16 – China And The Myth Of ‘Western’ Order (25 Feb 09)

    In these days of multiple crises ingrained assumptions loom large as obstacles to be overcome. This goes for international relations as much as for the tottering financial system that has been absorbing most political attention in recent months. I just stumbled upon a number of interrelated misguided and, in mainstream discussion, rarely examined assumptions on my laptop. They appeared in an article published a year ago by John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs entitled: The Rise of China and the Future of the West – can the Liberal System Survive? A quite appropriate read on my one but last day in Beijing, after having had an opportunity to look at Chinese life up close here and in Kunming and other places in Yunnan (a spectacularly beautiful province, by the way).
     Now, I like to read Ikenberry. I think that in earlier writing he has made important points about the example of liberal governance and ideals of emancipation upheld by the United States and Europe after World War II. The example by itself brought much positive change in many parts of the world during that last third of the twentieth century that saw the consolidation of a relatively peaceful and stable world order – yes, I know, it also saw a great deal of bloodshed and there was much wrong with it, but still…
     Like practically everyone else who holds forth on the subject, Ikenberry predicts that China will end the ‘unipolar moment’ of the United States, but he adds that this does not not “necessarily mean a violent power struggle or the overthrow of the Western system. The U.S.-led international order can remain dominant even while integrating a more powerful China – but only if Washington sets about strengthening that liberal order now”.
     Ikenberry comments on the predictions made by others about “the coming epic battle over the rules and leadership of the international system”, and other typical features of a power transition. He thinks that the coming power transition can be different from those of the past because of the international order that came into being after World War II. Today China faces a “Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations”. We are back here on familiar Ikenberry territory of the post-World-War-II system of international relations, helped into being by the United States more than any other power and, on the whole, a blessing for the world.
     Where he goes wrong is by assuming that this order still exists. The main architect of this relatively stable order, rather than staying put to repair any damage done to what Ikenberry justifiably characterizes as the product of farsighted U.S. leadership, has done more to destroy what was built in the 1950s, than anyone. And that not just during the past eight years under George W. Bush. The Chinese can point out, as they have done a number of times, that whereas they stick to international law and collective agreements, the United States bullies them on the basis of American domestic law, as for instance with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. Why should they act on the basis of reports from an internationally unaccountable CIA, which contradict the findings of the UN’s IAEA.
     Ikenberry knows that there is something not quite right with the order that he hopes the Chinese leadership will see as their best bet for their own future. He talks of the need to strengthen its institutions, reinvesting in it, and “reinforcing the features of that order that encourage engagement, integration, and restraint”. One way of doing that, so he says, is by reaffirming the political value of NATO and (implicitly) the U.S.-Japan Security treaty. He ends with a reference to the political philosopher John Rawls and his famous ‘veil of ignorance’ behind which thinkers with political influence design ideal systems that will be beneficial to everyone, rich or poor, weak or strong. Fortunately such a system in international relations is already in place, he asserts, the “task now is to make it so expansive and so institutionalized that China has no choice but to become a full-fledged member of it.”
     The question that comes to my mind whenever I read about Rawlsian schemes for an equitable and just political system, pops up here again: Do you guys ever leave the gates of your arcadia, do you even look out of the window of your study?
     Ikenberry keeps calling the system he wants to see strengthened ‘Western’ or ‘Western centered’. “If the defining struggle of the twenty-first century is between China and the United States, China will have the advantage. If the defining struggle is between China and a revived Western system, the West will triumph.” Perhaps because of having lived for most of my life in Asia, I have become allergic to this kind of talk. The ingrained assumptions tied to it are clear enough. What is not understood is that the very notion of a politically significant West is an obstacle to what Ikenberry wants to see happening.
     Several of my non-Chinese friends who live in Beijing and who have shared my life in Asia at different times are not at all impressed by what that Western order can teach the Chinese, or whether it exists at all in a way that would make Asians want to have a stake in it. Democracy in the United States is not an example for anyone anymore. The kind of capitalism for which Ikenberry still had praise just over a year ago actually was not very inspiring at that time either. Ikenberry goes into Bretton Woods and the institutions fostering free trade as order keeping arrangements, which of course they used to be. But after Nixon did away with the Bretton Woods arrangements, American policy became more predatory than supportive. The IMF and World Bank are, outside the Atlantic community, seen more and more as tools of predatory capitalism. What Ikenberry says about the ‘Western order’ being “built around rules and norms of nondiscrimination and market openness, creating conditions for rising states to advance their expanding economic and political goals within it” has not been true for a long time. When he gets to the WTO Ikenberry shows the usual unfamiliarity among international relations scholars with the facts on the ground resulting from Doha-round related globalization.
     There is no reason to assume that Ikenberry’s heart, like that of the late Rawls, is in any other but the right place. But he should begin to serve, with his undoubted scholarly gifts, the conversation on the big global picture by taking a good look out of his window.
    Of course the Chinese leadership’s hopes are for an international order of which they are a respected member. But drop that limiting ‘Western’ adjective, and realize that such order can only be achieved collectively.