IN OCTOBER, as world leaders posed for a group photo at the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, one wondered if President Bush
stopped to consider the backdrop: a painting of the Great Wall of China.
Five centuries ago, the powerful Ming Dynasty built the 1,500-mile wall,
that period's equivalent of the president's proposed missile defense shield.
While impressive in scope even today, the Great Wall failed to prevent a
foreign incursion that directly led to the fall of the Ming. Nomadic Mongol
tribes, "rogue states" on the northern frontier, constantly plagued Ming
leaders, arriving in Chinese cities, sometimes to raid but just as often
seeking to trade.
As historian Arthur Waldron has shown, some Ming leaders advocated
increased trade to help placate the Mongols, while others called for
aggressive military campaigns.
The military option proved initially successful, but the leadership found
it difficult to sustain political support. Gradually, Ming leaders began to
implement a strategy used with some effectiveness in the past: spending huge
sums to build defensive walls.
While a deterrent, the Great Wall did not defend against a previously
unforeseen threat from Manchu tribes that eventually breached it, not through
military force, but with the aid of Chinese generals who invited them into
their territory to help quell local rebellions.
Today's nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles have transformed
military strategy and defense. Yet, does the existence of those missiles
change one of the lessons of the Great Wall -- the fact that the victorious
Manchus did not directly attack the wall, but rather used diplomatic maneuvers
and unrest within China to breach it?
The terrorists that savagely attacked New York City and Washington, D.C.,
on September 11 did so by circumventing established security barriers, taking
over domestic flights and using them as tools in their hideous attacks.
If the missile defense shield is built, is it not reasonable to conclude
that terrorists and rogue states will find ways around that shield as well?
I am not suggesting that the United States abandon sophisticated military
defense systems. Rather, instead of building the massive missile defense
shield, it seems more prudent to take a long-term, proactive approach by
finding ways to lessen the anti-American sentiment that fueled recent
Waldron notes that a 15th-century Ming official concluded that the Mongols
were a calamity for China only because they desperately needed clothing and
President Bush suggested that the terrorists responsible for the September
11 attacks were motivated by hatred for American freedom and our way of life.
While this may be true, it is also clear that anti-American movements have
been fueled by economic hardship in various parts of the world.
With a mere fraction of the money spent on the missile defense shield, the
United States could build more schools, water purifying plants and other
infrastructure in Afghanistan and perhaps Palestinian areas, alleviating some
of the desperation of the people there. Such moves would also provide greater
regional economic stability and in turn, engender goodwill toward the United
More importantly, the terrorist groups would have more difficulty
recruiting in those areas. Economic aid is not a panacea and will not
eliminate the ideological and religious divisions that also fuel terrorist
Yet, as the Great Wall teaches us, huge fortifications such as the missile
defense shield have not proven effective in the long term. Should we believe
that a wall in space would be any better?
In his Sept. 6 news conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox,
President Bush asserted that "fearful people build walls. Confident people
tear them down."
Americans should have confidence in the goodwill that our economic largesse
can provide. More than a missile defense shield, a Great Wall of the 21st
century, economic aid should provide a way to obviate the root factors of the
terrorist threat that now grips our nation.
Robert Hellyer is an assistant professor in history at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. He specializes in East Asian history.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle