For there is little prospect of China’s leadership losing legitimacy, whereas one could convincingly argue that legitimacy is something Iran’s rulers no longer have. China's regime may have its troubles in Xinjiang, but it still delivers efficient management of a complex society that spans nearly a continent. Iran's regime simply cannot lay claim to that kind of stability. And the Chinese communist party is not split like the Iranian clergy.
While the unrest in China was a matter of ethnic strife, rooted in the illiberal language of blood identity, the demonstrations in Iran had universalist stirrings, reflected in the cry for "democracy." Thus, while the turmoil in China unsettles us, we find the drama in Iran uplifting. Yet both disturbances remind us not to become too complacent about our assumptions.
For years we had perceived China as a state galloping ever forward, en route to peer competitor status with the United States and its military. We forgot that foreign and defense policy emanates from a country's domestic conditions, and that if its domestic conditions are less than harmonious, its policy toward the outside world, too, may be less than robust. In other words, China's rise cannot be taken for granted. To wit, China is also grinding away at its environmental base. Its water table is diminishing, along with the nutrients in its soil. But the regime cannot afford to slow down its economic growth for fear of a popular eruption far broader than what we just saw in Xinjiang. With communism lost as a philosophical underpinning to the regime, China's leaders may increasingly have to resort to nationalism in the face of some future economic downturn. And the Uighur rising - and the Hans’ bloody response – gave us a look at the depth of some of the ethnic and nationalistic tensions that will need to be assuaged if China is to fulfill the vision as a legitimate and largely peaceful peer competitor. Remember, nothing is destiny.
Then there is Iran. Until just a few weeks ago, we had assumed, as many in the foreign policy mandarinate had assured us, that Iran was a new, unconventional, and irresistible imperial force stalking the Greater Middle East—dangerous and largely unbeatable precisely because its system was fundamentally stable. Now street protestors have created a whole new set of assumptions. What if Iran were not so hostile in the future? What if its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were diminished by sustained unrest and divisions at home? What if, because of dramatic political evolution in Iran, a decade hence we had better relations with Iran than we currently do with Saudi Arabia?
The real lesson of the disturbances in both countries is that in this demographically dense and technologically interconnected world, we should be prepared for non-stop turbulence. Foreign policy will be the art of quick-reaction, as situations can turn on a dime. That is why I strongly believe that President Barack Obama will ultimately be judged less by any preconceived philosophical notions he brings to foreign policy, than by his inner temperament—which may or may not enable him to respond well to the crises and upheavals ahead.