Police and thieves
The rise of China and America’s military responsibility
ce in The Atlantic reports on a joint US/Japan rehearsal to defend Japan from a possible Chinese invasion. According to the article, while there is no immediate threat of any Chinese invasion, there is no doubt that China is a rising power that one day will challenge American supremacy.
The question isn’t will China rise, it’s what happens when it does. If we simply let current trends continue, it’s entirely foreseeable that China could cajole, persuade, or bully the rest of East Asia under its influence. The U.S. can handle Chinese competition, but a unified East Asia could undermine the U.S. in any number of ways. […] Another risk of inaction could be regional war. As China expresses more dominance over its neighbors, if regional diplomatic institutions remain too weak to ensure peaceful conflict resolution, it’s possible that China could come to blows with states such as Thailand or, yes, Japan.
This is an argument for a more aggressive foreign policy in an era when many are calling for cuts to the defense budget and dismantling of the American “empire.”
Moral arguments for scaling back American power overseas tend to rely a “live and let live” type of analogy. It is arrogant and often disastrous for Americans to impose our will upon disparate nations and peoples, some might contend – let each family live according to their own rules without the fear of the American fist.
There is certainly some truth to this argument, but I think it is overly simplistic. Even if America withholds its own power, nations may still fear the power of other militaries, or perhaps equally important, individual persons may fear the power of their own governments.
The essential difference between the domestic and international realms is that in the domestic realm we imagine a place with law and order. Obviously, there is no world police to maintain peace. The international realm is closer to the “state of nature” thought experiments famous among political philosophers.
So imagine you are one family among many in a police-less state. Imagine, also, that you are for some reason by far the strongest. Now you see one family obviously bullying or attacking another weaker one. Or perhaps you see one drunken father mercilessly beating his defenseless children. In either case, you are able to intervene and defend the victims – it is not inconceivable that you have a moral imperative to do so, or at least, you are not morally barred from doing so.
Of course, America should be aware of her own fallibility and weaknesses as well. Foreign armies acting as a world police often tend to be arrogant and overly violent – this is something America must factor into the moral calculus.
America might also judge wrongly in situations, both morally and prudentially. We should be careful
not to confuse moral imperatives with selfish national interests. This is not to say we can’t act in our self interest (no nation acts out of pure altruism), but our goals must also be morally sanctioned. We should also not overestimate our military might, or use force in a way that engenders conflict. Still, even after these cautions, I think there are definitely times when it is permissible for America to flex her military muscle overseas.
The rise of China seems to be one of these times. Despite our own moral shortcomings, it is hard to deny that China is far worse. The regime has historically proved itself to be morally reprehensible in both its foreign and domestic policy.
Going back to our analogy in the state of nature, imagine if we knew some family with a history of cruelty and violence has been seen working out, building advanced weapons, and the like. If we know this family will eventually challenge our power, it surely makes sense for us to strengthen our relationship with its neighbors.
Photo by Flickr user gadgetdan used under a Creative Commons Attribution license