Collision Course?

Friday, July 30, 2004

U.S.-Chinese relations today involve not only a familiar list of frictions and shared interests but also a kind of diffuse tension. This is expressed most obviously in competing moral judgments: the U.S. complaint that China is undemocratic and the Chinese charge that U.S. foreign policy is hegemonic. It also entails the clash between the American belief that the leading position of the United States in the international world is entirely appropriate and the common Chinese belief that, in a normal world, China would be at the top of the global hierarchy of power and prestige. Yet it is also due to the fact that the political reasoning of both sides entails assumptions about the nature of the conditions governing all human life east and west—the nature of knowledge, of political practicability, of human nature, and of history—and the assumptions each side makes about these conditions do not make sense to the other. Culture counts—on both sides of the Pacific.

To see how culturally deep-rooted assumptions shape the Chinese outlook on U.S.-Chinese relations, one can look at a scholarly book published in 2003 on security questions in the Asia-Pacific area. It was written by Su Hao, an associate professor at the College of International Relations in Beijing, a prestigious institution under the Ministry of Foreign Relations, many of whose graduates become foreign service officers. With three years spent studying at top U.S. and British universities, Su is a sophisticated scholar well aware that relations between nations are a complex mix of trustful cooperation based on shared interests and distrustful competition stemming from conflicts of interests. In his view, however, this mixture is not a permanent feature of the international scene. It has been made obsolete by recent historical developments, such as globalization, the end of the Cold War, and global ecological problems. For Su, it is undeniable that global history is now irresistibly moving into an era when international relations will be based purely on trustful cooperation. This amazingly utopian belief of his raises few if any eyebrows in the Chinese world. The teleological vision of history from which it stems is by no means peculiar to Su or his partly Maoist ideology: it permeates just about all modern Chinese political thought.

From this standpoint, international relations cannot just focus on pragmatic discussions of specific policy disagreements. They also necessarily entail a confrontation between moral, rational nations acting in accord with the tide of history to build a world based on trustful cooperation and immoral, irrational nations acting against this global tide by continuing to treat other nations in a distrustful, adversarial way.

This culturally deep-rooted dichotomy in turn translates into a systemic confrontation between China and the United States. Given this dichotomy, few Chinese will ever conclude that the nation doing its best to follow this historical tide is the United States, not China. Their conclusion will necessarily be that, in continuing to emphasize its bilateral treaties with Pacific nations and its position of naval primacy in the Pacific, the United States is irrationally resisting the current tide of history, seeking “hegemonic” control of world affairs, and so threatening China. Such indeed is Su’s conclusion, even though he greatly admires the United States and strongly favors the current rapprochement between our two nations. When one takes into account this Chinese vision of history, one can see that the tension in U.S.-Chinese relations is not created only or even mainly by specific policy disagreements. Yet this tension between China and the United States is also generated by prominent American ways of defining the nature of international relations.


Mindsets leading to conflict

Take, for example, the speech given in February 2004 by the prominent columnist Charles Krauthammer at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute. True, many in the United States would disagree with much he said, since he defended President Bush’s foreign policy, bashed “liberal internationalism” and “multilateralism,” and stood up for a proactive American foreign policy putting America’s enemies on the defensive. The heart of his speech, however, was much less controversial (at least in February). First, he recommended that U.S. foreign policy should focus on “the advance of freedom and the peace freedom brings,” seeking to “implant . . . democracy” wherever feasible. He thus saw global history as having been and continuing to be “a struggle between freedom and unfreedom, and yes, good and evil.” Second, he posited that the world today is “a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe.”

Like the Chinese utopianism just mentioned, these two premises define U.S.-Chinese relations as part of a world-shaking conflict between good and evil instead of a diplomatic interaction between two responsible governments pragmatically seeking to resolve certain limited conflicts of interest. And like this Chinese utopianism, these two premises are controversial at best.

One problem is exaggerating the extent to which American power can be decisive “in every corner of the globe.” Ours is not a neatly unipolar world because the distribution of political power depends not only on U.S. influence but also a variety of indigenous cultural, nationalistic, and religious orientations frequently impervious to Western influence. Similarly, it is far from clear that the cultural orientations of all major nations consist of a hierarchy of values headed by that search for prosperity and political freedom so basic to American political life. Thus U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad are likely to run into cultural obstacles.

True, the words freedom and democracy have wide appeal throughout the world, evoking the vision of a society in which “reason” and “morality” rule, every individual is free to think and do as she wishes, and government does what everybody wishes. This ideal, for instance, coincides with the tradition-rooted Chinese ideal of da-tong (great oneness) and is often identified in China with “democracy.” For many people in undemocratic, economically backward societies, it is easy to think that this ideal has been basically realized in the West and could be similarly realized in their own country, if only their own leaders were not so corrupt, selfish, and obtuse. Many others in such non-Western countries, however, realize that the question of how to get from here to there is not so simple, especially because it entails the problem of how to weigh political freedom against other values.

Opposition to democratization does not necessarily stem just from “evil” interests opposed to freedom. For instance, ever since the nineteenth century, there has been a major tendency in China to put “national prosperity and power” (fu-qiang) above the goal of democracy. Today, some 500,000 to 1 million Taiwanese have moved from their democratic society in Taiwan to work and live in China under a dictatorship, but I have never heard that any of them regards the lack of democracy there as a drawback for them or feels their human rights are insufficiently respected in China. To cite just one example, a Chinese-American who recently moved to Shanghai after successfully pursuing his career in the United States for many decades bluntly told me that Shanghai has a better government than Taipei. Strikingly enough, life in the United States had not created in him a commitment to the value of electoral democracy. Conversely, among the many Mainlanders who have come to live in Taiwan (such as women married by Taiwanese on the Mainland), it would probably be impossible to find one saying that a great advantage for her of life in Taiwan is that here she can enjoy the blessings of democracy.

To be sure, I have never met any Chinese who did not hold that China must eventually become a democracy. Yet many Chinese intellectuals, if not the vast majority of them, believe it cannot promptly democratize. Recently, one well-known liberal scholar in China sadly told me that at least 50 more years would be needed before China could become a democracy. In his eyes, the main obstacle is the backwardness of the political culture, not the opposition of the Chinese leaders to democratization.

In the Muslim world, religious ideas complicate still further the question of where to put political freedom and democracy on the hierarchy of values, not to mention that the Muslim world has lacked anything like that powerful desire to emulate Western modernity which has long been and still is so important in China.

There is good reason, then, to question Krauthammer’s recommendation that U.S. foreign policy should incorporate a crusade for the gradual democratization of the world. Chinese democratization is a problem for the Chinese, not one in which U.S. foreign policy should be entangled. We should also reexamine our tendency to demonize all societies avoiding democratization. There indeed are evil dictatorships, but we must distinguish between undemocratic regimes that brutally regiment and repress their own populations, like Mao’s, and the post-Mao regime, which many scholars today regard as having made amazing progress in trying to overcome the ills inherited from Mao’s era, to raise the living standards of 1.3 billion citizens, to reduce human rights abuses, and to bring about the intellectual freedom indispensable for the vigorous development of intellectual life and of critical political discussion.

The American public is little aware of the major liberalization of intellectual life in China that has occurred since the death of Mao in 1976, but it is obvious to any scholar who has spent a lot of time with students and professors in Chinese universities (as I have). Somewhat like the Guomindang regime on Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s, the Beijing regime today is a progressive dictatorship. Viewing its leaders in Krauthammer’s way as “the butchers of Tianenmen Square” is as unrealistic as is reducing the United States to a barbarous nation that dropped nuclear bombs on Japan because it believed the end justifies the means. The character of a regime cannot be equated with one or more acts of violence. Assessing the moral standing of a government requires putting its use of violence and coercion into the context of its overall record, current goals, and historical situation, as well as the practical availability of any political vehicle that could do a better job.


Thinking the Unthinkable

We Americans will be better able to pursue our interests abroad if we start realizing that, to understand the political development of a foreign society, we should depend on linguistically and analytically competent study of that society’s history, cultural trends, and patterns of opinion, not on either “the horse’s mouth” of native informants or abstract theory about how all humanity is bound to think and behave. It is unfortunate that, after the search for such a theory was discredited by Marxism, it was revived by American political scientists convinced that the unilinear logic of global history could be figured out by downplaying cultural differences and picturing all human beings as ultimately driven by a desire for American-style political freedom. We live in a society full of enthusiasm about “multiculturalism,” but the extremely difficult challenge of understanding cultural differences has been appreciated by only a small minority of the academic community.

Yet if China and the United States are to discuss their concrete conflicts of interest in a sober and pragmatic way, the Chinese too must reexamine their concept of international relations. Their utopian vision of a global struggle between moral and immoral nations demonizes the United States just as surely as the Beijing regime is demonized by the American concept of global history as a struggle between “freedom versus unfreedom, good versus evil.” The unthinkable in the intellectual culture of the United States today is to consider whether a nondemocratic regime such as the Chinese state today should be respected as a progressive dictatorship trying to make the best of the horrendous mess inherited from Mao. The unthinkable in the intellectual culture of China today is to consider whether an empire based on national interests, such as the current global network of political power led by the United States, is a normal political phenomenon, not an irrational, immoral manifestation of a dying era. Unless elites in both societies discard the stereotypes they are comfortable with and start to think the unthinkable, the outlook for U.S.-Chinese relations will remain cloudy.

This is not to say, however, that this outlook depends only on better thinking on both sides of the Pacific. It depends also on the credibility of U.S. power in the Pacific. The future in the Pacific area would become cloudy indeed if U.S. credibility there were compromised by U.S. mistakes, wherever in the world, enervating the United States financially and making it implausible that the American people would again support a major military engagement abroad. Peace in the Pacific will not easily be preserved without some balance of power.