Hu Jintao is no Kaiser Wilhelm

Historian Niall Ferguson says "Chimerica" is doomed. Kaiser Kuo disagrees, amid a storm of Twitter porn

Published August 21, 2009 5:19PM (EDT)

For an academic historian, Niall Ferguson throws more than his share of bombs in the popular press. Just a couple of weeks ago he compared President Barack Obama to Felix the Cat -- both were/are black and "very, very lucky." Two years ago, he labeled birth control and abortion "vices" that were preventing a Malthusian human overpopulation disaster. More recently, he has been chattering about an upcoming "divorce" between China and the United States -- or "Chimerica," as he likes to call it -- and warning of dire consequences.

In the latest Newsweek, Ferguson distills his thoughts. The mutually advantageous relationship between China and the U.S. that has dominated the global economy for the last couple of decades, in which China essentially provided the credit for Americans to buy Chinese goods, is doomed, a victim of the global financial crisis. Now, China can be compared to Germany before World War I, as it builds up its navy and extends its imperial grasp over vital resources across the world.

A century ago, AngloGerman antagonism was still a relatively new phenomenon; an alliance between the two empires seemed plausible as late as 1899. Likewise, the United States took time to identify Japan as a serious rival in the Pacific region; it was not until the 1930s that relations really soured. In both cases, the perception of a strategic threat was slow to grow. But grow it did -- and ultimately it led to war. Could the same be happening to the United States and China today? Are we imperceptibly but inexorably slipping from cooperation to competition?

... The global implications of this divorce are huge. Imagine a new Cold War, but one in which the two superpowers are economically the same size. Or, if you prefer an older analogy, imagine a rerun of the Anglo-German antagonism of the early 1900s, with America in the role of Britain, and China in the role of imperial Germany. This is a better analogy because it captures the fact that a high level of economic integration does not necessarily prevent the growth of strategic rivalry and, ultimately, conflict.

I don't think Hu Jintao makes a good Kaiser Wilhelm and I think it is foolhardy to predict what will happen with the kind of thunderous certainty that is Ferguson's stock-in-trade. A superpower clash, whether economic or military, between the U.S. and China is in no one's interest. World War I, of course, wasn't ultimately in anyone's interest either, but Europe seems to have learned from its 20th century mistakes, at least so far, so maybe we can too. I'm with James Fallows; just to assert that a disastrous divorce is inevitable is positively dangerous because it ignores a world of other possibilities, and constricts our freedom to move.

Even historians -- or especially historians -- recognize that world events are shaped in part by deep economic, demographic, and technical trends, but only in part. Real human beings make real decisions that have real effects. (Cf: LBJ in 1964, Bush-Cheney in 2001, JFK-Khrushchev in 1962, etc.) If we recognize that a collision with China is possible, but only one of several possibilities, then we act so as to reduce that possibility and increase the probability of better outcomes. If we think breakup is inevitable, as Ferguson is arguing, then the odds of a collision in fact occurring become higher than they would otherwise be. (Because each side interprets the other's moves in the darkest way and responds in kind.)

Right now, the world seems to be pulling away from the brink of a global financial collapse and relapse into protectionism and warfare analogous to the aftermath of the Great Depression. An optimist might argue that is is because world leaders and governments paid attention to the lessons of history, and avoided taking actions that would make matters worse. The great hole in Ferguson's future history, at least with respect to "Chimerica," is that he doesn't allow for that chance.

P.S.: I was alerted to the existence of Ferguson's essay by a tweet from Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese-American musician and writer based in Beijing.

Newseek: Ferguson, "Chimerca is Headed for Divorce." More analogies btwn CN & Germany pre-WWI. Kaiser don't buy it.

I know some HTWW readers enjoy looking down their long noses at Twitter, but I've got to say that I love hearing a guy named Kaiser dismiss Kaiser Wilhelm comparisons, and then just a few minutes later, post the following tweet:

Psyched for the AC/DC tribute band reunion on Sat September 5 at Yugong Yishan in Beijing. The Dirty Deeds ride again! Come check us out.

Were there any AC/DC tribute bands in pre-WWI Germany? I think not!

P.P.S: 12 years ago, I wrote a piece for Salon, "Pornutopia Lost," about how intense pornographer competition for Web traffic was leading to lots of annoying Web "innovation." My Twitter experience has recapitulated that fundamental dynamic in record time. In just the last 24 hours, I've acquired a dozen new followers in various states of undress who seem only to want to lure me to MSN for some hot chat and lurid Webcam action. Somehow, I don't think they are interested in my 140 character disquisitions on globalization or whatever the hell else is on my mind. But if you are, my handle is koxinga21.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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