Review of the Realist Paradigm



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Myth 3: China Being Rationally Deterred?

As the third myth of the realist paradigm in its application to East Asia, we have to ask whether China has been deterred by the returning America. Deterrence is a policy seeking to “persuade an adversary, through the threat of military retaliation, that the costs of using military force will outweigh the benefits” (Huth 1988, 15). So the fundamental problem of deterrence is about how to use threats to induce the opponent to behave in desirable ways. Underlying this problem of deterrence exists the assumption of rationality, which is logically compelling but seriously deficient in its application to the real-world situation. While the theory of rational deterrence has been well-established by the realist paradigm, it has been criticized for rigorous assumptions: Actors have exogenously given preferences and choice options; Actors seek to optimize their utilities; Differences between actors’ opportunities explain variations in outcomes; States work as a unitary rational actor (Achen and Snidal 1989, 150-151; Paul 2009, 5-8). Although these simple assumptions makes logical inferences consistent and coherent, they seem to have been so far away from the reality that we have felt more adjustments needed for those assumptions to be modified.

The original theory of deterrence, proposed by Thomas Schelling, was intended to explain the special relation between the United States and the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons as massively destructive threats. In its logical processing, the theory of deterrence allows the “I expect that you expect…” sequence to converge on a common single point of attention which Schelling emphasized in explaining the equilibrium of deterrence. The point was to be easily recognizable thresholds that emerges from ambiguous and complex interactions with combinations of capabilities and coercion between nuclear superpowers (Ayson 2004, 91-93). As such, the notion of deterrence was founded upon the perception of mutual interactions that engender the possibility of reaching a stable point where a country is satisfied with the response of another country. These complex processes have been explained by the analogy of “exchange of hostages” that implies massive destructive power on both sides; then the balance of terror amounts to a tacit consensus supported by a total exchange of all conceivable hostages (Schelling 1980, 239-240). In this context, indiscriminate disarmaments of all types of weapons would produce instability rather than stability.

The logic of rational deterrence, therefore, seems more complex than its appearance. Schelling discussed about this point well when he put his focus on the dimensions of “bargaining” and “conventional stopping places” like geographical demarcation lines between the deterring country and the deterred one. Here were involved more psychology and customs than the mathematics of warfare. Threats and demands, proposals and counter-proposals, reassurances and concessions, signals and tolerances, reputations and lessons are being communicated and bargained between both parties of deterrence (Schelling 1966, 135-136). In this complex situation, deterrence is achieved when a potential enemy, fearing unacceptable retaliation, decides to forgo a planned offensive. The state, as a rational actor, calculate costs and benefits of probable consequences, which is a type of instrumental rationality (Paul, 2009, 2-3). Whereas realist theorists have provided the deterrence framework in an articulate way, their assumptions are not so simple to manipulate because of their sensitivity to dynamic changes, unpredictable consequences among those assumptions, and the processes of adaptation and evolution over time (Paul 2009, 7-8).22

Another point I would like to stress in evaluating the theory of deterrence in East Asia is that we have to take more attention to the working mechanism of deterrence in a non-rational way. It does not mean that we need an “irrational” framework but that we have to investigate the role of “non-rational” factors such as passion and emotions. Then the understanding of deterrence between great powers may be so different from the conventional approach of rational deterrence. In reality, the world of the 21st century has been changed so much from that of nuclear confrontation between very rational superpowers. Now is not the time when great powers can restrain themselves even with uncompromising nuclear weapons. More attention was given to the way of asymmetric competitions, non-traditional warfare such as terrorism, and people’s propensity toward emotional reactions. These factors have been prevent in the fields of international politics and foreign policy while we are deficient of any formal theories to explain their impacts.

Let’s compare the situations of the old notion of deterrence with the new one at this complex era. In the 1960s, Schelling thought that the United States should not fight a war with China as a secondary state under the patronage of the Soviet Union. His main idea was not to extend the logic of nuclear war to a “general war” with China. No preemptive thermonuclear exchanges were necessary with China unless China is equipped with a retaliatory capability. The best and the most effective strategy against China, in his view, was to send a message to the country not to contend with the United States of which violation might lead to much worse consequences and threats to its regime (Schelling 1966, 186-187). This idea was based upon the logic of optimization that the major adversary of the United States is less China than the Soviet Union in the time, even though China has posed threats to the interests of America in East Asia. As such, decision makers in Washington, D. C. should have reduced the size of deterrent threats and coercion to China as much as possible. Schelling’s notion of the “optimal response” to China represents the rational way to the problem of strategic competition. Neither ideological rages in those communist countries nor emotional misgivings over nuclear confrontation were seriously considered in his discussion.

The political situations have changed so much since Schelling’s discussion of China policy. China in the 21st century holds retaliatory nuclear power as well as threatening level of conventional weapons in East Asia. Moreover, the voice of China has transformed from the purely material level to the emotional one as it has eventually achieved enough power to challenge America’s position in East Asia. This change has impacts on the nature of balance of power between China and America because the element of “fear” has caused the game of “balance of terror” between them (Sheehan 1996, 177). The two cases of military confrontation between China and America show the point well: the American bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade of 1999 and the spy plane collision of 2001. In these similar cases of conflict between two countries, the actions and reactions by them were different. In the first case, China did not accept American apology for wrong targeting in bombing. It represented the Chinese public resentment over America, which was caused by emotional injury on their identity. Nothing could be done by the Chinese leadership within the rationality framework except waiting for Chinese people to restore their own self-esteem. On the other hand, the 2001 case was interpreted by both sides as beneficial to themselves. This time, both countries interpreted the sign of apologies from the other as a “victory,” which reflected the cultural differences in responsibility assessment. Chinese people claimed that Americans admitted responsibility for the incident, while Americans claimed that the apologies by both sides were mere gestures of condolence (Gries 2005, 253-255).

These brief cases show how much emotional factors work in foreign relations, even between great powers such as America and China. Anger, which was prevalent among Chinese when conflicts happened, had guided the direction of diplomatic posture of China. In this sense, emotions became both symbolic and instrumental tool for diplomatic relations. As the surge of nationalism in China and other East Asian countries goes higher, the trend toward emotional, rather than rational, responses to foreign affairs seem to be accelerated in the coming future. Chinese people have equipped themselves with a sense of their “past greatness, recent humiliation, present achievement and future supremacy” (Economist 2010). Nationalism may frame every issue of foreign relations of China even before their leaders get to deal with it. Political manipulation of national sentiments have created a context that the leaders cannot feel safe with any compromise with foreign countries as it is likely to be viewed as “capitulation” or “humiliation.”

As China’s modern historical consciousness has been identified by the “one hundred years of humiliation” in the 19th and the early 20th century, the emotional sentiments in China should not be ignored in understanding China.23 The same can be applied to the relationship between East Asian countries which had experienced bad memories and trauma for the last decades without any formal recuperations. Even those historical memories have been reinforced by the current regime’s educational socialization through the national “patriotic education campaign” in the 1990s (Wang 2008, 785). In this way, emotional factors such as anger, shame and humiliation became an integral part of Chinese nationalism not just in a xenophobic way but also in a self-critical manner (Callahan 2004, 200-201). What we need to supplement the conventional theory of rational deterrence, in this sense, is the factor of non-rational interactions such as emotions. While these are under-theorized in international politics, people in East Asia have been quite familiar with the emotions and feelings about nationalities and historical humiliations. The United States’ strategy toward China should not ignore emotional patterns that are reproduced throughout everyday lives and educational projects (Saurette 2006, 521-522).




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