On understanding the other side of things

The only education I ever got was in history. And what history taught me is wrapped up in the story the premier English speaking philosopher of history of the 20th-century told about detecting the Albert Memorial. I wrote it up here, but the upshot is a point that’s both obvious and routinely ignored: if you disagree with someone, chances are you might not appreciate the way they’re looking at something. And that’s dangerous (don’t you think?) when countries are at war or considering it. All countries have terrible problems with this, but the United States even more than most. Perhaps this is always true of the global hegemon.

In any event, that’s why John Miersheimer’s advocacy of his perspective is so valuable, even if ultimately he’s wrong. He’s trying to get supporters of Ukraine to understand something they don’t agree with. Since none of us are gods, since we’re all extremely fallible, good faith disagreement is incredibly important. Yet its amazing how fast it goes out the window.

Which is why I liked this piece by Robert Wright, even down to its objection to the jingoist blinkers of American econoblogging wonderkindt Noah Smith.

This week Chinese leader Xi Jinping got a lot of attention by saying “Western countries—led by the US—have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.”

The Wall Street Journal called this “an unusually blunt rebuke of US policy” and the Washington Post called it “an unusually explicit public riposte of the United States by the Chinese leader.” And various commentators called it evidence of deep and irrational hostility. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham said that Xi “hates this country.” And social media pundit Noah Smith tweeted, “What’s scary to me is that we heard similar rhetoric from Germany before WW1 and Japan before WW2.”

Funny he should mention World War I! Some social scientists consider that a paradigmatic example of nations leading the world to catastrophe through a misreading of each other’s intentions. President Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter he wrote a decade before war broke out, saw the dynamic at work:

1 sincerely believes that the English are planning to attack him and smash his fleet, and perhaps join with France in a war to the death against him. As a matter of fact, the English harbor no such intentions, but are themselves in a condition of panic 2 terror lest the Kaiser secretly intend to form an alliance against them with France or Russia, or both, to destroy their fleet and blot out the British Empire from the map! It is as funny a case as I have ever seen of mutual distrust and fear bringing two peoples to the verge of war.

More here.

  1. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany[]
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1 year ago

I read that article and it’s as biased as can be — to me there is understanding others and understanding that information may be asymmetrical in terms of who is likely to be more right:
“So you should, at a minimum, ask how your nation would react if China did a combination of things roughly equivalent to the list above. ”
That’s easy to answer from Australia’s perspective on China

  1. They have continually militarized the South China Sea and massively expanded their military.
  2. They now do militarily threatening things to countries between us and them all time.
  3. They put a whole pile of sanctions on us to stop our experts (which failed).
  4. We are vastly smaller than them, unlike China to the US.
  5. They are still led by the CCP, a party that helped kill 40-60 million of its own citizens and didn’t even change the name of the party.
  6. Instead of getting essentially engineers as leaders who would smile at the US, cheat them as far as possible, and then use the money for desperately needed development in China (a win for a billion people and probably a win for the US given it led to consumer price deflation for so long), they got China’s version of Trump.
  7. Of course people should worry.

The comments for Russia are of course similar, except Russia has had very bad behavior on other countries more recently, unlike China (which had no real opportunity to given the history of the 20th Century). As we’ve learnt from their current war, they’ve also stockpiled gargantuan amounts of weapons and still think this is the way forward. Clearly NATO was correct. They also have huge amounts of nuclear weapons, so it is very to imagine why NATO would have ever tried to invade them militarily. Of course this isn’t denying the US invades other countries — it does (those WMDs we’re still waiting to find, Vietnam etc.), just that no-one was going to invade Russia.
You might like to compare other countries here. I remember when Japan and Germany were ‘great’ economic powerhouses in the 80s in the eyes of Australians, and how Japan was going to buy everything in Australia. Of course, anyone sensible didn’t react to Japan and Germany like Russia or China because they didn’t have gargantuan amounts of military equipment, hadn’t threatened other countries for decades, and taking their money helped the development of Aus.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
1 year ago

The article is OK but I do not think Noah Smith is so important. One hopes that the state departments communicate directly over the journey so that neither side is spooked by politically performative rhetoric.
I have listened to Mearsheimer more than I want to. He always talks about the inevitable actions and interest of “great powers”. It is like he has Rudyard Kipling as a co-author. He also continually gives credence to Russia’s fears of invasion. I really doubt that anyone in the Russian military fears invasion. It is a tool of demagoguery. I prefer the theory that Putin wants to be Vlad the Great who recreated the empire.
It would be nice if Mearsheimer would just occasionally acknowledge that Russian fears are mostly performative for political reason and totally irrational. This would be a better way to frame his recommendations. But he is clearly a hater of the west, like Chomsky. Both of them appear to just be very nasty bitter people. Not that they couldn’t make a good point from time to time.
Yes, the US is trying to contain China. But don’t we all want to contain China? Why did we ever deny we were doing it? Because we weren’t until recently, which was a massive policy blunder. And before you say this is easy in hindsight, I have been boring my friends for fully twenty years that China was the largest threat to the world since…. well I won’t say it.
China can see what “we” are doing. They will hate our policy. But the policy is reasonable. We will not give you technology. We will (probably) defend Taiwan. We will establish bases and conduct FoN exercises in SE Asia. I do not think anyone in the US is unclear about how China sees this.
It seems to me that there is pretty good understanding between China and the US – much better now than when the West were deluding themselves.