Trade, the great deterrent to war

Those who hate war should always be looking for ways to prevent it. Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, points to one supreme way. “Trade,” he says, ” is the great equalizer among people and nations; it does more than perhaps any other activity to prevent war.” (p.317)

This seems intuitively true. Just look at the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. If it was for the great oil trade, the U.S. most assuredly would have squashed the Saudi royal family by now because of its anti-western activities through the decades. But our need for oil keeps us from the battlefield there.

Of course, trade can also lead to war — look at Iraq. If not for oil, we almost certainly would not have invaded Iraq. Thinking back to World War II, it’s my understanding that the U.S. was a thorn in the side of Japan’s oil trade, and that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

So, is Kaplan right? I think it would be better said that good trade relations can mitigate against disagreements festering into war. Bad trade relations can actually make it more likely.

Kaplan’s book, of course, looks at one geographic region and the importance of trade. If the point I just made about the connection of good and bad trade relations to war is correct, then it’s important to understand this region as we move forward. The world doesn’t need a war between the U.S. and China and any other powerful nations, but bad trading relations can lead in that direction. Kaplan helps us in that understanding.

“The vicissitudes of extremism notwithstanding, a replica of the pre-Portuguese Muslim-Hindu trading cosmopolis is now being rebuilt, buttressed by Chinese investment.” (p.322)

“Indeed, the challenge to America, ultimately, is less the rise of China than communicating at a basic level with this emerging global civilization of Africans and Asians. As for China, I’ve already indicated that it is rising militarily in a responsible manner. It will have its own problems in expanding its maritime influence into the Indian Ocean. And in any case China is not necessarily America’s adversary. But unless America makes its peace with these billions symbolized by the Greater Indian Ocean map, many of whom are Muslim, American power will not be seen as wholly legitimate. And legitimacy, remember, is a primary feature of power in the first place. In an earlier chapter I said that strong American-Chinese bilateral relations going forward are not only plausible but might be the best-case scenario for the global system in the twenty-first century, allowing for true world governance to take shape. But that is true only so far as the bilateral world of nation-states is concerned. As the former third world forges a new kind of unity, driven by mass media like Al Jazeera that abets an underlying cultural synthesis, the Afro-Asian multitudes will increasingly be in a pivotal position to bestow prestige or condemnation on America, China, and other powerful states, depending upon the merits of each particular crisis. They, in addition to being participants, are the supreme audience for power politics in the twenty-first century.”

In America, we need to grasp the truth of Kaplan’s statement, “China is not necessarily America’s adversary.” China has, in many cases, different values from the West, but this giant of nations is changing, becoming more western economically and in other ways. For one thing, seeing China only as a potential adversary may blind us to some of the other issues Kaplan talked about in that last paragraph. And we need to remember, American debt and consumer buying are what have made China strong.

More from Kaplan:

“Great-power politics will go on as they always have, with the American and Chinese navies quietly competing and jockeying for position in the First Island Chain, and India and China competing for sea routes and influence. But these activities will be framed more and more by a global civilization, the product of a new bourgeoisie that in and of itself constitutes a moral force with which to be reckoned.

“Hundreds of millions of Muslims and others, quietly elevated into the middle classes, are seeking to live peaceful, productive lives, even as they confer legitimacy on the great power or powers whose actions help them in what my Persian friend and the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah both say man is ultimately on earth to do–’to trade.’ Trade is what Zheng He did, and while the Chinese navy celebrates his Indian Ocean exploits, America, too, could learn much from this Ming Dynasty explorer, who saw military activity as an expression not only of hard but of soft power as well: to help protect the global commons and a trading system for the benefit of all. Only by seeking at every opportunity to identify its struggles with those of the larger Indian Ocean world can American power finally be preserved.” (pp.322-323)

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