- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001


The Hainan incident is not likely to lead to war between the United States and China. This is not a conflict that can't be resolved by peaceful means.
But for the first time in several generations, perhaps, the prerequisites for a war to fully engage the United States are falling into place.
It's clear that the Chinese leaders fundamentally misunderstand the situation. The greatest likelihood of a series of such incidents escalating into war stems from the possibility that the Chinese leaders won't figure it out until too late.
Americans often do not realize how difficult it is for foreigners to understand them. America is not a single, homogenous nation-state on the European model, but a grand union of distinct historic cultural nations, due to the settlement of different parts of the United States from distinct regional cultures of the British Isles.
These cultural characteristics, though diluted by shifting internal migration in recent decades, have been remarkably persistent over time, both in Britain and in America, as demonstrated by David Hackett Fischer in his book "Albion's Seed." This has many implications, beginning with America's relationship with war itself.
The various cultural nations of America have traditionally had different attitudes toward war. The Southern culture, for example, cherishes a deep sense of personal honor and sensitivity to insult, and actions that step over a certain line require response. Failure to respond demonstrates weakness, inviting further transgression. Anything less is appeasement.
The Greater New England model is at heart moralistic. Everyone is assumed to be reasonable, and the first response to aggression is always to be conciliatory, to seek to understand the other side, to find compromise. However, at a certain point, the opposite party may demonstrate signs of being morally lost. At this point, out comes the terrible swift sword, and the army of the Lord goes on the march. Battle is joined fully and mercilessly, and continues until the enemy is utterly crushed. The enemy can be occupied, reformed, reconstructed, and rehabilitated, but not until he has surrendered unconditionally and confessed the wickedness of his ways.
The other main cultural nation is Midland America. Midlanders tend to be fundamentally pragmatic, to divide other nations into "people we can get along with," and "people about whom something must be done." Midlanders would always rather do business with enemy nations than confront them, but after a certain point doing something is cheaper than "getting along."
Thus America's face to the world varies according to which cultural nation is dominant at the moment. If one cultural nation has decided that war is necessary but the other cultural nations haven't been convinced, there's usually no war.
Sometimes two or more cultural nations decide that war is needed, but the others dissent. This can lead to a war in which Americans participate but the whole nation is not fully engaged.
The Mexican War and the War of 1812 are examples; the personal honor of America was perceived at stake, but in each war there was widespread dissent in New England. The Hartford Convention of delegates from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont considered secession over "Mr. Madison's war" of 1812.
Other wars, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, were started primarily by pragmatists. These, too, failed to fully engage America. Some wars are tolerated so long as they end quickly and the cost is low, such as the Spanish-American and Persian Gulf wars. They were finished quickly, with few casualties, before the national mood soured.
But when all the cultural nations of America come to the conclusion that war is needed, then war invokes the full engagement of the enormous strength, creativity and will of America. The prime examples are the Civil War and World War II. In both, long periods of drift interspersed with precipitating incidents created a tinderbox that eventually exploded.
What makes the Hainan incident ominous is that the cultural nations of America may be gradually coming to the idea that America might fight China one day with the moralists convinced by Tiananmen Square, prison labor and Tibet that the Chinese leadership needs correction; the pragmatists, still excited by the Chinese market but sobered by the problematic experience with investments and joint ventures, unwilling to see Taiwan ruined; and the Southerners, sensitive to slights to personal honor, susceptible to outrage if the Hainan incident becomes a hostage crisis.
The final ingredient for terrible war is the miscalculation by the other side. The Southern fire-eaters of 1861 were convinced that the Yankees were cowards who wouldn't fight, and if they did, would give up after the first defeat. Hitler thought the Americans (and the British) were cowardly and pacifistic jitterbugging money-grubbers who wouldn't fight and couldn't win.
Misguided by the war in Vietnam and the cost-free victories of the Gulf and Kosovo, the Chinese may be calculating that the way to deter an American response is to incur significant American casualties early on.
This was the alignment during the first half of the Cold War, but restraint on both sides kept it from breaking into a great war. This was in part because the Soviet leaders had seen what an engaged America at war was like. The Chinese could miscalculate that such a level of engagement could never happen again.

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