Steve Chapman

Meanwhile, China has worked to behave like an upstanding member of the community of nations -- joining the World Trade Organization, channeling aid and investment to Africa, hosting the Olympics and joining efforts to stop North Korea from building nuclear weapons.

This was a huge shift from the militancy of Mao Zedong, who saw himself as the enemy of the West, defied global norms of conduct and occasionally cackled about winning a nuclear war.

But nationalism can warp the government's judgment, as it did this time. China's rulers might take a page from the history of another country that has often played an outsized role in its part of the world: Germany. Or, rather, two pages.

In the early 20th century, Germany aspired to play a larger role in Europe, and it feared being encircled by enemies. But its behavior, such as building a navy to compete with Britain and forging an alliance with Austria-Hungary, stimulated other nations to coalesce against it, which led to defeat in World War I. Its ambitions destroyed its own ends.

After the fall of the Third Reich, by contrast, Germany put aside narrow national interests and made a priority of respecting and accommodating its neighbors. Its once-terrifying military became a servant of the Western alliance. Through humility and restraint, Germany somehow rose to the point that it is now, in the words of a BBC commentator, "Europe's indispensable power."

The Chinese leaders are doubtless familiar with Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli's adage that it is better to be feared than loved. They shouldn't forget the more pertinent advice of an underrated international relations theorist from Nazareth. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, he said, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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