Our enemies bring our friends closer

How can antipathy focus the mind in international relations?

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Few things concentrate the mind quite like enmity. Realisation that an enemy is at the gates is a peerless means of stirring a nation from a restful sleep or snapping it out of complacency. That is one of the darker, animal truths of statecraft. Threats focus our attention and impel action. Understanding what, and who, we are against helps us to define what, and who, we are for. 

As the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt put it, “The specific political distinction that is the basis for all political activity and impulses is the distinction between friend and enemy.” This distinction is not “metaphorical” or “symbolic” but, rather, “concrete”. The primacy of enmity as a political lubricant was one of the great insights of Schmitt. Like another clever extremist, Lenin, he peered into the heart of modern politics. But remember that Plato himself divided politics into friends and enemies. This is a very old way of thinking.

And thank goodness for it. Over the past few years, policymakers in the United States and beyond have finally — arguably two decades too late — been compelled to confront the reality of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Trump administration was the catalyst for this, but in Biden’s America there is an emerging, though still inchoate, bipartisan consensus. Politicians have increasingly come to think of the PRC as an “enemy” and in a “concrete” sense to boot. The strategic rivalry between the US and the PRC, submerged for years beneath an ocean of trade, investment, debt, and warm words, has very quickly emerged into the open. 

Being open about the PRC serves to flush out the problem, to articulate it, and to concentrate minds

It is now the dominant geopolitical reality of our time. After a long period in which many in Washington D.C. and allied capitals were hesitant to even acknowledge competition with Beijing, much less to fully rouse themselves and their nation for the task, the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is leaving shrinking scope for irresolution (though, predictably, Europeans continue to do their best to find it).

Republicans and Democrats alike accept that it does not make sense to simply acquiesce to China becoming the leading actor in the international system. President Biden’s past complacent statements on Beijing are a source of embarrassment to the White House. This itself is an indication of how drastically things have changed. For its part, the CCP has long been perfectly clear that America is its “enemy”. Its diplomacy, economics, and defence planning are conducted, more or less openly, on that basis. Those in the democratic world who sought to banish this unpalatable fact from their minds have been left looking rather foolish. 

The capacious scope of this competition will surely structure international relations, and the domestic affairs of many states, for decades to come. Niall Ferguson, the Stanford historian, has labelled it “Cold War II”. This is a deliberately provocative framing, but it is a justifiable one, and — despite some analogical limitations — helps to fertilise thinking. As Ferguson himself affirmed, being open about the PRC serves to flush out the problem, to articulate it, and to concentrate minds.

Know your enemies

A Schmittian lens is both fruitful and chastening. The facilitation of China’s rise over the past 30 years may well prove to be the gravest error in the history of American, and indeed Western, statecraft. Booming commerce with the West has been the principal source of income that financed the PRC’s development. The CCP set out to dominate the global means of production — and it has succeeded. Massive industrial espionage and intellectual copyright theft generated knowledge transfer on an unprecedented scale. Wolf Tivy and Stephen Pimentel have, pessimistically, argued that China has already become the most economically powerful nation on earth “without our noticing”. 

Yet the PRC is a one-party totalitarian state that still places hundreds of thousands of its citizens into concentration camps where they face forced labour and sterilisation; its regime is above the rule of law and led by people who are unaccountable. All rights — human, property, legal — are contingent upon party whim. Minorities — from Tibet to Hong Kong to Uighur Muslims — are subjected to coercive measures. Through the means of digital technology, the CCP has established the most elaborate, and sophisticated, surveillance and censorship state that humanity has ever constructed — one beyond the wildest dreams of earlier totalitarians — and uses it to monitor its citizens and compel their political compliance. A labyrinth of prisons house those who do not behave in the right way.

Whilst ostensibly communist, the defining trait of the CCP is that it is non-liberal

The character of the regime is unambiguous; and here the global pandemic has surely been confirmatory. The Communist Party’s response consisted of cover-ups and dissembling: we know they lied, we cannot kid ourselves on this point.

The CCP did little to arrest the spread within China or internationally until too late. Indeed, Beijing endeavoured to suppress knowledge of the pandemic, silencing doctors who observed it. From a historical perspective, we should not be surprised by any of this. After all, it is exactly how regimes of this kind operate. We encounter identical behaviours in the Soviet response to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Tragically, the coronavirus has proven radically worse in terms of the disruption to human life.

Xi Jinping’s concentration of power in his own hands has paralysed a bureaucracy fearful of being purged. His political pathologies have exported their consequences around the world, and thus must be considered an important reason as to why billions of us have been unable to enjoy normal lives for the past two years.

Whilst ostensibly communist, the defining trait of the CCP is that it is non-liberal. And in Xi the PRC is presided over by a leader who is a firm believer in the totalitarian system. Mao Zedong, the architect of that system, relied on the tried-and-tested method of reinforcing domestic legitimacy by picking fights with external enemies — at one point engaging in sustained border skirmishes with the USSR. Xi seems set upon comparable behaviour. He now commands a vast military-industrial complex that has expanded at an incredible pace. One is reminded of a newspaper article written by Winston Churchill in 1936 in which he rehearsed, in detail, the expansion of Germany’s own military-industrial capabilities and then posed the question “What is it for? Certainly it is not all for fun. Something quite extraordinary is afoot.”

Who’d be China’s friend?

Those subjected to Chinese coercive diplomacy or military confrontation in recent years — from India and Taiwan to Australia and Vietnam — know well enough that “it is not all for fun”. Democratic states and their institutions — from multinational corporations to universities to individual politicians and officials — are subjected to bribery and subversion. Chinese firms operating in the West are strategic instruments of the state. The Belt and Road Initiative, the trillion-dollar infrastructural investment program, is intended to bring much of Eurasia under China’s political and economic sway. And this approach to the world seems likely to continue; Xi has not imposed this on an unwilling party but is, rather, the chosen tool of the CCP to make its aspirations a reality. Any retreat would inflict huge damage to the regime, not least in terms of its domestic prestige and reputation. This behaviour is almost certainly here to stay.

The CCP has been open for decades about its ambitions; we only need to examine the words of its leaders. In 1989, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, advised officials to “keep a low profile, be good at pretending and hiding … and gradually and quietly expand and develop” until China was strong enough to assert itself. 

In 2013, the PRC Foreign Minister wrote that Beijing sought a “new global governance system” to replace the “US-led” order. In 2015, the Politburo met to discuss how to “make rules and set direction for the … international order”. Things have only accelerated since. One general channelled the geographer Halford Mackinder and fantastically discussed taking control of the “world island” of Eurasia, mobilising its resources for confrontation with the US.

Importantly, the regime also looks backwards for guidance. Former premier Jiang Zemin wrote in 2012 that CCP officials must study history to “shape the right kind of worldviews” and to “learn how to govern”. Xi believes, in his words, that “history is the foundation of all social sciences”, and orders his officials to “study history”. This is not far removed from John Robert Seeley’s conviction that history is “the school of statesmanship”, albeit with a purpose rather more sinister.

Yet on China at least, Donald Trump bequeathed a helpful legacy, not least within his own troubled GOP. It is now broadly accepted across the American political spectrum that the problem can no longer be ignored, and the United States must begin to seriously compete. The Republican party, which loses nothing for bashing Biden’s seeming weakness on this subject, is set to capture Capitol Hill (lawfully, via elections).

With each passing month, the long-dormant motor of American strategic competition is coming back to life. Diplomacy, military procurement, and research and development are being conducted in a more intensive fashion than they have for decades. Commercial activity is increasingly viewed with one eye on the wider strategic implications for American power. India, Australia and others are similarly engaged in reassessment of their national orientation under the shadow of the PRC. 

Schmitt’s insight has retained its potency: there is no substitute for an enemy. Look only to what the AUKUS deal between Britain, Australia and America was intended to do, and who it was intended it should be done to (it wasn’t France, whatever President Macron might have claimed).

CCTV in Tiananmen Square

Ceaselessly back into the past

We need only take Xi’s own advice and look to history. Much the same thing happened in the 1940s and the 1950s, as Washington policymakers were forced to confront the reality of Soviet power. This realisation called forth an extraordinarily fertile response: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, containment, and thermonuclear deterrence. There are few better accounts of statecraft than one of the great political memoirs of the past century, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. I know of no other work that so expertly captures the task of government in the raw. There was no room for illusion about the Stalinist regime. “Sometimes,” Acheson wrote, things are “exactly as they seem” and it can be “essential to survival” to react accordingly.

Simultaneously to America’s own growing clarity, the British embraced a continental defence commitment while the French recognised that West Germany must be rebuilt. As under Count Metternich and Viscount Castlereagh following the defeat of France in 1815, enemies were turned into (situational) allies. None of this would have been possible — politically or intellectually — without the palpable threat posed by the USSR. Our enemy made us friends. 

Western commentators are apt to be in equal parts awestruck and intimidated by the PRC

The past provides innumerable other examples of the political and psychological value of clarity about one’s adversaries. For Elizabethan England, the Spain of Philip II was a “black legend”, a source of evil and an existential threat to a godly people. This enmity served to rally the English nation for sustained strategic competition.

For the Roman Republic, the power and wealth of Carthage necessitated an unprecedented degree of political and popular commitment. Senators had no doubt as to the scale of the Carthaginian challenge, and the need for ingenuity in response. 

In the early sixteenth century, the Sweden of king Gustavus Adolphus was surrounded by enemies, from Denmark to Poland, Russia to the Habsburgs. Gustavus employed the clarification of mind that this offered to initiate an extraordinary process of military innovation. He made his army the best in Europe. Modern-day Israel has similarly leveraged the psychology of strategic threat to great effect. There is, then, a certain attraction in enmity — not least in its power to simplify matters. 

Don’t panic

History shows something else, too: that it is easy to be mesmerised by totalitarian states. Western commentators are apt to be in equal parts awestruck and intimidated when they ponder the power and national capabilities of the PRC. Its efficiency and purposiveness can stand in stark contrast to the tumult that afflicts many democratic nations. The regime’s clarity in its goals and methods — the sense that Xi Jinping has a plan, and is pursuing it step by step — is striking.

Yet some perspective is sorely needed. First, the tendencies that lead commentators to be transfixed by the PRC are not new. Far from it. This is a longstanding human affliction, one that captures how prone we are to catastrophise. Observers were comparably impressed by another one-party totalitarian power, the USSR. And, crucially, they were impressed for much the same reasons that their successors are awed by China. The size, industrial capabilities, and ambitions of the USSR electrified Western minds in the aftermath of the Second World War. Magnitogorsk and other industrial metropolises astonished. Russian technological innovation — exemplified by launching the Sputnik satellite into space in 1957 and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth four years later — dazzled.

Politics, industry, repression, and technology seemed to be fusing to decisively tip the geopolitical balance of power towards Moscow. The Soviet Union was feared to be the embodiment of high modernity. Just a few decades earlier, however, the Third Reich elicited analogous reactions from Western intellectuals, politicians, and travellers. Nazi success in resolving the political and economic chaos that had torn German society asunder stunned and intimidated. 

Rich and strong, with cutting-edge science and massive engineering projects, Nazi Germany offered a worrying contrast to the beleaguered interwar liberal powers. The centralised state that developed in the twentieth century was, and remains, a frightening thing in autocratic hands.

There were good reasons for each of these fears. But the associated temptation to understate the capabilities of the liberal, parliamentary, free-market states must be resisted. In the 1950s, at the apex of popular fears that Soviet communism represented the wave of the future, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was more circumspect. “Our estimates of the enemy’s capabilities always tend to overlook what the United States is capable of doing to the enemy.” When the Kremlin pondered the power and capabilities of America, Ike went on, “they must be scared as hell”.

Precisely because democratic states are disputatious, they are superior at formulating new ideas, at absorbing setbacks, and, crucially, at adaptation — which is where autocratic regimes struggle. An authoritarian state may be riding high one moment but then, when basic internal or external conditions shift, prove unable to change course. Regimes that govern against the grain of human nature always teeter on the brink of disaster. That genius of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, saw this when he wrote that those who attempt to plan society as a “system” risk collapsing their nation into “the highest degree of disorder”, because elaborate plans “cannot suffer the smallest deviation” without provoking crisis. This has consistently been true of autocratic powers, still more so totalitarian ones, and there is no reason to expect this to change now.

Friends cheer you up

People in the West must resist the urge to lapse into despondency over their present tumult. This is particularly true of Americans. There was no lost golden age of political harmony in the United States, as Sean Wilentz illustrated in his masterwork The Rise of American Democracy. From constant crisis, the United States has derived its strength. The prospects of endurance and eventual success in competition with the PRC are good. If American policymakers focus on correcting some fixable — though serious — mistakes, it can expect to compete with success.

The wealth, military power and unique alliance network of the US should afford it the time to address these errors. The PRC remains proficient at alienating those with whom it deals. In addition, the US possesses vital advantages in terms of its human capital. While the PRC has undertaken impressive work in science education, for example, the regime is reliant upon its homegrown talent. The United States, in contrast, is a uniquely powerful magnet. Its cultural and economic appeal constitutes an asset that the CCP cannot hope to replicate. While Americans fret over their partisan rancour, China spends more on internal policing and surveillance than it does on defence. This is not a self-confident, secure polity. You really can be more confident about how regime change will happen in the US than you can be in China. A point of extreme concern if you happen to be a member of the regime.

In time, US policy toward the PRC will likely yield something akin to what Acheson, writing of the early Cold War, termed the “precedents” that “grew by the method of the Common Law into a corpus diplomaticum to aid the judgement of those who must make decisions”. This was the “containment” strategy devised by Truman and Eisenhower, and adhered to until the collapse of the USSR. How fully Britain, and, rather more so, other European nations will be able to rouse themselves to the task of resisting Chinese influence in their own corner of Eurasia remains an open question. For the moment, however, a recognition of the hard reality of enmity, and clarity about what that entails, remains the indispensable foundation of prudent statecraft. An enemy is still the best means of focusing the mind.

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