The Obama Administration has taken some heat for sending a mere ambassador to last weekend's march in Paris in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and commendably, it has fessed up to the error.
The whole episode prompted security analyst Dhruva Jaishankar to wonder why the same standard is not being applied to the world's other superpower:
It's true that this little vignette illustrates something about the vast difference between US and Chinese standing in world affairs. China is focused overwhelmingly on itself and its region, and rarely takes a leading role. Unlike the US, nobody looks to China for global leadership.
But an otherwise unrelated piece of writing got me thinking about this topic in a different way. Here's The Atlantic's David Frum reviewing a new book about World War I by Adam Tooze. Frum argues that President Woodrow Wilson was the first US statesman to see, in the aftermath of the Great War, that the US had grown into a world power that could suppress Europe's rivalries. But his opponents and successors did not share that vision. So what went wrong in the post-war settlement that it led directly to the still greater carnage of World War II?:
“When all is said and done,” Tooze writes, “the answer must be sought in the failure of the United States to cooperate with the efforts of the French, British, Germans and the Japanese [leaders of the early 1920s] to stabilize a viable world economy and to establish new institutions of collective security. … Given the violence they had already experienced and the risk of even greater future devastation, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain could all see this. But what was no less obvious was that only the US could anchor such a new order.” And that was what Americans of the 1920s and 1930s declined to do—because doing so implied too much change at home for them: “At the hub of the rapidly evolving, American-centered world system there was a polity wedded to a conservative vision of its own future.”
We shouldn't stretch the parallels too far. The extremist violence witnessed in France and other parts of the world is nothing like World War I and China's place in the world today is not equivalent to America's in 1918. But there is something familiar about that description of an emerging world power reluctant to really grasp leadership. Eventually of course, America did do so, and the same may be true of China in several decades' time. As Jaishankar implies in his tweet, it seems faintly ridiculous at this point in history to wonder about China's position on a domestic crisis in France. But these things change.