Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Until the Wave Function Collapses

Monday's "From multipolarity to multilateralism in China" by Leif Eric Easley is not entirely bad.

The prose may be as lethally dull as ever...

Multipolarity describes a global distribution of power where major countries share roughly equal influence. Multilateralism is a means for addressing global problems based on the cooperation of multiple countries. One does not necessarily indicate or cause the other, but the relative emphasis of these concepts is telling about China's changing approach to international affairs.
...but the main theme--that China has refined its international approach away from an insistence on the establishment of a multipolar world in defiance of U.S hegemony toward a gentlemanly ganging up on U.S. unilateralism via international institutions and norms--is not trivial.

Among the more interesting points is what I believe to be the first cogent explanation of why I should care about the current dearth of security mechanisms in the Far East. Heretofore, I have not given a damn.

If, as I have long assumed, the Chinese government's goal in its foreign policy is a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order, it would hardly make any sense to enmesh China in a web of international commitments. The setting up of conferences, talk shops and multilateral talks by other governments would in the end be pointless--China would engage in a lackadaisical fashion while continuing to pursueits own autarchic goals.

However, if the Chinese government is pursuing an expansion of its multilateralist efforts, then it would be incumbent upon other governments--wishing as they do to maximize their own returns from Chinese behavior--to build up and deepen international security institutions in the Far East.

Commitment to a network of mutual obligations and responsibilities first; the creation of institutions second...a vitally important progression from A to B that heretofore has been obscured by peddlers of "self-fulfilling prophecies" and "positive feedback loops" arising from security institutions.

Commitment first; institutions second. Not the other way around.

Easley's assertion that the Chinese elites are increasingly drawn toward pursuing the national interest through entaglement in multilateral obligations echoes some thoughts I have been having regarding Dick Samuel's assertion that Japanese security thinkers are working on a "Goldilocks strategy" -- neither too close to the U.S. nor too close to China; neither fully committed to rearmament nor completely dependent on the U.S. for security; neither reviving a warrior ethos nor abandoning itself to pacifism and meekness-- but maneuvering to find the midpoint along the scale.

I am not sure I can buy it.

The problem is that Goldilocks hedging behavior (not too hot, not too cold, just right) seems nearly impossible to put into practice. Individual commitments are binary: you can either do something or you cannot. Anyone taking part in a negotiation would have to be able to understand the entirety of the set of promises made and their relationships with one another in order say yes or no to something. He or she would hope, that, in the aggregate, the commitment shifts the national balance closer toward the "just right" midpoint.

Something I do not think anyone can do--and certainly not without infuriating one's counterpart in a negotiation.

Instead, Japanese security thinkers and negotiators are more likely pursuing, possibly without self-awareness, a strategy of superposition. Rather exhaust themselve in a paralyzing oscillation about a Euclidean midpoint, diplomats and politicians are maximizing the country's power through piling up commitments--

by being both closer to China AND closer to the United States;

by insisting upon a defensive strategy AND expanding offensive force projection capabilities;

by expanding a warrior ethos (arata na senryoku) AND promoting Prince Pickles.

The ideal being not a stationing of oneself at midpoint between two stated positions but to be in both stated positions simultaneously, ambiguously but without contradiction -- i.e., in superposition.

At one point in Securing Japan, Dr. Samuels belittles a plan (I will have to find the reference) that purports to pursue three mutually exclusive goals (mutually exclusive due to the fact that resources and budgets are finite, not because they goals are mutually contradictory). In Euclidean space, a lack of a commitment to a particular goal means that one is shortchanging all of one's options.

However, when one is enmeshed in ever more dense networks of mutual commitments (and yes, it is convenient that physicists talk about particle in superposition being "entangled" in all its possible states) you can add more commitments to the network willy-nilly without having to check each time whether you are heading toward a "neither too cold, neither too hot" midpoint.

A Japan in superposition is pro-Asian unity and pro-American; militarily potent and pacifist; autonomous and tightly bound.

Of course, there is a drawback to the piling up of commitments on the head of a pin: someone could test you. At which point the wave function collapses; you have to commit to one side or the other.

And you will have only the briefest of moments of time to make the right decision.

Reflection of hinoki in the Tenōnuma
Ogawa Township, Saitama Prefecture
February 16, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are right to be skeptical and Mr. Easley indeed does have an awkward way to express two new, popular Inside the Beltway ideas. The first being that China’s multilateralism is a ruse. A more substantive summary of this can be found in a recent Newsweek article by Mark Leonard who is author of What Does China Thinks.

Leonard identifies the “Chinese neocomms” who “have taken up the idea of multilateralism— associated in the West with the dilution of national sovereignty by member states agreeing to be bound by the rules of supranational institutions (like the European Union or the World Trade Organization). …[They] have transformed the concept into a tool of power projection that would reinforce China's independence while helping it develop links with other Asian countries, in arrangements that would exclude China's great rival, the United States.”

The second is that Asia needs a security “architecture” that can manage a rising China. Corollary to this is that Japan will be the “regulator” of China. This latter notion comes up in discussions of potential Japan policy of the US presidential candidates. McCain, Clinton and Obama advisers appear to have signed on to this.