A New Westphalia in Beijing?

in The Moor Next Door

by Kal

Flipping through a recent issue of The National Interest, I came across an article titled “A World Without the West“. This article argues that the world’s emerging powers — many of them former Second and Third World nations (i.e. formerly communist or “Non-Aligned“) — are “building an alternative system of international politics whose endpoint is neither conflict nor assimilation with the West” with the aim of making “the West, and American power in particular, increasingly irrelevant.” This “World without the West”

rests on a rapid deepening of interconnectivity within the developing world—in flows of goods, money, people and ideas—that is surprisingly autonomous from Western control, resulting in the development of a new, parallel international system, with its own distinctive set of rules, institutions, and currencies of power.

An interesting concept and observation. Undoubtedly this was the dream of most of the Third World power players during the Cold War; it is the goal of most of the rising powers as well, particularly, as the article states, developing nations. The authors of the article believe that these countries will be led by Russia, India, and China. The writers of the National Interest article further note that “the twenty largest and wealthiest countries in the developing world are, as a whole, preferentially trading with the rising powers that lead the pack—China, India, Russia and Brazil”.

In a response to some questions raised after the article’s publication, one of the article’s authors, Steven Weber responded in a piece just as interesting as the original on The National Interest’s website. I found the response almost more interesting than the original piece, because it touched on some issues that Iwrote about last month. He writes:

Our “World Without the West” article is meant to provoke against that background [of the 2002 National Security Strategy, KNL], and I’m glad that it has done that. It’s meant to point to the possibility of alternative systems of governance that privilege values other than the ones we associate with America. We think those alternatives are present in today’s world. We think they are as “real” as our own—whether or not we like them. We think that a lot of people on this planet find those alternatives attractive, and not just out of ignorance, false consciousness, or because they are at an earlier stage of a single developmental trajectory.

The real issue for the United States is not the question of dominance, yes or no. We think it is years too late for Americans to come to the recognition that the “days of unquestioned U.S.—or even Western—dominance of the global economic system is coming to an end.” That process started a long time ago in everyone else’s minds. In any case, dominance is never unquestioned in international politics.

[. . .]

We don’t believe that the world is going to sharply separate into two completely separate “blocs” in the next decade, and we hope no one will caricature our argument as suggesting that. It’s almost impossible given the ambient levels of interdependence. We do believe, however, that the levels of interdependence andinterconnectivity could increase much faster within the “World Without the West” grouping, than for the globe as a whole—as our data says they have over the last few years. Push that trend ten years into the future, and you have a world that is still connected globally, but much less densely relative to the partial blocs we are talking about.

I found these paragraphs especially relevant, given the recent row between Senators Obama (D-Il) and Clinton (D-NY). Both gave different answers when asked whether or not they would meet with leaders from “rogue” or enemy states as president; Obama said yes, Clinton said no. Clinton then referred toObama as “naive”. Obama shot back by calling Clinton “Bush-Cheney lite”. Hillary supporters have got their panties in a bunch over that last bit. I don’t disagree with Obama’s characterization; there is nothing fundamentally different about either Clinton’s or Bush’s grand strategy. They champion the same goal, but go about it and present it somewhat differently. Obama, for what it is worth does not either, but at least operates on the pretense that he plans to undo some of the excesses of the Bush foreign policy.

The point here, though, is not about nomenclature, but alternatives. A recentpiece in Foreign Affairs by Azar Gat dealt with “the rise of nondemocratic great powers”, the same states that the National Interest article mentions as the leaders of the “parallel” order. The central idea in Gat’s piece is that “the West’s old Cold War rivals China and Russia, now operating under authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, regimes. Authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945. They have been absent since then. But today, they seem poised for a comeback.” Why? Because capitalism “appears to be deeply entrenched, but the current predominance of democracy could be far less secure.” Communism, the only economic ideology that seriously offered a total alternative to capitalism was simply proven not to work after having been implemented. Democracy however has been tried in numerous polities the world over with varying levels of success in certain contexts. Authoritarian — not totalitarian — states that meld the free (or semi-free) market with almost guaranteed short term (if not long term) stability “today exemplified by China and Russia, may represent a viable alternative path to modernity, which in turn suggests that there is nothing inevitable about liberal democracy’s ultimate victory — or future dominance.” The West offers a formula best suited for polities with solidly middle class values. It is the middle and upper classes in much of Latin America that reject statist and authoritarian movements such as Hugo Chavez’s, not the lower classes, where leaders like him draw much of their support. It takes a certain level of popular and elite confidence to establish and preserve a democracy. In poor nations “democracy” tends to be quickly and easily monopolized by the upper middle class and extreme elites, negating the premise put forth by promoters of the “End of History” thesis that democracy necessarily fulfills the human desire for recognition by allowing individuals to participate in their political affairs, because they aren’t able to. Americans may like to ignore class dynamics, but in much of the world democracy operates to the detriment of the poorest of the poor; the lower classes in least developed nations. The “Bolivarian Revolution” of Hugo Chavez has been propelled by a phenomenon in which a military officer from one of his nation’s less regarded ethnic communities has mobilized the lower classes in that country against the liberal elites therein. This is not new, and one might wonder why this would not be popular in a country in which the difference between the rich and poor are so stark. Americans almost instinctively place themselves together with those with whom they can identify, the middle class, the white, and the happy go lucky. Such was it in Cuba, in Venezuela, and China/Taiwan. I recall a Venezuelan friend whose family had emigrated to the United States following Chavez’s rise to power (and whose family participates actively in the emigre opposition) explaining the results of a recent Venezuelan election thusly: “He basically just made all the black and poor people vote. If they didn’t vote there would not be any problems with America.” It is easy to believe him when Chavez says “They call me the monkey or black [. . .] They can’t stand that someone like me was elected.” If Americans want to compete with these authoritarian powers, they need to peddle something that holds appeal beyond the middle class and that can speak to the peasant.

They also need to recognize that their global influence is not going to go unchallenged and that it will not last much longer if they continue to behave as if, in the words of the 2002 National Security Strategy, “a single sustainable model for national success” is found in liberal democracy alone. There are other models that may or may not be better suited for the countries that the United States has targeted for democratic transformation. In Africa and parts of Latin America, the appeal of authoritarian powers is felt more deeply than America’s because these countries represent similar values not found in much of the West; particularly since, to use an expression of my grandfather, “the Chinese run on elbow grease, like all poor people. Americans buy elbow grease and pay some one to apply or use it for them. What do you do if you cannot afford to buy your elbow grease? You make it, you use your own. The Chinese know how to use their own and how to show others to use it. Americans show you the isle in the store where to find it.” As much as Americans pride themselves on their work ethic, their work ethic differs greatly from that of peoples in the developing world whose needs and circumstances are vastly different. A Chinese expatriate explained the Chinese appeal this way: “Old world solutions for old world problems.” A government that is oppressive but can provide for a decent quality of life and consolidation of national pride and expectations will do better than a liberal democratic one that cannot provide for either of these. This is especially true of states in regions with high levels of nationalistic pride and troubled backgrounds with liberalism, e.g. Central Asia, many parts of the Middle East, and Latin America. The present presentation of the American vision for the world is too vague to be acceptable in many important regions. What does it mean to be free when your nation lacks the basic resources to feed itself? Aside from issues of practicality, why should leaders of nations with independent intellectual, cultural and “civilizational” traditions conform to the “Western” model of governance? Overt pressure from the US may just encourage some peoples to entrench themselves in their own models simply because they are being told not to by an alien actor.

Furthermore, the assumption that the United States itself was or could be the world’s leading agent of change seems to be wrong. If it is true that other states can challenge, or frustrate to the point of collapse of failure, American hegemony, the primary assumption of neo-conservative foreign policy is wrong. The lack of an international counterweight to counter American power following the Cold War provided the notion that because the US was the only superpower and the world’s single most powerful actor it could do as it pleased internationally and others would not move against it simply because it was the United States with an air of legitimacy. As Weber writes

The implied “theory” of unilateralism—or perhaps I should say the implied “influence theory of unilateralism”—was that the United States had been left by the Soviet collapse as a state capable of structuring the incentives of others, such that their least bad option was always to do what we wanted. The capability to actually set up the world that way is a reasonable definition of unipolarity, but it was not a capability that America actually had, even in the 1990s. It was a conceit that rested on a fundamental overestimation of U.S. power.

The invasion of Iraq proved this thinking wrong on two counts. Firstly, the negative international reaction (from most American allies and rivals) showed that the United States could not chose causes and enforce its will thinking that it would be backed up simply because it was the lone superpower — in other words, might does not always make right. Secondly, its massive tactical failure proved that the United States is not a reliable military power in its own right. Its main strength is conventional combat (especially from the air), as evidenced by its easy defeat of the Iraqi regular military. On the other hand, the Americans have yet to be able to establish or keep peace in Iraq, showing — as the conflicts in the Philippines and Vietnam did — that the American Achilles heel is guerrilla warfare. Major conflicts in small, developing nations are not battlefields on which Americans should be eager to place their troops. This is something that neither of the major Democratic presidential candidates seem to be willing to admit; while Senator Clinton will repeatedly state that American soldiers now find themselves in a land in which they “do not know the language” — as if she was unaware that most Americans did not speak Arabic before she authorized the war — she will not admit that the American military has limits. Perhaps she and Senator Obama have recognized this privately, but it has yet to be reflected in their statements and formulations on foreign policy. American policy should try to avoid conflicts that in any way resemble Iraq or Vietnam because, contrary to what certain Republicans will say and congruent with what most major polls do say, Americans are easily won over to war weariness. They like brief, easy conflicts that make them feel good, not long, drawn out, and complicated ones that require a strong national will. This is especially true as most Americans have little stake in the conflict, facing neither a draft lottery nor a wide network of citizen soldiers drawn from the nation’s wealthy classes. Not only that, but the concept of patriotism in today’s voting class is vastly different from that of yesteryear and in other countries. Americans increasingly disassociate themselves from poor policy decisions or from political leaders with whom they disagree. While the fellow speeding down the highway with a “No My President” or “Not My War” bumper sticker may not intend to hurt the American soldier in the field, he is not helping to win anyone’s war. Any war that is unsuccessful for any measure of time will become an unpopular war in the current American political culture. The assumptions that bring Americans into this state of affairs much be discarded, particularly those which overestimate the appeal of American “values” and those which overestimate the tactical power of the American military. The only reason I can see for the United States not to embrace what is going to become an ever more multipolar world is for the sake of fear and hubris, which led the European empires to their spectacular downfalls. Perhaps this needs to happen, after all who resigns from worlddomination with honor?

The international system that “A World Without the West” describes operates in this manner:

Sovereign states are empowered to set the terms of the relationship inside their borders between the government and the governed. They then deal with each other externally in a market setting and recognize no real rights or obligations other than to fulfill agreed contracts. International institutions have no legitimate business other than to serve and facilitate these ends.

Cuius regio, eius religio? Reminds me quite a bit of the Westphalian system where the internal character of a given regime is left to its own leaders and other states judge and treat it based on its conduct internationally. The best example of this happening that I can think of is between China and Sudan, where Beijing seems to hear no evil and see no evil as it extracts most of the country’s oil. This attitude is further reflected in China’s dealings with a variety of Central Asian and Middle Eastern powers (Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the Gulf states, etc.), as well as with North Korea and many other less than five star African states. The Shanghai Cooperation Council is geared more towards regional security and stability, and less towards the advancement of communism or some other ideology (unless you count market authoritarianism as one). China’s “Three Evil Forces” — terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism — are being used as the template for its upcoming joint military exercises with the SCO (interestingly being held in Xinjiang, home to China’s Uygur Muslim minority). These are values that apply to most developing countries in the Old World (they are less relevant in the Western Hemisphere) looking to grow their economies within a safe and durable international framework. These are all issues that pertain to the well being of the community, and its rights. As opposed to the American approach which stresses the relevance of the well being of the individual, the Chinese — as noted earlier — take things from the vantage point of the whole. The same is true of Russia; unbridled (or scarcely regulated) liberalism is good for a few individuals but drains wider society of life. This is a view that hold much currency in many formerly Soviet states and many places where the distance between those who do the best and those who do the worst is greatest. China plays itself as being able to identify with the needs of the people and of the world; economic growth and equality coupled with peace and security. In nations where chaos has reigned in the recent past — from West and North Africa to Samarkand — the Chinese make a compelling case for the “economic reforms before political ones” model of development. China is not much different from most of these countries except for that it has followed a better grand strategy and has benefited from a generous and ambitious national tradition. And the Chinese are a post-Third World and post-colonial nation that understands the needs of other nations like itself, who, incidentally, out number those nations sharing the Western experience.

The Chinese commitment to “South-South co-operation” is, as the Foreign Policyblog notes,

With the strong states of Central Asia, Beijing’s message is about combating evil and crushing dissent. In Africa, China’s tag line is “Friendship, Peace, Cooperation and Development,” while in Southeast Asia—where people are wary of a historically imperial China—the Chinese talk about “trade and trust.” Beijing carefully selects each of these slogans to suit the circumstance, as none would work as well in any other part of the world. It’s a diplomatic strategy that has been quite successful, as we can see from China’s booming trade and burgeoning popularity in all these regions.

The Chinese grand strategy has historically been two pronged, building strong people-to-people relationships at a grassroots level with the people of a target state, and even stronger ties with the elites within these societies, in a way that Westerners have seldom been able to do with great success. The Chinese are, for instance, quite popular in Algeria for their food, their exotic clothing and furnature, all of which are sold successfully in Algiers’s Chinatown. At the same time, the Chinese has long standing ties to the Algerian military and political establishment. The Chinese were the first to recognize the Algerian Provisional Government in 1958, as I have mentioned before. Also as I have quoted before, the Chinese and Algerians

detailed arrangements both for the financing of Algerian arms purchases in the Middle East and Europe by an interest-free loan (“to be repaid after independence”) and for the training of selected Algerian officers in China are believed to have been made as early as the spring of 1959. (Ed. Brezinski, Zbigniew, Africa and the Communist World, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1963, pp.162-63)

In any event, it will be interesting watch the development of these authoritarian capitalist states as the century moves forward. In the short term it will be especially so, when a new American administration is faced with the choices and dilemmas that they pose for the United States, as it becomes increasingly difficult for the US to influence states with, for instance, poor human rights records. These countries will be able to — more or less — operate within the state system as normal actors, because they no longer have to make consessions with respect to “freedom” to get developmental assistance or military hardware so long as they behave themselves on the international stage — and have friendly ties with Russia or China. We see it today in limited settings in North Korea, Myanmar, and Sudan. What will China do when these countries collapse under the pressure of their own backwardness? If Sudan’s government were over thrown or the North Korean leader assassinated? How would it fight the Three Evils then? It will be interesting to watch.

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