Primitive fears haunt modern military minds
If you're not allowed to enslave people any more, or even loot their resources, then why be a traditional great power?
The US kept over 100,000 troops in Iraq for eight years, yet it didn't enslave a single Iraqi (though it killed a lot), and throughout the occupation, it paid full market price for Iraqi oil. So what American purpose did it serve?
It was about 'security'. And here it comes again. Last Friday, US President Barack Obama unveiled America's new 'defence strategy'. But it wasn't about stopping anybody from invading the US. It was about reshaping the US military in a way that 'preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority', as Obama put it.
Curiously, he was not wielding a stone axe when he said this, but his logic came out of the Stone Age. Back when land was the only thing of value, it made sense to go heavily armed, because somebody might try to take it from you.
But China is not getting rich by sending armies to conquer other Asian countries. It's getting rich by selling them (and the US) goods and services it produces cheaply.
The new US strategy is all about China, but is it about China as an emerging trade partner (and rival), or is it about China as the emerging military superpower that threatens the US? A bit of both, actually.
'The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by a greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region,' Obama said.
'Clarity about its strategic intentions' is code for not gaining military capabilities that could challenge the very large US military presence in Asia. After all, the Pentagon implicitly argues, we all know the US forces are there solely for defence and deterrence.
Well, actually, the Chinese do not know that. They see the US maintaining close military ties with practically all the countries on China's eastern and southern frontiers, from Japan and South Korea to Thailand and India. They see the US 7th Fleet operating right off the Chinese coast on a regular basis. And they do not say to themselves: 'That's OK. The Americans are just deterring us.'
War between great powers became suicide after the invention of nuclear weapons. Yet the military still has a grip on the popular imagination. To keep their budgets large, the generals must frighten the tax-paying public with plausible threats even if they don't really exist.
Obama goes along with this because it would be political suicide not to. Beijing has its own powerful military lobby, which regularly stresses the American 'military threat', and the Chinese regime goes along with that, too. We left the caves some time ago, but in our imaginations and our fears we still live there.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist