Manag­ing risk when power shifts

FRAG­ILE RISE: GRAND STRAT­EGY AND THE FATE OF IM­PE­RIAL GER­MANY, 1871-1914 By Xu Qiyu Trans­lated by Joshua Hill Fore­word by Gra­ham Al­li­son The MIT Press, $31, 341 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

It says a lot about the de­vel­op­ment of China in the past decades that we should have this deeply learned book by the deputy direc­tor of the In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies at Bei­jing’s Na­tional De­fense Univer­sity. Pro­vid­ing an in-depth look at Wil­helmine Ger­many, be­tween the procla­ma­tion of the Ger­man Em­pire at Ver­sailles fol­low­ing the Franco-Prus­sian War and the out­break of World War I, 43 years later, it de­serves to be taken at face value for its in­sights into a piv­otal pe­riod not just of Euro­pean but in­deed global his­tory.

In­evitably, though, given the cur­rent geopo­lit­i­cal scene and the com­mon feel­ing about the threat posed by China’s ex­tra­or­di­nary rise to the fu­ture of the United States as the world’s dom­i­nant su­per­power, its dis­cus­sion of Ger­many’s chal­lenge to the Pax Bri­tan­nica, which had held sway for a cen­tury, will be read as a kind of al­le­gory of to­day’s sit­u­a­tion.

Lest any­one miss this in Xu’s own text — and de­spite his sup­ple­ness as a writer few Amer­i­can read­ers will do so — the fore­word by Gra­ham Al­li­son, a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard’s Kennedy

School, makes it plain:

“Although Xu re­frains from stat­ing them ex­plic­itly, ‘Frag­ile Rise’ holds a num­ber of im­por­tant lessons for the rise of China in our own time. China’s rapidly grow­ing eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power will in­evitably cre­ate struc­tural stress be­tween China and the United States … What­ever the in­ten­tions of lead­ers of both na­tions, they will have to rec­og­nize and man­age the risks that in­evitably ac­com­pany changes in the in­ter­na­tional bal­ance of power.

“Sec­ond, this struc­tural stress does not mean that war is in­evitable. As Xu notes, pru­dent diplo­macy and as­tute states­man­ship can meet this chal­lenge, as Bis­marck demon­strated. Sig­nif­i­cantly, while com­pro­mises will be needed on both sides, Xu’s em­pha­sis on the ‘fragility’ of the ris­ing power sug­gests the bur­den may fall dis­pro­por­tion­ately on Chi­nese lead­ers. The defin­ing ques­tion for this gen­er­a­tion is whether these Chi­nese lead­ers will be up to the chal­lenge. In this re­gard, ‘Frag­ile Rise’ pro­vides an im­por­tant clue for Chi­nese lead­ers hop­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the struc­tural stress cre­ated by their coun­try’s as­cen­dance.”

All this is true, but I think it does “Frag­ile Rise” a dis­ser­vice to read it solely as al­le­gory.

And the book’s trans­la­tor, Joshua Hill, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Ohio Univer­sity, lays it on even more plainly:

“Make no mis­take — ‘Frag­ile Rise’ is pro­foundly about con­tem­po­rary China … As Xu Qiyu wrote on the orig­i­nal cover … ’When it is dif­fi­cult to see clearly into the fu­ture, look­ing back to his­tory, even the his­tory of other peo­ples, might be the right choice.’ Although he does not re­peat those words in­side his book, their spirit is present through­out his text. Xu’s ‘Frag­ile Rise’ is im­plicit pol­icy ad­vice in the form of an ex­tended his­tor­i­cal anal­ogy.”

All right, we get it. But I re­ally do feel that to read this book only in this way is to miss a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of its stated sub­ject, as Mr. Al­li­son ac­knowl­edges when he puts it into the con­text of other (West­ern) schol­ar­ship and rightly char­ac­ter­izes it as “nu­anced.”

The ref­er­ence to Bis­marck is telling, for I think it is fair to say that if “Frag­ile Rise” has a hero it is Chan­cel­lor Otto von Bis­marck, who cre­ated the Ger­man Em­pire and whose wise leadership and diplo­matic skills took it from strength to strength un­der its first Em­peror Wil­helm I for nearly two decades. He did not have as easy a time manag­ing the sec­ond Wil­helm, for whom the word mer­cu­rial might have been in­vented, and who abruptly dis­missed his men­tor af­ter only a few years, as mem­o­rably de­picted in a con­tem­po­rary car­toon ti­tled “Drop­ping the Pilot.”

Which brings me to what I think is a cru­cial point: you can ad­vo­cate for and urge good leadership, but al­ways hav­ing it is sub­ject to any num­ber of vari­able fac­tors both fore­seen and not. Xu Qiyu’s dis­cus­sion of Bis­marck’s suc­ces­sors and the em­peror who put them in and out shows just how un­cer­tain and fraught with in­her­ent dis­as­ter un­wise changes can be. Of course, Wil­helmine Ger­many was a hered­i­tary monar­chy, al­beit with some el­e­ments of democ­racy, but to out­siders, to­day’s China with its rigid party struc­ture shares the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism which may well have — and had — in­her­ent seeds of cat­a­strophic choices.

There are at least as many dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the past and present chal­lenges to the pre­vail­ing ones. As we see in the sad end of “Frag­ile Rise,” the com­plex in­ter­twined fa­mil­ial con­nec­tions be­tween the rulers of the monar­chies that went to war in 1914 counted for lit­tle when push came to strate­gic shove. Com­mon ad­ver­saries and dif­fer­ent sorts of links be­tween the United States and China may well prove to be sim­i­larly ir­rel­e­vant.

No mat­ter how apt the par­al­lels be­tween any two sit­u­a­tions, the ma­jor les­son that his­tory teaches us is the un­pre­dictabil­ity of how one de­vel­ops. Doubt­less, so many fac­tors and per­son­al­i­ties will spring up seem­ingly from nowhere that it would be fool­ish to over­state any par­tic­u­lar par­a­digm.

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