The Curious Persistence of Cold War Thinking

by Mark English

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Great powers in decline are often more dangerous than rising powers. The leaders of such countries (today’s United States?) may be tempted to take drastic action in an attempt to stem perceived decline and restore the status quo ante or simply to distract from domestic problems. Mark English argues that, though changes in the geopolitical landscape make the relatively clear ideological dichotomies of the Cold War era impossible to maintain, new and dangerous forms of neoconservatism – founded on the myth of American exceptionalism – continue to influence foreign policy and media reporting.

27 comments

          1. So, we’ve joined the ranks of all the other endemic failures

            You have indeed, and, unsurprisingly, you are the last to see it.

            Are there any successes?

            Your record is a mixed bag, some good and many bad. A most unexpected success has been the open source movement. For me this is a ‘source’ of continuing wonder. Then of course, US science, which has and is doing great things. I am a scientismist at heart! But I am sure you suspected that already. You might wonder why, given my other beliefs?

  1. Dan, every nation has an internal perspective whereby they reify themselves. And the greater the power they possess the greater they reify themselves. This leads to some large disparities between internal perceptions and external perceptions. This is where you are now. Then events conspire to disconfirm these internal perceptions and invariably the result is denialism. This is entirely understandable but it is not useful and leads to destructive conflict.

  2. Mark English,

    Since I’ve never been in agreement with you previously about anything you’ve written in the Electric Agora, I felt like writing just to tell you that in general, I agree with what you say, especially about declining empires being more dangerous than rising ones, the exception maybe being the British empire which didn’t do much damage in its decline.

    It’s interesting to see how the Chinese silently and with a smile buy up Chile, for example mining companies and the electric power industry. In Chile most of us have been vaccinated against Covid with the Chinese vaccine Sinovac and in the future Sinovac will produce their vaccines for South America in Chile. As you point out, Chinese power expands without the preaching and the attempts to promote their way of life that one expects of the United States.

  3. Mark,
    the persistence of cold war thinking is evidence of quite a profound psychological condition. The essence of cold war thinking is to define yourself in opposition to something you regard as undesirable. The thing you are in opposition to could be one of any number of things. The defining conditions is to be in opposition, to be against something, to desire to limit something, restrict it, harm it or eliminate it.

    The alternative is to be for something positive, beneficial and generally praiseworthy. Whether to choose to be in opposition to something or for something is an indicator of mature development of identity. A well formed, mature identity is secure in itself and measures its worth by the contributions it can make. Therefore it defines itself by being for something positive, that it can give of itself.

    On the other hand, defining yourself in opposition is an indicator of emptiness, a lack of useful identity and an inability to give. Atheism is a perfect example of this emptiness. It can only define itself in opposition to religion because it has nothing inherently worthwhile to give. Around me the churches don’t care about the atheist movement. It is just plain irrelevant to them because they care about giving to the poor and suffering. Thus they run the soup kitchens, charity shops, hospices, hospitals, schools, old age homes, care centres, disaster relief programmes, run prison ministries, etc, etc.

    Thus when the US persists in its cold war thinking(opposition to whatever) it is demonstrating a national emptiness of its psyche. Now this is a tragedy because it really does have something useful to offer. But this must be offered by example or friendly persuasion and not by coercion. And this offering must proceed from a sense of generous goodwill, something which is conspicuously lacking.

  4. Peter

    Thanks for your comments.

    Speaking in terms of the sorts of values which apply to interpersonal relations in the context of geopolitics is sometimes inappropriate. I agree with you that concepts like goodwill can certainly apply. Gorbachev was betrayed, for example, and the goodwill which had been built up was squandered.

    Clearly, charity and philanthropy can work on a transnational scale, but when politics or geopolitics become involved, it is no longer charity/philanthropy.

    My point is that different types of language are appropriate for dealing with political and geopolitical concerns on the one hand and non-political matters on the other. There is *some* overlap, but I think you go a bit too far in some of your claims.

    Also, I tend to be wary of “national psyche” talk.

  5. Hi Mark,
    but I think you go a bit too far in some of your claims

    Ah well, we can’t agree about everything and anyway that would be boring. Instead of criticising the US(as usual) I am going to be for something, for a change(and not against 🙂 !) This is my vision of a foreign policy that an enlightened great power might follow.

    1) Non-intervention
    Every country must be allowed, in its own time, and in its own way, to find a path towards rule-of-law, liberal democracy. After all, we did so, and other countries, will, in time, do so. This may take much longer than we like and we will have to hold our noses when dealing with countries with egregious human rights abuses. We do so in any case with countries like Saudi Arabia. Attempts to force this will, in almost every case, fail.

    2) Containment and not coercion
    Despite our best intentions some countries will be bad actors and will still pursue a belligerent foreign policy of expansion and coercion. It is legitimate and prudent to resist the belligerence and contain it, but not to punish it because that only fuels further belligerence.

    3) Cooperation and collaboration
    Seek out opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. This will build the goodwill that is necessary to navigate the friction and the difficulties that will always occur.

    4) Pragmatic tolerance and respect
    Endeavour to respect the rights, values and aspirations of other countries, even though they might conflict with our own. Seek pragmatic compromise and do not make power plays.

    5) Soft power infiltration
    Our enlightenment norms of rule-of-law and liberal democracy are a compelling and irresistible advantage that we possess. These values will infiltrate all countries so that they gradually change internally and adopt a model resembling ours. Changes motivated internally are durable and fit their own circumstances more closely. This process will take much longer than we would like but they will take place. So we must be very patient and play the long game. This is what China fears the most, hence the ‘Great Wall of China’. It will fail because modern technology makes these walls so porous. There are so many ways to do this, through our universities, academic conferences, schools, cultural bodies, entertainment media, etc. We should create as many opportunities for contact as possible so that the mental virus of enlightenment ideals is transmitted to other minds. This virus will slowly and inevitably infect their minds. The rise of Christianity in China is an interesting example of this. The Chinese are so unsettled by this that they are forbidding the placement of crosses on church steeples, and even, in some case, reverted to tearing down churches.

    6) International rule of law.
    Strengthen and develop the institutions that promote the rule of law between countries. Scrupulously observe the international rule of law. Work to increase the scope and binding power of international rule of law.

    7) Disaster relief
    Go beyond the call of duty to rapidly provide large disaster relief to any country in need with no strings attached. This creates lasting goodwill. Just think of how effectively America’s large bomber fleet could be repurposed.

    8) Humanitarian assistance.
    Create a cabinet post for Humanitarian Assistance. Never make humanitarian assistance conditional on good behaviour.

    9) International trade.
    Promote trade wherever possible because this is such an important extension of soft power. And never use trade sanctions or embargoes for political purposes. There is a place for it in securing fair trade and reciprocity.

    10) Defence
    We may defend a country from attack but never, ever attack another country.

    In summary, the main thrust of my points is to follow a cooperative, friendly, tolerant, helpful and respectful foreign policy that wins friends while containing belligerents, until, in the long run, the virus of enlightenment ideals has spread to and infected all nations. This is a long, slow process but it is inexorable. This is our winning competitive advantage. It is indeed the only way we can win. But the victory will be a permanent one.

  6. Mark: I have a lot of objections. I’ll just go to the main one. I speak as an Australian, and I think what I say is current mainstream thought, held by almost all Australian politicians and commentators, Left and Right.

    Until a few years ago Australia and China seemed to be in a mutually beneficial trading relationship, amounting almost to friendship. President Xi visited in November 2014 (it was his fifth visit to the country). Speaking to Parliament he said: “Everywhere I have been, I have personally experienced the goodwill of the Australian people towards the Chinese people. Australia has a vast territory, rich resources and an advanced economy, and it is renowned for its diverse culture and unique landscape. It is not just a country on the sheep’s back, or a country sitting on mine cars; more importantly, Australia is a country of dynamism and innovation. It has produced many world renowned scientists and made outstanding contributions to the progress of human civilisation. … Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, while China and Australia are oceans apart, friendly contacts between our two countries have a long history. … There are now frequent exchanges of visits at the top and other levels, and over 30 government consultation and dialogue mechanisms. Our national legislatures maintain regular exchanges, which serve as an important platform for exchanging views and experiences of governance. Notably, economic and cultural interactions and cooperation between our two countries are flourishing. … Our two countries should increase dialogue and exchanges and deepen political trust, expand result-oriented cooperation, and work together to sustain peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.”

    That was seven years ago. Today relations are at rock bottom. The symbol of that is the 14 point list of grievances that China issued to Australia one year ago, accusing Australia of “poisoning bilateral relations”. The grievances included rejecting Huawei technology, criticising the treatment of Uighurs, refusing Chinese investment, and calling for an inquiry into the origins of COVID. One turning point was the obvious corruption by China of a well-known politician, who spoke up in defence of China’s control of the South China Sea; his fellow politicians suddenly woke up to Chinese influence at work. China then arbitrarily banned imports of coal, barley, and much else in the hopes of hurting Australia economically. Peter Hartcher’s recent book “Red Zone” tells the whole sorry story very well.

    So how are you framing these events in your talk? Am I describing a “relentless attempt to generate hostilities towards old Cold War enemies”? But Xi said otherwise in 2014, and he was right at that time.

    You say that China is “not trying to impose its ideology on the rest of us”. But it is. The 14 grievances were resting on the assumption that Australia had no right to make its own decisions in those matters. The nine-dash line in the South China Sea is plainly an imposition on its neighbours. So is the retaking of Hong Kong. So is the border fighting against India. If and when it tries to take Taiwan, it will be operating out of its ideology, and not out of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbour.

    You say “If you want to know the real driving forces of foreign policy you need to follow the money”. That principle doesn’t work in this scenario. China and Australia were both benefiting enormously from their trading relation. Rather, it is China’s sense of honour that is at stake. The CCP rejects the very idea of being criticised, even while employing “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

    “Rising powers like China have a strong disincentive to rock the boat in any way”, so you say. I would agree. That I think was Deng’s view. Bide your time and hide your strength. This clearly implies seeking good relations with non-threatening places like Australia. It is not what is happening. Your diagnosis is off the mark.

    “Time is on China’s side”, you say. Maybe, but we don’t know. Its demographics are bad, it spends a lot on preventing internal social unrest, its leadership could fracture, its top-down economy is heavily dependent on the troubled housing sector, there is backlash against its Belt and Road system, and so on. Chinese GDP per capita is 100th in world rankings.

    Of course you can say that you are really talking about US foreign policy and not about anyone else. I guess you will say that. If so, I’d like to know how you see Australia’s actions in the picture you are portraying. I hope that is not too parochial of me.

    Alan

  7. Hi Alan

    Thanks for your comment. I was hoping to provoke some direct negative responses because only through such honest and open exchanges can progress on these sorts of issues be made.

    First of all, let me say that I am not going to be able to deal satisfactorily here with the issues you raise. I intend to come back to these topics and just wish there was more of an appetite at this site — I am thinking of the audience as much as contributors — for dealing with these kinds of (geopolitical and ideological) questions. I never mind hewing an unpopular line but if there is no real interest one way or the other in the topic, what’s the point?

    You have suggested that what you have said is just the tip of an (ideological?) iceberg. Facts are not at issue so much as the interpretation of the facts; and for the last 16 years or so I have been doing a lot of reinterpreting. Most of that reinterpreting has been based around the driving forces and broad consequences of American foreign policy and that of her allies. Memories of my father come into this and maybe that is something I could talk about in a future podcast. While he was alive — and for more than decade after his death, in fact — I shared his point of view to a large extent. I still do in many respects. But, of course, the world he knew has gone. The maps still look pretty much the same but what those coloured shapes represent, well, let’s just say that pretty much everything of significance has changed beyond recognition.

    My point, however, is about the way we think. Inevitably, there is a lot going on beneath the surface, not just with my thoughts but with yours and in fact with anyone who tries to engage with these questions. The questions are such that subtle differences in personal ideology can turn the kaleidoscope in surprising ways. The real interest for me is in trying to dig down to the ideas and other factors which motivate our judgments.

    I am less interventionist than you. Two memories. First, Tibet. I had a Buddhist friend and was exposed to a lot of talk about what the Chinese were doing there. I met with a monk who had first-hand experience of this and was (still am for that matter) sympathetic to their plight. About this time I saw a group of activists who had set up a table in Bourke Street, by the old Melbourne GPO (when it was still a post office), thinking to myself, this is perhaps a cause I could embrace. I started to approach them, but this thought held me back: my actions could lead to unintended consequences. Knowing they had Western support might encourage aggrieved Tibetans to resist the Chinese in more active and aggressive ways than they otherwise would have and this could lead to the blood of protesters being shed.

    I had the same thoughts during the “Arab Spring” and various other uprisings when I saw our media basically cheering on the protesters from the sidelines. Safe and secure, but praising (and therefore implicitly urging on) these people who were putting themselves at risk. I have come to despise the media, most of it, but that is another story.

    Or maybe it’s not another story. The thing is, whatever the merits of whatever moral case you want to make against China, a major conflict between major powers would lead to the absolute worst consequences. And various well-funded think tanks and media organizations are helping to create just the sort of polarized political environment that makes war a politically viable option.

    (I am mulling over the details of your comment and will try to reply, at least to some points, before comments close.)

  8. Alan, a few more points. (I am thinking of doing another podcast episode on this, by the way.)

    You quote me saying that if you want to know the real driving forces of foreign policy you need to follow the money. You claim that “that principle doesn’t work in this scenario,” pointing out that China and Australia “were both benefiting enormously from their trading relation.”

    My claim was primarily about American (and, more generally, Western) politicians, bureaucrats, investors, assorted decision-makers and opinion-makers and other agents with links to the military-industrial-security complex, not about the general public or ordinary business people. We are talking here about the corrupting power of big money. No doubt many are attracted not by the money itself but by the aura of secrecy, privilege and power which surrounds the operations of these people and which could be seen to bestow a certain status on those directly or indirectly involved. Many, of course, are motivated by high ideals, and many who are employed within the national security sphere are honest professionals who do good and valuable work. But when you look at the fake intelligence which was used to justify the Iraq war and other similar instances it becomes very clear that something serious is amiss. Traditionally the ethics of secret operations are consequentialist: the end justifies the means (and we don’t want to know too much about the means). But when the outcomes are bad (I could make a list of Near and Middle Eastern and African countries which have not been helped by American interventions) no such justification is possible.

    You mention “China’s sense of honour” and the CCP rejecting “the very idea of being criticised, even while employing “wolf warrior” diplomacy.” I am not defending the Chinese system but nor would I be comfortable siding with media people and others who never lose an opportunity to criticize or insult the Chinese leadership. This is not the way to restore good relations. Much of the rhetoric we are seeing is specifically designed to demonize Xi and the CCP. Is the goal regime change? Looks like it. It didn’t work out too well for Iraq or Libya or anywhere else I can think of in recent times when the Americans and their allies went in. Why would it work for the Chinese people? And, if change happens, it is better that it occurs without US involvement (for obvious reasons).

    The fact that American military personnel have been on the ground in Taiwan in training roles is worrying to me. It’s also worrying that they couldn’t keep it secret. Are they *trying* to provoke China?

    “Rising powers like China have a strong disincentive to rock the boat in any way, you say… It is not what is happening. Your diagnosis is off the mark.”

    I think I said “in any serious way.” I was talking about initiating war. I stand by what I said.

    “Time is on China’s side, you say. Maybe, but we don’t know. Its demographics are bad, it spends a lot on preventing internal social unrest, its leadership could fracture, its top-down economy is heavily dependent on the troubled housing sector, there is backlash against its Belt and Road system, and so on. Chinese GDP per capita is 100th in world rankings… Of course you can say that you are really talking about US foreign policy and not about anyone else. I guess you will say that.”

    That’s right!

    “If so, I’d like to know how you see Australia’s actions in the picture you are portraying…”

    I don’t believe it is in Australia’s interest to continue to play the “deputy sheriff” role. (Or in the interests of the region, for that matter.) There is a history of this, going back to World War 2 when Australia’s military forces were put under American command. Arguably this worked and was justified at the time and perhaps there was a congruence of interests in the years following (until the Vietnam War??).

    The AUKUS agreement looks very significant. It is potentially locking Australia in even more closely with the US military and so with US security and foreign policy discussions about — and military activity in — the region. I am concerned about the constraints that this new arrangement will necessarily put on Australia’s capacity to maintain an independent foreign policy. It will also change the way Australia is perceived by its neighbours. And by China.

    I see that it is absolutely crucial to keep the sea lanes open for trade and I can see that ceding to China complete control of the waters off its shores could pose existential risks for Japan and South Korea. So I am not advocating a complete American withdrawal from the region.

    As a world power and trading nation the US has genuine interests to protect and well-justified alliances (including with Australia) to maintain. But I do question the extent of the American military presence in the Far East and many other regions far from the homeland. Just look at the number of US bases and troop deployments around the world. It’s a hangover from another age and totally crazy (and unsustainable) in today’s world, in my opinion.

    1. So, to summarise, you would allow China to take Taiwan, but you would not allow China to control the East China Sea or the South China Sea. The US Navy would have the job of protecting those waters from militarisation by China. Is that correct?

      There are two big picture assumptions here. I assume that China wants to replace the US Navy in controlling the waters between Seoul and Singapore. You perhaps assume that China will be happy just to take Taiwan.

      You seem to think it’s all about the US and China. My view is that (putting aside Russia, North Korea and Australia as fringe players) there are ten countries whose fate is at issue: Japan, SK, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand.

  9. “So, to summarise, you would allow China to take Taiwan, but you would not allow China to control the East China Sea or the South China Sea. The US Navy would have the job of protecting those waters from militarisation by China. Is that correct?”

    I would not put it quite like that. On Taiwan, I would say, let’s not get involved militarily.

    Also, I am not saying that the US should have the job of protecting those waters from Chinese militarization. There are many nations which should be involved (including the US).

    The Western Pacific is a strategically sensitive area. What matters is that the sea lanes remain open, whoever is ensuring or enforcing this.

    Complete and geographically expansive dominance by China could be seen to threaten Japan, South Korea, etc. but a strong Chinese military presence in the waters close to Chinese territory seems justifiable in terms of self defense and national security; the same applies to the US in its region, or any maritime nation (including, of course, North East and South East Asian nations).

    In reality, China will probably dominate the region for years to come because of its economic and military might. But I see no reason why reasonable accommodations can’t be maintained with neighboring countries.

    “There are two big picture assumptions here. I assume that China wants to replace the US Navy in controlling the waters between Seoul and Singapore. You perhaps assume that China will be happy just to take Taiwan.”

    I agree that China wants to control the sea lanes. They could justify this in terms of ensuring their own security, given that they depend heavily on food, energy and raw material imports. But ideally they would not have *complete* dominance. Other countries have their own legitimate concerns and vulnerabilities.

    “My view is that (putting aside Russia, North Korea and Australia as fringe players) there are ten countries whose fate is at issue: Japan, SK, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand.”

    I agree. But my subject was basically *American* foreign policy. My main purpose was to critique certain persistent myths about American exceptionalism and America’s role in the world. My point is that these myths are exacerbating global tensions — in the Far East and elsewhere.

    1. Thanks, I find all that much clearer than the style of your talk, which seemed to slide from topic to topic, though no doubt it seemed clear enough to you.

      Next question: Do you think China has any sort of moral or legal case for taking Taiwan?

      And the obvious further question: Do countries sometimes have an obligation to defend other countries if those countries are about to be attacked and appeal for support and such support might sway the outcome?

  10. “Next question: Do you think China has any sort of moral or legal case for taking Taiwan?”

    Note that I talked about consequences. You are sounding more deontological. You read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (and watched that clip S.Wallerstein posted?). A different kind of ethics applies in these areas, I think.

    I would prefer not to proffer an opinion on the legal side of the Taiwan issue; not qualified. And I don’t see the need to expatriate on the moral aspects here, given that I have been quite upfront in stating that, in my opinion, it would not be a good thing in terms of *consequences* (dangers of massive escalation and so on) if America stepped in militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of a forced takeover by China.

    “And the obvious further question: Do countries sometimes have an obligation to defend other countries if those countries are about to be attacked and appeal for support and such support might sway the outcome?”

    The point I would emphasize in any more general discussion relating to the morality or moral justification of the use of force in disputes about sovereignty is that each case is different and full weight must always be given to cultural and historical factors.

    1. Good. I think I see where you stand. So let’s discuss consequences and deterrence.

      Suppose that China could be deterred from invading Taiwan. In that case the consequences would be entirely positive. So we, meaning the US and its allies, should aim to deter it if possible.

      Can China, meaning Xi and the CCP, be deterred? There are two possibilities:

      Assuming China does a calculation of the consequences that says the risks to itself and its people outweigh the benefits, and assuming it to be rational, then China will be deterred.

      Assuming China cares little about consequences in the usual sense, and much more about its perceived honour, then very likely China will not be deterred. So in that case attempting to deter China would be a waste of time.

      Which of these is the best picture of China’s motivation? I don’t know. There seems to be a consequentialist case for and a consequentialist case against deterrence. What do you think?

      Deterrence could take two forms. One is military: the US and its allies make it clear that they will fight to defend Taiwan. The other is economic: the US and its allies make it clear that China will suffer massive economic retaliation if it invades Taiwan.

      Obviously, the second is more attractive. If China is not deterred by this, the result would be an economic war that, I think, would crash the Chinese economy within a year. This would hurt a lot of ordinary Chinese people, but that would be better than the risk of all-out war. There would be a limited war between China and Taiwan, with an unknown outcome, but the ultimate outcome would be Chinese defeat. That is, to be clear, the defeat of Xi and the CCP.

      So I don’t think that Taiwan needs to be abandoned by its friends. There are options that allow for a non-catastrophic solution. Is this realistic, in your view? If not, why not?

  11. “So let’s discuss consequences and deterrence.”

    I am arguing in broadly consequentialist terms but I also emphasized that cultural and historical factors must be front and centre because we are not looking at a simplified, fictionalized model here or but at the actual world. And in the actual world, the US is *already* involved militarily (those marines in Taiwan, naval presence and exercises in the region, sales to Taiwan of military equipment…). Also we are working against a backdrop of a long and bitter history of (not always benign) interference by Western powers in China. You can’t just set this aside and talk about some hypothetical and entirely non-military kind of deterrence.

    “Suppose that China could be deterred from invading Taiwan. In that case the consequences would be entirely positive. So we, meaning the US and its allies, should aim to deter it if possible.”

    You are setting this up in a very tendentious way. “Suppose that China could be deterred from invading Taiwan,” you say, assuming that China is about to invade, and has made it clear that it is about to invade. This is not the situation we are in.

    You are assuming that, if nothing is done, invasion will occur (presumably soon). But I would be inclined to say that — barring provocations of one kind or another — there will be no Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the immediate future. You are saying that only active deterrence will result in the “entirely positive” outcome of non-invasion; whereas I see any kind of attempted deterrence as *adding* to the risk of a Chinese attack because it would be seen as (further) provocation. Even economic sanctions could be interpreted as unjustified interference or as a blockade and an act of war.

    “Can China, meaning Xi and the CCP, be deterred?”

    This is the kind of approach which neoconservatives have used in the past to clear the way for “regime change”. The target is the regime, not “the people”, the target is the leader and (in this case) the organization which not only constitutes his power base but which *is* the Chinese political system.

    Such an approach could be justified where the regime in question lacked popular support and was “grafted on” and not deeply integrated into the broader political system. But in other cases you are risking creating a political vacuum. This is a recipe for chaos. (Iraq; Libya…).

    “There are two possibilities…”

    There are *never* just two possibilities in this sort of context. As I suggested above, you are turning this into a simplified model, like a chess game — where sometimes there *are* just two possibilities.

    But, for the sake of argument, I will consider the options you set out.

    “Assuming China does a calculation of the consequences that says the risks to itself and its people outweigh the benefits, and assuming it to be rational, then China will be deterred.”

    This is unreal. Nobody actually thinks like this. There are always other (not strictly “rational”) factors in play.

    “Assuming China cares little about consequences in the usual sense, and much more about its perceived honour, then very likely China will not be deterred. So in that case attempting to deter China would be a waste of time.”

    At best a waste of time and resources. At worst a provocation which precipitates Chinese military action.

    “Deterrence could take two forms.”

    You keep calling it deterrence. But the actions only constitute deterrence if they deter!

    “One is military: the US and its allies make it clear that they will fight to defend Taiwan. The other is economic: the US and its allies make it clear that China will suffer massive economic retaliation if it invades Taiwan.”

    As I suggested earlier, you can’t easily separate the economic and the military. And in this case there is already military involvement.

    “Obviously, the second is more attractive. If China is not deterred by this, the result would be an economic war that, I think, would crash the Chinese economy within a year. This would hurt a lot of ordinary Chinese people, but that would be better than the risk of all-out war.”

    You don’t think there might be consequences for the entire world economy?

    “There would be a limited war between China and Taiwan, with an unknown outcome, but the ultimate outcome would be Chinese defeat. That is, to be clear, the defeat of Xi and the CCP.”

    How do you know this?

    I have very different assumptions concerning the economic situation and the (rapidly evolving and increasingly unstable) world financial system.

    “So I don’t think that Taiwan needs to be abandoned by its friends.”

    Emotive language. I thought we were trying to be consequentialists here.

    “There are options that allow for a non-catastrophic solution.”

    See above, passim. (You are setting up the problem in a tendentious way.)

    “Is this realistic, in your view? If not, why not?”

    I hope I have explained, at least in broad terms, why I see your approach as unrealistic. And potentially dangerous.

    1. Hi Mark:

      I’ll have one more go, and leave the last word to you.

      On international morality, I am not a consequentialist, though I think consequences should always be considered. I am a just war proponent. I agree with all 10 of the propositions put forward by Peter Smith above. I think there is an “international community”, though it is fragile and rather ineffective. It is made up of the countries that broadly follow Peter’s prescriptions. Taiwan is one such country. China seems to me to be choosing to opt out of that community.

      On China’s intentions. You think that “barring provocations of one kind or another, there will be no Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the near future”. I hope this is right. I think you are in a very small minority in your opinion.

      On deterrence: “actions are only deterrence if they deter”, you say. Okay, I meant to speak of intended deterrence.

      On “emotive language”: I think there is friendship between Taiwan and other liberal democracies. There was even friendship between China and Australia for a while. (My family and I went to Chengdu and Kunming in 2005; it felt like friendliness to me.)

      On “provocation”: it is not provocation to help a country defend itself from an aggressor. It is provocation to fly across another country’s airspace. It is provocation to capture disputed islands and convert them to military bases. Likewise with delaying the report on the coronavirus outbreak, as China did. Likewise also with its crude attempt to subvert Australian politics.

      How do I know that China would lose an economic war? Because China is a lot weaker and more fragile than it may appear. I follow Michael Beckley on how to measure economic strength. Contrary to common assumptions, GDP itself is not a good measure of economic strength. The best formula is “GDP times GDP per capita”. To repeat myself, Chinese GDP per capita is about 100th in the world rankings.

      In addition, China is heavily dependent on basic imports of oil, iron ore, coal and food. Wealthy countries that import manufactured goods from China will be able to pay to get those goods from elsewhere. (India and others will profit from becoming alternative suppliers.)

      I hope the people of China (like the people of Taiwan) do become wealthy and powerful, so long as its government remains peaceful.

      Thanks for the discussion.

      1. If I may enter this interesting conversation for a moment…

        Mark says above that there are U.S. troops in Taiwan. What would the U.S. do if there were Chinese troops in Venezuela and/or in Nicaragua?

        Yes, I know that Venezuela and Nicaragua are dictatorships and Taiwan is a democracy, but in both cases we have a great power that feels threatened by troops of a rival power near its borders.

  12. Alan said: “I’ll have one more go, and leave the last word to you.”

    Thanks for your input. I intend to respond to your last comment soon. There will, I expect, be more discussions of this and related topics at this site and I hope that you will continue to be involved.

    By the way, if you would consider recording a little talk of your own I would be happy to submit it as a Culture and Value podcast episode. I could give further details privately but the general idea would be for you to introduce yourself and make some reference to the point of view I have been putting and lay out the basic principles of your own approach.

    And if any other readers/listeners were interested in creating their own audio file, on this or other topics, I would be happy to correspond with them about the possibility of having it posted as a C&V episode. (Write to engmar3 at gmail dot com.)

  13. S. Wallerstein

    I was a bit taken aback by your earlier comment: “Since I’ve never been in agreement with you previously about anything you’ve written in the Electric Agora, I felt like writing just to tell you that in general, I agree with what you say…”

    You have been a regular reader here for — how many years is it? — and I have written essays totalling about 100,000 words. Quite an achievement to have written so much without saying *anything* you agreed with. Perhaps I am slipping.

    But, seriously, this issue is one on which I think the left and elements of the right can and should form an alliance.

    You made two substantive points.

    Earlier you talked about the way the Chinese are “silently and with a smile [buying] up Chile, for example mining companies and the electric power industry. In Chile most of us have been vaccinated against Covid with the Chinese vaccine Sinovac and in the future Sinovac will produce their vaccines for South America in Chile. … Chinese power expands without the preaching and the attempts to promote their way of life that one expects of the United States.”

    In other words, their approach is not ideology-driven in the way Marxist approaches used to be and (arguably) in the way neoconservative approaches still are.

    Your other point is also crucial and relates to how America sees itself versus how it is perceived: “What would the U.S. do if there were Chinese troops in Venezuela and/or in Nicaragua? Yes, I know that Venezuela and Nicaragua are dictatorships and Taiwan is a democracy, but in both cases we have a great power that feels threatened by troops of a rival power near its borders.”

    1. For example, the Chinese have a cultural center in Santiago (and maybe others in other regions of Chile, I don’t know), but they teach acupuncture, t’ai chi, etc., traditional Chinese culture as well as the Chinese language, nothing about Marxism or Maoism, unlike the U.S. cultural center which besides teaching English preaches and teaches the American way of life.

  14. “On international morality, I am not a consequentialist, though I think consequences should always be considered.”

    I should think so!!

    “I agree with all 10 of the propositions put forward by Peter Smith above.”

    I would not sign up to Peter’s list without some changes. Most of it is reasonable and there is wisdom in some of the provisions (especially on restraint, patience and non-interference in the political affairs of other countries). What I object to is what could be perceived as a patronising tone (may not be quite the right word but you get my drift) in places, as well as what I see as over-confident predictions.

    “I think there is an “international community”, though it is fragile and rather ineffective. It is made up of the countries that broadly follow Peter’s prescriptions. Taiwan is one such country. China seems to me to be choosing to opt out of that community.”

    This is where it gets dodgy in my opinion. Both you and Peter have a clear view of what (in your opinion) should be, as well as how things are and how they are destined, in general terms at least, to play out. You have an ideal, perhaps an ideology. Nothing wrong with that necessarily. But having strong moral convictions or ideals does not confer special observational or analytical benefits. And yet you seem to be strongly committed not only to views about how things should be but also to a particular understanding of the general shape of current and future realities. I ask myself, on what is this confidence based?

    You could ask me the same question, I suppose, but the difference is this: you take a more activist stance than I do. So there is more at stake. I refer back to what I said previously about supporting causes where people (in any number of eastern European or middle eastern or African countries, or in Tibet or Hong Kong or Taiwan, perhaps in certain Chinese provinces) may be encouraged to do things which they wouldn’t normally have done by a belief that foreign friends would support them if things got out of hand.

    “On China’s intentions. You think that “barring provocations of one kind or another, there will be no Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the near future”. I hope this is right. I think you are in a very small minority in your opinion.”

    I am also saying that (unnecessary) provocations are currently occurring!

    “On “emotive language”: I think there is friendship between Taiwan and other liberal democracies. There was even friendship between China and Australia for a while. (My family and I went to Chengdu and Kunming in 2005; it felt like friendliness to me.)”

    I was not suggesting that these emotional factors should be ignored. But I am always wary when emotionally-charged concepts are being deployed for rhetorical purposes in a political context.

    “On “provocation”: it is not provocation to help a country defend itself from an aggressor. It is provocation to fly across another country’s airspace. It is provocation to capture disputed islands and convert them to military bases. Likewise with delaying the report on the coronavirus outbreak, as China did. Likewise also with its crude attempt to subvert Australian politics.”

    Even if China’s actions have been as unremittingly bad as you suggest and even if all America’s actions to date have been wise and well-motivated, it is still possible that American actions will be *interpreted* by the Chinese (given the historical background etc.) as provocations. We need to take this possibility into account.

    And, as you know, I am more cynical about the forces driving American foreign policy in recent years than you are.

    “China is a lot weaker and more fragile than it may appear. I follow Michael Beckley on how to measure economic strength… Chinese GDP per capita is about 100th in the world rankings.”

    I listened to a video talk Beckley did for Wired (very slick). A good performer, young-looking and media friendly. He comes across as balanced and reasonable but his close ties to the US government concern me. (He worked for DoD and advises security services.) He did not that deny US intelligence agencies were active in mainland China (said he didn’t know). He mentioned and then tried to laugh off claims about CIA involvement with Falun Gong but it sounded rather unconvincing to me. (I am not making claims here, just giving my reactions to the video.) I would like to know more about his background (but Google doesn’t want to tell me!).

    I draw on a mix of sources (professional investors, academics and others) and have a much less positive view of America’s prospects than Beckley appears to have. (And, by the way, I don’t see GDP — or GDP per capita for that matter — as a reliable measure of economic strength.)

    “In addition, China is heavily dependent on basic imports of oil, iron ore, coal and food. Wealthy countries that import manufactured goods from China will be able to pay to get those goods from elsewhere. (India and others will profit from becoming alternative suppliers.)”

    Even Beckley emphasizes the interdependence of China and the rest of the world. This is not something that can be wound back quickly.

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