What our country’s nineteenth century experience teaches us about China today

One of the central national security questions of our time is whether a rising China will be a threat to the United States and the American-led international order. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told Congress recently that China is the main threat to the United States. The Economist has proclaimed that the U.S. and China are “bound to be rivals.” Niall Ferguson decries “the descent of the West” and power shifting to Asia. Martin Jacques’ latest book is titled When China Rules the World. And even level-headed liberal internationalist John Eikenberry considers the rise of China “one of the great dramas of the 21st century.”

There are many reasons to be concerned about how a wealthier, more powerful China will behave on the international scene. Last year, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy. It also used its international clout to threaten states that acknowledged award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Chinese dissident. It continues to defend the prerogatives of despots, especially those that have natural resources. Its defense spending has risen 12.9 percent annually for the past two decades—and the Chinese military behaves aggressively and may not be under the control of the country’s political leaders. China holds more than a trillion dollars in American debt and has begun publicly complaining about American economic policies and incentivizing use of the renminbi.

The argument about whether a superpower China would be damaging to American interests hinges critically on whether China becomes what Robert Zoellick termed a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order—that means behaving as we would like them to. A China that plays by American rules, becoming democratic, and assisting in shouldering international burdens of the types and in the ways comfortable to American sensibilities, would be a welcome partner. A China of that type could be for a declining America what America was for Britain: sustaining our influence and interests long after our own ability to do so had diminished.

Leave aside for the moment whether America is declining (I think it is not) in order to focus on whether such a China is possible. It would require a very different Chinese leadership, a relinquishing of historical grievance, and the adoption of very different attitudes toward its own power and that of the U.S. than is currently in evidence.

It sounds far fetched, except that there is a precedent for just such a growing together of mutually suspicious political cultures: the United States and Britain in the middle nineteenth century.

The last time a rising power came bursting onto the international scene and successfully supplanted the existing dominant power was when the United States was a boisterous upstart with a stampeding economy. Back then, America employed its own ruthless political machinations to advantage economic production—slavery and Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies made cotton king, while the three-fifths compromise ensured southern political control of Congress.

Meanwhile, we stole designs of British factories for replication here, jump-starting our own industrial revolution. And we forced Britain into a two-front war in the midst of its cataclysmic fight with Napoleon. To outside appearances, America orchestrated political, military, and economic power in ways that shrewdly upended existing rules to our advantage.

Despite these provocations, when Britain had the chance to strike a debilitating blow against American power, it did not. The opportunity came between 1861-1863, with our country engulfed in civil war. The Northern cause was not yet defined in terms of freedom, only in terms of preventing the secession of the southern states. During this time, the British did not legitimate the Confederate government with recognition.

Why didn’t it? After all, the British government had every reason to diminish American power: historical grievance, territorial gain, economic advantage, and cultural affinity for the antebellum south.

In recognizing the Confederacy, Britain could have salved the scar of the colonies’ 1776 rebellion, which humiliated the British. Britain could have pointed out, for instance, that what the colonies had demanded from the British in 1776 is exactly what the Southern states were demanding from the North in 1861.

There were other reasons for Britain to recognize the Confederacy. Britain’s recognition of the Confederacy would have repaid the injury we inflicted with the War of 1812 at Britain’s worrisome hour in the Napoleonic Wars; it would have reduced competition from Northern manufactures; it would have continued to fuel British factories with Southern raw materials; it would have reopened the Western hemisphere to British trade and influence because the North was then unable to defend the claims of the Monroe Doctrine; it would have given Britain access to a low-tariff Southern market; it would have reduced pressure within Britain and throughout Europe for the democratic expansion of the franchise to all white males; it would have reinforced aristocratic mores congenially held in the plantation South; and it would have strengthened Britain’s hand to shift further south the still-contested northern border to advantage their fur trappers and Pacific traders in the west.

Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, could have claimed as his government’s greatest success dealing a heavy blow to Abraham Lincoln’s America. He was a strident imperialist, believing that “wherever in the world a British subject goes, he can flaunt the laws, secure that the British fleet will support him.” Palmerston was also was anti-American, writing Queen Victoria in December 1861:

Great Britain is in a better state than at any former time to inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten.

If any British Prime Minister would have damaged the U.S., it would have been Palmerston. He was even engaged with the government of Napoleon III in negotiations about joint recognition of the Confederacy. Yet he withheld from Parliament a resolution for mediation between the North and South—a resolution that would have legitimated the Southern rebellion and badly damaged Northern claims of sovereignty.

There was a strong abolitionist sentiment in Britain, but in 1861-62, when Palmerston was making the choice of recognizing the Confederacy, the war wasn’t yet about ending slavery. Lincoln was committed only to the preservation of the Union and repeatedly professed himself indifferent to whether slavery continued to be practiced in the Southern states. Moreover, the war was going reasonably well from a Southern perspective in those years, so progress of arms was not an impediment to recognition.

The main restraint on Palmerston’s action was not wanting to inflame the working class of Britain, who had strong family ties to the North, resented aristocratic allegiance to the South, and were agitating for political reform. Reformers in Britain considered the United States a model of government defined by law.

Established powers, and nineteenth century Britain was no exception, have always been uncomfortable with America as a revolutionary influence. Even when the U.S. is not exporting democracy, it is the ethos of our nationality. Americans are the rabble of every other country, empowered with the franchise. We are what Bertha historian Ann Reuter called a “people too radical either in religion or politics or both to live peaceably in their original home.” The New York Times celebrated that ethos in 1862: “our friends – and there could be no grander tribute paid to the genius of the republic – are the dumb masses.”

Immigration was and is a huge part of the story. As Kevin Phillips nicely states it in Cousin’s Wars,

Receiving much of this dispersal made the United States a notably different English-speaking, great world power: more democratic in its politics, more egalitarian in its culture, and more revivalist rather than traditionalist in worship. The new republic became a mecca for discontented populations from Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, a role that 19th and 20th century Britain could never have played.

For these reasons, during the Civil War, there was enormous hostility to the North in the British government, aristocracy, and press, many of whom openly compared the Southern cause to the American Revolution. Opinion divided along class lines, though: U.S. ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams pointed out “the great body of the aristocracy and the commercial classes are anxious to see the United States go to pieces…the middle and lower class sympathize with us.”

What ultimately constrained Palmerston were the domestic, political repercussions of moving against a country defined by: broad political enfranchisement, unfettered economic and social opportunity, and close familial ties to the people with the greatest grievances against the British government—who were subjugated in Ireland and Scotland, festering in Britain’s industrial cities, or consigned without property, political representation, or means of advancement.

And therein lies a set of lessons for managing the Sino-American relationship as China becomes a superpower. Although the circumstances are very different—in one instance the U.S. was the rising power, while Britain was forced to concede a policy it preferred; in the other instance, a rising China is seeking to preserve its repressive domestic policies while expanding its international influence—there is one salient similarity: the power of America’s ideals in constraining other governments’ choices. Those governments need to worry about their own citizens wanting the liberties and opportunities Americans have.

Who we are as a country is a threat to repressive governments and a standard for those who seek political change—this is especially true in a globalizing age when people know more of the world. Who we are as a country is a beacon of opportunity and that is an enormous and enduring advantage in the competition for talent. Who we are as a country is culturally malleable enough to absorb foreign influence and capitalize on it to innovate. Who we are as a country is linked by familial ties that give us insight into other cultures and means to affect their internal development.

The Chinese have much to fear in the domestic repercussions of moving against a country so free and boisterous as the United States. If Chinese leaders act principally out of self-preservation, they would have to be enormously confident they are not vulnerable to the same constraints that limited Palmerston. While the financial crisis may have made China’s leaders more confident in the superiority of their economic judgment, the $586 billion splashed out by the Chinese government to boost domestic employment suggests they have concerns.

President George W. Bush tells an interesting story in his recent memoir that suggests Palmerston’s dilemma is at work in the decisions of Chinese leaders. President Bush recounts telling Chinese President Hu Jintao that worrying about another terrorist attack keeps him up at night. The Chinese leader replied that creating 25 million jobs a year is what keeps him up at night.

It could be that the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism will be the next great ideology to sweep the world—the threat that Francis Fukuyama didn’t see materializing on the horizon to challenge free market democracy’s triumph. But there’s little evidence to support that thesis.

America is the democracy that those people living under authoritarian regimes choose whenever they get the opportunity. It is a democracy often mistaken in the short run, with the best means of correcting itself, and by its sheer existence, a reminder to others of what they might make for and of themselves. The international order is genuinely different because of the rise of an economically and politically liberal American polity. The Chinese model doesn’t have the kind of advantages that make for success competing against the American one. There’s no reason to believe Chinese citizens aren’t yearning for what Americans get to take for granted. To the contrary, there are many signs that the Chinese are increasingly agitating for it.

American power is robust and enduring because it is built on the strength of ideals that foster our advantage. China is banking on prosperity reducing the desire for political rights, on centralized control by elites that will make “better” choices than individuals would make for themselves, on nationalism and grievance to trump the appeal of values we claim to be universal, on mercantilist foreign policies and the threat of force making them preferred allies. It didn’t work for Palmerston in a much more conducive age and it is unlikely to work for China’s leaders.

The financial crisis has emboldened Chinese criticism of America, which could portend more strident challenges. But they aren’t likely to achieve 25 million jobs a year on a long-term basis without the ferment, inventiveness, and demands that come with freedom. And America has a very strong hand to play in building on our appeal to values that resonate to all people. Dictators don’t believe our values are universal; the dictated to do.

Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is also the Bradley Professor of International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Her areas of research interest are national security strategy, the effective use of military force, and European politics.

This article is based off of a forthcoming book by the author titled America Rising.


– Kori Schake