Wayback Machine Time: A Look at Liberalism and the Limits of Justice

In my review of Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, I briefly touched on the philosophy of Michael Sandel, whose lectures on Justice became wildly popular in China around 2010. I first became familiar with Sandel’s work when studying political theory in university. His most famous work, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, effectively critiques the work of John Rawls but does not explain how Communitarian theory would construct a just society (Sandel does this in later work, while Amitai Etzioni, always on C-Span during the 1990s, was a more direct evangelist for Communitarianism).

Osnos’ interview with Sandel led me to dig up this review of the second edition of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice I wrote way back in 2000. Sandel’s emphasis on constitutive attachments remains as important today as when he first wrote Liberalism and the Limits of Justice in 1982. In brief, we are who we know, where we came from, what we believe in, and who we are related to, as much as we are individual, rational selves.

Warning: pretentious undergraduate philosophy writing ahead.


Communitarianism and the Limits of Explanation

If one were to peruse Michael J. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice hoping to find lucid statements of Communitarian principles, he or she would probably walk away disappointed. For although Sandel is found among the ranks of Communitarian authors, his presentation of Communitarian ideas remains elusive; he seems less an advocate for Communitarianism and more an adversary of competing ideological conceptions. While Sandel’s critique of Rawls’ deontological liberalism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is at points compelling from the Communitarian perspective, Sandel is arguably at his best when arguing against Rawls from perspectives other than Communitarianism. As we shall see by exploring Sandel’s closing essay from Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, his critique of Rawls’ Theory of Justice does more than present arguments from a Communitarian position; Sandel invokes both Kant and Rawls himself to question the practicality of Rawls’ ideas.

At the start of Sandel’s summation, he provides a condensed restatement of what he calls “deontology’s liberating project.” He writes that only in the post-modern conception of “…a universe empty of telos” can the constructivist ideal be realized (175). The subtextual question here is whether or not we agree that the universe is empty of telos. If we agree that the telos of the universe is either nonexistent or too complicated to be understood, then we may proceed with the constructivist project; otherwise, we will likely have objections to Rawls’ procedure. Nonetheless, Sandel would not have us think that deontology is nihilistic, for he reminds us that “…this liberalism does not hold that just anything goes. It affirms justice, not nihilism” (176). Thus, liberal deontology allows that we are only teleological beings in the sense that we choose and affirm our own ends, instead of possessing ends a priori to our selves, and that an affirmation of justice is necessary to achieve this autonomy. However noble this project may be—and the implications of dignity achieved through the realization of autonomy make deontology seem quite noble—Sandel argues that the procedures and conceptions Rawls utilizes are flawed, starting with the veil of ignorance.

In contradistinction to Rawls’ depiction of the veil of ignorance as a device whereby subjects freely choose principles of justice while divorced from their own biases, Sandel presents the veil of ignorance as a device guaranteed to produce arbitrary results (177-178). According to Sandel, Rawls’ free and equal moral persons match “…pre-existing desires … to the best means available for satisfying them” (178). Because the free and equal moral persons are similarly situated and come to into the veil of ignorance possessing mutually disinterested, yet—according to Sandel—nearly identical, “thin conceptions of the good,” Sandel regards them as agents of discovery rather than choice, which means they lack the ability to actually engage in a contractual agreement or “construct” anything (178). Therefore, Sandel turns Rawls’ own words against him: Rawls’ two principles of justice cannot be “freely chosen” if the subjects behind the veil of ignorance are incapable of choice.

With regard to Rawls’ two principles of justice, Sandel finds fault with the difference principle by analyzing it from the perspective of traditional deontology. “[The difference principle] begins with the thought … that the assets I have are only accidentally mine. But it ends by assuming that these are therefore common assets and that society has a prior claim to the fruits of their exercise” (178). If this were simply a matter of the assets in question being material in nature, then Rawls’ project would be economically redistributionist, and would not necessarily provoke any deontological objections; however, for Rawls, “assets” includes natural talents, skills, and abilities, all of which would be arranged to meet preexisting societal ends. To understand the implications of this idea, we may note that such assets, no matter how we wish to abstract them, are inherently linked to specific persons. If society arranges these assets in certain desirable patterns, it must do the same to the persons the assets are attached to. However, this violates the Kantian maxim that individuals should always be treated as ends, never as means, which is central to the deontological conception of justice. As Sandel writes, “[w]e cannot be persons for whom justice is primary and also be persons for whom the difference principle is a principle of justice” (178).

If Sandel’s argument against Rawls’ procedures seems to dwell on their contradictory nature, then his critique of Rawls’ conception of the self tends to focus upon its incompleteness. For Sandel, our constitutive attachments are “inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are” and are the source of character and moral depth (179). The deontological self, because of its detachment from constitutive associations, must weigh all ends as equally valid; conversely, only a self which possesses character is actually able to choose among ends in a manner that is not morally arbitrary (180). Furthermore, the deontological self, barren of constitutive attachment, is also barren of self-knowledge; it cannot reflect upon itself, for such reflection presumes a self encumbered by awareness of its position in history and society (179). Lastly, the deontological self is incapable of achieving friendship in any real sense. Friends share and help to revise each other’s conceptions of the good, and by doing so, impart to each other their interpretations of identity and worth (180-181). But the deontological self cannot share conceptions of the good; such conceptions are a purely private manner, and any self-knowledge that would be learned through sharing is lost to it (181).

Sandel concludes this half of the critique by suggesting Rawls’ rejoinder. Rawls, we are told, argues that the necessary thinness of the deontological self only applies in public life and does not need to apply in private life (182). Against this, Sandel invokes the universalist character of deontology, noting, “…the deontological conception of the self cannot admit the distinction required [by Rawls]” (182). The nature of deontology is such that it requires duty to be categorically blind; therefore, one cannot act in private differently than he or she would act in public and still claim to be adhering to deontological principles. In this fashion, Sandel paints Rawls’ theory of the self as incomplete vis-à-vis Rawls’ own claims.

The ironic nature of Sandel’s arguments throughout Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is not that they make it impossible to embrace Rawls’ theories, but rather, that they make it difficult to embrace Rawls’ theories from a Kantian perspective. The Communitarian arguments against Rawls surface when Sandel invokes the importance of constitutive attachments, but these points are minor compared to the Kantian arguments against Rawls, because Rawls makes no claims of being a Communitarian in the first place. What is not explored, unfortunately, is how Communitarians, in the absence of a liberal political system, would establish a well-ordered society, or what methods they would use to differentiate between conceptions of the good; Sandel seems content to leave these issues philosophically opaque to us. If the object of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice is to point at John Rawls, the grand old man of modern liberalism, and say that the emperor has no clothes, Sandel is at least partially successful. As for broadening his audience’s knowledge about Communitarianism, alas, we all remain behind a veil of ignorance.

Book Review: Age of Ambition

It’s hard to review a book without resorting to cliches. This goes doubly true for a China book, so I will attempt to avoid the obvious arguments about Evan Osnos’ just-released Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. In brief, it is a good book, an introduction to those in the West learning about China, and a grand summation of events for those of us who experienced the Hu Jintao years as expatriates. At 416 pages, it makes for brisk reading, and Osnos’ writing is accessible and entertaining.

To begin, Osnos is a journalist and his profession lends a humanist, storytelling perspective to covering China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos hasn’t written a polemic about China, nor has he picked apart State Council statistics, nor has he engaged in Zhongnanhaiology to predict Chinese foreign policy. Osnos covered China for eight years for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker and continues to blog about China and other topics on his New Yorker blog. His focus in the book is the people of the People’s Republic, and what they can tell us about China.

Once again, I wish to avoid the obvious cliches and say that if Osnos’ book can be compared to anything, it’s literature. Like George R.R. Martin, Osnos gathers together a cast of point of view characters, repeated interview subjects who he uses to explore the radical changes which swept through China during the last three decades. The book is subtitled “Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith,” and is divided into three parts representing each of these themes in a loosely chronological framework. Osnos uses his interviews to explore each theme, and while much of the material should be familiar to his longtime readers, he adds enough to keep us satisfied.

The first part of the book, “Fortune,” is naturally concerned with the development of China’s economy. Osnos takes us to the 1970s, but also to the 1990s, when he first visited the country. By the time the Tribune returns Osnos to the country, he was already impressed by the rapid pace of development:

The last time I had been in China, per capita income was three thousand dollars a year—equivalent to the United States in 1872. The United States too fifty-five years to get to seven thousand dollars. China did it in ten.

As most China chroniclers are apt to do, Osnos ticks all the usual boxes when describing the new realities for the Party-State and the economy. “The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty.” “At the lowest levels, the Party felt like a professional network.” “Young people began to speak admiringly of the quality they called gexing, ‘individuality.’” We China hands—both amateur and professional—ought to forgive these kind of characterizations, since we often fail to appreciate how new this can all seem to people back home. Isn’t it simply true that, as Osnos writes, “In the age of ambition, life sped up”?

Not all of life’s velocity is in high speed trains and high-rise apartments, though. Since much of my time in China has been spent in education, I enjoyed Osnos’ look at “English fever” and at the Chinese quest for educational achievement, which are part and parcel of the Chinese quest for material security. Osnos meets the now-infamous entrepreneur Li Yang of “Crazy English” (and later, domestic violence) fame, whose teaching methods I came to know and loathe after I arrived in China in 2004.

(A sampling, from my own personal knowledge: Students were given passages and told to read them as loud as possible as many times as possible every day. This severely disrupted the study patterns of other students in classrooms and common areas, so they ostracized their Crazy English-loving classmates . Students were encouraged by Li and his imitators to literally stalk foreigners and demand English practice. In one incident, a student at the university I worked at followed German exchange students around on his bicycle for weeks, repeatedly asking them “Where are you from?” like an English-crazed version of the newspaper kid from the film Better Off Dead. A Canadian colleague of mine who taught at one of the Crazy English summer camps had a Russian coworker who was instructed to fend off questions about his accent by telling people he was Scottish.)

Accused by some of his critics of leading a cult, Li told Osnos in an interview that he, like Han Solo, was just in it for the money. (Osnos leaves it to his readers to draw the obvious parallel between con men and cult leaders.) Li Yang might not have been a cult leader but he had his share of true believers. Osnos befriended Michael Zhang, a Crazy English fan who ardently believed in the transformative power of English, becoming an educator and would-be entrepreneur. Osnos follows Michael’s story for the better part of a decade, with Michael’s obsessions, optimism, and harsh living conditions becoming a metaphor for the Chinese scramble for wealth every bit as significant as the experiences of others interviewed by Osnos, including media moguls like Hu Shuli and power brokers like the World Bank’s Justin Yifu Lin.

The second part of Osnos’ book, “Truth,” is unsurprisingly about freedom of the press and of expression, censorship, and dissidents. These are also the kinds of things we expect to hear about when reading about China, but again, Osnos has his own take on things. Journalists tend to be sympathetic to dissidents, partly because they are fascinated by David and Goliath narratives, but also because, as Osnos reminds us, journalists get to encounter dissidents directly: it is harder to dismiss someone when we see the effects of oppression with our own eyes.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism in reporting on Chinese dissidents, it’s not China correspondents with firsthand knowledge of China. Instead, it’s Western media commentators who distort the nature of Chinese political dissent through third-, fourth-, and even fifth-hand accounts, much like a game of “Chinese whispers.” For instance, no journalist who got to interview dissident (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo or his wife Liu Xia came away thinking that Charter 08 would lead to the imminent collapse of the Communist Party, yet their stories were repeated again and again with subtle alterations that changed the scope and nature of the Lius’ activism to the point where many Western readers were asked to accept wishful thinking about a Chinese democratic revolution as a substitute for actual understanding.

Thankfully, Osnos does not present us with a single dissident voice, because such a thing does not exist in China. In addition to the Lius, we meet journalists like the aforementioned Hu Shuli, who “dance with shackles” while trying to report the news; Han Han, the novelist, race car driver, and social critic; Ai Weiwei, the avant-garde artist and activist; Chen Guangcheng, whose activism highlights failures in China’s rule of law rather than rejecting the Chinese government; and, most interestingly, China’s neoconservatives like Tang Jie, whose nationalist positions are often to the right of Beijing’s.

While liberal figures like Han Han, Chen Guangcheng, and Ai Weiwei are regularly featured in the Western press, China’s neoconservatives are either crudely stereotyped or not discussed at all. In part this is because patriotic thinkers have been treated, in the Leninist sense, as “useful idiots” by the Communist Party: allowed to thrive when they contribute to national unity or support the propaganda discourse against the Party’s foes, but shut down when they go off script or otherwise demonstrate their independence. Thus it becomes easy to characterize them as government-controlled rather than reflecting an actual (albeit niche) viewpoint among Chinese. (How many Straussians are there in China, exactly?) As with most of his interview subjects, Osnos treats the neoconservatives with respect, but is not above pointing out ironies:

“The mainstream of Chinese media is liberal; that is common knowledge,” Li said, and he ticked off a list of objectives he didn’t agree with: “independent legal system, market economy, small government. … These people who control the media say they are liberal, but they act like authoritarians. Alternative views are blocked.” For a second, I thought he was making a joke, but he wasn’t: the rising generation of Chinese nationalists was earnestly complaining about the lack of free expression.

When introducing us to Tang Jie and his allies, Osnos highlights the 2008 Olympic Torch protests and negative Chinese reactions to Western media coverage of Tibet as the crucible of their new nationalism. He notes the flurry of activity in April of that month, including Tang Jie’s viral Youtube video “2008 China Stand Up!” and boycotts of French products and the French supermarket chain Carrefour. (The largest of the Olympic Torch protests took place in France, and nationalists fabricated stories about French support for Tibetan independence.) Osnos places the Sichuan earthquake around roughly the same time as the nationalist protests, yet he doesn’t explicitly link the earthquake, which happened on May 12th, to the collapse of the protest movement by mid-May. At the time, however, the shock of the earthquake effectively disarmed Tang Jie and others of their biggest weapon: an audience that cared.

Of course, the Sichuan earthquake is not the only disaster which altered China’s political landscape in the last decade. Osnos revisits some of his phenomenal writing from The New Yorker on the Wenzhou high speed train crash and the subsequent trial of Liu Zhijun, China’s fantastically corrupt railroad minister. Much as disasters and famines threatened the rule of Chinese emperors, Sichuan and Wenzhou led to crises of confidence in the modern Chinese government, and also more broadly to crises of faith in society. This brings us to “Faith,” the third and final part of the book, which is also arguably the weakest section. While it’s true that parts one and two are not exclusively about economic growth and politics, those expecting “Faith” to focus at length on China’s turn to religion will be disappointed. In general, the theme of the third part is muddled—there are great stories here, but they don’t stitch together quite as well as the first two parts of the book. Osnos uses the last third of the book—plus a lengthy epilogue—to wrap up all of the stories he’s been leading us through. As I noted at the onset, the book is also loosely chronological, meaning many of the stories “finish” in part three.

Before he returns to Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng, and others, Osnos briefly looks at Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Perhaps because he was based in Beijing, Islam gets no noteworthy discussion, which is unfortunate considering recent events in Xinjiang. Osnos is clearly interested in Chinese beliefs and how they address the spiritual crisis brought on by the dialectical materialism of the Communist Party and the moneyed materialism of Chinese capitalism, as reflected in consumer safety scandals, political scandals, natural disasters, and moral disasters. Osnos recounts the horrific death of little Yueyue in Guangdong, who was fatally wounded in a hit and run and left dying in the street while passersby in her neighborhood ignored her moans. He questions the comparisons between Yueyue and the famous American case of Kitty Genovese, noting that both incidents were turned into morality plays, and argues against drawing conclusions that Chinese in general have become amoral. Here Osnos quotes anthropologist Zhou Runan: “‘Young people are training to become fully rounded individuals, not selfish isolated people. That’s where the hope is: in the young.’”

While Osnos is optimistic, at the onset of the book he notes that China in the 1990s lacked the kind of social associations we would find in the West—clubs, sports teams, civic groups, and the like. The Party had just spent the better part of three decades demolishing all such organizations, of course, and viewed efforts to create independent social organizations with suspicion. According to sociologist Robert Putnam in his landmark work Bowling Alone, voluntary social organizations are key to developing social capital, and without them, societies have difficulty building trust between citizens and between citizens and government. Osnos doesn’t reference Putnam, but there are echoes of Putnam’s theories when Osnos interviews China’s most unlikely philosophical superstar, communitarian thinker and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel.

In America, Sandel first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a critic of John Rawls’ liberal Theory of Justice, which ordered society along rational lines through moral agents unencumbered by deep moral beliefs or social backgrounds. Sandel’s communitarianism in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice was a reaction to the unreality of Rawls’ moral agents. Like Putnam, communitarians believed in the necessity of fostering social capital and social trust. In China, on the other hand, Sandel’s target wasn’t Kantian liberalism but the raw utilitarian capitalism unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, which is about as far as one could get from Rawls. Still, thanks to videos of his Justice lectures and his guest lectures in China, Sandel’s message reached the hearts of many young Chinese. Osnos offers an anecdote of a woman named Shi Ye, who proclaimed during Sandel’s final lecture in Beijing, “‘Your class saved my soul.’”

If there’s an overarching theme throughout Age of Ambition, it’s that Osnos remains positive about China’s people even as he documents the country’s new inequalities and the struggles that many Chinese have with their government. With regard to that government, although there’s politics in almost every chapter of the book, Osnos walks a pragmatic line between criticizing corruption and authoritarianism on the one hand and acknowledging the Chinese government’s successes on the other. To Westerners who have come to imagine Beijing as the very picture of Hobbes’ Leviathan, this seems contradictory. Isn’t it all just the same government? Don’t the failures just add up until they become unacceptable to the people? More importantly, why don’t the Chinese people hate their government as much as I would?

Some readers may be disappointed, but Osnos isn’t offering us that kind of critique. Looking closely at his interviews with people like Michael Zhang, Hu Shuli, Han Han, Tang Jie, and even Chen Guangcheng, one can gain a sense about how Chinese people believe their society is, and how they feel it ought to be. We can’t leave out people like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo either, since their treatment speaks to a Chinese government which has yet to mature. Osnos repeatedly compares the China of today to the Gilded Age of American history, giving us an analytical tool we can use to understand how China is developing. Implicit in that comparison is a promise that things can improve, because we, too, have been down that road. Thus, if there seems to be complacency among most Chinese about politics today, it may be because the future remains alive with possibility.

The Limits of Abolition

Let’s take Chris Hayes’ views at face value and ask the big question he fails to ask in his Nation piece calling for the abolition of the fossil fuel industry: since the whole foundation for his argument is the existential threat posed by fossil fuels, when China, its allies, and its client states say no to his scheme, are we going to go to war to enforce it? And if we’re not going to go to war, then do we double-down on our production restrictions in order to compensate for Chinese emissions?

To begin with, when Hayes draws the parallels to ending slavery he should acknowledge that one of the drivers for the political war on slavery in the Americas was the literal war on the trans-Atlantic slave trade fought by the British. If the British had not made the global commerce of slavery prohibitively expensive, then it would’ve been much more difficult to achieve the goal of abolition. What the British and the abolitionists achieved was the banishment of slavery from Western world. However, low-level forms of slavery persisted in much of Asia and Africa well into the twentieth century.

Thus, abolition wasn’t actually total; it only seemed that way. However, the use of carbon in countries not agreeing to Hayes’ scheme would be much more significant. One possible retort to this is that the oil market would price China and others out of fossil fuel dependency by raising the price of imported fuel, but that assumes that China will be subject to the same market forces as the West. Based on the current policies of the Chinese government, this rosy scenario cannot come to pass.

Hayes notes that, in the West, sovereign wealth funds may consider divesting from oil companies so as to no longer fund exploration and production. That is within their right. In China, on the other hand, it’s not private industry doing the investing, it’s government entities and state owned enterprise who are steering the captured assets of Chinese depositors–people who have no control over where their money is going. China will not rely on foreign oil companies to do at cost what CNOOC and SINOPEC can do cheaper thanks to almost unlimited money from Chinese banks.

The bottom line is that while we could lock down the carbon wealth of the Canadian tar sands and North Sea, among other places, China would happily assume the mantle of monopsony buyer of oil from Russia and the developing world. Moreover, with Russia and China already willing to make threats of war to obtain energy resources in Crimea and the South China Sea, respectively, are we to believe that they would voluntarily agree to a scheme which would deny the use of their energy resources for the foreseeable future?

The above should not be taken to mean that a do-nothing approach to renewable resources and greener vehicles makes sense. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S are too expensive at the moment, but herald the possibilities of technology. Hopefully, BYD’s new electric bus factories in the US will spur Americans to innovate and compete against Chinese industry. Moreover, a shift away from fossil fuels has obvious benefits in terms of environmental protection and national security. For instance, Western Europe’s dependence on fuels imported from Russia has given Putin a free hand in Ukraine, while the shariazation of Brunei has proceeded with little criticism from Western governments thanks to the Sultanate’s oil wealth. Oil is a shield, and behind every shield is a weapon.

But why haven’t we made more progress internationally? Hayes focuses on the domestic level, telling us a story of the capture of the Republican Party by corporate interests, of Newt Gingrich et al retreating from science towards denialism, yet that doesn’t explain why, at the global level, China, and to a lesser extent India and Brazil, have been able to successfully monkeywrench the work of European leaders and both Democratic and Republican presidents. That doesn’t explain why even Democrats refuse to vote for legislation that would hobble the American economy and give the BRICs free reign.

For their part, the BRICs have long maintained that limits on their energy consumption are unfair so long as they remain developing countries. Consider that China, despite the PPP-based hype, is approximately half the size of the US economy but already uses more energy during production because Chinese industry is more corrupt and less efficient. It’s safe to assume that China will become more energy efficient in the future, but even then, the energy demands of China’s economy will be massive. By 2030, China alone is projected to produce 15 gigatons of carbon emissions per year, which is roughly half of the safe level forecast by climate scientists. And these emissions will come despite the fact that China is the world’s largest investor in renewables. What will happen to the world’s environment by the time China is actually a developed county?

Chris Hayes’ ideas are is well-intentioned, yet ultimately dependent on liberal democratic values to promote public goods. After all, if the people of the world are going to vote to protect the planet, don’t they need to be able to vote first? Unfortunately, according to Hayes’ apocalyptic scenario, an authoritarian China dooms us all. This doesn’t mean we do nothing, just that we acknowledge that Hayes’ argument works best at the partisan level (I’m sure my Democrat-voting friends have read it approvingly) because it is free from the complications of reality. Once we talk about how Hayes’ plan would actually be implemented globally, the abolition of fossil fuels, like Piketty’s global wealth tax–that other hot progressive idea of the moment–sinks under its own utopian weight.

Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs

This recent Tweet by the always enjoyable Dr. Daniel Drezner got me to thinking: Many IR scholars and policymakers seem to misunderstand the way China accumulates and uses power in the pursuit of revisionism.

The question of whether a great power is “revisionist” hinges on its degree of satisfaction with the international system, whose rules—in the current incarnation—are largely set by your friendly neighborhood hegemon, the United States, along with its friends in Western Europe. Putin’s Russia has emerged as a revisionist force because Russian imperialism in its near abroad, not to mention its general obstructionism in international institutions, amounts to a very public rejection of the rules of the game written and enforced by the West.

Expressed geopolitically, Putinism is an unsettling echo of 19th century imperialism of the blood and soil variety, the imperialism we are most familiar with: A great power gains control of territories directly, either by placing military forces throughout the annexed territory and exerting politico-military control behind the scenes while allowing a figleaf of local governance to continue, by annexing a “slice” of territory which happens to be home to the imperialists’ ethnic group, or else by eliminating both the government and the borders of the entire annexed country, swallowing it up as a hungry amoeba swallows hapless bacteria.

Those countries we think of as imperial powers—Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Spain and (yes) the United States, among others—have all used these “19th century methods” to gain territory and carve out spheres of influence. Following World War Two and again after the Cold War, however, Western policymakers attempted to impress upon the international system the notion that imperialism, like aggressive war, is illegitimate. Neoliberal institutions at the international level—the World Bank, the IMF, and the GATT/WTO—were meant to allow for peaceful post-imperial exchange of resources, much as the European Coal and Steel Community (and later the EU itself) was meant to solve the problem of European resource warfare.

(Let us call modern imperialists “hard power revisionists,” after Dr. Joseph Nye’s oft-quoted distinctions between “hard” and “soft” power.)

One must also admit that all this focus on Western ideas and the European theater limits the explanatory power of theory. “Hard power revisionists” in Europe are easy to spot, whether they are real (Vladimir Putin) or dubious (Slobodan Milošević), but Asia presents us with a very different situation. To be sure, there are outposts of “hard power revisionism” such as North Korea, but no one thinks seriously of the Kim Dynasty’s ability to rewrite the rules of the game normatively or militarily.

And then there is China—what kind of great power is the Middle Kingdom?

China’s revisionism is clearest to Western observers in the way China prosecutes maritime claims—that is, territorial claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has at times attempted to treat the region as a quasi-territorial sea, which would allow China to deny the right of passage, rather than an Exclusive Economic Zone, which would only allow China the exclusive right to harvest sea resources in a 200-nautical mile zone of control as outlined in the treaty.

More importantly, China has thus far rejected all methods of arbitration outlined in Part 15 of the UNCLOS treaty, which establishes four methods for handling disputes—(1) a hearing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); (2) a hearing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ); (3) ad hoc arbitration in accordance with UNCLOS procedures; or (4) a hearing before a special tribunal for the purposes of arbitration. China’s position is that other claimants can only negotiate with China bilaterally (as in the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN member-states) or that the other claimants have no claim (as is apparently the case in the East China Sea disputes with Japan). Most of the states involved have rejected China’s methods of handling maritime disputes, with the Philippines now bringing its claim against China in ITLOS. Not only has China actually refused to join the hearings, it has even gone so far as to accuse of the Philippines of “immorality” for turning to the UN for help.

To underscore the theme of revisionism, the Chinese attitude towards UNCLOS is perhaps best outlined by Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan-yew:

I don’t believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China’s historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak.

Bear in mind that when Lee says “when China was weak” we’re not discussing unequal treaties of the late 19th century—China ratified UNCLOS in that distant year of 1996.

Despite the rhetorical warfare employed by China in its unrelenting pursuit of maritime claims, the country prefers clever logistics strategy to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. In an excellent multimedia presentation on how the Philippines and China have vied for control over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the New York Times detailed China’s “cabbage strategy”:

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

The more ships China sends to the East China Sea and South China Sea, the more the country looks like a “hard power revisionist,” and the more American policymakers sound like they’re dealing with a country like Russia. But this is only one layer of China’s imperial strategy. The other involves softer power—and is much older.

About a decade ago, China made a big push to celebrate Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who led “Treasure Fleets” in seven trips around Asia in the 15th century. Sinophilic accounts note how Zheng He’s ships spread Chinese culture, linked up Ming China to the Chinese diaspora in the near abroad, and peacefully demonstrated Chinese greatness to nations as far away as the Horn of Africa. More realistic accounts hold that Zheng He was not afraid to use military force to play regional kingmaker, secure trade routes, or even to acquire wealth. Naturally, the Chinese Government has emphasized the more pacific aspects of Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages, linking Zheng He to the ongoing propaganda narrative of China’s “Peaceful Rise.”

With these accounts of Imperial China as background, a new generation of revisionist scholars have painted a sympathetic portrait of the Chinese imperial project. Martin Jacques has certainly dabbled in this line of thinking, but Pankaj Misrha is the most compelling of these historians. Mishra has argued, in an unconscious echo of Samuel Huntington’s civilizational thesis, that Asia has long been comfortable with China as a civilizational leader:

For China was not only the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures: Its empires were also at the center of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become crucial in the economic development of Southeast Asia.

China’s neighbors benefited both materially and politically from acknowledging its hegemony; they didn’t seek to “balance” its power in the European way by forming alliances.

The emperors in Beijing, in turn, seemed content with recognition of their legitimacy and authority as the dominant power (no one back then bothered with the nominal “equality” of our nation-state system that gives Vanuatu as many voting rights at the United Nations as India, but allots the greatest power and influence to the U.S.). Though militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states, China refrained from making them.

These historical accounts—of Zheng He and the tributary system—point to the possibilities of Chinese statecraft in the future. While Mishra doesn’t come out and use the “I-word,” China’s historical mode of imperialism was built around soft power, and insomuch as China is a revisionist today, it is mostly a “soft power revisionist.” As I noted on Twitter, a key difference between Putin’s imperialism and Chinese imperialism is that Putin’s path to regional hegemony is based on threats—“join us or else”—whereas China offers rewards to those who follow Beijing’s line. For Chinese, Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities” remains operative. China’s policies are far more subtle than Russia’s, yet given China’s sheer size, even its “subtle changes” to geopolitics can be earthshaking.

Russia talks louder in part because it is a smaller country (in terms of population and GDP) with perceived security threats directly at its very long borders. Despite the security alliances between the United States and other countries in Asia, China faces no threat comparable to the NATO alliance. US engagement with, say, Vietnam is not as dangerous to China as expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep is to Russia. But Russia is also louder because Eastern Christendom has deep-seated suspicions of Western powers going back to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

If Russians seem to inhabit a Hobbesian moral universe, it might be because the West has proven itself an unreliable ally at best—and an outright enemy at worst. Although China also has a history of negative interactions with the West, and the Communist Party propagandizes it in every museum and textbook, that history is conspicuously short compared to the thousands of years China spent all-but-isolated from the West. Rather than fume about the West for hundreds of years like the Russians have, China spent most of its history just like Don Draper, not thinking of us at all.

At this point we must ask what the actual effects of Chinese revisionism would be. As we’ve already mentioned, China’s maritime claims would alter Asia’s status quo by giving China the right to control passage by sea and air. At present, the right of passage in the South China Sea is guaranteed by Western-influenced international law—and American firepower. China’s rise seems sure to change the balance of power in East Asia, whether or not the United States can shift resources to the region. In addition, China has flexed its diplomatic and economic muscles with ASEAN, ending nearly fifty years of ASEAN consensus at the hands of China’s client state, Cambodia. China added insult to injury by offering an inadequate response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, leading some to believe that China was punishing the Philippines for defying China on its South China Sea claims. In these cases and others, Chinese revisionism is being felt at the regional level before it reaches a global scale.

Let’s talk about China’s influence on human rights and development for a moment. This is an area where China is already shaping the global discourse. Henry Kissinger has always been fond of China for a reason: In contrast to the missionary socialism of the Soviet Union or the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, China prefers realpolitik, in which no regime is too authoritarian (or too democratic!) to do business with.

Of course, American policymakers are already used to great and minor powers deviating from the liberal internationalist agenda for reasons of realpolitik. In the 1990s, the Clinton State Department was often vexed by countries citing self-interest while undermining peace, security, and human rights efforts in Africa. There’s a case to be made, for instance, that France inadvertently prolonged the Rwandan conflict and genocide by siding with the Hutu government. China is cut from the same cloth, but is potentially immensely more powerful than France. China’s recent history in Africa is illustrative. For instance, even after South Africa turned its back on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, China has remained a stalwart friend of the regime. Under Hu Jintao, China characterized Western calls for African aid to be tied to reforms “bullying” and offered money without strings attached.

Of course, there are always strings.

During the history of the Chinese tribute system, one of the most important things for the Empire was that the tribute riches continued to flow. It didn’t matter if a country offered tribute to China and a regional rival, as the Ryukyu Kingdom did to both China and Japan. But if regime change in one of the tributaries threatened the status quo, China might intervene, as it did in the 15th century Ming-Ho war with Vietnam, which was fought to restore the pro-Chinese Tran Dynasty and ended in the outright annexation of Vietnam. Today, business deals and international trade have replaced past forms of tribute, but China is still mainly preoccupied with keeping the status quo in its relations with other countries.

When Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata campaigned against violence and labor rights violations in Chinese mining operations, China threatened to pull out investment in advance of the 2006 Zambian elections, a move which may have helped the incumbent government win reelection. China was then rewarded with a special economic zone in Zambia in 2008, which further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment, despite promises of nearly $1 billion in Chinese investment. When Sata finally came to power in 2011 following violence at a Chinese-associated mine in 2010, Chinese policymakers scrambled to justify themselves to the new government. To Sata’s credit, his administration has kept up the pressure on China, though he hasn’t exactly kicked China out.

Elsewhere, as the Arab Spring kicked off in North Africa and the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, China’s primary concerns have been protecting Chinese nationals and economic interests. China was uncomfortable doing business with Egypt’s then-President Morsi when he came to Beijing in August 2012, but Morsi still managed to gain pledges of cooperation and promises of investment. In Ukraine, China has had to balance its traditional alliance with Russia with its desire to stay on friendly relations with the new government and get back some part of the $3 billion China loaned to Ukraine for agricultural development. Thus, for reasons of realpolitik, China has appeared to be on both sides of Putin’s great Ukrainian adventure.

On the face of it, China’s development aid strategy is an improvement upon Western demands which have often saddled African countries with shaky neoliberal foundations and/or done little to improve African infrastructure. Furthermore, although it is fashionable to accuse China of “imperialism” in Africa, China is not guilty of anything resembling Europe’s horrific legacy of imperial brutality on the continent. Compared to the history of Belgium in Africa, for instance, Beijing looks like a moral giant. That said, by focusing mainly on economics we are missing half of the picture. In terms of human rights in Africa and elsewhere, China has begun to shift away from its Opening Up Period policy of neutrality towards active opposition to Western attempts to enforce human rights norms.

Throughout 2012, China joined Russia to veto several UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to human rights abuses in Syria. This year, China has come out strongly in defense of its client state North Korea and has, unsurprisingly, condemned UN discussion of human rights in China. Although China wielded its UN veto to protect client states in the past (one thinks of China protecting Mugabe the junta in Burma), there’s a new assertiveness in China’s use of the veto. Of China’s seven UN Security Council vetoes since gaining its seat in 1971, five have been used in the past seven years.

Finally, we must not forget that all of this is happening against the impressive backdrop of China’s emergence as the largest economy in the world, which begs the question of who will be able to rein in pariah states when the Chinese market alone is big enough sustain them, much as Russia today sustains Belarus and China sustains North Korea. In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

That is a kind of revisionism that Vladimir Putin might dream of, but would never be capable of bringing about.

The Meaning of One Child Policy Reform

With news outlets rushing to describe how the One Child Policy will be reformed to allow anywhere from ten to twenty million Chinese families to have an additional child, it seems useful to look at the economic and social implications of the changes. As many have noted, any reform of the One Child Policy carries with it great symbolic weight, even though the One Child Policy is basically moot for many Chinese.

Why moot? Although often presented to Western audiences as an iron fisted law – and it is indeed sometimes enforced in a draconian manner by local authorities – the One Child Policy nonetheless features a number of exceptions. For instance, rural residents whose first child is female, all Chinese minorities, and couples who were both born in single-child households are all eligible to have two children. Even in cases where having a second child is illegal, the enforcement of the law is influenced by China’s crypto-federalist structure, with punishment ranging from minor fines, to the loss of one’s job, to forced abortion and sterilization. Generally speaking, the better-governed a Chinese city, the more lenient authorities are in enforcing the One Child Policy.

While Chinese in the countryside often have more than one child, urban Chinese entitled to having two children rarely exercise that right. There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, while having two children might be legal for a couple, there remains a strong social taboo against having additional children. More often, children represent an undue financial burden for Chinese faced with First World childcare expenses on an emerging economy budget. Along these lines, the tax contributions of Chinese citizens are largely based on VAT and payroll taxes, and the tax system provides little in the way of incentives for couples to have children. Still other couples see a second child – or any children – as an obstacle to career development and even leisure time, which reflects attitudes throughout much of urban Asia. For instance, in Taiwan, which is not controlled by the government in Beijing and thus has no One Child Policy, the birthrate was just 1.265 in 2012.

China’s megacities – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou – would nonetheless like couples to have more children to grow their tax base and help pay for the costs of a graying population. Over the next generation, the average age of Chinese will grow considerably, and large cities – where life expectancy is the longest – will be even older than the national average. In 2009, Shanghai began a campaign to get eligible couples to have two children, but the public reaction was mixed. While in other countries a similar population deficit in large cities would be corrected through internal migration, China’s household registration system, the hukou, limits the ability of countryside people to become residents of megacities.

Arguably, One Child Policy reform and hukou reform are interlinked. Megacities and first- and second-tier cities have resisted hukou reform because of a longstanding fear of the creation of slums and possible threats to social order. Moreover, internal remittances from the China’s East Coast to the countryside have played an important role in rural development, increasing nonfarm income and allowing for increased economic specialization. Nonetheless, many rural Chinese would like to become residents of larger cities, citing improved access to education and social insurance as the main incentives for changing residency.

In recent years, the government’s response to the demand for urban hukou (urban residency) has been to urbanize the countryside. Shenzhen, a city literally built from the ground up in the last thirty years, is the best-known example, but China abounds with new edge cities and townships which have appeared almost overnight. The government’s recently announced plans for hukou reform are also focused on these current and future lower-tier cities, with the promise of turning rural Chinese into city-dwellers – though not into residents of Shanghai and Beijing. These fast-growing cities will be subject to the same tax pressures as their larger brethren, however, which leads to the question of how they can grow and maintain a local tax base if new residents are limited to only one child. Moreover, without better schools and social insurance in their own cities, newly-urban Chinese will still find migration to megacities attractive, which is a lose-lose scenario from the point of view of Chinese urban planners.

Enter the new One Child Policy reforms. Megacities will benefit from a population bump as the taboos against having two children are diminished. Smaller cities and cities planned for the future will benefit as populations grow and their tax base expands. China on the whole will benefit from the perception that the country is serious about changing one of its most controversial policies. What remains to be seen is how thorough the implementation of the reform will be at the local level. There are many vested interests that have turned the One Child Policy into a moneymaking tool and have used the policy in oppressive ways that Beijing itself has declared illegal. In these dark corners, like human rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s hometown of Linyi, the old, bad One Child Policy is unlikely to go quietly.

A Case of Soft Power Failure

As any political science major could tell you, in the traditional IR discourse, “power” is defined as the ability of a given state to make other states do what they want. Power is typically measured as a combination of military and economic power, and economic power is considered to be fungible — that is, it can become military power.

In Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s reformulation, “soft power” is defined as the ability of a state to make other states do what they want absent economic and military pressure. Soft power is the attractiveness of a country and its government; it makes states liked and makes other states pay attention to their ideas. There are various measures of soft power, but generally it’s described as the cultural, moral, legal, and ideological clout of a given state. Traditional concepts of power are defined as “hard power.”

Although China has focused on soft power development in its relationship with most of the Global South, in China’s near-abroad, the relationship is defined by hard power. In the case of Japan (the Senkakus), the Philippines (the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys), Vietnam (the Spratlys and Mekong River watershed), India (Arunachal Pradesh), and elsewhere, China has used aggressive displays of military force, economic sanctions, and “forward” development such as building highways into disputed territories or establishing outposts at sea. Within ASEAN itself, China has utilized economic power to cultivate patron-client relations with Cambodia and (increasingly) Thailand, which has left ASEAN unable to reach a consensus on the best way to deal with the South China Sea disputes.

For the rest we will focus exclusively on the South China Sea claimants. There’s no disputing that China has gone from friendly to deeply negative relations with most of the countries involved. Some of them, like Brunei, hold their nose and remain officially neutral. They value China as a market for the oil they already have rather than they oil and gas they might discover in the Spratlys. (It helps China that Brunei and Malaysia are busy with their own overlapping claims.) Vietnam, of course, is a rival of China, but the Philippines had been extremely friendly to China during the Jiang era and the start of the Hu Jintao years, only to see the relationship sour over maritime claims.

The result of China’s approach in the South China Sea is a soft power deficit in the region. Even countries which are friendly to China, such as Singapore, have grown wary of Chinese military claims. Singapore values free navigation on the seas, and China’s claims treat the South China Sea not merely as an EEZ but also a territorial sea, which runs counter to Singapore’s interests. Singapore, like the Philippines, had previously been extremely friendly to China, with Lee Kwan Yew a respected figure among Chinese politicians and businessmen. Chinese media were quick to quote Lee when he praised Chinese policies and the industriousness of the Chinese people, but they’ve been noticeably silent when he warns against excess Chinese politico-military pressure in the South China Sea or calls on China to settle disputes according to UNCLOS.

The key issue for China is that while she demonstrates an economic and military willingness to dominate the South China Sea, she has yet to prove herself a benevolent actor. The money is certainly there. China has bought Cambodia’s allegiance to the tune of $9 billion. What’s more, the military resources are there. China almost immediately responded to the last major typhoon to hit the Philippines by sending the PLAN to occupy rocks and reefs in the Scarborough Shoal that the Philippines had to abandon because of the storm. But China has consistently failed to act in a way that increases the PRC’s soft power in its near-abroad, even as military and economic moves cast it in an ever-hegemonic light.

This all feeds into media narratives about China. Some of them are very unfair, but the South China Sea has given the media an almost perfect David-and-Goliath tale, which is the favorite narrative framework for Western reporters. The Philippines is the biggest underdog in all of Southeast Asia, and many reporters who once rooted for American troops to leave the Philippines (we were Goliath then) now, in light of Chinese advances along the Nine Dash Line, root for Americans to return. When it appeared China was unwilling to donate more than $100,000 plus matching funds from the Chinese Red Cross to the Philippines, and moreover, when China failed to respond diplomatically to the crisis, the media went after them with a vengeance.

Before China released the latest round of aid, the media’s storyline of China “punishing the Philippines” was easy to accept. I accepted it, I think most of us did. By pledging more funds, China proved us wrong. (Ironically, some 84% of Chinese netizens would’ve proven us right.) Yet China unquestionably wasted an opportunity to take the lead in helping the Philippines. The money being sent will help save lives and restore order. But China isn’t dispatching aid as a regional or world leader, it’s doing what’s expected of it as a member of the international community. The Chinese contribution is unremarkable, and Chinese condolences came late.

The missed opportunity — the soft power failure — in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan was that China did not even attempt to behave as America, Britain, France, or even Russia might’ve behaved if such a disaster happened in their backyard. Part of that is institutional; I agree with those who say that China lacks sufficient organizations to distribute international aid, but shouldn’t we also ask why China lags in humanitarian aid capability even as we are constantly reminded of the “Beijing consensus” and how Chinese aid has been transformative in Africa?

This isn’t a new story, actually. After the Indonesian Tsunami, China insisted on helping with construction efforts but not resettling refugees, citing — in a very off-putting way — the Chinese policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Then, as now, people lamented China’s narrow “hard power” concept of disaster assistance. History repeats. Beijing might simply be tone deaf to “soft power” and unable to see how its actions play into the perception that China is big enough to take away from the Philippines, but not big enough to give when it counts. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN will remember how China responded to Typhoon Haiyan, and they will act accordingly.

Are Chinese Tech Companies a Victim of Washington or of Beijing?

Bipartisanship in Washington is such a rare bird that when it takes flight, one begins to suspect that something is terribly amiss. Not surprisingly, when Congressmen join hands across the aisle and call for the US to get “tough on China,” skepticism is warranted.

Over the last decade, American politicians have raked Cisco over the coals for helping to build the “Great Firewall,” accused Beijing of currency manipulation, and even attacked China for “counterfeit” Apple stores. But no issue seems to animate as much hysteria in US politics as claims that Chinese electronics have “built-in back doors” that could be exploited by Beijing for purposes of espionage or warfare.

Lenovo, which is now the number one PC maker in the world, was one of the first Chinese companies to get hit with back door allegations, with Congress citing potential back doors as a reason to block the State Department’s acquisition of 16,000 Lenovo computers in 2006. The sale went through, though the State Department only used the computers for non-sensitive tasks.

More recently, in May of this year, computer chips manufactured by the Chinese firm Microsemi were discovered by researchers at Cambridge to have an unexplained hardware back door, which, depending on who one speaks to, is either a completely routine diagnostic measure or a malicious platform for cyberwarfare.

It is into this hostile milieu – intensified by the theatrics of an American general election year – that Huawei and ZTE made their doomed bid to help build the next generation of U.S. communication networks. Back doors were once again a major issue.

Before we continue, one must concede that back doors very well could exist in Chinese-built hardware. In our iPhones, for example, or in our new Dell netbooks. “But those aren’t Chinese companies!” one might protest. True, but China’s key position in the global supply chain means that any hardware vendors doing business in China could potentially be infiltrated. If the threat exists, it’s likely already on our desks or in our pockets.

For its part, the Obama administration reportedly downplayed the threat of espionage, telling Congress that there is no evidence of Huawei or ZTE spying on America. Since the White House can call upon more resources than Congress to verify the possibility of espionage, many observers will see the House Select Committee on Intelligence’s findings – as well as Chairman Rogers’ subsequent calls to blacklist Huawei and ZTE – as blatant protectionism. That said, if the allegations of spying against Huawei and ZTE are protectionism disguised as paranoia, does that make them innocent victims?

Victims, yes. Innocent, not so much.

Stan Abrams has detailed on his blog, China Hearsay, the Chinese firms were unable to reach the standard of transparency demanded by the US Congress, and gave evasive answers when pressed by investigators. Huawei refused to answer questions about the possibility of Chinese government ownership through Huawei stock and the nature of its interactions with Chinese regulators. Given their stonewalling tactics, Abrams rightly wondered whether Huawei and ZTE had actually followed the advice of their American lawyers.

Another point to consider is that a national communications network is a sensitive piece of infrastructure, and it’s neither nationalist nor protectionist to ask foreign vendors to be completely aboveboard about their business practices and ownership structure. Therein lies the rub, however, since even if Huawei and ZTE had wanted to be forthcoming, the Chinese government may not have allowed it.

Make no mistake, Huawei and ZTE are great companies fielding excellent products. As the biggest communications company in the world, Huawei has earned praise from Western media for its mobiles and 3G modems, while its market follower ZTE remains less flashy and consumer-oriented at the high end, yet omnipresent in Chinese homes and workplaces. Thanks to a combination of joint ventures with Western companies like 3com, a generous industrial policy from Beijing, and a fair degree of market savvy, both firms have developed into world-class telecommunications companies in a remarkably short time.

Getting to the top has required Huawei and ZTE to play by Beijing’s rules, which have sometimes included disincentives towards transparency, malleable contracts, and creative notions of IP protection. (In fairness, these rules are changing, but Huawei and ZTE, like Youku and Baidu, are still judged by the rules they followed while “growing up.”)  Although Beijing’s rules have enabled Huawei and ZTE to emerge as powerful brands within China, it has also slowed their expansion into Western markets, where the rules of the game are fundamentally different. Furthermore, given the Chinese government’s penchant for labeling information “state secrets,” chances are that neither Huawei nor ZTE will be able to fully comply with foreign regulators, especially those as tough-minded as Congressman Rogers.

Although Huawei and ZTE have stalled out in their bid to enter the American market in a big way, they previously made inroads into Canada, the UK, and other Western countries. Things changed this year. Australia took steps to effectively blacklist Huawei in spring, Canada suggested it might block Huawei from contributing to its National Broadband Network in October, and there’s a real danger that other Western countries may follow suit. If a “global blacklist” leaves Huawei and ZTE as vendors for developing countries only, China’s dream of becoming a high-tech exporter is in peril.

One thing is certain: Beijing will follow up on Washington’s moves against Huawei and ZTE with punitive measures against American businesses. Rather than conclude the first summit between China’s new President Xi Jinping and President Obama (or Romney) with the announcement of “diplomatic hongbao” in the form of big ticket contracts for American companies, Xi’s American counterpart is likely to return home empty-handed. Ironically, this stands to hurt many of the American firms who support the crackdown on Huawei and ZTE in the US.

Karma, as you know, has its own back doors.

No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

 
A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?

The Secret Orientalism of Martin Jacques

Writing for the BBC, Marxist journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, joins the most important discussion foreign policy elites will have in the next ten years — how will China behave as a superpower?  Sadly, Jacques begins well, talking about the weight of China’s population upon the country’s massive economy, but then immediately falls into the same trap as Pankaj Mishra, namely, recycling the Chinese government’s own narratives about Chinese history rather than doing critical research.

The milk of Jacques’ argument begins to turn sour around this point in the article:

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

If we hold China to the same standards that America and Britain have been held to by the left, then its cultivation of client states in Africa and Southeast Asia is precisely that —  a neo-colonial power.  If, on the other hand, we discard dependency theory as warmed-over Marxism and look at China through a traditional realist lens, Chinese behavior in Africa is balancing behavior, not neo-colonialism.

And while I’m sympathetic to this argument, I can’t imagine that Jacques or other admirers of China in the new left would excuse Western behavior the same way Jacques is prepared to make excuses for China.  This is, as we shall see, the key flaw in Jacques’ argument.

We continue:

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t.

These passages are bizarrely, totally, wrong.

For starters, China, like Russia, India, and the United States, is a continental empire-state.  All of these countries grew out of a strong core nation that, after acquiring sufficient resources, proceeded to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations until obtaining a large contiguous landmass with fairly stable natural borders (e.g. mountains, rivers, seas).  Colonialism doesn’t enter into the picture like it did for, say, Belgium, because an empire-state has enough resources within its own borders that it doesn’t necessarily need colonies.

Understand that colonies qua colonialism are largely a function of distance.  If a country can control the territory of its neighbors first with puppet governments and increasing military presence, outright incorporation usually follows.  How, for instance, is China’s final incorporation of Tibet — which was an independent country for most of its history — different than what Japan attempted to do in China proper?  In fairness, Jacques goes on to acknowledge the massive growth of Chinese empire during the Qing Dynasty, yet this doesn’t trouble him because China didn’t have any colonies.  Except it did.

Let’s look at just one example.  As any good historian of Vietnam will tell you, the Ming Dynasty spent the early 15th century subjugating Vietnam, which led to a guerrilla war against Chinese occupation — a Vietnamese specialty — and the withdrawal of Chinese forces after their defeat by Vietnamese hero Le Loi.  In summary, the Chinese invaded Vietnam in 1406 and administered the country as a colony for two decades.  Perhaps this doesn’t count to Jacques because the Chinese didn’t move to crush Le’s forces with the totality of their might, but the British don’t get any credit for letting India slip away, so why should China?

Jacques gives himself a little leeway to address the Vietnam case, but never does so directly.  He continues:

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

What we see here is that Jacques, the Marxist, begins to paper over classical power relations where China is concerned, and Jacques, the Orientalist, begins to raise his ugly head.  Focus on the Chinese tributary system as a kind of benign empire that doesn’t carry the taint of colonialism was also a thrust of Mishra’s piece, so allow me to quote Dan Trombly’s excellent response to Mishra:

[C]onsidering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

We should also remember that many of modern China’s territorial claims, including settled questions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Chinese nationalist fantasies of seizing the Korean peninsula and Okinawa, are based on these lands once participating in the tributary system under their former feudal rulers.  A troubling paradigm within official Chinese scholarship treats Chinese vassal states as the equivalent of Chinese territory, and China’s neighbors understand that when China engages in political archaeology such as the Northeast History Project, the goal is the Sinification of the past to achieve the Sinification of the future.

Returning to the article, Jacques outlines the staggering reach of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and contrasts it to humble Ming Dynasty China, which, as we have already seen, was not as benevolent as Jacques would have his readers believe.  (An aside here for my materialist friends:  how much of the power wielded by Western imperialists, compared to the Chinese 300 years earlier, was actually a function of technology rather than ideology?)  Consciously or not, Jacques reiterates Chinese national propaganda about Zheng He, the “can-do eunuch”:

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

This account of Zheng He, which closely follows the official Chinese history, would have us believe two things:  that Zheng He’s expeditions didn’t have a military function, and that the Ming saw the Chinese diaspora as pariahs.  As for the first point, history records that Zheng He was as much an enforcer of Chinese hegemony — a MacArthur figure, if you will — as he was an explorer.   His fleets pursued pirates throughout Asia, and in Sri Lanka he led the Ming forces in a two-year war against the kingdom of Kotte, installing a puppet ruler who was deposed by the Sri Lankans in 1414.  Rather than piracy, it seems the Chinese fixation on Kotte — they had invaded under the Yuan Dynasty as well — had to do with acquiring the Tooth of Buddha and taking it to China.  (Attempting to steal another country’s artifacts is downright … European.)

As for the second point, Zheng He interacted freely with the Chinese diaspora and they were vital parts of the Ming’s trading network.  If there was any schism between the diaspora and the emperor, it may have been because many of them moved abroad during earlier dynasties.  Zheng He himself referred to these overseas Chinese as “Tang Dynasty men.”  Yet they, along with local peoples in Southeast Asia, venerated Zheng He, which undermines Jacques’ characterization of overseas Chinese, and also calls into question the next passage:

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

Zheng He, while not being a hero of colonial expansion per se, is certainly a hero of hegemonic power.  His are not the only statues of a maritime hero one finds in China, however.  Monuments to Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga, have been erected throughout coastal China as well as in Taiwan.  A Ming loyalist and pirate, Koxinga operated from southern China during the early Qing Dynasty before invading Taiwan in 1661 and overthrowing its Dutch rulers.  With the Europeans out of the picture, Koxinga was left with the task of brutally subjugating the aboriginal Taiwanese — a fact deemed so inconvenient to the official Chinese narrative that the Koxinga scholar Tonio Andrade was told to censor his recent book on the subject or risk being unable to publish a translation in China.

At this point in the article, Jacques makes the correct argument that Chinese rulers remain more internally focused than Western leaders; that, when Xi Jinping becomes president, his agenda “will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.” Jacques also argues, correctly, that Westerners are fixated on exporting their values to the rest of the world.  But he falters when he suggests China is uninterested in spreading its values.  The doctrine of “non-interference,” which Beijing regularly upholds with its UN Security Council veto, is itself a universal value.  The friends Beijing makes through the non-inteference doctrine leads to the contradiction of Chinese becoming more cosmopolitan as the country becomes richer, then looking at their country’s list of allies with shame. And when one of those allies abruptly changes course and becomes freer than China, the envy can be palpable.

Next, Jacques reduces Western influence over the world to a byproduct of Western (read: American) military power and argues,

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The economic power of the ascendant China will unquestionably great, and as Beijing’s shameless monkeywrenching of ASEAN shows, China has already begun to “bend … countries to its will,” but cultural power remains a giant question mark.  Chinese cultural malaise has paradoxically increased even as China grows economically stronger, which suggests that either the patterns of cultural development have changed considerably and thus economy and culture are no longer fungible, or else the current Chinese government, despite its merits, lacks the openness and vision of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  The Chinese critique, from the Heshang documentary series in 1988, to Wolf Totem twenty years later, to Han Han’s writing today, is that, for various reasons, Chinese culture is backwards and lacks vitality.  Perhaps this self-doubt will change “when China rules the world.” Perhaps not.

Martin Jacques has no room for Han Han and the fierce urgency of now, though.  By the end of the piece, Jacques the Orientalist is fully in charge, telling us that Chinese have a different way of looking at history:

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

For Chinese peasants and their feudal lords, a century was nothing.  But can we say the same for Han Han’s generation?

Romney Beats Romney, Obama Wins

I tuned into the debate at the halfway mark, just as Romney was giving an effective, soft-spoken critique of Obama’s broken promises. It was the only hit Romney would score on Obama for the next 45 minutes. By the time my C-Span stream cut out during Obama’s closing remarks, it was clear the president emerged the victor in the second presidential debate of 2012.

Obama wasn’t an excellent debater, but he was good. He was engaged, energized, and aggressive — the total opposite of the Obama of the first debate. He was helped by having a center-left New York audience, and also by Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate. He managed a couple of good quips at Romney’s expense, especially when Romney whined about the investments in the president’s pension. And this time, he was aware that he would be seen on the split-screen (and by the audience), so he adjusted his body language accordingly. There was no looking down.

But Obama wasn’t beyond mistakes or stupid arguments, such as saying automatic (not semi-automatic) weapons need to be taken out of the hands of criminals (for those unaware of American law, this is not an actual problem), calling manufacturing jobs high-skilled jobs (they aren’t or else they couldn’t be outsourced to China) or bragging about the growth in American exports (which is more attributable to the historically weak USD than anything else). And on the economy, which will be the most important issue in most voters’ minds, Obama failed to convince people he would be better than Romney — which is pretty remarkable.

Romney’s defeat was not as devastating as Obama’s was in the first debate, but at a time when both campaigns are focusing on the margins, Romney lost valuable ground. I missed both “binders full of women” — the most quotable Romney line/gaffe of the evening — as well as Romney criticizing the Bush administration, which, if Twitter commentary was any indication, was borderline bitter. What I was there for, however, was Romney’s weird stream-of-consciousness answers once Obama knocked him off script.

What will frustrate Republicans the most is how many missed opportunities Romney had. Every time he had a good question or opening, he would mangle his lines or go off on rambling tangents. He was given a chance to criticize the president on Libya, and responded in such a hamfisted way that I can’t imagine him being able to bring it up effectively in the final foreign policy debate next week. He was given a question on immigration that Republicans need to answer, but he focused largely on illegal immigration instead of a comprehensive policy that would talk about enforcement on the one hand and more paths to citizenship on the other. Gun control led to an sloppy invocation of the Fast and the Furious scandal, then a discussion of two-parent families, and Romney’s basic correctness was overshadowed by the awkwardness of the transition.

Finally, Romney’s Lou Dobbs-esque pledge to start a trade war with China was his most annoying position. I can’t believe Romney even believes it, since he defended his personal investments in Chinese companies. Governor Romney would’ve had the sense to call for a balanced relationship with China, as would have businessman Romney, but candidate Romney’s China policy exists in Schumer-Dobbsian anti-China talking point netherworld where constantly repeating “I will label China a currency manipulator on day one!” is a demonstration of strength. Xinhua will not be amused.

On China’s Cultural Malaise

A few months ago I talked with my students about the culture vs. practicality difference between foreign language students in American who study Japanese and those who study Chinese. For better or worse, Japanese classes are filled with otaku and similar cultural aficionados of Japan, while Chinese classes are dominated by business Chinese students and others who want to learn Mandarin as a marketable skill yet care less about Chinese culture.

Students find this trend extremely upsetting whenever I point it out, and even before the whole Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands mess you could get a hate-Japan session going by suggesting that Japanese culture is more popular than Chinese culture abroad. It is, and the Confucius Institutes aren’t going to change that anytime soon. If you think about it, most Chinese language students in the US are actually being pretty “Chinese” about their studies — cutting out the artsy “fat” and focusing on those “meaty” parts of the language needed in their careers. For example, when I taught Chinese English majors I was depressed by how many cared little about English poetry and literature outside of general knowledges needed to graduate from college.

Getting back to my recent students, I made them even more angry by asking which version of the Monkey King is most famous with Westerners. “Stephen Chow’s?” they asked. “Nope, Dragonball Z.” Some gritted their teeth. I pointed out that Japanese culture is a “child culture” which works within a synthesis between China as a “parent culture” and the West as a “neighbor culture.” There’s a similar theory among Chinese Japanophiles that Japanese culture has flourished because it “borrowed” Tang Dynasty culture, and thus the Japanese have actually preserved former Chinese greatness in their own culture.

The Marxist position taken by one of my students in response was that it’s a matter of development, that Chinese culture will grow popular once China is as developed as Japan. But this theory ignores the fact that Japan’s cultural heavy hitters first started appearing in the postwar period, when Japan was far less developed than China today. By now, China ought to have its own Osamu Tezuka, its own Kurosawa. It doesn’t. And, as the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos notes, it doesn’t even have its own PSY.  For some Chinese, that’s cause for shame.

In 2010, the Chinese writer Han Han, reflecting on Chinese soft power or the the lack thereof, argued that if all of your cultural products are based on things written down 2,000 years ago, then your culture is basically dead. It’s true that a lot of Chinese cultural malaise and the constant focus on ancient culture is the result of political self-censorship and direct censorship in mainland Chinese media, which Osnos explores at length with nice anecdotes from Chinese director Lu Chuan, but that can’t explain everything, because Hong Kong and Taiwan — which are as developed as Japan — also lack significant cultural soft power around the world, although they have vast reserves of it to spend in the mainland itself.

The bigger problem is that Chinese culture remains both insular — with taboos about mocking cultural images — and, more damningly, lazy. Hong Kong and Taiwan media magnates rely on “templates” for managing stars’ careers and plotting movies. For instance, a model will appear on TV, release a CD, and then start acting in movies, regardless of her actual talents in these fields. This happens so often that stars have become interchangeable, predictable, and boring. Movies are much the same, especially now that Chinese directors have adorned their films with CGI the way a “new rich” Chinese covers himself in golden baubles.

As for Osnos’ piece, PSY is not a highly representative cultural product of South Korea, so the Chinese Osnos says are soul-searching are doing so based on a false premise. South Korea has, by and large, followed the exact same pattern of “manufacturing” entertainers as China, and Korean films and dramas are filled with an army of cookiecutter stars with lookalike plastic surgery-enhanced faces.  PSY, on the other hand, is sui generis in Korea — polished in a way that looks unpolished, amusingly critical of Korean society, and with a face that sets no Japanese housewives’ hearts-a-flutter. He is, emphatically, not the typical K-Pop artist. And based on news coverage, Koreans themselves are at a loss to explain why PSY has conquered the globe when the Wonder Girls, Jun Ji-hyun, Super Junior, and Rain could not.

Alas, there is no parsimonious explanation of why China has no “Gangnam Style” or why no Chinese director could make Kung-Fu Panda. I admit that economics and “face” is part of it. Once Americans start thinking of China as a rich country they’ll respect China more and come to appreciate Chinese culture. Politics is part of it, too. As I quipped during the anti-Japan riots, protestors calling for a boycott of Japanese cultural products should be protesting SARFT for not allowing Chinese artists to be as experimental as their Japanese (or Korean or American) counterparts.

Ultimately, though, Chinese artists have also succumbed to the laziness that follows economic success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese directors and producers were at their most innovative in the 1970s and 1980s when budgets were tight. Once money flowed freely, they lost the incentive to be creative. Instead, they flooded the market with forgettable, mass-produced, lower quality cultural products.  Why would the mainland be any different from the rest of China?

An Old View on Free Speech, Restated

The assassination of America’s Ambassador to Libya and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo should remind us that blasphemy, bigotry, and insult, as deplorable as they can be, are the ultimate test of a democracy’s commitment to free speech.

Speech isn’t free at all if we declare that it must reflect the common wisdom, present a noncontroversial stance, or is subject to the political diktat of the State. No, free speech has always been first and foremost about the hard cases, those words and thoughts we despise. I recognize that, among Western peoples, this view might be uniquely American, but that doesn’t mean I hold it to be any less true.

Now, before my initial claim settles into that niche of your brain labeled “cliché,” remember that views we loathe today were often a majority opinion in the past, while those we cherish were sometimes the views of a minority that the State could and often did suppress.

Consider: Free speech is about calling people to Jesus and it is about denying the divinity of Christ. It is about the racist’s venom and it is about the oppressed minority rising in defiance of the oppressor. It is about burning the flag and calling those who burn the flag moral pygmies. It is about others hurting our feelings and us using mockery — not bombs — as our weapon of choice in response. It is, in its most banal modern formulation, the right to be a douchebag and the right to call douchebags douchebags.

There will be those, possibly including some who work at the US Embassy in Cairo, who are ashamed of this aspect of American democracy, who envy Europe’s restrictionist model and argue that the right to speak does not include the right to offend, though they would initially define “offense” to include only the most extreme cases. Yet “offense” is ultimately a subjective measure, and much like Plato’s perfect government, the guardianship of a perfectly “sensitive” government is made impossible by our human failings. What’s more, we should remember that all government power is fungible: the power to “improve” society by censoring speech we deem “hateful” is also the power to “improve” society further by eliminating views the majority simply deems “unhelpful.”

I’m not one for constructing a partisan straw man. President Obama has responded adequately, and Secretary Clinton’s response was better still. Governor Romney has arguably overplayed his political hand during the crisis. But we mustn’t draw the wrong lessons from these attacks. The problem is the violent extremists themselves, not the behavior that “provoked” the violence. To say otherwise is to treat the First Amendment, if not the whole of the US Constitution, the way an apologist for rape treats women wearing short skirts.

The Consensus

There comes a moment in every American political convention when foreign policy is the focus and the two parties attempt to draw clear lines between their foreign policy platforms while papering over all the similarities. For the Republicans that moment was on Wednesday night, when Secretary Rice spoke, and again on Thursday when Gov. Romney accepted the nomination.  History records past proclamations made for the cheering crowds: “If I am elected, America won’t be the policeman of the world/We should stand up to the butchers in Beijing/We will close Gitmo and leave Iraq.” A few months later these bold promises were abandoned and forgotten.

Things change when you actually get elected, after all.

Now that we’ve reached the close of Obama’s four-year term, It’s worth looking at what kind of foreign policy president he has been. Although most Americans are bitterly divided about Obama’s domestic policies, they give him passing marks in international affairs. And why not? There hasn’t been a major terror attack, the US hasn’t invaded another country, the world has resisted the calls for Smoot-Hawley redux, and Iran’s nuclear program, as troubling as it is, means little to Americans still struggling to make ends meet.

In fact, given the clear overlap between Obama and his predecessor, it would neither be unfair nor incorrect to say that this is the third term of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, much as George H.W. Bush’s term was the third term of Reagan’s foreign policy. The style of Bush and Obama’s diplomacy has differed considerably, yet Obama the campaigner talked a line that was far different than the record of Obama the president. Recall, of course, that Bush the campaigner promised a foreign policy that was small and modest, but after 9/11 Bush’s agenda was anything but. The point here is that while stagecraft may differ, statecraft is almost always about continuity.

Claims like this may infuriate partisans, and one imagines their retorts. “But Obama bows before foreign leaders!” And Bush held hands with despots, so what? “But Obama doesn’t waterboard!” No, he performs extralegal assassinations of American citizens. Both presidents have given Glenn Greenwald plenty of things to write about and Julian Assange many secrets to leak. Greenwald can mainly thank Obama for his new column in The Guardian, while as for Assange, well, he’s certainly not writing the president love letters from the Ecuadorian embassy.

One must admit there are a few substantive differences in stated goals of the two administrations. Obama has called for nuclear disarmament and made an early personal appeal to Arab and Muslim states, at the apparent expense of the American-Israeli relationship. Our nukes aren’t going away anytime soon, though, and the outreach to Muslim states seems but a footnote in the US’ ongoing push for regime changes in the Middle East. Bibi is a pain in the ass, but Hillary is an old friend of Israel, so policies haven’t changed much from the Bush years, only rhetoric.

The same holds for other key relationships and interests. A “managed rise” of China was on Bush’s agenda, and remains on Obama’s. Unlike Bush, Obama hasn’t given the thumbs-up to any coups in Venezuela, but the relationship with Hugo Chavez remains both prickly and cynical. (Hugo calls the US Satan, America calls him a would-be dictator, but he still sells the US oil.) Despite the mismanaged PR theater of the “reset button,” Obama never won over Russia, and the administration has come to realize that Putinism is the problem. (Bear in mind that Bush never lost Russia; the crucible of Putinism was Clinton’s wars in the Balkans.) Oddly enough, Obama seems to have focused on Africa less than Bush, perhaps because Obama has less to prove to Africa, or perhaps because he has been afraid of looking “too black.” As for the rest, the archaic embargo against Cuba remains, arms sales continue to every country that will buy weapons, and America is still dependent on foreign oil. Finally, it goes without saying that the UK remains America’s most stalwart ally, gripes about busts of Churchill notwithstanding.

A second term for Obama might change things, since he would have more flexibility and a chance to author his own foreign policy. A Romney presidency, conversely, would be destined to be like Obama’s. Keep these facts in mind this as the campaign enters the home stretch. When Obama talks about his foreign policy during the debates, remember that he stands on far more of Bush’s legacy than he’ll ever admit. And when Romney argues that he’ll make a dramatic break from the status quo, remember that he’s either lying to you or else he doesn’t yet understand what all presidents soon learn:  America’s foreign policy is ruled by the consensus.

Note:  This post has been adapted from a Facebook posting and edited for clarity.

Greening Chinese attitudes? Yes and no.

Gallup has some data that point to a “greening” of the Chinese public:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty-seven percent of Chinese adults surveyed in 2011 — before the country’s economic slowdown grabbed headlines — prioritized protecting the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. About one in five believed economic growth is more important. Chinese attitudes are typical of those in other emerging-market economies, where residents sided with the environment over the economy in earlier surveys.

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Although I believe that green issues are the area where the Chinese Party-state deserves the most criticism and will receive the most opposition politically in the future (after all, “clean water” is much more tangible to the masses than “free speech” and other tenets of liberalism), I’m disinclined to read much into these results. Why not? Well, somewhere between the 57% of Chinese that say protecting the environment is more important than growing the economy and the 77% who are generally satisfied with the Chinese government’s record of environmental protection lies the shadow of social desirability bias.

These two percentages (57% and 77%) seem to contradict each other unless a strong majority of Chinese already believe the government is putting the environment first, which not even the government seems to believe.  Instead, what we’re likely seeing is Chinese giving two “politically correct” answers and obfuscating the real data underneath.  As an educator I see this from students all the time, since they are conditioned to tell authority figures (and their peers) what they want to hear rather than offer genuine opinions and risk losing face.

Incidentally, the cohort that interests me is that small subset in the poll that believed in putting the environment first and were dissatisfied with China’s environmental record.  Who are these guys, and what are they doing?

Drone Warfare and Its Limitations

There’s a nice TNR piece by James Joyner on Obama’s drone warfare doctrine and its role in the action-repression-recruitment cycle.  I see drones as the natural evolution of Clinton-era “fire and forget” foreign policy, which relied on smart weapon strikes to achieve policy outcomes rather than commit to politically costly force deployments.

Although drones have figured large in engagements with Al Qaeda, the massive manpower involved in Bush’s two wars helped mask the extent to which future warfare will be fought by robotic weapons fired from robotic delivery platforms operated at a safe distance.  The most bizarre development (for me at least) is that nobody in Congress in either party has seemed to question why the “drone air force” is largely in the hands of the CIA’s murky-by-design Special Activities Division rather than the Joint Chiefs and their multiple layers of oversight.

(Like extraordinary rendition, giving the CIA its own military force is something Democrats criticize when Republicans do it and suddenly shut up about when one of their own are in office.  But that’s a different debate — I just want to remind my liberal friends that this is not a “Bush era problem,” it’s a Washington one.  Note that left-liberals like Glenn Greenwald have been consistent in their critiques.)

Of course, drones have their place, and cost-benefits wise, they’re cheaper, stealthier, and more efficient than manned aircraft, which, more often than not, have become military industrial complex pork.  (Witness the challenges faced by pre-crazy Dick Cheney and Bob Gates during their tenures as SecDef when they attempted to slash the procurement budget.)  Drones don’t risk the life of a pilot, and because the operators can be “switched in flight,” human endurance is not a factor in drone warfare.  Yet we have to ask whether drones, like smart weapons before them, have created the illusion of no-cost military action.

From a humanitarian perspective, robotic weapons, rather than loosening the rules of engagement, require them to be tightened, since it is too easy for policymakers (and the American public) to accept collateral damage when looking at the battlefield through digital rather than human eyes.  Please read Joyner’s piece for some of the stats involved, but do note that even the drone-friendly figures posit a higher rate of collateral damage than we would accept from soldier-on-soldier engagements.

At the same time, our leaders overestimate the ability of drones to produce results.  Dispatching high value targets, as Joyner says, is a no-brainer, but having drones always on standby to suppress enemy forces is no substitute for, say, having an effective local police force, strong national government, or even American boots on the ground.  Moreover, by transitioning from being the global policeman to the global Robocop, we are not improving on the flawed premise that American foreign policy must be interventionist.  Indeed, we are only amplifying the problem by giving policymakers another tool with which they may go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.