May 23

Eliot A. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The Justice Department ’s announcement that it was indicting five Chinese military officers on charges of stealing commercial secrets is, in one way, to be welcomed. It shines a light on the vast problem of Chinese espionage directed not only against the U.S. government but also against U.S. corporations.

On the other hand, it is bizarre. Unless these five officers inexplicably intend to visit the United States, nothing will ever happen to them as a result of these indictments. In theory, they might be nabbed in a country with an extradition treaty with the United States, but really, now, will the Belgian foreign ministry stoutly uphold the rule of law when confronted by a furious Chinese ambassador threatening retribution for bundling the colonels on a jet headed for Washington, hands cuffed and heads bowed?

The more likely outcome is a boomerang of some sort. The Chinese may choose, for example, to similarly target five prominent American intelligence officials, whom we might actually want to visit China. And indeed, since the United States seems to be out of the reprisal business, it might be U.S. colonels who have to worry about how that trip to Brussels may end.

Moreover, Attorney General Eric Holder’s news conference announcing these indictments went beyond the facts of the case to a parallel universe, in which foreign governments hand over their spies because we think they should. “It’s our hope that the Chinese government will respect our criminal justice system and let the case proceed as it should, let justice take its course,” a statement of faith he made repeatedly during the news conference.

There can be only three explanations for this view. The first is that the attorney general is an idiot, which is highly unlikely. The second is that he thinks that anyone listening to the news conference is an idiot, which is only slightly less unlikely. The third is that he knows, but does not care, that anyone watching this charade will realize that this was a purely symbolic gesture. Therein lies the most troubling feature of his remarks.

Government poses two great temptations in the face of a hard problem like the systematic, gargantuan theft of U.S. trade and military secrets by China. One is the politics of gesture. To stamp one’s foot, shake one’s finger, glower and threaten are all alternatives to hard things — banning some Chinese companies from the U.S. market, for example, or sabotaging information networks of Chinese companies that benefit from stolen American information. And they are cheap alternatives, to boot — unless one considers the seeping away of U.S. credibility a cost.

What makes matters worse is that after attempting to convince others that you are getting something done, the only one you persuade is yourself. At the top, all administrations exist within bubbles, in which groupthink, no matter how farfetched, eventually displaces reality-based argument. This, and not a cold-blooded conspiracy to suppress the truth, is the real story behind the Benghazi episode, for example. But as an administration enters its twilight years, besieged at home and abroad, the temptation to believe in the power of fanciful gestures only grows.

The second temptation is one to which Americans are peculiarly prone: to focus on individuals rather than states, and to rely on law rather than policy. The problem in China is not five bad actors in the People’s Liberation Army: It is Chinese policy. In a similar vein, the effort to find excruciatingly precise sanctions against a few of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s close friends misses the point: The problem is Russian policy, not specific crony capitalists or henchmen.

Indeed, it is a mistake to make any of this too personal. If this is the game of nations, played by old rules (old, as in 17th- and 18th-century, at least), there is no point in focusing on individuals. “It’s business, not personal,” as they say in the mafia movies. At some point we may want to have dealings with people we have identified as crooks and malefactors, so in most cases, there’s no need to make it harder for us to do so.

Which is why the law is not the best instrument here. This is about our coming to terms with the existence of an unscrupulous mercantilist state of unprecedented size, wealth and power. It does not accept our legal norms — and in any case, given the revelations of Edward Snowden, we sound foolish standing on those grounds. That being so, action that bites — inflicting some pain on sizable Chinese companies that benefit from stolen information, for example — makes a lot more sense than pretending that U.S. jurisdiction is both universal and legitimate. Even the attorney general cannot believe that it is.