Thursday, May 08, 2008

Kagan and China's Pitch

I penned a review of Robert Kagan's The Return of History but something kept nagging at me, that I had left something out. And it was this. Kagan explains why China's view of the international order appeals to other autocrats--but neglects to discuss how many democracies might also find Beijing's approach to be useful and even preferable to the one he lays out.

Kagan notes that the Chinese view--and here let me use the words of the 1972 Shanghai Communique--"the people of all countries have the right to choose their social systems according their own wishes and the right to safeguard the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of their own countries ..." is music to the ears of autocratic and non-democratic governments around the world. He cites it specifically in the context of Chinese-Iranian relations. True.

But it is also quite attractive to a number of democratic ones as well. It is the basis for India's participation as an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa like the idea that their own path to democracy and development not be subject to the control or validation of outsiders. Even for U.S. allies like South Korea, this Chinese view is very welcome--because it means that Beijing's 1950 position--that North Korea did have a right to extend its system by force to the source--has been reversed and that South Korea's right to have a democratic, free-market system is not being challenged by China. And this makes it much easier for Europeans to deal with China--because Beijing seems to be saying, if you want to move to a post-nation state union where EU member-states have freely surrendered some sovereignty to Brussels, that is your affair.

[On a side note, what about the U.S. position in the Shanghai Communique--that "The United States supports individual freedom and social progress for all the peoples of the world, free of outside pressure or intervention"?]

And, as Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner and Steven Weber have been arguing in The National Interest (both the print and online editions) for more than a year now, China offers the vision of a world order based on sovereign states where these states negotiates contracts with one another in achieving their economic and security objectives and where international organizations have no authority to bypass the state on behalf of individuals. For many democratic states, particularly those that have a "John Quincy Adams" view that the fate of democracy in any given country is in the hands of that country alone, a global order predicated on sovereignty is just fine.

And what you may end up with, as Parag Khanna has argued, is a whole series of states--both democratic and non-democratic--that position themselves betwixt "autocratic/sovereign East" and "democratic/internationalist West". We shouldn't be counting on other democracies to automatically flock to our banner.

I quoted Lee Hamilton at the close of my review; but Khanna is more blunt and less polite than the former Congressman. How can America's power and leadership be revived? He complains, "One would expect hard-headed guidance based on experience,
observation and connections, yet instead one hears—from ex-administration officials from the Clinton or Bush eras—the platitudes of detached utopians."

India's record on Burma and South Africa's record on Zimbabwe suggests that at present such countries value protecting sovereignty over spreading democracy.
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