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What Prussia's Rise Can Teach China

10 MINS READJun 27, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
China is one of the few credible challengers to U.S. political, economic and military supremacy.
Editor's Note

This is the eighth installment of an occasional series on China's transformation.

Between 1864 and 1871, something extraordinary happened in the heart of Europe. In three short wars, each following hot on the heels of the last, the Continent's great powers failed to unite to contain an ascendant Prussia. The failure to build a coalition against Prussia — during the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 — resulted in the unification of Germany under Prussian dominion in early 1871. A few decades later, Germany was the leading power on the European continent, rivaling Great Britain for influence in global economic and political affairs. Its power would continue to grow, virtually unchecked, until 1914. How it managed such a feat is important when considering China's ambitions today.

It is scarcely an overstatement, in light of later events, to suggest that Prussia's rise and eventual unification of Germany was a watershed in the history of modern international politics. Even at the time, it was understood by leading statesmen in Britain, Russia and France as a profound shift in the European balance of power — one that directly threatened their own position and interests. In short, few, if any, observers outside of Germany desired Prussia's rise, and well before Otto von Bismarck launched the first of the conquests that produced a unified German nation-state, Europe's leading figures expressed concern over, and even called for containing, Prussian expansionism. Why did these calls go largely unheeded? What prevented Europe from uniting to halt Prussia's rise?

Europe's failure to contain Prussia represents an enduring challenge for international relations theory, which generally expects balances of power to form organically and efficiently from competition among states. If there are exceptions to this theory, the real world implications are many, especially for rising powers such as China. Most international relations scholars regard states as rational actors bent on survival in a competitive and potentially dangerous strategic environment and therefore anticipate that as one or several states grow in wealth and military power, others will emerge to balance against them, either by encouraging domestic economic growth or by forming alliances with other threatened states. From this process, scholars argue, arise the equilibriums known as international balances of power. Only rarely, and for reasons that continue to puzzle both scholars and policymakers, do these stabilizing balances fail to form or function.

A Question of Agency

The story of Prussia's rise taps into fundamental questions of the relationship between structure and agency in international relations. Prussia's ability to skirt the formation of a balancing coalition by its European rivals forces us to consider how emerging powers sometimes succeed in overcoming or preventing efforts to contain them. But the significance of this event extends beyond the theoretical realm. For a country like China today, the Prussian advance offers lessons in the arts of subterfuge and manipulation in international politics. As they struggle to avoid concerted containment by the United States and its Asian allies, China's leaders would do well to consider the example of Prussia under Bismarck.

International politics is a complex affair. The factors that shape events are many and often lie beyond the control of individual leaders or institutions, including states. In Prussia's case, a combination of historical, geographic and demographic forces provided a powerful thrust for the construction of a German state. Prussian dominance also profited from the emergence of communication and transport technologies that made it feasible for people in distant locales to imagine themselves as part of a single nation. In China's case, a variety of structural factors help explain the developments of the past decade. For example, China's large and relatively well-educated populace, combined with the ready supply of capital from international markets and ravenous demand for cheap goods in the United States and Europe, lent enormous momentum to the country's post-Mao "Reform and Opening," creating conditions that facilitated China's rise in the decades that followed.

By the same token, one could point to numerous events in surrounding countries — intra-European power struggles and domestic politics in Britain, Russia and France in the 1860s, or in the United States today, for instance — to account for European powers' ineffective response to Prussia's rise, or for what might look like underwhelming progress in the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. Indeed, one could even argue that Britain, France and Russia failed to effectively balance against Prussia in the 1860s because they did not see it as a true threat, or that the U.S. pivot has remained relatively limited because China, in fact, poses little real or immediate threat to American interests in the region. After all, China is decades from being able to truly challenge U.S. military dominance in Asia, let alone globally, and faces immense risks domestically that could stall, or even undermine, its rise to regional pre-eminence.

But these explanations, though helpful and no doubt partly true, miss an important aspect of Prussia's story, and possibly of China's, too. In placing emphasis either on structural factors — geography, demography, technology — or on the unpredictable messiness of domestic politics in surrounding countries, they obfuscate the role that Prussian strategy and statecraft played in neutralizing unified opposition to its rise in the 1860s and the role that Chinese statecraft has had in hampering the formation of an effective U.S.-led coalition to constrain China today. In particular, they neglect the ways in which Prussia and arguably China struggled (and in important ways succeeded) to represent their rise as consistent with the status quo and concordant with the long-term interests and principles of the status quo's upholders. In Prussia's case, these efforts amounted to a rhetorical and diplomatic sleight of hand that, in making a persuasive case for the legitimacy of Prussia's claims and of their congruence with international norms, immobilized opposition to Prussian expansion just long enough for Bismarck to ensure Germany's unification and transformation into an industrial and military juggernaut.

Spinning Narratives

As the political scientist Stacie Goddard argues, Prussia deployed a mix of rhetorical strategies to legitimize its expansion in 1864, 1866 and 1871, often tailoring its claims to the specific interests of the countries it dealt with. For example, in its war with Denmark in 1864, Prussia mobilized Austrian support and ensured British and Russian noninterference by defending its actions as a way of upholding prior treaties and fending off incursion by the Danish — a move that spoke to conservative European powers' desire to preserve the post-Napoleonic legal and political order. At other times, Prussia appealed to the principle of national self-determination, framing itself as a liberator of German-speaking peoples in non-German territories to stave off criticism from democratic Britain and post-Revolution France — a strategy, as Goddard suggests, of "setting rhetorical traps" to neutralize potential opposition.

Taken together, Goddard argues, these strategies made it difficult for leaders in Britain and France to overcome their own mutual distrust of each other, leading to an inability to balance against Prussia or justify expending national resources on military containment, let alone marshaling domestic popular support for war. By presenting its rise as consistent with powerful norms such as national self-determination, sovereign freedom from external intervention, and the maintenance of treaties, Prussia succeeded in deterring full-scale containment by Europe's major powers. European leaders were aware, even frightened, of Prussia's rise — but they could not justify the expense and risks of coalescing to oppose it.

What lessons can China's leaders glean from Prussia's example? It can be argued that Beijing has already taken several cards from Bismarck's playbook. At a time when the United States and Europe flirt with concepts of humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion, China has proclaimed itself a staunch defender of national sovereignty and sovereign freedom from external intervention — powerful and appealing norms not only to countries liable to find themselves on the receiving end of U.S. interventionism but also to many within the United States and Europe. Likewise, China wields concepts such as "economic interdependence," "development" and "multipolarity" to temper overt criticism of its rise. Such terms also go some way to legitimize Beijing's policies in regions such as Central Asia and Africa — after all, it is difficult for U.S. policymakers on the global stage to openly decry a multipolar world, or to condemn interdependence and development outright. It is not surprising, against this backdrop, that China in 2004 reframed its "peaceful rise" in more politically neutral terms, as "peaceful development."

At a time when the United States and Europe flirt with concepts of humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion, China has proclaimed itself a staunch defender of national sovereignty and sovereign freedom from external intervention.

This is not to suggest that China's rhetorical strategies are always and perfectly successful, or to deny that many of its counterparts view such rhetoric as thin cover for naked self-interest. The crucial point is that regardless of China's intent, its actions have yet to provoke concerted, effective balancing by the United States and its allies. As noted above, this may merely reflect confused domestic politics in Washington or that the United States and its Asian allies have more pressing tasks. But these facts do not negate the important role that China's political and foreign policy rhetoric — and its generally low-key behavior in international bodies such as the United Nations — play in staving off more overt efforts at containment by the United States, Japan and others.

To be sure, the Prussian analogy has its limits. The events of the 1860s gain their meaning because we know what came after. In China's case, what may now look to some like a failure by the United States to balance against China's rise could look, five or 10 years from now, like wisdom on Washington's part. China may be best positioned among the United States' potential competitors to challenge American dominance in the coming decades, but it also faces immense political, social and economic challenges at home — challenges compounded by the country's extreme regional geographic and socio-economic imbalances. These are factors and forces that threaten to halt China's rise well before it becomes a tangible danger to U.S. interests. As Stratfor has observed, these challenges will likely come to a head in the next 5-10 years, beyond which it is unclear if the Communist Party government can survive, at least in a form recognizable today.

Nonetheless, China, despite mounting risks and recent stumbles, is growing more powerful. And as it does, the consequences of lethargy will increase for the countries whose interests and positions are directly threatened by China's rise. So, too, will Beijing need to avert containment — an effort that, if Prussia's example is any lesson, will require steadfast and effective defense of China's actions in ways that neutralize opposition by rivals and mobilize support from allies and domestic audiences elsewhere. If, like Prussia in the 1860s, China makes it through the next 10 years without provoking conspicuous balancing by the United States and its partners, it will undoubtedly have its rhetoric partly to thank.

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