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A “new post-ideological strategic world order”?

Pepe Escobar sees Eurasian integration and associated trade developments as possibly marking the emergence of a new, post-ideological strategic world order. China, with its infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative, is driving this process. By contrast, the US appears to be locked into a Cold War-like mentality.

There is some truth in this view. Certainly the latest annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the US Director of National Intelligence has explicitly categorized US–China relations in ideological terms. China is interpreted as seeking to propagate “authoritarian capitalism” and this is perceived as a direct challenge to Western liberal democracy.

And so it may be. But only if it delivers the promised benefits at a time when Western democracy seems to be losing its way. Our problems are of our own making and can’t plausibly be blamed on Russia or China.

Escobar rightly criticizes the tendency to conflate very different kinds of system; to equate, as he puts it, “Russian democracy with China’s one party rule, Iran’s demo-theocracy and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman revival.” Moreover, American criticisms of the illiberalism and authoritarianism of states which are perceived to be strategic rivals ring rather hollow while other equally illiberal regimes are given a pass.

It must be admitted that a pro-Russia bias is evident in Escobar’s article. The reference (quoted above) to “Russian democracy” is a case in point. And then there is this:

Last month in Moscow, I discussed Greater Eurasia – by now established as the overarching concept of Russian foreign policy – with top Russian analysts. They told me Putin is on board. He referred to Eurasia recently as “not a chessboard or a geopolitical playground, but our peaceful and prosperous home.”

All sweetness and light…

Some of Escobar’s substantive claims have merit, however. Claims about Russia’s strategic significance, for example, despite its relatively small economy (one tenth the size of China’s).

From boosting trade that bypasses the U.S. dollar, to increasing joint military exercises, the Russia-China symbiosis is poised to advance beyond political and ideological affinities.

China badly needs Russian know-how in its military industry. Beijing will turn this knowledge into plenty of dual use, civilian-military innovations.

Technology and trade are driving an historically and strategically significant process of economic and social change, no doubt about it. Escobar points out that Henry Kissinger saw this coming.

The Kissinger doctrine rules that, geopolitically, the U.S. is just “an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia.” Domination “by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres – Europe or Asia – remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War or no Cold War,” as Kissinger said. “For such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically and, in the end, militarily.”

Are we headed for a post-ideological world? It is a question of scope and degree. The fact that the West’s major antagonists have abandoned the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and adopted more pragmatic approaches makes it difficult if not impossible for the US and its allies to sustain with any degree of plausibility the simple dichotomies of a Cold War-style approach.

Our perceived strategic rivals have (as Escobar pointed out) adopted various ideologies and forms of government while, in the West, tottering liberal democracies are facing challenges from within. We see a swirling mix of views and outlooks. Various forms of nationalism, regionalism, separatism and internationalism compete with one another. Some groups focus on identity politics, others on radical environmentalism. Attempts are being made to revive various forms of socialism. Crackpot ideas like Modern Monetary Theory are being seriously entertained in some quarters.

In such a fluid situation it is hardly surprising that American attempts to utilize ideology as a means of cementing Western solidarity are failing. In recent years we have seen major US allies resisting America’s hardline approach to China and Russia. The current battles over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are just the latest example. Generally, pragmatic considerations seem to be winning out as US allies are increasingly seeing the need to take a more independent line on foreign policy and trade.

This, I think, is a good thing. Social and political myths and the ideologies with which they are associated will always be with us. But, given the role that ideology has often played in exacerbating international tensions and fanning the flames of war, it is well to be wary of any attempt to deploy ideological considerations in the context of foreign policy and international relations.

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China: Holy See No Evil

Cross-posted on the Corner:

It’s no great secret that Roman Catholic ‘social’ teaching, normally seen as a form of corporatism, is a touch difficult to reconcile with free market economics, even more so in the era of Pope Francis, a man who absorbed too much and understood too little during his youth in Peronist Argentina.

That said, this (via the Catholic Herald) was, well, quite something:

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” a senior Vatican official has said.

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, praised the Communist state as “extraordinary”, saying: “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience”.

A national conscience so positive that, until recently, it positively insisted that women should only have one child each, and positively reinforced that insistence with methods up to and including forced abortions, a practice that may not have disappeared quite so completely as the Chinese regime now likes to suggest.

A national conscience so positive that it can’t see what’s wrong with the Laogai, China’s gulag, the largest system of forced labor camps in the world.

And a national conscience so positive that Mao, the murderer of tens of millions, remains venerated.

Back to the Catholic Herald:

The bishop told the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider that in China “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”

They would? What they might say is that in the U.S. there is more of a separation between the economy (and thus the individual) and politics (and thus the state), than corporatists—whether of the Vatican or Chinese Communist variety—might like.

The Catholic Herald:

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo said that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ better than many other countries and praised it for defending Paris Climate Accord. “In that, it is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned”, he added.

He accused US president Donald Trump of being “manipulated” by global oil firms, and said that, as opposed to those who follow “liberal thought”, the Chinese are working for the greater good of the planet.

This bishop, like his pope, cannot, it seems, resist the lure of conspiracism: Demagogues—a  species certainly not confined to the Vatican—tend to be like that.

Note too Sorondo’s obvious disdain for the very idea of “liberal thought” – and, to be clear, by “liberal” he  means classical liberal.

That should come as no surprise.

And this was no one-off.

Here’s Sorondo last year (via Crux):

“China could be a model we need today to respond to globalization, a model for the dignity and freedom of human beings…”

Sorondo’s remarks are, I am sure, the product of deep ideological conviction, however revolting, but they also, doubtless, come with another, more cynical objective, flattering a dictatorship with which the Vatican is currently very keen to cut a deal over the appointment of bishops.

A sort of Lateran Two, you might say.




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Anti-SJW Sentiment in China

I say anti-SJW, though it could just as easily apply to plain ol’ regular cosmopolitan globalists, I suppose. Here’s an interesting article at openDemocracy on the use of “white left” in China as a racial-cum-political epithet:

If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, it’s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo, or literally, the ‘white left.’

Apart from some anti-hegemonic sentiments, the connotations of ‘white left’ in the Chinese context clearly resemble terms such as ‘regressive liberals’ [*] or ‘libtards’ in the United States. In a way the demonization of the ‘white left’ in Chinese social media may also reflect the resurgence of right-wing populism globally. The term first became influential amidst the European refugee crisis, and Angela Merkel was the first western politician to be labelled as a baizuo for her open-door refugee policy.

Read the whole thing. The author notes the lack of “experiential motivation” for this attitude, and how it even extends into a very American thrashing of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (but not Donald Trump).

*The link here is to an article at HuffPo claiming “regressive liberal” is an Islamophobic term. So am I to understand that a claim that one is insufficiently liberal is something conservatives do? Yes, actually I am. Once you understand that much of what passes for conservatism these days is simply yesterday’s liberalism (or today’s liberalism, albeit an embattled one), it begins to make sense. That makes someone like Dave Rubin operationally conservative even if they’d resist that label.

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Wisdom of the East

SuperSnail asks:

Hey Razib, could you compile a list of Chinese and Indian religious history/philosophy books?

I’ve actually made the call for books on Indian religion and philosophy elsewhere. My knowledge set in this domain is very thin, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending anything. I have read primary sources such as The Bhagavad Gita and The Rig Veda, as well as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, but I have no sense of the lay of the land. To be frank Indian religion and philosophy has minimal appeal for me. The materialist school, the Carvaka, is generally characterized by its opponents, so it isn’t as if I find any succor in that direction (imagine that everything you knew about classical paganism was purely through the polemics of Christian apologists).

When it comes to China I am a bit more comfortable. Unlike the case with the Abrahamic religions I assume many readers are not so familiar with the primary texts. So the list below is more weighted toward the “sources,” though I think one can argue that Confucianism as it is lived has as much to do with The Analects as Christianity does with the synoptic gospels. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make an inference as to the lesson one takes from this analogy!

I am personally rather positively inclined toward the “black sheep” of the early Confucian sages, Xunzi, who I suspect would be most comprehensible to those with a “Secular Right” perspective. Xunzi’s emphasis on the necessity of social order and regulation had a more jaundiced tinge than that of Confucius, and especially Mencius, but some have argued that in practice the Confucianism of Chinese civilization owes more to him than to his more well regarded predecessors.

Because of its concrete and “this worldly” emphasis Chinese religion and philosophy can’t be understood well without a reference to the broader history of China, so there are many general history books on the list. Additionally, the final section has a periodic temporal focus, going from dynasty to dynasty. I’ve omitted any books on Buddhism because I think in the Chinese context this religion can be decomposed mostly into its “foreign” and “indigenous.” The synthesis may be novel (e.g., Chan Buddhism, more commonly known as Zen in the West), but usually I think its antecedents in indigenous Chinese or exogenous Indian & Central Asian traditions are pretty clear.


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Archbishop Duranty

When, writing in Bloomberg News, George Walden begins his review of a new book on the colossal Mao-manufactured famine that was among the most hideous atrocities of the twentieth century, he does so in a curiously forgiving way:

When Julie Nixon Eisenhower met Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1976, she wore a Mao badge — and thought it fun. More recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury [Rowan Williams] lamented the loss of a China that, under the chairman, had “guaranteed everyone’s welfare.”

After “Mao’s Great Famine,” Frank Dikotter’s chronicle of how that regime killed at least 45 million people in what he calls the greatest man-made famine the world has seen, no one will have any excuses for modish Maoism.

That’s too kind. No-one had had much of an excuse before, either. The horrors of Maoism have been well-known for decades, and the famine the Chairman created has been well chronicled (a good starting point is Jasper Becker’s brilliantly furious Hungry Ghosts from 1996).

One shouldn’t perhaps make too much of Julie Eisenhower’s fashion faux pas (Mao, after all, was, like the badge that bore his face, in some sense a Nixon family trophy), but the case of Rowan Williams is something else altogether different. All too often this over-promoted, and somewhat malevolent, parson is treated as a good-hearted holy fool. He is anything but. Williams, who has described himself, with sly self-deprecation, as a ‘bearded lefty’ is in reality an unpleasantly hard line ideologue. He would have known perfectly well about the hecatombs of Chinese communism (if you look at Williams’ words in their original context you can see that he is specifically referring to the time before the Cultural Revolution, in other words to a time that included the great famine), but this revolting prelate either didn’t care – or he felt that it was an inconvenient truth that could not be allowed to muddy the image of the egalitarian ‘social justice’ he is always so busy promoting.

Or both.

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Faith Meets Reality

From a FT review of China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom by Richard Baum:

One of the best stories [in the book] concerns the actress Shirley MacLaine, who was seated near Deng Xiaoping at a 1979 banquet. She explained to Deng how impressed she had been during a trip to China when she had met a Chinese scientist. He had told her how grateful he was to Mao for banishing him from his ivory tower and sending him to the countryside to learn about ordinary people and grow cabbages. “Deng, ever the polite listener, looked her squarely in the eye and said earnestly, ‘He was lying.’”

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The Confucian conservatives

I highly recommend John Keay’s China: A History to any readers who wish to familiarize themselves with this civilization. Keay’s narrative is aimed at the general reader. Specialists will no doubt find themselves irritating by the simplifications, or even errors (I’m not a China specialist but even I picked out a factual error here and there), but I’m always impressed by Keay’s ability to interject a great deal of erudition and social history into a relatively fast paced political narrative (his India: A History is of similar quality).

Of course China matters. It matters now, and it has mattered in the past. To a great extent much of human history is Chinese history. It is amusing for example when Keay’s points out that China has always been characterized by export surpluses over its history; the world has long craved the goods of the Middle Kingdom, which in return demanded specie or vice. But more interestingly for readers of this weblog is the fact that between 200 BC and 1900 AD the Chinese political-cultural system maintained a high level of continuity and stability. A scholar who flourished during the reign of Hanwudi could have made himself understood with ease to a mandarin serving under the Dowager Cixi over 2,000 years later. It is true that in the 19th century much of the Western elite had familiarity with the classics of the Greeks and the Romans, but I think the analogy is broken because the resurrection of a civilian elite versed in the literature and values of the ancients was a reconstruction of the Renaissance. By contrast, the Confucian literati had maintained a chain of transmission back to antiquity.

Today we in a world dominated by Whiggish technocratic sensibilities are wont to denigrate the achievements of Imperial China, and characterize it as a regime of reflexive adherence to blind protocols and exhibiting a cultural torpor. And yet what would we say if Rome and arisen multiple times and revived its ancient forms for thousands of years? One might wonder if Roman ways were robust and congenial to human flourishing. The Confucian idolatry of antiquity seems backward looking to us today, but in a Malthusian world they made the best of it, and rested their philosophy upon concrete realities of family, custom and tradition. Lived human existence and not abstractions. I suspect there is much we could learn from their long record of success, and I believe, and yes hope, that China might learn something from its own cultural past as it surges toward material affluence.

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