Unless, that is, Noah Feldman gets his way with the lexicon. The title of his new book, “Cool War,” reflects the extended riff he plays off of the Cold War framework. It’s a concisely written, interestingly argued if at times simplistic work that marshals recent events, a dose of realpolitik and competing historical narratives in support of a construct that will resonate with many readers.
A Harvard Law School professor who has thought a lot about cultural, historical and political differences across the world, Feldman does us a favor at the outset by knocking down the false choice that too often undergirds the conversation on China. It is not a matter of either standing up to Beijing autocrats on principle and bracing for war, as one side would have it, or surrendering our values and accommodating the new economic hegemon, as the other might. Rather, Feldman writes, “a classic struggle for power is unfolding at the same time as economic cooperation is becoming deeper and more fundamental.”
That was evident last weekend, when President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, held a summit in California that produced an agreement on climate but surfaced differences on myriad other subjects. That outcome fits with Feldman’s central premise: The world’s two biggest economies are fated to remain geopolitical frenemies, locked in a chilly embrace necessitated by economic interdependence but made tense by constant military and political rivalry in Asia and, increasingly, the rest of the world. If that sounds rather obvious or status quo, Feldman makes clear he thinks we’ve seen only the start of tensions that are likely to sharpen. “China’s long-term geopolitical interest lies in removing the United States from the position of sole global superpower,” he writes.Power, after all, brings economic benefit to the citizenry and credibility to the state.
Feldman’s assertion sounds right in the long term, but the path ahead is far from clear. He argues that China can offer the world a rival model: “In the same way that the United States is proud of democracy and its global spread, China has its own rich civilizational ideal, Confucianism.” Even if you believe that China wants to be the world’s dominant power — and who can doubt many in Beijing do want that? — there’s no way that the hierarchies and supposed deference to authority characteristic of Confucianism represent a plausible regional, let alone global, alternative to democracy. Indeed, however global its trade, or deep its bank accounts, or imposing its military, China has a weakness in “soft power,” the culture and ideas that inspire admiration and emulation. Money may win friends, and force may coerce enemies, but deeper ideals truly shape history.
Feldman suggests that the United States consider embracing an idea John McCain proposed in his failed 2008 presidential campaign: to create a “league of democracies” as an alternative to China. Democracy and human rights, he observes, are attractive, self-evangelizing ideals that entice the allegiance of nations. By celebrating them, he suggests, the league’s very existence could pressure China to respond by becoming more open, populist and even democratic.
While that idea may have a mildewed, impractically Wilsonian smell to it, Feldman in general positions himself as a realist. For instance, in discussing his book’s title, he justifies the use of the term “war,” explaining that “calling things by their proper name is the first step to clear thinking.” And in war, it is necessary to understand the true nature of your rival.
In perhaps the book’s most perceptive section, he offers a sophisticated analysis of China’s current leadership structure. While he acknowledges that much is unknown and opaque, even in China, about how the country’s leadership works, the party bosses nevertheless reveal an awareness of their need for adaptability. Most striking, the unelected party has developed an unusual system of regular, peaceful, predictable transitions of leaders; its ruling elite is both “permeable” and “meritocratic,” meaning outsiders with skills can and do rise; and it experiments constantly with levels of public discourse and protest, allowing both street demonstrations and fairly robust chat-room and social media conversations to take place.
“Maintaining legitimacy in an authoritarian state is extremely difficult,” Feldman writes. The surest way for Beijing to maintain public support is to pump up the economy, which creates opportunities and wealth that sate the masses. But when the economy gets wobbly, people pay attention to the leadership’s failures. That has been clear over the past couple of years amid a surge in scandals that Feldman sets in context — wealthy children of the elites demanding special privileges, the fall of a top party leader whose wife was accused of killing her British business partner.
At such points, to deflect attention from its foibles, the party often stokes the furnaces of nationalism. That’s where things get worrisome, Feldman writes. Recent territorial disputes with India, Japan and the many countries that claim various islands in the South China Sea show that Beijing isn’t above invoking historical rivalries to fan support at home.
In the end, Feldman concludes, the missteps that are most likely to heat up the cool war would entail reviving old grudges. He’s right on that, but his logic is at times oversimplified. He argues that China’s reacquisition of Taiwan would be “extremely valuable . . . both geostrategically and economically,” but he overestimates the likelihood that Beijing would risk warfare with the United States in an economic climate that has brought China nothing but benefit.
While the analysis of recent events in this book is generally astute, a recurring weakness is its acceptance of China-favoring narratives promoted by Beijing. Is the United States, as Feldman writes and many in China like to think, financially beholden to China, which holds 8 percent of U.S. Treasurys and thus helps indirectly to keep U.S. mortgage rates low? Sure, but never forget the adage that when you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank owns you, whereas when you owe the bank, say, a couple of trillion currency units that you created, you own the bank.
Such concerns about a rising China’s power serve the intertwined, self-aggrandizing narratives that Beijing often purveys — but equally often amends. They are shifting sands on which to build an argument. Consider the revisionist view of history evident in one of last year’s biggest movies in China, “Back to 1942.” A wartime drama set amid a famine that killed millions of peasants in central Henan province that year, the movie is unusual for its faintly nostalgic and surprisingly human treatment of Chiang Kai-shek, the aloof nationalist generalissimo long demonized by China’s Communist Party. Equally interesting, one of the film’s heroes is Theodore White, the American journalist, whose reporting on the famine in Time magazine embarrasses the nationalists into providing at least some relief to Henan.
It’s not a story line you would have seen out of the mainland a decade ago — or for that matter anytime since Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949. That was the year Chiang’s nationalist regime fled to the island of Taiwan and set up a rival, U.S.-backed regime.
Yet the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department surely must have cleared the “1942” script. What can we — or, for that matter, Noah Feldman — deduce from that? Perhaps, to borrow a line popular from the Leninist set, that it’s not the future that’s in question, it’s the past. And that may be why Feldman’s book is a worthwhile and intriguing read, but hardly definitive.
, a vice president of The Washington Post Co. and former executive editor of The Post, covered China for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s and ’90s.