the long-term consequences of its rise. Instead, they focus on short-term opportunities for cooperation. However, when the rising power decides to act assertively, existing powers are compelled to consider the long-term consequences of its ascent and adopt more competitive strategies.

The key factor, according to Edelstein, is uncertainty. Any rising power is wise to court uncertainty about its prospects and intentions since this creates a “now-or-later dilemma” for existing powers. After all, today’s seemingly unstoppable rising power might fall by the wayside in the future or simply turn out to have tolerably benign intentions. If existing powers choose to tackle a potential threat immediately, they might end up paying a significant price to tackle a problem that might never have materialised in the first place, while losing out on attractive opportunities for short-term cooperation.

This amorphous uncertainty crystallises into an identifiable risk because of a change in the perceived intentions of the rising power, according to Edelstein. Such a change might occur either because the rising power acts assertively or because it responds negatively to diplomatic “litmus tests” crafted by existing powers.

The Test of History

To support his theory, Edelstein uses four terse but detailed case studies from modern history. The first of these examines Bismarck’s Germany from 1871 onwards, after it had violently consolidated its position in Europe. As chancellor, Bismarck understood that his primary goal was to prevent an anti-German coalition from forming around France. To do this, he sought to entangle Europe’s other major powers in webs of treaties that appealed to their short-term interests. Turning to an isolated France, Bismarck used a combination of reassurance and inducements, portraying his country as a status quo power with no territorial ambitions and offering diplomatic backing for Paris’s imperial adventures.

Bismarck’s system worked for two decades, but by the time of his resignation in 1890, attitudes were hardening. Germany’s new, more impetuous leadership only heightened concerns about the country’s long-term ambitions. France and Russia struck an alliance in 1894. Twenty years later, Europe was at war.

Edelstein’s second case turns to the last years of the nineteenth century, when an aggressive and impatient United States drove a diplomatic wrecking ball through British interests in the Americas. Under simpler circumstances, this would have lengthened Britain’s time horizons. But London faced a more pressing short-term threat in Germany. Britain also recognised there was an upside to American dominance of the Western Hemisphere- it kept other European powers out. Finally, a primal sense of “race feeling” driven by common ethnicity and culture helped convince the British that American intentions were benign enough to obviate the need for confrontation.

Following its drubbing in the First World War, Germany sought to convince other powers it was not seeking a rematch. Berlin participated in the collective security arrangement for the demilitarization of the Rhineland. With fellow pariah the Soviet Union, Germany struck economic and military deals, while with France, it created uncertainty about its intentions. It was only after Hitler’s seizure of power that most states began shifting towards competitive strategies, preparing for yet another global conflagration.

With Germany vanquished in 1945, the US and Soviet Union faced each other amid the rubble of a battle-torn Europe. In this fourth case study, Edelstein concedes that the bipolar system made the Cold War exceedingly likely. With the end of the immediate German threat, US and Soviet time horizons lengthened, but the author contends that it was American assessments of Soviet intentions in Germany, Turkey and Iran that best explain the timing of its shift towards a strategy of containment.

Edelstein’s case studies also provide instances of diplomatic “litmus tests” – usually proposals or agreements – that existing powers used to test the intentions of the rising power. The rising powers’ responses to these tests can shift the strategies of the existing powers. However, the author acknowledges problems with these litmus tests. A state that suspects it’s being tested has reason to be on its best behaviour, while a state that doesn’t recognise its significance might see few costs in behaving assertively. The Cold War is a case in point. Indeed, as the last of Edelstein’s case studies shows, the US interpreted the Soviets’ security-seeking behaviour as aggression.

Another argument the author makes through his case studies is that free-riding behaviour – what Mearsheimer called “buck passing” – is less common than normally assumed. Passing on the burden of dealing with a rising power can explain the absence of competition but not, he points out, the presence of cooperation, which exists to snap up short-term benefits.

Edelstein’s case studies are well done but inevitably gloss over some historical specificities. France’s internal weakness through much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century probably contributed to its desultory responses to Germany. Similarly, American fears of repeating the British sin of appeasement likely hardened its stance towards the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. History is too wild a beast to be tamed by anyone’s theory, but Edelstein nevertheless succeeds in providing a compelling model to explain the behaviour of great powers in the past and present.

The Shadow of the Future

The crumbling of the Eastern Bloc removed the pressing imperative for the US to collaborate with China against the Soviets. The 1996 Taiwan Straits standoff and the 2001 Hainan Island incident seemed to lengthen America’s time horizons with China. However, China encouraged uncertainty. Its leaders spoke of China’s “peaceful development” and stressed “win-win” diplomacy. Beijing also opened up avenues for cooperation, dramatically expanding trade ties, offering to collaborate against terrorism after 9/11, and enabling an armed intervention in Libya by abstaining at a UN Security Council vote.

By the time of the Libyan war, however, China’s patience had begun to ebb. The US recession of 2008 convinced some Chinese they were at an “inflection point in world history”. This likely shortened Beijing’s time horizons as it saw a window of opportunity to act while China’s economy was still growing, and America was absorbed elsewhere. Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific intensified even as the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative got underway.

Beijing’s decision to ignore the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea and its successful blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group provided powerful litmus tests of its intentions towards other existing powers. The Doklam crisis also seemed to confirm the worst fears of India’s China hawks.

While the time horizons of existing power are undoubtedly lengthening, they are unlikely to shift decisively towards competition in the near future. China’s rise is a complex, multifaceted affair that offers both challenges and opportunities. Beijing would be foolish to scare existing powers into forming a balancing coalition. It would be wise to continue cultivating uncertainty.