by Stephen M. Saideman
The past few years challenge much of the conventional understanding of international relations. One of the big lessons from the IR scholarship of the 1970s is that the nature of international relations is that threats and bullying don’t work. As Robert Jervis discussed it, the world can be either a constant chicken game or a repeated prisoner’s dilemma–aka deterrence vs. spiral model. In short, is international relations an environment (a system!) where countries cave into threats or do they balance against them, that those who believe that pushing countries around are usually confronting with coalitions created by such bullying. Kaiser Wilhelm, as IR scholars use as a example, threatened everyone, hoping that they would back down. Instead, these countries solidified their alliances and showed up in Europe in August 1914. Oops.
Over the past several years, we have seen a series of countries engage in bullying behavior–Russia, Saudi Arabia, Trump’s US and China. Russia has wielded nuclear threats to encourage Europeans to not deploy troops to the Baltics and to dissuade them from supporting Ukraine. How has that worked so far? Saudi Arabia has seemingly become unhinged as of late, overreacting to Canadian discussions of Saudi human rights and all but warring upon Qatar. Trump, well, is a bully, so we ought not be surprised by his threats nor by his ignorance of IR scholarship. Threatening the allies has led them to ponder hedging and alternatives. He might think the North Koreans have submitted after last year’s threats, but I am pretty sure the North Koreans think they have the upper hand.
The big surprise, to me anyway, is China. China has manged its rise so very well in large part because it has mostly wielded a velvet fist. Yes, it has buzzed American planes and ships, had friction with Indonesia, and other stuff. But generally, the China of the 2000s and early 2010s has been replaced by a more aggressive and obnoxious China. The tiff with Canada is importance since Canada was the western democracy least likely to object to the Huawei company getting inside Canada’s 5G. Well, not any more. The current standoff is causing Canadian parties to rally against China–who is arguing now that Canada should submit? Moreover, a conversation with a European diplomat today reminded me that Canada has more influence than folks think. Not necessarily to push China back into the straight and narrow but to serve as bellwether. If a country has a problem with the US or EU, well, those are powerful entities that can antagonize. But a country has a problem with Canada? That suggests that the particular country is problematic… and, jeez, is China problematic these days.
I am not a China expert so I don’t really know what is driving China to behave this way. I would guess domestic politics and nationalism (populism? Not quite). But everything I have learned in my career tells me that China’s choices now are self-destructive–that being aggressive does not pay in the long run. That bullying is counter-productive. Perhaps China is encouraged because the US led by Trump is so incompetent and unreliable, which means balancing will be late, inept and weak. But it is still a dumb move–the Chinese have been gaining strength with little opposition because they were not overly aggressive.
The thing about IR theory stuff–it didn’t say that bullying didn’t happen. It just said it was not productive. So, the question for future IR scholars, if we live so long, is whether China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Trump’s US are punished or not. We shall see.