“No relationship will be as important to the 21st century as the one between the United States, the world’s great power, and China, the world’s rising power”–Richard N. Haas, President, Council on Foreign Relations, April 2007
“Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world”–Napoleon, 1817
The world is faced with so many challenging issues that it is difficult to determine which is most critical and which talents will be in highest demand in addressing them. However, there is very little doubt that the future relationship between the United States and China will be the central geopolitical consideration of the 21st century. And it is further evident that the most critical challenge of all will be to develop the appropriate leadership style necessary to insure that this relationship is sustained in goodwill and recognition of human dignity.
This outcome will require the development of exchanges at the highest level of opinion leadership that acknowledge the cultural differences and barriers that exist while recognizing the common threads that will lead to understanding and goodwill. The idea of leadership is probably one of the most discussed and least understood topics in our society. It is a term that we use almost indiscriminately, yet the subtle differences in the types of leadership are so important and produce a need for that rarest type of leadership, the transformational variety.
At its core, transformational leadership is moral leadership and, as George Will has noted, statecraft and political leadership, properly understood, are “soulcraft”. This type of leadership does not shy away from the occasional leap of faith and it truly values statesmanship, stewardship, and integrity of purpose above all else.
I have previously expressed many of these thoughts on leadership in this publication and in an essay I wrote a few years ago for the Confucian Lyceum Institute of Texas which was focused on cultural exchanges with China, and I was reminded of them by a book recently given to me by a friend involved with that organization which put them into contemporary context like nothing I have read before. The book is Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Graham Allison.
What is the Thucydides Trap? Very simply, it is that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: danger ahead, and it is the author’s contention that China and the U. S. are currently on a collision course for war–unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it. The name is derived from a concept first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides writing about the Peloponnesian War that devastated Athens and Sparta 2,500 years ago as a result of, as he explained, “………the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable”. As further evidence of this phenomenon, Allison, who directs the Thucydides Trap Project at Harvard, has identified and studied sixteen comparable cases in history in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of the dominant state and the existing world order, twelve of which resulted in war.
The cultural differences between China and the U. S. are critical to understand and the author does a great job of explaining the significant tensions and dynamics, including the key philosophical ways in which Western and Confucian societies tend to differ, but there are many characteristics common to each, all of which he submits are shared by the current leadership of China and the U. S. Both:
*Are driven by a common ambition: to make their nation great again, which for China means returning to the predominance in Asia it enjoyed before the West intervened.
*Identify the other nation as the principal obstacle to their dream.
*Take pride in their own unique leadership capabilities.
*See themselves playing a central role in revitalizing their nation.
*Have announced daunting domestic agendas that call for radical changes.
*Have fired up populist nationalist support.
Is war inevitable? Of course not, but neither was it necessarily inevitable for Athens and Sparta nor the other examples Allison has studied. But of one thing the author is certain and would get Napoleon’s agreement–the return to prominence of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.4 billion people is not a problem to be “fixed”; it is a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation or more, and I would add that transformational, not simply transactional, leadership will be absolutely crucial to survival.
William Galston has noted that the next several weeks will possibly shape American diplomacy for years to come and he describes three major tests ahead–trade negotiations with China, the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coming summit meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. He is probably not underestimating the gravity of the issues involved, but this is a multi-generational project and I am struck by the degree to which they, along with the mess in Syria, are all in certain ways interconnected with the long-range prospects for the U. S. in its relationship with China.
And make no mistake, this is not a zero-sum proposition that can be approached as though each issue for negotiation is one that produces winners and losers. That is transactional leadership. This is bigger than that; it is about much more than “the art of the deal”.