Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
AIMLESS and contradictory as appear the happenings in the history of each nation, one nevertheless is able to discern, when one surveys them as a whole and in their proper sequence, that they are not disobedient to certain laws. Revolutions do not work any definite change; the institutions which a people set up are only the expression of its ideas at a certain moment, and they do not modify its position with regard to other nations. The relations of a government with foreign governments may be affected, but not the necessities imposed upon it by its geographical position, its history, its need to live. That is what we call its traditions. At the present moment, we have a striking example of this fact. The policy of the Soviet Government in the Far East may differ in method from that which the Tsarist Government followed; but it does not differ from it in spirit or in objective.
The geographical position of a nation, indeed, is the principal factor conditioning its foreign policy -- the principal reason why it must have a foreign policy at all.
This is a truism of which the whole history of England is a demonstration. English history is determined and limited by the fact that Great Britain is an island. She is a European Power, but as she is separated from the Continent by the sea she has not experienced the constant tribulations of the Continental states. Twice, in the times of Philip II and of Napoleon I, she has feared attacks on her own territory; but the history of those events showed how impossible it was for her adversaries to penetrate her natural defenses. Hence her disdain for the military establishments of the Continent, and her inbred dislike of the system of conscription. Oftentimes she has mixed in European quarrels, but only to play the role of an umpire who is unwilling for the victor to be too victorious. And when the time came to make peace it has not been hard to sense that she did not consider her own security as being in the least at stake. Elizabeth and Cromwell, Pitt and Palmerston, had the same views, which one may characterize as "insular" in the real sense of the word. On the other hand, the naval policy of England has had quite a different character, because it was essential that she should never encounter any superior sea power. All the other nations have had to struggle against her for the freedom of the seas. Her maritime imperialism grew out of her need of assuring her security and her sources of supply.
And cannot what I have said of England also be said of the United States of America? Separated from the Old Worlds by two oceans, her only neighbors too weak to dare to contradict her, free from any fears regarding security, possessing in her immense territory all the riches of the earth, all the forces and products of industry, she has almost limitless liberty of action. That is why expressions of the noble idealism which is the real honor of the American spirit sometimes sound strange in the ears of the European nations, brought up as they have been in other circumstances and preoccupied with hopes and fears in which the United States has no share. The geographical isolation of the American people has given it its force, has allowed it to become great and powerful. The Monroe Doctrine is nothing but the expression of its determination to let nothing impair that isolation. This celebrated doctrine has been the cornerstone of the American Government's policy for a century, and today it explains why the United States has not wished to participate in the League of Nations.
France, like England, has sought through the centuries to realize her destiny; but, like England, which by reason of her special situation has put her trust in a preponderant naval power, France, whose frontiers to the north and to the east were open to invasion, has put her trust in military power. And so these two Powers, whose behavior at first glance seems to have been so different, in reality obey the same instinct: both look for security, each in the manner dictated by its geographical position.
It is true that sometimes accidental happenings have misled or bewildered foreign opinion as to the real objectives of England and France. But we do not understand history if we do not give the right value to accidents, as well as to the personal schemes of those who play great historical roles at particular moments. I should like to cite two examples from the history of France.
France is often accused of imperialism because throughout her history she has wished to make the Rhine her frontier. The origin of this tendency, which goes far back, must be made clear. Caesar in his "Commentaries," Tacitus in his "Customs of the Germans," Strabo himself, fixed the Rhine as the boundary of Gaul; the jurists who played so important a part in the policy of the ancient kings and who loved to rely on old texts to justify their territorial claims, never failed to cite these hoary traditions, which gradually became part of the national soul. When, during the wars of the French Revolution, the armies of the Republic entered into the Rhenish provinces, they certainly believed that they were taking possession again of what had always belonged to them. And our long occupation of those lands left a deep imprint on the Rhenish people themselves. The Foreign Minister of the German Empire, Kiderlen-Waechter, one day admitted to me that up to 1866 France would have been able to reëstablish the Rhine frontier without encountering any opposition from the local population. It was the foundation of the new Germany, he said, which had changed this state of mind.
Napoleon and his prodigious conquests intoxicated France. In spite of that, and glorious as his achievement was, it is not paradoxical to say that this epoch in our history was an "accident." At St. Helena he avowed that he had wanted to set up a great Germany and a great Italy, to join in a single mass all the peoples of the same race. He foresaw the future. But the very grandiosity of his views proved how foreign his genius was to the traditional policy of France, who always regarded herself as the guardian of weak princes. Napoleon's imperial spirit, founded on the memories of the grandeur that was Rome, was not hampered by a consideration of French interests per se. His gaze went beyond our frontiers. But the tradition of our policy was something altogether different; it cared only for France; it was essentially conservative, circumspect, deliberate. That is what Rivarol indicated very well when in 1783, in his celebrated essay on the universality of the French language, he wrote: "France acts against her best interests and misunderstands her rôle when she lends herself to the spirit of conquest." And Vergennes, the great Minister of Louis XVI, said in 1777, in his report to the King: "France must fear expansion much more than desire it." These principles were merely the practical application of the ideas of Montesquieu, who in his "Spirit of Laws" invited sovereigns always to have a wary eye open to the inconveniences, not to say the dangers, of grandeur.
In the eighteenth century, then, the policy of France, as defined by her philosophers and her statesmen, was far from being imperialistic. It based itself rather upon the idea of the balance of power. It seemed as though the peace of Europe and the security of each of its component parts would necessarily result from an equilibrium. Here is the explanation of the sudden transformation of French policy in the eighteenth century, sometimes called the overthrow of the alliances. France had supported Prussia in her early stages and had aided her to become strong. When Frederick II openly menaced the established order in Germany, the government at Versailles ranged itself on the side of Austria and Maria Theresa. French opinion received this abandonment of the Prussian alliance with every sign of mistrust; but it undoubtedly was in conformity with the policy of the balance of power followed by M. de Choiseul.
For the rest, we must admit that at the start this policy of equilibrium was of a purely empirical character and grew out of events. Later on, naturally enough, theorists were found to give it its name and to make of it the fundamental law on which rested peace between the European Powers.
Today, after the war of 1914, people jeer at the guarantee of peace afforded by the old system of the balance of power. It is described as an illusion. That is going too far, but we must recognize that democracy does not rest content with quantitative analyses of opposing forces, carried on quietly in diplomatic offices. It demands new methods which will permit weak nations, like the strong, to play a role in the settlement of matters of general concern. This is a step forward; the League of Nations is constantly taking on more importance and authority, and assuredly is destined to develop further still. But all that does not make it any less prudent always to maintain a certain balance between the Powers. What is happening today in the case of naval disarmament is evidence of what I say. The United States and Great Britain seek to adjust their naval armaments, but the condition which they set to any action is that it shall not impair naval parity between them. To each the idea that it might wake up one day to find itself in the presence of a superior naval force is intolerable.
It is useful, then, to search the past and learn why and how the system of the balance of power came into being, and to follow through successive centuries the application which has been made of it. Perhaps I shall be pardoned an historical digression. It will allow us -- in spite of momentary accidents which now and then break the sequence -- to recognize the unity of purpose which has characterized French policy in dealing with the difficulties which have always faced it. So we shall be led to understand what are its permanent characteristics.
We must go back to the end of the Middle Ages to find the origins of French foreign policy in modern times. The Hundred Years' War between France and England, which marked the end of this formative period, at first had the characteristics of a feudal war, but even in the midst of their miseries the French people developed a common consciousness. Jeanne d'Arc personified the dawn of national feeling, and that is why she appears to us the greatest figure in our history. It was not long afterwards, at the time of the Renaissance, that the French people, having at last constituted themselves into a nation, found that they were encircled on all sides -- south, east and north -- by a single sovereign power. The House of Austria ruled Germany, the Low Countries, Spain. The Emperor Charles V was the most powerful potentate that the world had known since Charlemagne, and the common saying was that the sun never set on his dominions. He had genius, ambition and prodigious activity, and immense forces were under his control. Inevitably he wished to stifle the independence of France, which, placed in the center of his possessions, prevented him from unifying them. Nature itself had made Francis I, who reigned at Paris, his rival and his enemy. Poets and writers of romance have been pleased to paint Francis I merely as a lover of the arts and of pleasure. They have not seen in him the politician that he was. He was unlucky in war, but he was the initiator of a policy which his successors had to follow, a policy which triumphed in the eighteenth century and which since then has been followed through many changing circumstances -- I dare to say it -- down to the present day. It should be noted that from the very beginning this policy, which was to unite all the French, was disturbed and endangered by the passions which divided Frenchmen amongst themselves. Religious wars rent the country for nearly a century and brought the Spaniards to Paris itself. Two tendencies have always existed in France and have thrown her statesmen into two camps. Those who in the sixteenth century had a liberal and aristocratic spirit and tended toward reform were partisans of union with England. Admiral Coligny, who represented this party, maintained relations with Queen Elizabeth. On the contrary, those who belonged to the Catholic party, the Guises and the chiefs of the League, wished to rely on Spain and Germany. Between the two, the King and his policies manœuvred as best they could. It sometimes seems as though even in our day these two tendencies still exist and continue to set Frenchmen against each other.
Be that as it may, the nature of things led the Monarchy to seek allies against the might of the German Emperor. In this way she became the supporter of the weak German princes who were trying to escape the talons of the imperial eagle, and who for the most part became partisans of the Reformation. Hence the role of France in the Thirty Years' War. And hence the policy of France always to be the ally of the little Powers of Europe. It was this same search for an equilibrium which led Francis I to court the friendship of the Grand Turk (to the great scandal of Christendom), which had for its consequence the opening up of the East to Christian traders of all nationalities.
Our great Henry IV was one of the first to inaugurate the policy of coöperating with the weak and of showing moderation in spite of strength. His favorite minister, Sully, defined it when he wrote in one of his reports: "The Kings of France should aim to acquire friends, allies and confederates, bound by the sure ties of commerce and common interests, rather than to nourish ambitious projects and thus draw irreconcilable hatreds down upon their heads."
Princes of the Church though they were, both Richelieu and Mazarin backed the Protestant princes of Germany against the Emperor. Mazarin even went so far as to form an alliance with Cromwell. The steady pursuit of this policy resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia which, through the Rhine League, secured the independence of the Protestant princes and gave Germany a constitution that lasted two centuries. This policy of alliances and compromises constituted what has been known as the classic system of French diplomacy. It corresponded to the national temperament, which mistrusts imagination in matters of state. The men responsible for this policy were not theorists who stuck to their preconceptions regardless of hard facts; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his disciples had not yet been born; and as our eminent historian, Albert Sorel, observes, "these great men had method without having any spirit of system."
Europe relied upon the balance of power, but when Louis XIV, abandoning the policy of moderation which France had followed until his time, appeared on the point of shattering it, he found aligned against him a coalition which included even our old allies. He has been reproached by many historians for accepting the inheritance of Charles II and thus entering upon the disastrous war of the Spanish Succession. However, he had serious reasons for acting as he did. If his grandson, the Duke of Anjou, had not ascended the throne of Spain, it would have passed into the hands of an Austrian Archduke, and once again France would have been faced with a united Spain and Austria, a combination which she had fought against for centuries. The war ended in a compromise. France no longer threatened Europe. By renouncing for himself and his descendants the right to reign in Paris, a Bourbon was permitted to reign in Madrid.
In my opinion, the worst result of Louis XIV's abandonment of our traditional policy was the distrust which it aroused towards us abroad. Perhaps we even suffer from it today.
Throughout the eighteenth century the policy of every European government was one of intrigue and ambition: the period is well represented by the skeptical and realistic Frederick II, who knew how to exploit the jealousies of the various courts. In France, statecraft completely lacked continuity. Louis XV, intelligent and weak, was typical of his epoch. He followed a policy separate and distinct from that of his ministers -- what was called "le secret du Roi" -- with results easy to imagine. By the time the Seven Years' War was over, France had lost all influence and authority. This became obvious when Prussia, Austria and Russia started to dismember Poland, and France found herself in no position to oppose them. The eclipse of French prestige was a tragedy for the little nations.
France learned her lesson. Vergennes, to whom Louis XVI intrusted the portfolio of foreign affairs, was imbued with the traditional ideals of the old régime, the ideals in particular of Henry IV and of Richelieu. His policy was one of moderation, of collaboration with the lesser Powers and support of the weak. Public opinion, piqued by the decline of national prestige under his predecessors, backed him up when he offered French military, financial and moral support to the United States, who wished to become an independent nation. In this he was but repeating the assistance given by France early in the seventeenth century to Portugal and the Low Countries.
Meanwhile the German Emperor, Joseph II, an ambitious and restless sovereign, wished to follow in the footsteps of Frederick II. Thinking to profit by his sister Marie Antoinette's influence at Versailles, he dreamed great dreams; he dreamed of annexing Bavaria to Austria, of creating a kingdom for the Elector of Bavaria in the Netherlands, and of buying French complicity by ceding part of Belgium to her. He even went so far as to offer us Luxemburg. Vergennes spurned these proposals; in fact he urged the German princes (who were of course much disturbed) to unite against the Emperor, and in a memorandum on this subject prepared for the King he wrote: "If one stops to consider the crying injustice which would be entailed by the acceptance of the idea of partitioning the Netherlands, no honest man can contemplate it seriously." And the Ambassador, Baron de Breteuil, said: "The King should look upon himself as guardian of the lesser princes. This policy has for centuries constituted the glory and security of the Crown." These statesmen, in other words, based the country's security upon the principle of respecting the rights of others and they did not separate the peace of France from that of Europe.
Such were the ideas, also, of two men destined one day to play an important role at the start of the Revolution, Mirabeau and Talleyrand. Both were partisans of the English alliance and hated the spirit of conquest. Territorial bargainings between states, wrote Mirabeau in his book on the Prussian Monarchy, are iniquitous, and added: "It is arbitrary and tyrannous to make such exchanges without consulting the inhabitants."
"Consulting the inhabitants" -- these are new words and new ideas in international relations. Despite the storm of revolution, despite the Napoleonic wars, despite the reaction of the Holy Alliance, they persisted and little by little made their way. They reappeared in the nineteenth century, and they furnish the main clue to an understanding of its events.
But the Revolution, which at first had made much of its renunciation of the spirit of war and conquest, was to be swept along by its enemies into a war lasting for almost twenty-five years. The European courts were on the whole quite indifferent to the fate of the unfortunate Louis XVI; indeed, they congratulated one another upon the weakened and distracted state of France, and, profiting by a situation which left them with free hands, made haste to finish off what remained of Poland amongst themselves. Nevertheless, a certain sense of the community of royal interests held them from going too far and led them to combat the Revolution as such. Brunswick made his pronouncement. But he had not counted upon what the enthusiasm of a people can do. Twenty-three years later the war ended at Waterloo with the defeat of Napoleon, but the ideas which his army had sowed across Europe were to germinate during the course of the nineteenth century. The Emperor had indeed been vanquished, but the Revolution triumphed.
I have already noted how the imagination of Napoleon, who when a young man in Egypt had dreamed like Alexander of eastern conquests, broke through all the traditional limits of French policy. According to Montesquieu, France is in the happy position of having a territory proportionate to her strength and abilities. This was also the opinion of Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, and particularly of Mirabeau's old friend Talleyrand, who used to say that real richness is to be won not by invading the territory of others, but by exploiting one's own to the utmost. He felt Europe's growing fear of the Emperor's insatiable ambition and he dreaded the future consequences of this ambition for France. He realized the dangerous fragility of the imperial edifice, and detached himself from the Napoleonic cause. His conceptions were those of the old school of French diplomacy; they could not be harnessed up with the grandiose schemes of the hero whose servant he had been. And when Napoleon had fallen, and Louis XVIII sent Talleyrand in 1814 to the Congress of Vienna, he drafted his own instructions so that they should carefully point out the need for France to inspire those around her with her spirit of moderation and her desire to be of service by aiding the cause of justice.
At Vienna, Talleyrand faced Europe's natural reaction against all the works of the Empire. Greedy ambitions demanded satisfaction on all sides. Prussia in particular gave herself over to the same spirit of conquest which had caused her so much suffering; in Germany, she hoped to aggrandize herself at the expense of the King of Saxony, who had long been the ally of Napoleon, and in France to seize our eastern provinces, which had formed part of the territory of the old Monarchy. Basing his claim on the principle of legitimacy, Talleyrand set himself to obtain the reëstablishment of the pre-Revolutionary territorial status, including of course the maintenance of our old frontiers. He returned to the old doctrines of our diplomacy, and undertook the defense of the lesser states against Prussia. He managed to secure the support of England, and even of Austria, whom the Russian spectre was beginning to alarm. He triumphed, and with him triumphed the essential factor in French diplomacy which I have several times described. These negotiations at Vienna may be considered Talleyrand's diplomatic chef-d'oeuvre. It was based on a principle which is of course open to discussion, that of legitimacy, and it thus introduced into the settlement of diplomatic problems the consideration of abstract ideas in a disinterested way and above the passions of the moment.
Fifteen years later, in 1830, the Belgian people rose against Holland, to whom they had been arbitrarily united in 1815. France was faithful to her past; she intervened to assist them to gain their independence, and her army took Antwerp. But though she thus was responsible for the triumph of liberty, she proved that she wished to draw no special profits from it, for when the Belgians offered the crown of Belgium to the Duke de Nemours, son of Louis Philippe, the King refused it. In consequence of this refusal Prince Leopold of Coburg became King of the Belgians.
This policy of restraint was so thoroughly a national policy, without distinction of party, that when on February 24, 1848, France proclaimed herself a Republic and Europe was being rocked to its foundations by the storm of revolution, the head of the provisional government, M. de Lamartine, sent our agents abroad a celebrated circular in which he reaffirmed the conservative intentions of the Paris cabinet. This declaration meant much, because since the fall of Napoleon the slogan of the advanced parties of Europe had been the destruction of the European order as constituted by the Congress of Vienna.
When the republican regime was overthrown in its turn, the Emperor Napoleon III, fired by his uncle's example, dreamed of remaking Europe. Nevertheless, when he joined England in defense of Turkey against the Emperor Nicholas of Russia, his action was in accord with the precepts of the old Monarchy. In the same spirit at the Congress of Paris he undertook to establish the independence of Rumania, up to that time a mere Turkish province. The wave of democracy then sweeping Europe found in him a convinced supporter. He upheld Piedmont against Austria, and one may say without exaggeration that his benevolent attitude toward the states of the peninsula made him the chief author of Italian unity. But many who had applauded him for assisting the weak against the strong began to be troubled when it appeared that he was dominated by the Napoleonic rather than the old French tradition, and that national security was no longer his principal aim. The war of 1866 between Austria and Prussia justified these anxieties; the Europe of the Treaties of Westphalia and Vienna vanished. Public opinion in France was bewildered. The war of 1870 put the finishing touch to what had been begun in 1866. It marked the end of that balance of power which, under the leadership of France, had guaranteed some sort of order in Europe during two centuries.
In France, however, the Republic had succeeded the Empire. For forty-four years it acted wisely and prudently. France came to enjoy the esteem and friendship of all the Powers which were harassed by the presumptuous policies of Berlin.
Never before had the supreme objectives of a long line of our greatest statesmen imposed themselves so insistently upon France. We sought -- we sought only -- security. I remember how once, while I was Ambassador at Berlin, a high German official suggested to me in the course of a private conversation that Germany, France and England might agree among themselves to divide up the Belgian Congo. I promptly repelled the suggestion, basing my position on our policy of always upholding the smaller states. In this I simply conformed with the dicta of Vergennes, Mirabeau and Talleyrand; and the ideas which led my German colleague to speak as he did were those of Frederick II, Hardenberg and Bismarck.
After the World War, at the Peace Conference of 1919, France naturally became the protagonist of all the nationalities which had been suppressed in centuries past; they wished to live again, and they invoked the principles of justice and liberty which had been avowed by the Allies throughout the long struggle. Poland came to life. The Czechs of Bohemia, who since the time of John Hus had often revolted against the Austrian domination, formed a young republic. Rumania won back her kinsmen in Transylvania. The Slavs of Croatia and of Illyria united with the Serbs of old Serbia to form Jugoslavia. And the French Republic gave these young nationalities the support which the old Monarchy, from Henry IV to Louis XVI, had given all nationalities who wished to live an independent life.
Democracy, dominant in the world at last, was unwilling to limit itself to the ordinary methods of the old diplomacy. And when President Wilson took the initiative in proposing that a League of Nations be set up he was merely responding to the obvious need for the creation of some new international instrument. Despite scoffs and misgivings the League of Nations was established; its authority has grown; and it has become the most efficient instrument yet found for preventing international disputes from degenerating into armed conflicts. France's role at Geneva has been in keeping with her tradition. She is happy to see the lesser states granted a hearing on world problems on an equality with the Great Powers, for in this she sees the endorsement of her age-long policy towards them.
M. Briand, who has been active at Geneva and who put forward the anti-war proposal which has since become the Briand-Kellogg Pact, has found his inspiration in the same order of ideas that governed apostles of the balance of power. Political methods change, but the objectives remain the same. In essence, the traditional aims of France, the aims which she has today, center about the quest for security. And what is that but the maintenance of peace?
To sum up. If in the past France has sometimes given herself over to the spirit of conquest, either she was led to do so in the enthusiasm of victory after attacks had been launched against her, or because she felt that she was carrying the torch of liberty to the peoples of other nations. Even then, in the hours of their greatest triumphs, our statesmen (knowing how quickly the French spirit can change) thought like Talleyrand that the surest foundation of peace lay in the reëstablishment of the balance of power. This view we still hold.
Of course the situation is not precisely the same today as formerly. At Geneva discussions are carried on in public, and for that reason a preoccupation with the principle of the balance of power seems out of date. But it would be a mistake to take this view. There are groups, cabals and oppositions inside the League of Nations, and though political action may take new forms, at heart it is the same. National aspirations are the expression of national interests, and these, as I have said, persist through the ages because human nature does not change. They condition the relations of peoples, and according to circumstances bring them together or set them one against the other. So it was with France and England; they had long been enemies, but they united at last in the face of a common danger. It is true that by the Briand-Kellogg Pact most of the nations have solemnly renounced war, but in 1914 how little the most solemn engagements were worth when the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, declared that necessity knows no law! We therefore are under compulsion to neglect nothing which can guarantee us against the danger of war.
When I have said that security has always been the cardinal aim of France, that term must be understood in its fullest sense. There is a France outside our own frontiers. Just as England cannot permit her communications with India to be menaced in Egypt, and just as the United States considers that one of her elementary interests is to safeguard the Panama Canal, just so France must guard her communications with her possessions in North Africa and preserve her freedom of action in the Mediterranean. Here we touch the problem of the relations of states at its most delicate point. For it is when states come into direct contact that practical accommodations become imperative.
Security! The term signifies more indeed than the maintenance of a people's homeland, or even of their territories beyond the seas. It also means the maintenance of the world's respect for them, the maintenance of their economic interests, everything, in a word, which goes to make up the grandeur, the life itself, of the nation. But all peoples have not the same ideal; each follows what it considers to be its national interests in accordance with its own traditions. If the nations are to live in peace, those who direct the foreign affairs of each state must try diligently and long to understand and respect the aspirations of others. For by a statesman's comprehension of the forces which direct the destiny of nations one measures the breadth and depth of his genius.