Crackpot Realism: Not Everything is a Wrestling Match with China

By Noah Schwartz

An American and Chinese wrestler face off at the 2019 CISM Military World Games
Image Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Ian Carver/DVIDS

The strategic “pivot” to Asia initiated by President Obama, combined with the rise of China and the American Empire’s exit from Middle Eastern quagmires, has reignited numerous historical comparisons and metaphors. 

Political scientist John Mearsheimer has favored Cold War comparisons, writing in Foreign Affairs that the “resulting competition between these two great powers, which is effectively a new Cold War, will only intensify over time.” 

While these comparisons are not perfect, one can understand why they serve as an effective template for American scholars to begin to understand a relationship with China.

Similar to the Cold War, old questions of a gap in military innovation and how to effectively deter the opposition, whether in Taiwan or West Germany, dominate the discourse within the defense intellectual elite. 

The current anxiety that runs amok among policymakers and the American public regarding China calls to mind American sociologist C. Wright Mills’ concept of ‘Crackpot Realism’ in 1950s America.

Writing in his famed book The Power Elite, Mills prophetically defined Crackpot Realism as when “for the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end…such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality of their own.”  

Furthermore, in a book more centered on the Cold War, aptly titled The Causes of World War Three, Mills focused more on his concept of Crackpot Realism. “In crackpot realism,” he wrote, “a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands.” 

Mill’s thesis was quickly proven correct in Vietnam. Thomas Schelling, the father of many advancements in modern game theory and nuclear strategy, is perhaps the quintessential Cold War Intellectual. 

Schelling, a RAND Corporation man through and through, was seen as hyper-rational and logical. Schelling is credited with the creation of Strategic Realism as a viable school of thought.

However, on the subject of Vietnam, Schelling seemed to betray his proposed steely-rationalist public persona. Testifying for the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1966, Schelling outlined two great dangers he saw to the United States if Asia ‘goes Communist.’ 

Firstly, a Communist Asia according to Schelling would reject “the United States and what we call Western Civilization from a large part of the world that is poor and colored and potentially hostile.” 

Secondly, “a country like the United States probably cannot maintain self-confidence if just about the greatest thing it ever attempted, namely to create the basis for decency and prosperity and democratic government in the undeveloped world, had to be acknowledged as a failure or as an attempt that we wouldn’t try again.” 

When faced with the specter of imperial humiliation, the tendencies of crackpot realism betray Schelling’s stated rational mindset. A rather ugly and brutish orientalism replaces rational thought. Realist notions of national interest are thrown out for vague notions of ‘self-confidence.’ Unfortunately, this paradigm of Crackpot Realism is alive and well today within the discourse on China.

This ‘paranoid reality’ today is one of anxieties related to America’s own system of governance. President Biden has recast  competition with China as necessary to “prove democracy works.” 

Similar to Schelling’s notion of ‘self-confidence’ this statement reflects the ‘paranoid reality’ endemic to crackpot realism. To whom does Washington need to prove that democracy works? Finding confidence in one’s institutions by seeking out an enemy abroad seems to be truly the mark of a decaying empire. 

Furthermore, when one has identified their own national purpose and sense of meaning wholly in a war between opposing civilizations, an ugly sort of nationalism and fear dominate the conversation. 

Kiron Skinner, the former Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, displayed this sentiment when in 2019 she said that competition with China could be especially wrought because “it is the first time we will have a great power competitor that is not caucasian.” 

Besides this statement being obviously historically inaccurate (Imperial Japan would like a word with Skinner), statements like these reflect a growing reemergence of a Yellow Peril narrative that harms Asian-Americans at home. This racialized frustration is no way to properly conduct foreign policy and it is sadly emblematic of the paranoid reality that the foreign policy ruling class lives in. 

The final stage that the crackpot realist enters is the total negation of realism itself. This expresses itself in the desire for total war. In order to manufacture consent for such a war the public must be convinced that the enemy can not be restrained or contained. This means that a state must be essentially outside the limits of containment outlined in George Keenan’s famously long telegram.

The easiest way to do this is lazy comparisons to the Third Reich. The Third Reich was the historical exemption in that it was the culmination of a racialized and colonizing ideology that meant its evil could not be deterred or contained; rather it had to be defeated.

Modern-day China, despite its social repression and revanchist qualities, is in no way similar to Nazi Germany. This has not stopped Western commentators, such as Charlie Lyons Jones, making the dubious case that “Elements of Xi’s ideology are notably Hitlerian.” 

The comparison to Hitler eschews containment and leaves open conflict as the only option. This is in many ways similar to how the George W. Bush administration deployed the phrase ‘Islamo-Fascism’ to mark Iraq as a country that could not be bargained with or contained.

The anecdote to this current ‘crackpot era’ is actual realism and restraint when it comes to China. This means not succumbing to the belief that this competition is a zero-sum contest that will determine the fate of liberalism or falling for romantic Orientalist narratives that situate China-US competition in a grand arc of history. 

This is political theater, not statecraft. In an increasingly dangerous and confusing world, Washington must remind itself that paranoia is not a replacement for good policy. 

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese Grand Strategy and Left Realism.







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