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Looking for BalanceChina, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia$

Steve Chan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780804778206

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804778206.001.0001

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Growth, Trust, and Historical Comparisons

Growth, Trust, and Historical Comparisons

Chapter:
(p.164) 6 Growth, Trust, and Historical Comparisons
Source:
Looking for Balance
Publisher:
Stanford University Press
DOI:10.11126/stanford/9780804778206.003.0006

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the sources of changing balance of power. It addresses the issue of how increased power affects a state's disposition to trust others and how its own actions are likely to affect others' disposition to trust it. The chapter discusses the communication which states can undertake to reassure each other that they are interested in protecting their security rather than expanding their power and the policy ensemble available to a declining power. It also considers the so-called power transition theory and provides historical comparison of several instances of changes in balance of power.

Keywords:   balance of power, trust, policy ensemble, declining power, power transition theory

In this chapter, I take up four topics germane to theories of power balance and balancing theories. First, are countervailing policies of increasing armament and joining alliances an effective long-term solution to checking a rising power, or are the sources of power shifts among states located primarily inside them? If domestic factors and policies are the more influential determinants of changing interstate power balance, then efforts focusing on armament and alliances are of limited usefulness in the long run and indeed, excesses in undertaking these balancing policies can be self-weakening.

Second, balance-of-threat theory—which offers one example of balancing theories—argues that states balance against the one that poses the greatest menace to them rather than the one with the most capabilities. If so, it matters whether the dominant or rising power is perceived by others to have a status-quo or revisionist agenda. The existing literature typically posits that as the world's hegemon, Britain and later the United States are status-quo powers whereas latecomers that seek to replace them are necessarily revisionist states. This treatment rests more on assumption than analysis, and I address this issue, albeit relatively briefly, with respect to the United States both in its initial rise to the status of a regional hegemon and more recently as a global hegemon.

Third, when faced with unfavorable power shifts, should a declining state take up balancing against all comers or should it resort to a more multifaceted approach in dealing with multiple upstarts? I offer a brief discussion of Britain's management of its relative decline. When faced with several rising powers impinging on its interests in different parts of the world, London undertook a (p.165) variety of policies aimed at accommodating, aligning with, and even appeasing some of its potential rivals. In contrast, imperial Spain adopted an indiscriminate policy of confronting and fighting all challengers, a policy that exacerbated its decline. This discussion underscores the proposition that rather than being structurally determined, balancing policies involve important strategic choices. Moreover, balancing is not a bilateral matter but needs to be considered in a multilateral context.

Fourth, if armament and alliances may end up being self-defeating, then what can be done to avoid needless and even dangerous competition? As with power-transition theory and balance-of-threat theory, defensive realism suggests that some states are aggressive but others are not. If so, what can peaceful states do to reassure others about their benign intentions? This question impinges on balance-of-power theories, which are premised on the claim that one cannot rely on others' good intentions and must instead respond to the reality of their capabilities. I compare U.S. policies toward Russia and China after the Cold War's end in order to draw some implications from theories about fostering trust and balancing against power or threat. In particular, I address the issue of how increased power affects a state's disposition to trust others, and how its own actions are likely to affect others' disposition to trust it. Before discussing this and the other topics just mentioned, I turn to differentiating balance-of-power theories from their chief competitor, the power-transition theory. Confusion about the logic of these theories has often characterized discussions on China's rise.

Which Theory Is It

Although scholars often invoke balance-of-power theories when framing their discourse on China's recent ascendance, their analyses sometimes insinuate the power-transition theory's premise (Organski 1958; Organski and Kugler 1980). The latter theory basically contends that the persistence of U.S. predominance—a decisive imbalance of power—is conducive to international peace and stability. Conversely, China's rise heightens the danger of destabilizing the existing regional and perhaps even world order. It is this latter supposition that fosters a concern for balancing against a rising China—while overlooking the same logic for other states' response to Washington's achievement of a historically unprecedented unipolar status globally. Kenneth Waltz (2000, 36) warned, “When Americans speak of preserving the balance of power in East Asia through their military presence, the Chinese understandably take this to mean that they intend to maintain the strategic hegemony they now enjoy in the absence of such a balance” (emphasis in the original). This analytic (p.166) tension or incongruity often goes unrecognized; few Americans have argued on the grounds of balance of power that China's rise can contribute to regional stability or even peace or, conversely, that an imbalance of power favoring the United States in East Asia or elsewhere has had a reverse effect. As Jack Levy (2002) observed, British writers often commented on the balance of power on the European continent without at the same time attending to the implications of their analyses for Britain's primacy at the global level. The proper names of states rather than the actual distribution of national capabilities drove their conclusions.

There are at least six areas of incompatible views between balance-of-power and power-transition theories. First, balance-of-power theories suggest that a parity, or equilibrium, of national capabilities is conducive to international stability and sometimes even peace (notwithstanding the occasional view that it is necessary to go to war in order to preserve a particular power balance). In contrast, and as mentioned above, power-transition theorists make the opposite argument—that a situation of capability parity (or one that is approaching such parity) is likely to augur instability and even war (e.g., Kim 1989, 1991, 1992, 2002; Kim and Morrow 1992; Kugler 2006; Kugler and Lemke 1996, 2000; Lemke 2002, 2004; Lemke and Tammen 2003; Lemke and Werner 1996; Organski and Kugler 1980; Tammen et al. 2000). Power-transition theorists claim that this risk is the greatest when a fast-growing great power approaches or overtakes an erstwhile leading state. A rapidly rising China is a source of concern for power-transition theorists but, because this development will reduce U.S. preponderance and bring about a more balanced distribution of power, it should presumably contribute to greater regional stability according to balance-of-power theories.

This should at least be the conclusion reached by those who stress intention-free analysis based solely on states' material capabilities (especially if they focus on the distribution of such capabilities among the so-called great powers, such as in the Sino-American relationship). Waltz's (1979) seminal work sought to move away from motivational attributions, choosing to focus instead on systemic influences when distinguishing his neorealist theory from its classical predecessors. Attention to states' intentions—or alleged or perceived intentions—as a crucial independent variable would open the door to formulations such as Stephen Walt's (1987) balance-of-threat theory, and would introduce a distinction between supposed power-seeking and security-seeking states. Randall Schweller's 1994, 1996) analysis on “bandwagoning for profit” also pointed to greed as a motivation for some secondary states to join a dominant power in the hope of sharing the spoils of the latter's aggression. (p.167) When power-transition theorists speak about some states as revisionist and others as status-quo powers, they are of course engaging in motivational attribution, and their analyses emphasize the interaction effects brought about by a state's increased power and ambition that can make it dangerous to others.

Second, according to at least those balance-of-power theories that are based on offensive realism's premise, all states are potentially power seekers. That is, when given an opportunity, all states will try to maximize their power. This view implies that other states should be most concerned about a concentration of power in American hands, and that Washington's current unipolar status would incline it to seek even more power. The leading scholar on offensive realism, John Mearsheimer (2001), has of course argued that after achieving regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, Washington's chief foreign policy objective has been to prevent other great powers from attaining a similar status in other regions of the world. That is, the United States is supposed to have become a satisfied power and to have assumed a defensive role as an offshore balancer.

This view reflects in part the so-called stopping power of water, which limits the projection of U.S. power. This consideration is supposed to have somehow overridden the general tendency claimed by offensive realists that all states want to expand their power until they are stopped by others' counterpower, or until they become the undisputed hegemon. In Mearsheimer's (2001, 34, 35) words, “Even when a great power achieves a distinct military advantage over its rivals, it continues looking for chances to gain more power. The pursuit of power only stops when hegemony is achieved;” and “States do not become status quo powers until they completely dominate the system.” If so, the United States should be the poster child for offensive realism as Christopher Layne (2003) argued.

There is some ambiguity about whether the word “system” in the above quotation refers to the interstate system as a whole or just a regional system. Mearsheimer's analysis implies the latter meaning. His suggestion that the United States is the only status-quo great power assuming the role of an offshore balancer in a world populated by power seekers, however, runs into two problems. Empirically, it does not correspond with Washington's actual post-1945 grand strategy of pursuing forward military deployment and energetic diplomacy in an attempt to prevent the emergence of a multipolar world, as Christopher Layne has observed (2009a, 2006b). Moreover, the United States is far more than just a regional hegemon because, especially after the Cold War, it has attained a degree of global preponderance unprecedented in the past 500 years (Brooks and Wohlforth 2008). Theoretically, Mearsheimer's (p.168) contention does not answer why the “stopping power of water” would encourage Washington to exercise self-denial in expanding its power globally while at the same time, motivate it to fight two world wars, because it evidently did not have confidence in Germany's and Japan's self-restraint if they were to become predominant in Europe and Asia, or in their power expansion being stopped by the oceans separating them from America.

In contrast to offensive realists, who see all states being motivated by power maximization, power-transition theorists do not see all states as potentially aggressive and place instead a distinctive emphasis on differentiating the so-called status-quo states from the revisionist ones. Only the latter type of states, when approaching the capability of the leading state, will challenge the international order and spark a war for world domination. In other words, power-transition theory sees some states as security seekers—fundamentally content with the existing international order—and other states as dissatisfied and seeking to overthrow it. It is alleged that when a satisfied latecomer overtakes the leading state, the risk of war is mitigated, such as when the United States surpassed Britain. Conversely, when a dissatisfied or revisionist power displaces the leading state, or threatens to do so, as when Germany overtook Britain, the risk of war is heightened.

As originally formulated, power-transition theory does not explain why a declining hegemon might not be tempted to wage a preventive war against a rising latecomer, or why this latecomer would remain dissatisfied and precipitate a major war even though the passage of time should permit it to secure further gains (S. Chan 2004b, 2008a). Indeed, as just remarked, what did Germany have to gain by starting a war if it had already overtaken Britain by the time of World War I? Additionally, whether a state is revisionist or committed to the status quo is either simply asserted or defined in terms of its support for the leading state, which in turn assumes by default that the leading state is necessarily committed to the international status quo and rules out the possibility that it may be interested in changing the international order.

One can also be troubled by the possible circularity in labeling a particular country as revisionist retrospectively, after learning that it has fought a war against an erstwhile hegemon. That is, instead of being an analytic antecedent to the outbreak of a hegemonic war, revisionism becomes a post hoc attribution assigned to one side of this belligerence by virtue of its having fought this war.

Third, power-transition theorists see domestic factors as the primary determinants of national power. States are seen to move ahead or fall behind one another mainly because of their domestic conditions and policies. Having a (p.169) large population base is a necessary though clearly insufficient basis for aspiring to great-power status. As for policies, a government's ability to mobilize and extract national resources, including human effort, is seen to give an advantage to some countries over others. Therefore, a smaller state in terms of asset endowment can still prevail militarily over larger adversaries due to its superior mobilization and extraction capability (Organski and Kugler 1978). Past wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and between Vietnam and the United States, testify to the importance of this consideration in addition to other less tangible factors, such as greater domestic consensus, better military training, and a stronger dedication to the national cause.

Because it emphasizes domestic assets and capabilities, power-transition theory assigns a less critical role to international relations, including the extent to which foreign containment or engagement can influence states' power trajectories. Indeed, in pointing out the Phoenix factor, the original authors of power-transition theory suggested that even a disastrous defeat in interstate war does not prevent the vanquished states from reinitiating their prewar pattern of growth in about two decades (Organski and Kugler 1980). Thus, war devastation and even foreign occupation cannot in the long run deflect a state's growth curve that was already evident before the war's start.

Fourth, power-transition theory is explicitly concerned with the bilateral relationship between the two leading powers in the international system. This statement does not deny that the designation of these two countries can be questionable, such as when its proponents argued that Germany's overtaking of Britain led to World War I. This argument is questionable because the United States had overtaken Britain as the world's premier power long before 1914, and Germany never even approached the United States in its national power. In contrast to power-transition theory's bilateral focus, balance-of-power theories take a more multilateral approach. After all, the very idea of external balancing, or alliances and alignment, directs attention to how states conduct diplomatic maneuvers to improve their strategic position or negotiation leverage.

Fifth and related to the above distinction, balance-of-power theories and certainly balancing theories can address how secondary and even minor powers try to manage their international relations, whereas by focusing on the two leading states, power-transition theory is by definition concerned with this relationship between great powers. It is not so much concerned with the behavior of the secondary or minor powers, as far as the danger of hegemonic war is concerned. At the same time, this theory only addresses a situation whereby a rough parity has come to pass between the extant hegemon and (p.170) the challenger—typically defined operationally to mean a situation where the latter has attained at least 80% of the former's capabilities. This threshold condition questions whether power-transition theory is at all applicable to analyzing contemporary Sino-American relations. Few analysts applying this theory to study current Sino-American relations would argue that China has already reached, or is even remotely close to reaching, this capability threshold. Moreover, assertions about these countries representing regional bipolarity cannot be reconciled with power-transition theory's traditional focus on contest for global hegemony.

Finally, whereas the currently dominant formulations of balance-of-power theorists emphasize the anarchic nature of interstate relations, power-transition theorists see these relations as basically hierarchical (e.g., Lebow and Valentino 2009). According to the latter perspective, the two leading powers are after all fighting about alternative international orders. Without this linchpin of international order, it hardly makes sense to characterize some states as status-quo oriented and others as revisionist. In an anarchic world, states engage in self-help without being constrained by common rules, shared principles, or hierarchical authority. It is odd for some balance-of-power theorists, who stress structural anarchy, to attribute status-quo or revisionist orientations to states at the same time. Structural anarchy would suggest an absence of international order—without which there can be no status-quo power. Although couched in balance-of-power argot, American discourse on China's rise often advances the view that the United States should maintain its preponderance in Asia because it is the only country capable of holding anarchy at bay and because one cannot be sure of China's future intentions when it becomes more powerful.

Sources of Power Shifts

Power shifts can be traced to domestic or foreign sources. In Chapter 4, I emphasized that a strategy of regime survival and elite legitimacy pivoted on economic performance has been the principal reason for East Asia's faster economic growth and its general stability and peace compared to the Middle East. This strategy has promoted economic growth by pursuing export expansion, macroeconomic stability, and investment in human resources. Realists tend to define national power primarily in terms of military capabilities, but a state's military capabilities may not correspond with its economic vigor at any given moment. Over the long run, it is the latter that ultimately determines the former. When a state's expenditures on perceived security needs persistently outstrip its economic capacity, it risks imperial overstretch—a common cause for the decline of great powers (Kennedy 1987), with the Soviet Union providing (p.171) the latest example. Domestic decay usually precedes the fall of empires such as those of the Habsburgs and Romans (e.g., Elliot 1984; Gibbon 1993; Kagan 1962; Kirby 1920; Vicens Vives 1969), rendering them vulnerable to foreign challenges.

There is a general consensus that a state's sheer bulk in terms of its demographic and territorial size is not enough for achieving great-power status. Size indicates a potential for this status but is not a requirement for it. Historically, Britain, the Netherlands, and Portugal attained global primacy despite their relatively small size. Their entrepreneurial dynamism, efficient capital formation, social cohesion and adaptability, and capacity for technological and institutional innovation gave them a competitive advantage over their much larger rivals in expanding and applying their resource base.

Richard Rosecrance (1986) emphasized this advantage when distinguishing states that pursue a “strategic vision” in contrast to others that are “trading states.” If physical size were the sole or even the most important source of national power, the Soviet Union should have prevailed in the Cold War, and China and India should have ranked high on the interstate pecking order. Even though these states could boast a large population, territorial expanse, and even high volumes of steel production and energy consumption, they have lagged behind the West European states, the United States, and Japan in interstate competitiveness in the past century. Such traditional measures of national power tend to be especially misleading in the information age with its short product cycles and rapid technological change (S. Chan 2005; Porter 1990; Tellis et al. 2000).

The theory of long cycles in international relations offers another example of theories of power balance. It agrees with power-transition theory and the discussion above that a leading state's ability to foster innovative technologies is the key determinant of its global status. According to this theory, a state's ability to attain global leadership historically comes from and is sustained by its status as a technological pioneer (Modelski 1987; Modelski and Thompson 1996; Reuveny and Thompson 2004). This asset is far more important than the possession of a large military or population—or even a large economy, which requires the constant stimulation of new innovations and scientific breakthroughs, especially in the leading sectors, to sustain its expansion.

Four implications follow from this discussion. First and most obviously, an overemphasis on balancing against another country's military capabilities is questionable and even risky to the extent that these policies overlook or undermine a state's economic performance and technological competitiveness. Second, balancing policies in the form of increasing armament or alliances are (p.172) less effective and important in comparison to domestic reform to encourage productivity and innovation.

Third, although balance-of-power theorists have been traditionally preoccupied with the military exploits of an ambitious and expanding state, this approach to acquiring national power has become increasingly obsolescent. Military conquest might have paid off in the past and under special conditions, but these circumstances are increasingly irrelevant to today's international relations. Peter Liberman (1998) argued that invaders could exploit modern societies by using coercion and repression to extract resources from industries in the occupied countries. His examples came primarily from Germany's seizure of Belgium and Luxembourg in World War I, France's occupation of the Ruhr during the interwar years, and the Soviet Union's exploitation of its East and Central European allies (although he included Japan's conquest of Korea and Taiwan, the latter societies were neither industrial nor modern at that time). These cases point to intense exploitation of a conqueror's industrialized neighbors populated by co-ethnics, requiring ruthless policies to intimidate the local population and to manipulate the existing communication infrastructure and administrative capacity of a captive society.

By implication, when the victim of aggression is preindustrial and far away, it is less likely that conquest will pay; and when, in addition, it is culturally alien, the occupying force is also more likely to encounter fierce nationalist resistance and cultural backlash. Moreover, when the conquering state is a democracy, it is more inhibited in adopting ruthless policies of coercion and repression, and is therefore again less able to profit from its conquest. Recent U.S. experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam are congruent with these generalizations.

Significantly, to the extent that an aggressor state is more effective in augmenting its power by military conquest, its success will arouse other states' security concerns and incline them to join a countervailing coalition to oppose it. Therefore, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, which were the subjects of Liberman's study, all encountered increasing opposition from other states, who were energized to act as a result of the aggressors' ruthless policies and their gains to scale (Powell 1999). Accordingly, whether military conquest will pay off is at least a contingent outcome dependent in part on the victims' and third parties' responses to it. Under contemporary conditions, it is likely to be unprofitable and even self-defeating due to the invader becoming bogged down and encountering resistance from other states.

This discussion has a fourth implication. Although size does not necessarily confer great-power status, it can affect relative growth rates. As an economy (p.173) gets bigger, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, not to mention accelerate, its rate of growth. A larger economy's share of the aggregate capabilities of all the great powers inevitably suffers when a more backward and smaller economy starts to take off. The latter enjoys the advantage of backwardness, benefitting from the lessons that its predecessors have acquired from trials and errors. It is also easier, mathematically, to make larger percentage gains when one has a smaller base. This larger relative gain by a smaller economy, however, can bend the growth trajectories of its more advanced and bigger counterparts, and the consequent ripple effects can be quite traumatic for the latter countries and destabilizing for relations among them. These are the fundamental insights of the power-cycle theory, which offers yet a third example of theories of power balance.

More specifically, power-cycle theory (Doran 1989, 1991, 2003; Doran and Parsons 1980) attends to the security implications of the expansion and contraction of relative power among a small number of major states. Even when a state is making absolute gains in its capabilities, it may still be losing power relative to other fast-growing states. As mentioned above, a larger leading state's relative position in the great-power system can be adversely affected by the rise of its lesser counterparts. The interactions among the pertinent states' growth rates can influence their relative power cycles in surprising and drastic ways.

In particular, relatively small absolute gains by one of the lesser great powers can tip a leading great power's growth trajectory, causing its rate of growth to decelerate and even reversing the direction of this change from positive to negative in relation to the other great powers in the system. This was the situation prior to 1914 when Russia's faster growth, albeit from a smaller base, set Germany on a course of relative decline (even while it was still growing in absolute terms). Power-cycle theorists argue that when states experience critical inflection points at which the velocity or direction affecting changes in their relative power shows a reversal, their leaders are especially likely to succumb to anxiety or arrogance, which in turn increases the probability of their miscalculation. They are more likely to act impulsively and opportunistically at these junctures. The odds of conflict escalation rise with the number of great powers simultaneously experiencing these critical inflection points (Tessman and Chan 2004). For those great powers experiencing or anticipating relative decline, such as Germany prior to World War I, there is also a stronger temptation to wage preventive war before their adversary catches up (Copeland 2000; Lemke 2003; Levy 1987).

In addition to helping to locate especially tumultuous and dangerous times when great powers are likely to clash, power-cycle theory calls attention to (p.174) three issues. First, cognitive and institutional rigidities contribute to international tension and instability. This tendency stems from a failure by states to adjust their perceived interests and their international role conception in a timely and sufficient manner to reflect their changing capabilities. Resistance to scaling back one's interests and role abroad characterizes states experiencing downward mobility. The failure of a declining power to downsize its foreign commitments and missions in accordance with its diminished resources in turn has the effect of further exacerbating its decline. Conversely, states experiencing upward mobility are more likely to avoid rash behavior because they hope to make additional gains (absolutely and relatively) with the passage of time. They are likely to demand full compensation for what they regard their relative power entitles them to only when they sense that their power growth has already peaked (Powell 1999)—that is, when they feel that waiting will not give them additional gains.

With that said, rising powers are not immune to errors of arrogance and overconfidence. In contrast to balance-of-power theories, power-cycle theory suggests that aggressor states (e.g., Napoleon's France, the Kaiser's and Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan) are more likely acting out of a sense of panic and desperation rather than cockiness and confidence. They precipitate wars of conquest against their victims because the “window of opportunity” is closing on them—that is, because they feel time is working against them. Their potential adversaries are gaining on them. According to this reasoning and contrary to power-transition theory, wars are more likely to be started by states whose advantage is diminishing rather than by those that are catching up (thus Germany rather than Russia/the Soviet Union in the two world wars). Preventive wars are by definition launched by those states that have a power advantage currently but worry about this advantage slipping away in the future. They feel that it is better to wage war now than later. Contesting the usual American discourse on China's rise, this perspective suggests that “if destabilizing policies are to be initiated, the perpetrator will likely be a declining United States” (Copeland 2000, 243).

Second, power-cycle theory agrees with power-transition theory and long-cycle theory in emphasizing the domestic sources of changing power balances among states. Accordingly, one cannot effectively manage the security implications of power shifts by focusing just on armament or alliances. When the target of such balancing efforts happens to have a large population, resource base, and technological capacity, engagement and containment are likely to have only marginal effects. Far more consequential is the policy agenda pursued by the target itself, such as whether it pivots its strategy of regime survival (p.175) and elite legitimacy on economic performance, nationalism and militarism, or imperial expansion. A state's own self-defeating policies, such as those adopted by the Soviet Union and North Korea, are more important causes for their relative decline or stagnation.

Third, power-cycle theory puts the relative rise and decline of great powers in an explicitly multilateral and dynamic context. This deliberate focus in turn has several implications. Some states are inevitably moving ahead and others failing behind in relation to each other, and the security implications are far from clear when one broadens one's perspective beyond a bilateral zero-sum view. When seen in a multilateral context, another state's gain may or may not be to one's detriment, as it is more uncertain whether this rising power will turn out to be an ally or adversary. A more dynamic view also suggests that a state's growth inevitably slows down and its relative power suffers as other states accelerate their growth. Just as China's recent gain has caused the United States and Japan to experience a relative positional loss, it will also eventually face the same situation as Brazil and India enter into their fast-growth phase.

Significantly, history has recorded many instances of peaceful power transition, such as when the United States overtook Britain, Japan overtook the Soviet Union, and China overtook Germany. Indeed, until the 1880s, the Composite Index of National Capability (Singer 1987; Singer, Bremer, and Stuckey 1968) gave China a higher score than the United States. Because we often select war occurrence as the dependent variable, we do not give enough analytic weight to occasions when the (war) dog did not bark. Moreover, when one pays attention to the multilateral context of great-power relations, one is reminded that a dominant power often faces several challengers. In the late 1800s, the United States, Germany, Russia, and Japan were all gaining on Britain. That London finally ended up fighting Germany and not the others reflected its strategic choice rather than historical inevitability. Regime or cultural similarity alone hardly explains Britain's decision to form alliances with Russia and Japan, to accommodate and appease the United States, and to confront Germany.

Finally, power-cycle theory points to the regular and even natural processes governing the rise and decline of great powers. Smaller upstart states have an easier time making relative gains at the expense of their larger counterparts, who have dominated the world system. It is more difficult for dominant powers to sustain, not to mention accelerate, their rate of growth. The consequent power shifts have the effect of producing a more balanced distribution of power. This effect accords with Waltz's clarification, quoted earlier, that a (p.176) balance of power does not necessarily have to result from balancing policies. It can recur regardless of officials' intentions.

Revisionism and Selective “Balancing”

As Karen A. Rasler and William R. Thompson (2000, 310) remarked, “declining incumbents select, to some extent, which challengers they will fight and with whom they will ally to meet the intensive challenge.” Therefore, structure is not destiny. Although ongoing or prospective power shifts are important in shaping the context of decision making, officials still have the capacity to exercise strategic choice. Declining hegemons often face several rising powers. Which of them should be balanced against, and which ones should be conciliated? Balancing theories speak in part to the motivations influencing these choices. For example, physical distance, regime similarity, and cultural affinity may be among the pertinent factors (Schweller 1992).

It is too simplistic to assign categorical labels such as revisionist or status-quo orientation to explain international relations. In reality, “most states have a mixed bag of preferences: They play defense and offense at the same time, seeking to preserve the status quo in some situations and to upend it in others” (Crawford 2003, 203). Thus, for instance, the United States is interested in preventing nuclear proliferation (a status-quo objective) and, at the same time, promoting democratization and market reform abroad (revisionist goals). Similarly, China has both status-quo and revisionist objectives so that, for example, it is more interested in stabilizing the military and political situation on the Korean peninsula while seeking to effect a change in Taiwan's relations with it.

Some have argued that since the end of the Cold War and especially during the George W. Bush administration, American officials have behaved as “assertive nationalists” (e.g., Daalder and Lindsay 2005; Jervis 2003, 2005; Walt 2005). In Stephen Walt's (2005, 23) words, “the United States is in a position that is historically unprecedented, and … it has used its power to mold a world that would be compatible with U.S. interests and values. The United States has not acted as a ‘status quo’ power: rather, it has used its position of primacy to increase its influence, to enhance its position vis-à-vis potential rivals, and to deal with specific security threats.”

Commenting on a more distant past, John Mearsheimer (2001, 238) observed, “the United States was bent on establishing regional hegemony, and it was an expansionist power of the first order in the Americas.” He quoted Henry Cabot Lodge saying that the United States had “a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequaled by any people in the nineteenth century.” It had expanded its territory fourfold during the first half (p.177) of the nineteenth century and, by the century's end, it had realized its regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. From 1898 to 1913, it gained seven times more colonial territory than imperial Germany (Copeland 1996, 28–29). Whether defined in terms of actual conduct (such as territorial aggrandizement on the North American continent and colonial war in the Philippines) or adherence to existing international norms (such as Washington's unilateral declaration of the Monroe Doctrine), the United States was not a status-quo power in the nineteenth century. It is therefore problematic to claim that it was a “satisfied power,” thus accounting for the peaceful power transition between it and Britain.

Until about the end of the nineteenth century, Anglo-American relations were competitive and even acrimonious. The two countries had fought a war in 1812 and came close to another military confrontation in the Oregon dispute in 1845–1846. In order to stop rising U.S. power, Britain considered intervening on the Confederacy's behalf in the American Civil War (Little 2007b; P. Thompson 2007). Kenneth Bourne (1967, 408) wrote, “the United States remained an enemy of Britain's calculations … until 1895–96. Until after the Venezuelan affair any increase in the territory and strength of the United States was regarded as a direct threat to the British possessions and British power and influence in the western hemisphere.” The British were suspicious of American intentions and wary of American designs on Canada (Owens 1997). The two countries competed for political and commercial influence in the Western Hemisphere and in East Asia. Hindsight bias, knowing that the United States and Britain were allies in World War I, makes Anglo-American relations before that conflict appear much more cordial than was actually the case.

Britain did eventually come to terms with the inexorable expansion of American power. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had conceded to U.S. hegemony of the Western Hemisphere. Britain made a series of unilateral concessions to accommodate the United States (Rock 2000). The boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guyana and that between Alaska and the Canadian Northwest were settled in favor of Washington. Moreover, London was powerless to stop the construction of the Panama Canal, which further boosted U.S. naval power.

Britain yielded in the face of mounting resource constraints, forcing it to make hard choices in coping with challenges from multiple fronts (Friedberg 1988). It appeased the United States in the Western Hemisphere, took on Japan as a junior partner in East Asia, and patched up its differences with France and Russia (W. Thompson 1999; Vasquez 1996). These policies of alignment (p.178) and accommodation were accompanied by the recall of the royal navy to waters closer to the home islands—all with the intent of focusing on the more nearby threat coming from Germany. Geographical proximity inclined London to be more mindful of rising German power, but Berlin's bellicose policies also contributed to British anxieties and fears.

Britain's strategy of coping with its relative decline suggests that balancing policies are hardly a matter of all or nothing. Rather, they involve compromises with and even appeasement of some rising powers in order to better concentrate the available resources on others. It contrasts with Spain's policy under Philip IV of responding with bellicosity to all perceived challengers in the hope of establishing a reputation for resolve. Madrid hoped that this reputation would in turn deter future challenges. This policy, however, exhausted the Habsburgs in a long series of wars in the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, with the setbacks and weakness caused by each successive conflict encouraging rather than discouraging further challenges to Spanish primacy. Spain's policy was self-defeating and accelerated its decline. As Daniel Treisman (2004) argued, selective appeasement is probably a rational strategy when the stakes of a contest are either very high or low, or when the costs of fighting are very high. When one of these conditions exists, even a highly resolved hegemon should rationally appease a challenger in order to conserve its resources to more effectively deter other challengers in the future. This being the optimal strategy for a strong incumbent, a weaker one will not be able to improve its reputation for resolve by adopting a different strategy.

Britain pursued a strategy of selective and anticipatory appeasement in the years leading up to World War I (Kennedy 1981). If scholars focused their attention just on Britain's bilateral relations with the United States, France, Russia, and Japan, they would see a series of concessions and efforts attempting to reach accommodation and conciliation. The strategic rationale behind these moves of appeasement becomes more understandable, however, when they are given a multilateral context in which London faced severe resource constraints to take on all rising powers. It chose to focus on Germany. With that said, British policies aimed at balancing against Germany's rising power also exacerbated anxieties and fears in Berlin, thereby creating an echo chamber of rising Anglo-German antagonism (Kennedy 1982; Kydd 1997a). Armament (such as the Anglo-German naval race) and alignment (such as Britain's rapprochement with France and Russia) heightened rather than eased tensions, contributing to self-fulfilling predictions of another country's hostility. With mutual suspicion and hostility feeding upon each other, a spiral of conflict ensued until war broke out (Jervis 1976).

(p.179) In the mid 1930s, London and Paris did not readily and fully pursue balancing policies against a resurgent Germany in part because of their domestic politics and in part because, as mentioned above, Germany's intentions had not yet clarified. Moreover, as Walt (1992, 464) pointed out, they were distracted by their desire to maintain their respective overseas empires: “Britain and France had difficulty balancing Hitler precisely because they were overcommitted in other regions!” Thus, an inability to set clear priorities contributed to a diversion of their resources and attention. Given their resource constraints and attention limitations, states do not have the luxury of being everywhere at the same time. The contemporary relevance of these remarks for the United States should be obvious, as Washington is currently fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as military attacks against Libya), engaging in coercive diplomacy against Iran and North Korea, waging a global campaign against terrorism, and facing high unemployment and serious budget deficits in its domestic economy.

My discussion also underscores the need to attend to multiple rising powers and the inherent uncertainty in judging which ones are likely to become more menacing (Edelstein 2002). There is the danger of both false negatives (the error of mistaking an expansionist power as a peaceful one) and false positives (treating a peaceful power as an expansionist one, thereby turning it into an enemy). This difficulty suggests the importance of reassurance policies that states can adopt to signal their “type”—that is, communication by peaceful states to distinguish themselves from expansionist ones.

Power, Trust, and Costly Signals

Effective communication of one's policy intentions and preferences is at the core of recent rationalist theories explaining why wars start and end (e.g., Fearon 1995, 1998a, 2004; Fortna 2004; Gartzke 1999; Powell 1996, 1999; Wagner 2000; Walter 2002; Werner 1999; Werner and Yuen 2005). Reassurance policies seek to establish one's trustworthiness in others' eyes.

They should have a goldilocks quality (Kydd 2005). If they are too weak, they are not credible because less trustworthy (or more aggressive or expansionist) states would also be willing to undertake them in an effort to disguise their true character. Conversely, if reassurance signals are too strong, states risk being exploited, because uncooperative counterparts will not reciprocate their conciliatory gestures. Their counterparts may even misinterpret these gestures as concessions made out of weakness rather than niceness. Experimental research has shown that when people learn that their counterpart is either unable or unwilling to retaliate, they are likely to exploit this perceived weakness and escalate their demands (Reychler 1979; Shure, Meeker, and Hansford 1965).

(p.180) In the mid 1950s, Joseph Stalin recalled Soviet occupation forces from Austria and demobilized about one million of his armed forces. Were these moves intended by him as signals to reassure the West and to invite reciprocity? One can only guess. John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, saw these moves as stemming from Moscow's economic difficulties rather than its changed political agenda. He interpreted them to suggest Soviet weakness rather than niceness, and responded by strengthening the Western alliance against Moscow (Holsti 1962).

One may argue that Stalin's actions in this case were not sufficiently costly to Moscow and therefore inadequate in changing Dulles's beliefs about Soviet intentions. It is more difficult to dismiss Mikhail Gorbachev's decisions (e.g., Checkel 1993; Kydd 2005; Risse-Kappen 1991, 1994; Wohlforth 2003). He conceded to U.S. demands in concluding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988, and disavowed any intention to intervene militarily when fellow communist regimes in East and Central Europe were toppled in 1988 and 1989. He dismantled communism and introduced multiparty elections in Russia, and dissolved the Soviet Union by allowing the secession and independence of the non-Russian republics. Moreover, he consented to Germany's reunification and accepted the NATO membership of a reunified Germany—in other words, he did not seek to balance against a stronger Germany, one that became part of the Western alliance. Massive military retrenchment and fundamental economic liberalization ensued. His policies and those of his successor, Boris Yeltsin, were thus anomalous for balance-of-power expectations. Richard Ned Lebow (1994, 268) remarked, “Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev is outside the realist paradigm.”

From Moscow's perspective, subsequent U.S. actions must have appeared quite disturbing. The United States extended NATO to include Russia's former allies, and even started to collaborate with Poland and the Czech Republic to build a missile defense system aimed ostensibly at Iran. It abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and initiated National Missile Defense. Moreover, it introduced military personnel and bases on Russia's borders, including parts of Central Asia that used to belong to the Soviet Union. It attacked Russia's erstwhile allies, Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In one way or another, these events arguably challenge the tacit understanding that Moscow had for ending the Cold War. Each of them could be perhaps explained in isolation by factors peculiar to it, but collectively they present a general pattern that must be highly disconcerting to Moscow. From the perspective of balance-of-power and balance-of-threat (p.181) theories, these U.S. actions are incongruous. Whether Russia was seen as becoming weaker or nicer, these theories would have led one to expect more conciliatory or accommodating U.S. policies.

Russia's relative decline occurred at about the same time that China started to make relative gains. These two cases offer a nearly ideal comparison for balance-of-power theories. One former nemesis of the United States was becoming weaker (setting aside intentionality), and the other was becoming stronger. How did Washington respond to these divergent situations? It appears that it behaved in a manner exactly contrary to balance-of-power theories. Whereas U.S. policies toward Russia had become more aggressive, its policies toward China had become more conciliatory.

Washington has worked more closely with Beijing in dealing with the two possible hot spots in East Asia—the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula. American leaders, including President George W. Bush, strongly rebuked former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for his pro-independence schemes. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell even declared, “There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation” (quoted in Chu 2007, 247). On December 21, 2007, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly castigated Chen's introduction of a referendum initiative to apply for United Nations membership (as “Taiwan” rather than “Republic of China”), describing it as a “provocative policy.” On the matter of North Korea's nuclear program, Washington has collaborated with Beijing in the Six-Party Talks held in China.

Significantly, closer cooperation between China and the United States cannot be easily attributed to Beijing adopting more conciliatory or accommodating policies compared to Russia. After all, Sino-American relations experienced repeated tensions such as China's Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, its missile tests in Taiwan's vicinity in 1995, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and the collision between a U.S. EP-3E surveillance aircraft and a Chinese interceptor fighter near Hainan Island in 2001. These events suggest China's and Russia's changing relative strength rather than their respective policies as a more important determinant of U.S. policies. Contrary to balance-of-power theories, however, U.S. policies appear to have pushed harder against a weaker Russia than a stronger China.

According to this interpretation, reassurances made in the context of deteriorating power do not have the desired effect in changing the other side's policies regardless of the latter's changing perceptions of the reassuring state's intentions. My earlier claim that a state can affect others' policies toward it needs to be qualified; it applies more appropriately to reassurances coming (p.182) from a rising state, one that chooses to communicate self-restraint in the exercise of its power even though it has gained a greater capacity to act on its interests. This contextual consideration, as I will argue in the next chapter, is important in influencing the effectiveness of interstate signals.

Reciprocated cooperation is the aim of reassurance policies. The above discussion questioned whether the United States has felt that it does not have to make major concessions to the Soviet Union/Russia given its overwhelming strength. American behavior is more suggestive of responding to Russia's capabilities rather than its intentions but in a way that is contrary to both balance-of-power and balance-of-threat theories. The end of the Cold War and subsequent developments appear to raise a double challenge to these theories: Moscow decided not to balance against Washington's stronger power, and Washington did not respond to Moscow's reduced threat and diminished capabilities by lowering its armament significantly and initiating de-alignment (or disengagement from Europe and Asia in order to assume the role of an offshore balancer, as expected by some realists such as John Mearsheimer).

China and other states pay attention to what the United States does. They draw conclusions from U.S. behavior toward not just Russia but also smaller states, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea. One way for states to demonstrate that they are interested in seeking security rather than maximizing power is a general disposition to tolerate dissidence from and accept the autonomy of their weaker neighbors, ones that clearly cannot threaten their security (Kydd 1997b). Military intervention and covert subversion against these states are likely to be taken as evidence of a revisionist rather than status-quo agenda.

Another way to signal an intention to seek security rather than maximize power is to promote and accept agreements on arms control, forsake opportunities to increase one's strategic advantage, and adopt a pattern of military deployment indicating a basic defensive posture. Still another way to communicate benign intention is to bind oneself to multilateral institutions and refrain from encroaching on another great power's traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, the manner in which a country (or government) treats its domestic dissidents, minorities and, by extension, others who are in comparable situations, and the ideology it espouses in justifying its foreign policy offer clues about whether it seeks to improve its security or expand its power. Finally, it has been argued that to the extent offensive and defensive military capabilities are distinguishable, a state's investment in its force structure and weapons development can be informative about its type as a security seeker or power (p.183) maximizer (Glaser 1994/95; Jervis 1978; Levy 1984; Montgomery 2006; Van Evera 1998).

In all these respects, U.S. conduct since the Soviet Union's demise has been disconcerting to other states precisely because the Soviet Union/Russia, its Cold War adversary, had invested in costly concessions. The pertinent conduct is not limited to policies toward Russia, but includes other manifestations, such as the Bush doctrine of waging preventive war, the treatment of enemy combatants, and the rejection of international accords or institutions such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court. Land mines may be construed as defensive instruments, but “star war” initiatives, missile defense systems, and aircraft carriers and long-range stealth bombers are more likely to lend themselves to offensive power projection (that an aircraft carrier projects a state's offensive power is no less true for China if it decides to deploy one; Ross 2009a, 78).

Washington's efforts to upgrade warheads designed for ground bursts (with the obvious purpose of destroying hardened silos housing enemy missiles), to improve further the accuracy of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and to engage in aggressive tracking of Russian submarines would make little sense except for enhancing a capability to launch a disarming first strike (Lieber and Press 2006). These steps were undertaken even after it has attained unquestioned nuclear primacy to such an extent that these authors concluded “Russian (and Chinese) leaders can no longer count on having a survivable nuclear deterrent” (ibid., 9). They are significant because they offer meaningful clues to other states about whether Washington is motivated to seek security or maximize power. Actions that have the intent or effect of improving one's ability to nullify the other side's nuclear retaliation exacerbate the commitment problem discussed in the last and again the next chapter. They do so by obviously increasing the value of defection. Similarly, self-restraint—choosing not to act in certain ways even when one clearly has the capacity to do so (such as Japan and South Korea eschewing nuclear weapons and going “independent” militarily)—can also be highly revealing about one's policy agenda as a security seeker or power maximizer.

More recently, the Obama administration has announced a willingness to abandon a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic but continued to pursue a less costly system announced at a meeting with its NATO partners in Lisbon on November 19, 2010. It has previously declined to reconsider its rejection of an international ban on antipersonnel mines. After the 2010 midyear election, some Republican Senators tried to hold up (p.184) the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiated with Moscow. Although this effort failed, the ratification process (entailing strong administration lobbying and presidential promise to continue the missile defense program) and the accompanying debate aroused concerns about U.S. credibility (including the president's ability to “deliver” deals reached with other countries and to commit to arms reduction). Washington's actions or inaction in such cases are not as important in further affecting power balances that already favor the United States heavily as they communicate its current preferences and future intentions. They undermine U.S. credibility in advocating nuclear nonproliferation for other states, and discourage costly concessions by them. For those that are predisposed to question U.S. motives, such as Iran and North Korea, these signals tend to reinforce their suspicions.

Further Discussion

In essence, the logic behind the dominant balance-of-power perspective is “better safe than sorry.” It shares the basic premise of offensive realism that all states are aggressive or potentially so (Mearsheimer 2001). Because other states' intentions are assumed to be invariant, one must take steps to balance against their power. Defensive realism, in contrast, accepts that some states are not aggressive but are only interested in seeking security rather than expanding their power. The problem, however, is that states are unable to tell confidently which ones among them are security seekers and which ones are power seekers. This inability to distinguish the two types causes even the security seekers to act as power seekers lest they be exploited by the latter type. A tragic security dilemma stems from this difficulty of making an accurate recognition, and mutual suspicion (the desire not to be exploited as the “sucker”) produces a suboptimal outcome for some states that would have otherwise liked to cooperate (Jervis 1978).

When balance-of-power theorists undertake intention-free analysis, they are accepting the offensive realists' premise that in effect assumes all states' intentions are the same (i.e., as a constant) rather than trying to analyze them as a variable. This position, however, makes an assumption into a conclusion. As Andrew Kydd (1997a, 1997b, 2000, 2005) has shown, some states are clearly more interested in security than power; moreover, security seekers can engage in effective signaling to disclose their type to other states. That is, with respect to defensive realism, there are things states can do—or choose not to do—to reduce their uncertainties about each other's intentions. To the extent that they are reassured that another state has peaceful intentions—even if it (p.185) has more power and is getting stronger—they will not balance against it. This is after all the most important conclusion from Stephen Walt's (1987, 1988) balance-of-threat theory, explaining why almost all major states and many minor ones allied with the United States against a weaker but more threatening Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Accordingly, balancing policies in the form of arms races and competitive alliances are not the inevitable results of power shifts if states can communicate effectively their benign intentions. Reassurance policies are costly signals sent with the aim of establishing trust. These signals are intended to influence other states' perceptions and shape their behavior. If the recipients of these signals are the security-seeking type, they are likely to respond by reciprocating one's concessions, and their reciprocity will in turn bring about more subsequent rounds of accommodation, conciliation, and cooperation. This is the basic rationale behind Charles Osgood's (1962) famous GRIT proposal (Gradual and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension-Reduction). Conversely, a power-seeking type would be more reluctant to reciprocate because it is wary of giving up its advantages or potential gains even if it becomes persuaded that its counterpart is only interested in security. If it senses that the other side's concessions are a result of weakness, it is likely to respond by “piling on” even though these concessions have already improved its security.

Whether another state is trustworthy or untrustworthy, and whether it is a security seeker or power seeker, is never a categorical decision to be made once and for all, but is rather an evolving assessment requiring constant feedback and adjustment. In addition to current information, historical experience matters. David Kang's (2007b) analysis of China's historical ties with its neighbors is pertinent. It shows that although China had insisted on formal political subordination from its neighbors, it had generally refrained from undermining the authority or autonomy of its nominal vassal states. Moreover, Beijing's influence had been historically based more on its cultural hegemony than direct economic or political control. This tendency had contributed to East Asia's experience with long-standing Chinese hegemony rather than balance-of-power dynamics.

This observation does not imply that in today's world, China's neighbors would consent to, much less welcome, a return to their traditional relations with China, only that their historical experience with China would have an influence on their perceptions of and approaches to managing a rising China. The point about history making a difference is also pertinent to the absence of balancing behavior opposing current U.S. primacy. As I will discuss in Chapter 7, Washington's earlier institution-building efforts to foster (p.186) quasi-constitutional arrangements involving mostly its West European allies have produced a reservoir of trust and a sense of legitimacy accorded to its use of power.

Besides current behavior and historical relations, a state's policy processes can be informative about its intentions. The critical variable is the transparency of these processes. When these processes are transparent, others are more able to discern a state's intentions because information is more available and reliable. Authoritarian regimes with obscure policy processes are more likely to be distrusted, not necessarily because they are inherently more aggressive, but rather because there is simply less information to base judgments on. This reasoning, as Kydd (1997a) pointed out, is distinct from the proposition that democracies are better able to make credible commitment due to their higher audience costs, a proposition that has in turn been used to suggest that democracies should be more successful in resolving interstate conflicts in their favor. Rather, the current argument claims that due to their openness, democracies provide more information for other states to judge their intentions—and to the extent that this openness enables them to disclose more persuasively that they are seeking security rather than power, they are more likely to reassure others. “If a democracy is really a security seeker, the openness of its policy processes will reveal this to the world” (Kydd 1997a, 119). There is, however, a corollary to this proposition. “Of course, if the democracy is greedy, this will be revealed as well, producing justified distrust on the part of other states and a lack of cooperation” (ibid., 129). Thus, although democratic transparency contributes to reducing uncertainty, it has a double-edged quality, disclosing whether a state offering this transparency is being motivated by a security or power agenda.

Andrew Kydd (1997a) illustrated his argument about democratic transparency with a discussion of the political debates in Germany and Japan about whether to contribute to U.N. peacekeeping forces in the wake of the first Gulf War. The domestic controversies surrounding their eventual decisions to join these missions in Iraq, and the intense opposition mobilized against these decisions and the stringent restrictions placed on them, demonstrated to outside observers that these former World War II belligerent states were not about to revive militarism. As in the case of U.S. ratification of START, the processes that produce policy decisions—and not just these decisions themselves—can be highly informative.

The circumstances surrounding the U.S. initiation of the second Gulf War in 2003, however, offers a compelling contrast. There was little legislative oversight or public scrutiny preceding the Bush administration's rush to war. As (p.187) aptly characterized by Chaim Kaufman (2004, 2005), the lead-up to this war was infused with “threat inflation” and “a failure of the marketplace of ideas.” Neither institutional checks and balances, nor a skeptical public, prevented the launching of this war of choice (Mearsheimer and Walt 2003) without the legitimating authority of the United Nations and over the objections of important U.S. allies such as Germany and France. This war has aroused particular skepticism about U.S. motives after claims about Saddam Hussein's links with A1 Qaeda and his development of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be untrue. Ex post information revealed by democracies' openness in this and other cases of actual or possible preventive war shed light on whether their decisions were motivated primarily by security or power considerations (Levy 2008b; Levy and Gochal 2001; Ripsman and Levy 2008; Trachtenberg 2007).

The preceding discussion has dwelled much more on the United States than China for the simple reason that China's power and policies are not unrelated to U.S. power and policies—and to other states' reactions to their respective power and policies. To the extent that many studies on China's rise focus only on China's power and policies without taking into account those of the United States, as well as other states' evaluations and perceptions of both, they have serious shortcomings. The United States is, for all countries in the world, including China, the “elephant in the room.” Accounting for almost half of the world's military expenditures, it has on objective grounds far less to worry about its security than all others—if security, as typically presented in realist discourse, is taken to mean a state's survival if it should be defeated in war. No other major state enjoys nearly as favorable a geographic position, being flanked by two oceans and sharing land borders with just two much weaker and friendly neighbors. Far more than any state in the world, the United States is safer from the catastrophic contingency of having its survival endangered but has pursued policies seeking to increase further its safety margin.

At what point will this demand for extra safety, or security, be satisfied, and can this quest become so expansive that it is tantamount to power maximization? This effort can be expensive in both tangible resources and intangible goodwill (including trust). It compounds a tendency remarked upon by Colin Elman (2003, 16): “It is possible that, when states are approaching capabilities of hegemonic proportions, those resources alone are so threatening that they ‘drown out’ distance, offense–defense, and intentions as potential negative threat modifiers.”

This logic also holds an important implication for China's policy toward Taiwan. When the United States had troops and weapons on Taiwan, Beijing could legitimately claim a security concern—no less than Washington's (p.188) assertions about the threat posed by Soviet military presence in Cuba. A belligerent Chinese posture would be more understandable and may even ironically appear to be more reassuring in this context because such a posture would be in line with what one would expect from a security seeker. However, as Beijing's power grows (and its security position improves) and as Taiwan no longer poses the threat that it did when it was formally allied with the United States and served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” Beijing's bellicosity can now be more suggestive of a power-seeking motive.

It is possible, as some scholars (e.g., Kang 2007b) have argued, that other East Asian states do not necessarily see China's treatment of the Taiwan issue in the same light as other issues—that is, they do not necessarily think this treatment can be generalized to China's other foreign policies. Assuming this to be the case, China's self-restraint should enable it to send an even more powerful signal about its benign intentions (because in this case, Beijing should have less to worry about the adverse fallout resulting from its taking a more bellicose course of action). Conversely, if China's treatment of Taiwan can affect other states' perceptions of its general disposition, it should be more concerned about how it proceeds because the stakes involve not only its relations with Taiwan and the United States, but also its long-term relations with its other neighbors. Whether the reunification of Taiwan is motivated more by concerns about national sovereignty and popular legitimacy than geostrategic calculations (Wachman 2007) is therefore pertinent to inference about Beijing's general intentions.

Parenthetically, this discussion is also pertinent to U.S. policies toward Cuba—which shares a comparable geostrategic position relative to the United States as Taiwan's to China. One may debate about whether Cuba's alliance with the Soviet Union had once posed a security threat to the United States, but this threat has clearly vanished since the Cold War's end. Washington's continued economic and political boycott of the island, however, suggests other motives are at work, including possibly the influence of domestic political partisanship. Even setting aside the more contentious and therefore intractable issues of nationalism and contested sovereignty impinging on relations across the Taiwan Strait, one cannot but notice that there has been far greater progress in relaxing tension, opening political dialogue, and fostering economic intercourse in this case than in U.S.-Cuban relations. These differences in relating to a smaller nonthreatening neighbor are observable by other states, which draw inferences about the powerful state's motivations. Stasis—in this case, the absence of major change in U.S. policies toward Cuba despite other (p.189) transformative events such as the Soviet Union's collapse and Barack Obama's election—can be highly instructive.

Balance-of-power theorists (in contrast to balancing theorists) make worst-case assumptions about states' motivations and therefore do not incorporate this variable in their explanation. Trust and the challenges standing in the way of establishing it, however, are not independent of power balances. The greater a country's relative power—and concomitantly, the less its costs for fighting and the greater the potential gains from fighting—the higher the threshold it requires for trusting another country (Kydd 2005). That is, it is more difficult for others to establish their trustworthiness in its eyes or alternatively, the more concessions it will demand from others in order for them to establish their trustworthiness in its eyes.

Given its higher threshold for trusting others, a more powerful country is also more prone to defect—to pursue noncooperative, even aggressive, policies, even while others offer concessions and restraint. This tendency accounts in part for Washington's policies in the wake of the Soviet Union's disintegration, brought up earlier in this chapter. As another implication of this proposition, being less powerful than the United States, other major states such as France, Germany, and Russia are more willing to accept a higher level of uncertainty about Iraq's, Iran's, and North Korea's weapons intentions and less inclined to support a preventive war against these countries.

Thus, paradoxically, a country usually becomes less trusting even while it becomes stronger. “Greater power and lower costs for fighting raise the minimum trust threshold, so that even small doubts that another country is untrustworthy may be enough to tip the United States over the edge into conflict. When a country is extremely good at fighting, the incentive to trust the other side to keep their word diminishes, and the incentive to take matters into one's own hands grows” (Kydd 2005, 249). But when a state successfully resists these impulses by actually investing in mutual trust, its behavior becomes an especially powerful and credible commitment to cooperation. I will return to this point in the next chapter in discussing post-1945 U.S. efforts to institutionalize cooperation among the Western powers.

Some realists expect a more imbalanced situation after the Soviet Union's demise to cause other states to balance against the United States, whether by hard or soft means, and regardless of actual U.S. conduct. The above line of argument, however, contends that other states are likely to distrust the United States more because of its conduct than its power. Since China has also been gaining power, similar expectations should apply to it. Has increased power (p.190) made Beijing more distrusting? Has this increased power made others also to distrust it more? The evidence presented in Chapter 3 shows that China's neighbors have thus far undertaken little overt arming or alignment against it.

It is relatively easy to discern power shifts measured in tangible national assets such as foreign reserves, economic production, and weapons procurement. For China's neighbors, the more elusive question is the extent to which China can be trusted—relative to other major states, such as the United States and Japan. Public opinion surveys indicate that in many countries around the world, including those in the Asia Pacific, such as South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and even Australia, trust in or affection for China are not necessarily lower than those for the United States (e.g., Bobrow 2008b; S. Chan 2010a; Katzenstein and Keohane 2007; Kohut and Stokes 2006). Seen in this light, these countries' general rapprochement and conciliation with China do not have to reflect their accommodation to rising Chinese power—their behavior may instead indicate at least in part their becoming more reassured by China's peaceful disposition, that is, by their assessment of how Beijing may use its increased power rather than its acquisition of this increased power.