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A person stands on a grassy hillside, shielding their eyes from the sun and looking out over the ocean.
Figure 2.1 What do people seek, and how do they behave? (credit: “Woman Exploring” by Matt Bango/stocksnap, CC0 1.0)

Tensions are growing in the South China Sea. China, seeking to expand its sphere of influence, is building up its military capacity and presence. Taiwan considers itself an independent country; China considers Taiwan a breakaway Chinese province. The United States watches warily: it has been the dominant military and economic power in the region since World War II, it is a major trade partner with China, and it has a special relationship with Taiwan.1 Will conflict lead to war, or can peaceful relations prevail?

Chinese President Xi Jinping sits in front of a microphone.
Figure 2.2 Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks. (credit: “14/11/2019 Sessão Plenária da XI Cúpula de Líderes do BRICS” by Palácio do Planalto/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The grandest conflicts in international relations are ultimately based on the behavior of individual humans: political leaders, the citizens who support (or oppose) them, the decisions they make, and the actions they take. To understand politics—to understand who is doing what, when, and how—it is necessary to understand humans.2

Understanding humans requires more than simply observing how they behave, however; it is also useful to attempt to discern their moral aspirations—to learn what they believe to be their higher goals. In this view, however China, Taiwan, and the United States choose to act, their actions will be about more than merely defending their material interests. These countries’ leaders are also pursuing their ideas of how the world should be structured, of what principles they espouse, and of what they believe political rules and goals ideally should be.

This chapter will consider matters both normative and empirical, both philosophical and practical. Politics involves both lofty dreams and down-and-dirty actions. First the chapter considers aspirations, and then it turns to behavior.

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