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What Makes a Superpower: New Perspectives on China’s Rise  Todd Hall (Oxford University)

What Makes a Superpower: New Perspectives on China’s Rise Todd Hall (Oxford University)


There are three reasons we may we argue that such analogies are problematic. And the first is that the technological changes that we see in the environments since 1914 are massive. And, of course, one of the major technological changes that we have seen is the advent of nuclear weapons. So, while war was something that was conceivable among great powers on the eve of the Great War in 1914, now it has become something that is almost suicidal. And on top of that there is the geo-strategic environment. And the geo-strategic environment in 1914 was one in which Germany was placed between France and Russia, and so saw itself as facing the possibility of a two-front war. And this two-front war was a horrific prospect, because of Russian modernization of its railways, which would render German attempts to defend itself obsolete. And so, while Germany had to fear the possibility of a two-front war on the continent, the UK for its part had to fear that its lifelines, its maritime lifelines would be cut off. And the UK was facing German naval competition and this naval competition directly threatened both the UK’s ability to import as well as maintain vital lines of
communication with its colonies. Now you compare this, both, the German situation and the UK situation to the situation today and they are not comparable. China does not have anything like France and the Russia of 1914 on its borders today, and does not have to fear any form of land invasion. In the United States too. It’s almost impossible to think that the
United States would somehow have its maritime lines cut. And so, neither faces these types of existential threats. But there’s a third more important aspect, and that aspect is one that is the source, I think, too, of the fear that both Germany and the UK faced in the lead-up to the war in 1914. And that is one that is based on the broader understandings of the tide, of events and the flow of history. And if you look back at the turn of the previous century, the ways in which ideas, for example, social Darwinism that there was a battle between races that only the strongest would survive. That this notion of competition in the international system is not the same. The international system today is not seen as a system in which everyone is fighting for survival. And moreover, you add to that the colonial imperative, the Imperial imperative, the notion that you had to have colonies in order to be viable economically and to survive in this social Darwinist environment. That’s not a notion that characterizes international nations today. And so these three things, the geostrategic, the technological, and also the broader understandings among policymakers and broader publics of how the international system today is constituted, these were important differences between the environment we saw in 1914 and the environment we see today. Now that said, we argue in the paper that we have to be careful not to miss the trees for the forest, that is, while it’s very easy to get become captivated by the analogy of UK-German relations in the lead-up to World War I, the actual things that we should be paying attention to are dynamics that were at play at that time, that also to a disconcerting extent we think are at play today in East Asia. And there are three dynamics that we highlight. The first dynamic is the one in which you have increasing and multiply complex and entangled security commitments by various actors in the region. And these include smaller actors who pull closer to larger powers like the United States for fear of being abandoned, and thus hook their foreign policies to that of the United States. They include larger actors who give relatively ambiguous commitments for fear of being pulled into and entangled in the actions of smaller actors. And then, moreover, an interlocking web of these different commitments. So as one actor creates the commitments to other actors. And you saw this in the lead up in 1914 where was a dense web of Russian commitments to Serbia, French commitments to Russia, British commitments to the France, or German. I mean, sorry, British commitments to France, German commitments to Austria, etc., etc., etc. And so, this interlocking web in 1914 created a very dangerous situation. And we’re worried that a similar type of web of interlocking commitments with ambiguous relations, complex commitments is forming in East Asia today. The second is the issue of nationalism. Nationalism was very much an issue in
1914, and we think it is still very much an issue today. And nationalism is something that doesn’t permit compromise. So, diplomacy often involves compromise, and nationalist positions often require that actors take very strong hardline positions. And that is very difficult to rectify with the security environment. And then the third, there’s a third issue and that’s the issue of repeated crises, and what you saw in the lead-up to World War one was a series of repeated crises between Russia and Serbia and Austria-Hungary and various great powers. And why are repeated crises significant? Well, in each repeated crisis you often have a winner and a loser. And the winner takes the lesson that this is something, that the way we behaved, that if we pushed a hardline, that by pushing this hardline we can succeed again in the next crisis. But the loser in the crisis often thinks to themselves: Well, we lost this time round, and so next time we need to push harder. And so you have a gradual ramping up with each crisis of the hardline on both sides. And that pushes them to a situation in which crises that were minor create an environment of tension that then it is possible that one reaches a crisis point that’s a breaking point. And so those are the things that we are worried about in East Asia today. And so it is not the standard rising power or existing power in that relationship that is the major concern for us, but rather the dynamics that existed we think prior to 1914 that we also see developing to some extent today in East Asia. Well, I have written quite on emotion in quite a few different ways, and, so I think, I will introduce just two small examples of what I have done. Now, usually when we talk about emotions we talk about what we call personal emotions. Those are the things that we feel as individuals, those are the emotions that we have on a daily basis that we all know and are very intimate to our lives. But the issue of course is when you study international relations, it is very hard to study something like personal emotions and the relationship between personal emotions, and things like state behavior or foreign policy is not always clear. Moreover personal emotions and while you might see personal emotions being relevant, for example, to certain specific leadership decisions, they are very messy, they are very likely to change, they are often more fluid than they are mechanical. So, they are not as amenable for example to easy simple theories. But, what I have looked at is less personal emotions and more, for example, official emotion. And what is official emotion? Well, I began my research asking a question: How is it that states can have emotions? Because it seems very odd, states are institutions, states of course cannot have emotions. Even yet, when you look at the newspaper, when you look at the news, when you watch TV, often you hear people talking about states as if they have emotions. China is angry, Germany feels remorse, etc., etc. And so, what is this? And my original intuition was well maybe this is in some way some popular form of emotion that’s shaping foreign policy behavior. But what I very quickly found is that, as I said, personal emotions and emotions people feel are very messy, they’re very transient, it is very difficult to show a simple clean affect or clean relationship between emotions and foreign policy. But, what I also found was that state actors do at times project images of emotional behavior. And so, while the relationship between the emotions that individual people feel and foreign policy is very messy, at the same time, you do have states adopting the image of certain forms of emotional behavior. And so, official emotion is a form of collective performance, particularly, by leaders, but also by diplomatic corps also can use other measures as well, including the military to present a certain emotional image on the international stage. And so, why does it matter to present this type of emotional image on the international stage? Well, the standard traditional notion of statecraft is one in which states bargain, they bribe, they coerce. And this is the notion of statecraft that is frequently invoked in international relations scholarship. But there are certain things you can and cannot do with that. And one of the things you cannot do with the traditional notion of statecraft or the traditional tools of statecraft, that is, is to, for example, change how other states perceive you in light of a historical past that casts a shadow on your present. And to give an example, Germany post World War II, West Germany trying coming out on the international stage and being under the, having the legacy of the horror that was the Holocaust. That was something that greatly shaped how other states perceived Germany at that time. And what my research, what my research shows is that there was a very conscious effort by German policy makers, including Adenauer, to project an image of remorse and guilt on the international stage, particularly vis-à-vis Israel. In part to change how other states perceive Germany. And so, this is the way in which states then adopt emotion as official element, emotional projections or images as an official element of their policy. And to relate this to East Asia, I have looked at China and Taiwan relations, and the ways in which mainland China sought to signal what was the red lines in its relationship with Taiwan with official displays of anger. So, using displays of outrage and anger, not just diplomatically but integrating them with military displays, integrating them with economics and economic actions and such, to send an image that this was a red line and this was a very, very sensitive issue. And the interesting thing is, when you talk to people for example who were in the US government during the 1995-96 Taiwan crisis, this was a message that was received. Why does Taiwan matter so much to mainland China? It matters because Taiwan is such an emotional issue. And so, these are the ways in which you can use official displays of emotional behavior to send an image that you could not sent with traditional statecraft. But I also look at popular emotion. Now, what is popular emotion? Now, we often frequently think of popular motion as something that people within a state feel. But, this too is a very political, very political construct, because it’s one thing for individuals to feel emotion, But it is quite a different thing for us to say that there is a popular emotion within the state. And so, for example, I looked at the ways in which Chinese nationalism and Chinese responses to certain Japanese behaviors have been constructed out of online responses, and you go, when you look at the online responses and you find a lot of variety in what regular Chinese are saying. And yet, that variety is often then translated into the Chinese people are outraged, as the Chinese people are angry. So, the way in which you have popular emotions constructed is a political process. It is not just simply an aggregation of individual emotions. But this can have political effects because it is often used to justify policies or even seen as a source of pressure on governments.

2 comments on “What Makes a Superpower: New Perspectives on China’s Rise Todd Hall (Oxford University)

  1. I thought the focus would have been on what makes a Superpower. However, it turned out to be a discussion of environmental difference between WWI and present, and a bunch of academic jargon, such as State Emotion and Popular Emotion. This is neither about China's rise nor about what a Superpower is made of.

  2. Given the backdrop of the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers a full-scale war between them may NOT be possible, a LIMITED war between them is still a possibility eg. limited scale warfare over Taiwan, when the war dust settles the loser will back off to lick its wounds and also possible concessions from the losing party. This settlement determines who is stronger and remains the top dog.
    Interesting talk on a different perspective on human emotions.

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