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Strong states and the unmaking of epochs

June 30, 2011

Jay Ulfelder recently pointed out that the preoccupation with failed states – one which permeates the popular discourse about foreign policy and the highest ranks of the foreign policy establishment – seems to wholly obscure major global trends. Failed states are not the main story of the 21st century, nor are they truly the source of primary threats to world security or the international order generally. What is more true, and, in many ways, more disturbing, is the idea that international order is being undermined by the success of its own ideas, models, and actions.

That tumult in one part of the world can reverberate across it is not a sign of impending collapse and failure, but the strength of the flows which permeate the international system. Of course, one can speak of the dark side of globalization, but this is to unnecessarily separate the trends. In that sort of scheme, the “dark” flows metastasize from an incompletely integrated periphery to the wealthy, safe metropoles, which in turn draw in the periphery with its beneficial flows of trade and ideas. This is an unduly Manichean model.

Hobbes famously predicated the basis for the horror of the state of nature was an equality of human desires and the scarcity and exclusivity of means to fulfill them. In a sense, the world is moving towards anarchy, but it is at a higher level. International order, so long as major preponderances of power existed between states, functioned partially as hierarchy as much as anarchy. Comparisons to the 19th century miss the point, in this regard. IR theorists, and especially those of the realist inclination, often talk about a return to the 19th century because European politics were multipolar. However, that does not explain how the balance of power in the rest of the world operated, since it was under varying forms of hierarchical influence from these European (and later American) states. Today, the legacies of that hierarchy are beginning to erode, with genuinely non-Western poles of power emerging in Eastern Eurasia.

A more apt lesson to take from the 19th century is that no system can last forever. The overlapping institutions and power structures of Europe stability, forged in the wake of war, could not outlive the changes in the balance of power they facilitated. The British maritime trading system enabled the wealth of fellow European states and the extension of British interests without giving Britain the means to perpetuate its empire indefinitely. The trade and stability that the European concert brought internationally enabled the fermentation of transnational revolutionary ideals and frustrated the aspirations of romantic nationalists without providing recourse to their suppression. It should not be controversial to think that each historical international order enabled some of the trends which brought about its undoing, or transformation, and today’s system is likely no different.

The problem is that some hegemonic powers may think the vision and course of these systems work together, rather than at cross purposes. Aaron Friedberg recently wrote an article in The National Interest arguing that while structural and ideological reasons made war between the United States and China more likely, the democratization of China should lessen the chance of conflict. However, the conditions which allow us to survey democratic peace theory empirically really only last from the late 19th century to today. In the specific context of China, as Daniel Larison and others point out, there are plenty of opportunities for China to become more nationalistic or unstable as a result of its democratization.

In any case, it bears keeping in mind that the Chinese Communist Party owes its continued existence to the careful embrace of the old international order. There are plenty of Chinese realists, nativists, and nationalists who feel the new China owes very little. The complaints against American hegemony, even in the Chinese press, are just that: complaints against hegemony. That China is authoritarian or democratic probably misses the point. Western colonial powers humiliated China at sea, and after attempting to modernize, it was Japan which again shamed China by destroying that prime symbol of 19th century modernity – its navy. The Chinese complaints against encirclement are those we have heard from essentially every other continental power directed against its maritime foe.

If a democratic government emerges in China, it will still confront the Hobbesian problem of equality of wants – and then the rest of the world will have no ideological excuse to deny China what it feels is rightfully its own. Should we expect whoever comes to power in China after the CCP not to be wary of what happened to the Russians, who found separatist movements lashing at their underbelly as NATO rushed in to its former borderlands? Even if China is democratic, the status of its separatist regions in the west will remain serious – democracies do have separatist problems, but given the enormous size and importance of Tibet and Xinjiang combined, it is hard to imagine them parting amicably or agreeing to Han tyranny by majority. Given what we know about ethno-nationalist conflicts, it is actually quite possible these outlying provinces will get a worse deal, since Chinese controls over internal movement will likely diminish in a post-authoritarian state, along with many of the incentives for the central government to avoid recourse to a more popular and virulent nationalism.

Not only that, but, China’s neighbors are stronger than the minor states of Latin America which buckled under American rule when European attempts to establish a balance of power against it failed. If China’s neighbors do not find their ideological makeover to be convincing enough reason to make political, institutional, and economic concessions to Chinese interests, then whoever leads China will need to grapple with the questions of how to prevent Chinese political encirclement, how to give China the voice it deserves on the international stage, and how to achieve “developmental security,” as China’s latest defense documents term it, in a neighborhood of wealthy and well-armed states. China will still have all its economic concerns about accesses to resources and sea lines of communication, its political grievances about territory and sovereignty, and differences about receiving its place in the sun. Yet the United States, Europe, and other liberal powers of the world will, thanks to its insistence on wrapping up its checks against China on ideological terms, find themselves in a hard predicament. Their case for an arms trade ban with China would falter, as would that against the Chinese military build-up and its increasing showing of the flag. China would attempt to organize its middle sea to the south as America did its own, and build its own security arrangements.

Even if the West succeeds in ensuring Chinese democratization does not bring about demagoguery, ultranationalism or increased assertiveness, there are very good reasons to believe that groups which can capitalize on these grievances would be able to seize power in a young democratic system. Consider that Germany had a functioning parliament for decades before Weimar, even under the imperial system of the German Empire – yet  when democracy failed to bring the promised improvements to Germany’s social, economic, and geopolitical conditions, and the democrats proved incapable of addressing these concerns, those who could claim to do so found their way into power. An overly conciliatory and pacific, and weak Chinese democracy may just create the political space for ultranationalist or radical groups to seize power and pursue goals the conservative CCP saw as too risky.

While I am not a Marxist, it is plain to see that contradictions exist within the complexity of the current political system, and if anything, the equality of desire will lay those contradictions bare. While there is almost never enough political power to go around for everyone, we would like to think that there is – eventually – enough wealth and resources to. However, a truly global world system is a very new thing, and one where there billions of people are consuming as quickly they are is new too. Even if everybody gets off better in the end, the benefits cannot be distributed to everyone’s satisfaction. That is where the distribution of political power will come into play, and where conflict is likely to arise.

Strong states and wealthy economies provide the systems and resources for terrorists to take their causes globally, as well as nodes from which to pressure the enemy’s political will and tolerance for pain. Successful, integrated states provide the markets for the consumption of drugs and drivers of economic changes that can wreak havoc on lesser polities. Scientific and technical progress will remain a fact, but the moral progress we expected it to bring for so long may not materialize. Governments, wealth, and technology, after all, are mere instruments and vehicles of political will. Many of the alternative norms that states like China and India are advancing are products of Western history, rather than alien civilizational constructs. China and India’s notions of sovereignty and non-intervention would be a marvel of the success of Western jurisprudence had they appeared before, say, WWII. Their desires to achieve spheres of regional interest on the Western style, as in the notion of an Asian “Monroe Doctrine,” follow in a long tradition of re-appropriations of such norms against the reigning hegemonic power. New powers have not just added their own norms but revived alternative international political traditions to suit their own ends. The instruments of the modern state, wealth, and technology will increasingly give them the capacity to re-moralize foreign policy on their own terms.

It is taken as a given that radically diametric ideologies, brewing in weak and anarchic states, are this century’s contribution to the panoply threats to American and Western interests, if not the central contribution. In the long run, however, it is likely the the strength of states, and the torsion they will exert on the structures and habits of international politics, which will pose the most daunting challenges to the assumptions underlying the current order. These states will adopt ideologies to oppose the dominant powers, it is true. They will not necessarily invent radically alien doctrines, however, nor will the divide always be easily understood as one between authoritarians and democrats. Time has shown that powers on the periphery of the ruling order may adopt the ideas it suppresses.

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