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  • Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958
  • John D. Becker (bio)
Thomas J. Christensen. Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958. Princeton Studies in International History and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 319 pp. Paperback, ISBN 0-691-02637-8.

Over the past few years, tension has risen anew between the United States and the People's Republic of China. The sources of this tension have ranged from claims that agents of the PRC attempted to influence U.S. presidential and congressional elections through illegal campaign contributions to allegations that American nuclear-missile MIRV technology was stolen, transferred to the PRC, and adopted in the current generation of Chinese ICBMs.

Additionally, a number of commentators, including Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington and reporters Richard Bernstein and Ross Muro, have suggested that this tension is natural and should be expected in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Russian threat. In their respective texts, The Clash of Civilizations and The Coming War with China, they argue that it is only natural that in the face of the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States is seeking out a new evil empire. Given its size, wealth, and military might, the most likely candidate is the People's Republic of China. Likewise, in its efforts to move beyond being a regional superpower, China is seeking out a worthy opponent in the United States.

In Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958, Thomas Christensen sympathizes with the claims of such advocates. He suggests that the grand strategies that nation-states follow do, in fact, require enemies. He goes on to note that much of the subsequent behavior of nation-states can only be understood in this context.

Indeed, the central argument of his text is that scholars are sometimes too quick to assume distorted thinking or ulterior motives when analyzing foreign policies that appear overly aggressive, ideological, or otherwise wasteful of resources and alliance opportunities. At times, leaders might rationally adopt such policies in order to guarantee public support for core strategies that they consider essential to national security.

For example, when mobilizing the public behind a long-term grand strategy, leaders may manipulate or prolong short-term conflicts that, on their own merits, do not warrant the costs or risks involved. If the domestic price of selling a grand strategy includes making some foreign policy compromises, we should not regard leaders who make these compromises as either irrational or self-serving.

The evidence that Christensen cites to back his claim is impressive, even if it is limited by focusing only on a particular region (Northeast Asia) at a particular time (1947 to 1958). He includes the cases of the Korean War and the 1958 Quemoy [End Page 408] crisis, which seemed like rather inane actions in light of previous foreign policy pronouncements limiting U.S. involvement in Asia.

Christensen's argument is clearly convincing. When nation-states like the United States and China engage in questionable foreign policy and military actions— those operations that seem to be conducted without any apparent good reason—one way to make sense of them is to view them within the larger context of domestic politics. Short-term conflicts might be used to garner popular support for grand strategies that leaders are promoting. This might also be a way to view both the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars and understand the rationale of the leadership of the intervening nations.

Christensen's rational modeling does appear to help us understand actions by apparently irrational nation-states and their leaders. If we look at Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and consider such actions as ethnic cleansing, they make no sense in strictly foreign-policy terms. Yet, within the context of serving as devices for mobilizing popular support inside these nation states, they might be understandable, particularly as a means of unifying fragmented domestic populations.

But the limiting factor in this argument is just that—it is only understandable when nation-states have grand strategies. As we have seen with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the...


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