America rested its policy toward China in the crucial decades of the 1990s and 2000s on the notion that China did not aspire to become a great power but only a wealthy and free one, and so America encouraged Chinese development at every turn. America’s model, oddly enough, was Europe. She looked at Britain, France, and Germany—all wealthy, free, and perfectly happy to submit to American greatness—and she supposed that was all that China wanted. America did not stop to consider why Britain, France, and Germany so happily lacked ambition.
The answer was that all three were defeated powers.
France exhausted herself mentally on the battlefields of the First World War and thereafter, as A.J.P. Taylor has noted, came to fear war more than she feared defeat, a sure sign of the demise of a great power. Britain exhausted herself mentally on the battlefields of the Second World War. And Germany was physically defeated. (Not twice—1918 left the state intact—but once in the Second World War.) It is defeat, mental and physical, that explains the docility of Europe in our age.
It was pure folly for America to suppose that China—or, indeed, Russia, which America viewed through the same lens during this period—would aspire to defeat. China was, of course, defeated in the 19th century and again in the early 20th. But that was the old China. As a modern power, she has never been defeated; why would she not aspire to greatness? Similarly, Russia, so far from being exhausted by the Second World War, went on to enjoy decades of superpower status from which she fell not through defeat by an outside power (no, America did not spend Russia into collapse—how characteristic of a business culture to imagine death by spending) but through internal upheaval. Why should she not continue to aspire too once she had reestablished internal stability?
Europe’s docility, and the international order that it exudes, reminds us that order in human affairs—within countries as much as between them—is always the child of defeat. Great nations of law-abiding citizens are themselves nothing but concentrations of hunter-gatherers whose will to live independent of the state has been crushed so completely that they have forgotten that they ever had one. The really extraordinary thing about American policy during those crucial decades was that America looked at order in Europe and saw not defeat but kumbaya.
Order requires defeat and defeat requires: defeat. Not physical, necessarily, but, certainly, mental. How will we get it over the next few decades, and who will suffer it?