Europe is between two stools. The US and China are competing for economic supremacy and Afghanistan is an example of the failure of the export of Western values. Can cultural dialogue and diplomacy be the way leading to a peaceful future?
The Great Fracture
‘Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.’ Graham Allison begins his best-selling book on the US-China conflict by quoting the famous warning Napoleon issued in the 18th century. ‘Today China has awakened’, Allison confirms, ‘and the world is beginning to shake’. Allison’s famous coinage of ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ depicts the geopolitical situation of the world today as on the verge of a potential war between the US as the currently dominant power and China as a rising power, even though he acknowledges that Thucydides’s Trap, just like Napoleon’s warning about China as a sleeping lion, is a metaphor, a ‘hyperbole: exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis’, and that his point is ‘neither fatalism nor pessimism’, but to raise an alarm so that political leaders in Beijing and Washington may recognise the serious danger the world is now facing and ‘to construct a peaceful relationship’.
Behind this powerful metaphor lies a geopolitical reality of growing tensions between the US and China. Those tensions have escalated in recent years, especially since the Trump administration initiated a trade war with China, blacklisting Huawei and other high-tech Chinese companies and, more dangerously, broke with the long-standing ‘one China’ policy by encouraging separatist political actors in Taiwan as well as in Hong Kong. The world is getting more dangerous day by day.
Many looked to the Biden administration for a return to sane policy, but Biden has continued Trump’s hard line with both Iran and China. In some ways the US is even more aggressive now, as Biden seeks to band together with America’s traditional allies in a concerted effort to stop China’s rise. ‘We are moving in a very dangerous direction’, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in late September 2021. ‘Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture—each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities’. The Great Fracture, however, is already here. It forms the general context within which we must understand all the important issues of our time.
As disinformation spreads across digital media, more and more nations have grown deeply divided, photo: Mick Haupt via unsplash
Many looked to the Biden administration for a return to sane policy, but Biden has continued Trump’s hard line with both Iran and China. In some ways the US is even more aggressive now, as Biden seeks to band together with America’s traditional allies in a concerted effort to stop China’s rise.
Fragmentation infects the world in more ways than just the antagonism between the US and China as the two largest economies. What Europe can do to alleviate the dangerous situation and achieve a more balanced relationship between the East and the West will be crucial for the future of the world, but Europe is not without its own problems. As disinformation spreads across digital media, more and more nations have grown deeply divided, provoking social fragmentation and populist movements across the globe.
Brexit, a key case in point, has damaged the long-sought goal of a European Union. The Australia-UK-US security pact known as AUKUS may have strengthened the three English-speaking allies, but it has angered France and created obstacles for Biden’s effort to form a united front with Europe. During the Trump years, many looked to Germany as the true leader of the ‘free world’. But with Angela Merkel now in retirement, the political landscape of Germany looks uncertain, and that has significant implications for the future of the European Union, if not the world at large. The sudden withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan with little coordination with their European counterparts is another indication that Biden has done little to reverse the ‘America first’ mentality of the Trump era.
Was the Arab Spring a failure?
After 20 years of war and having spent almost a trillion dollars, the Afghan fiasco raises a serious question about regime change by external forces. What are the costs and benefits of spreading democratic ideals to countries with neither the institutional infrastructure nor the cultural categories needed to set up a truly democratic system? The Arab Spring inspired hope in the early 2010s, but now it scarcely earns a nod from the media because the much-touted Arab Spring did not bring about what many in the West had expected of those Arab countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. The mass demonstrations, anti-government protests, uprisings, and civil wars did unseat a few authoritarian leaders—Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt—but in none of these countries has democracy made much progress.
The Arab Spring inspired hope in the early 2010s, but now it scarcely earns a nod from the media because the much-touted Arab Spring did not bring about what many in the West had expected of those Arab countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain.
In Egypt, civil rights and liberties have backslid. Libya, Syria and Yemen are mired in protracted civil wars leading to widespread destruction of cities and rural areas, decreased living standards, massive unemployment, Islamic radicalisation and the emergence of ISIS. Millions of displaced people become refugees, creating a huge migration crisis in Europe, which further fuels local populist movements. Most people in those Arab countries are now worse off than before, but the most flagrant example of the failure of forced regime change has to be the return of the Taliban, which does not bode well for the prospect of any improvement of civil rights, especially for women, in Afghanistan.
If the aim of democratic nations is to promote greater justice across the globe, then all these examples suggest that multilateralism offers a better way for advanced nations to promote a stable and peaceful international order, and that each and every nation should find its own route to economic, social, and political development. To impose a democratic system on a nation without regard for its own historical development amounts to dismissing as incidental the most consequential of social conditions in any society, namely, its native tradition of political, cultural, and religious practices. Ignoring those conditions could only lead to disastrous consequences.
Towards a peaceful international order
According to a Chinese idiom, ‘pulling the shoots upward to help them grow’ will only ruin the crops. In the context of this argument, that does not mean that the value of democracy is not worth promoting or has failed; it simply means that democratic institutions cannot be forced from the outside, and certainly not by military intervention or the covert displacement of an established political system. Let us have more confidence in our democratic values, for they are not just European or Western values, but universal values.
The ideals of democracy, basic human rights, such as civil liberties and freedoms, are not material goods to be transported from the West to the rest of the world; they are spiritual values to be willingly accepted by people around the world through human contact and exchange, education and dialogue, and above all, by example rather than by precept. From the perspective of international relations, the best way to promote democracy is through communication and intercultural dialogue, fair trade, diplomacy governed by international laws, equal and just agreements, and respect of the sovereignty of all nations. In all such transactions, the European Union, especially the major developed European countries like Germany and France, will be irreplaceable key players in maintaining a stable and peaceful international order. Hopefully, their perspectives, deriving from long experience, may prevent the world from falling into the cracks of the Great Fracture or the dangerous Thucydides’s Trap.
The ideals of democracy, basic human rights, such as civil liberties and freedoms, are not material goods to be transported from the West to the rest of the world; they are spiritual values to be willingly accepted by people around the world through human contact and exchange, education and dialogue, and above all, by example rather than by precept.
If we pause for a moment to think about Napoleon’s ‘sleeping lion’ and Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap, we may realise that these are all metaphors based on images of fighting, rivalry, and dominion. Like Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’, these metaphors have shaped the way many in the West—political leaders, the media and the general public—conceive of themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Unlike political theories or propaganda, political metaphors may circulate unnoticed, and yet they can foster a belligerent ideology premised upon the supremacy of the West, led by the US.
That premise can only regard China, or any other rising economy, as a threat to that supremacy. And yet, metaphors are rhetorical devices that do not necessarily correspond to the real world. If we take metaphors and hyperboles as true, we may lose sight of the reality we try to understand. When we look at the reality on the ground, so to speak, we may see that such warlike metaphors may well be inapplicable to China and its culture.
An idea of harmony
Despite all the talk about the rise of China, the gap between the US and China is still significantly large; China does not have the economic or military power to challenge the US. China does not have military bases around the world; it has not sent troops overseas and waged a single war against any nation in the last hundred years and more except for a few skirmishes with Vietnam and India in their border disputes. From a longer historical perspective, China has always been an inland country with little interest in expanding over its borders. Even when China was the centre of power in East Asia centuries ago, the empire was satisfied with a tribute system marking its superiority over other states, but it did not seek direct occupation or colonisation of those states. In the last two hundred years, it was Western expansion that destroyed the tribute system, defeated the weakened Chinese empire in the Opium Wars in the 1840s, and humiliated China with unequal treaties and extraterritoriality for Westerners living in China.
It is only in the last forty-some years, through reform and opening-up to the outside world, that China has made genuine progress in its economic growth and technological advancement, improving its standard of living along the way. In no way, however, could China challenge the supremacy of the US. Moreover, despite its impressive GDP, we need only consider its huge population to realise that it is not a rich country in per-capita income.
This sorry situation was followed with modernised Japan’s invasion, which lasted from the 1930s till the end of the Second World War. China remained a poor and feeble nation under Mao until the end of its self-destructive Cultural Revolution in 1976. It is only in the last forty-some years, through reform and opening-up to the outside world, that China has made genuine progress in its economic growth and technological advancement, improving its standard of living along the way. In no way, however, could China challenge the supremacy of the US. Moreover, despite its impressive GDP, we need only consider its huge population to realise that it is not a rich country in per-capita income.
More importantly, the very concept of a zero-sum dynamic or the idea of a ‘winner takes all’ competition is alien to China’s native tradition of political thought. In Chinese culture and political theory going back millennia, hé is a crucial concept for interpersonal and social relationships, of which the core meaning is peace or harmony. Harmony is not, however, the monotony of the same or the rigidity of conformity; it is the coming together of different things without harm to any that makes for harmony. ‘One sound does not make agreeable music’, says an ancient Chinese philosopher, ‘one colour does not make a beautiful pattern, one flavour does not make delicious food, and one thing does not allow comparison.’ The ancient Chinese often use food as a conceptual metaphor to illustrate the idea of harmony: a perfect dish is the mixture of different ingredients cooked with art and loving care.
The very concept of a ‘winner takes all’ competition is alien to China’s native tradition of political thought, photo: Markus Spiske via Unsplash
When the Confucians, the Daoists, the Moists, the Legalists, the Militarists, and many other schools of philosophical thought set up the foundation of the Chinese cultural tradition, it is often described positively as a time when ‘a hundred flowers all in full bloom’ and ‘a hundred schools all compete to have their voices heard.’ This is in fact similar to the ancient Greek idea, for Heraclitus also says that ‘What is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance.’ In the Confucian Analects, we find this famous saying that ‘Harmony is the most precious’, but this is not just a Confucian moral principle; even the classic of the Militarist school, Sunzi’s Art of War, argues that the best way to win a war is not by force and violence, but by winning the heart of your opponent. ‘Attack the heart is superior; attack the city is inferior’, says Sunzi. And eventually, ‘winning each battle in a hundred battles is not the best of the best’, Sunzi argues, ‘conquering the enemy troops without fighting a battle is the best of the best.’
Indeed, looking at the history of China, expanding beyond its inland territories and waging wars to conquer other races or nations is not the norm, and to be at peace with neighbours is always the preferred option. Perhaps we may draw something useful from the wisdom of both the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks in our effort to promote pluralism and multilateralism that we need so badly for our world today.
Live and let live
Instead of the ideological construct of an impending war or a New Cold War, let us explore the alternative of a much more constructive principle of ‘live and let live’. Derived from the Dutch merchants’ law of medieval origin, this principle was based on the idea that merchants in their trading practices, rather than the local magistrates, should be the ones to decide on the laws governing their business. While kings and generals contemplated expansion, conquest, and dominance, the merchants knew it was better and more profitable to have peace with other parties and benefit from trading with all.
‘Live and let live’ also means to respect each other’s ways of living; it recognises cultural diversity despite the persistence of injustice. Is there any nation without its skeletons? On what grounds, then, should we exacerbate the sufferings of others on the claim that our way of living is the best?
Sometimes businesspeople tend to have a better sense of reality in their trading and commercial transactions than political leaders, who are more prone to ideological or populist demands. ‘Live and let live’ as a principle means fair distribution of goods and profits so that all involved may benefit from trade and commerce and coexist peacefully. This principle is much closer to the Chinese notion of harmony than metaphors like ‘sleeping lion’ or ‘Thucydides’s Trap’. Adopting principles of this type will help lower the temperature fuelled by belligerent rhetoric and create a sense of trust. ‘Live and let live’ also means to respect each other’s ways of living; it recognises cultural diversity despite the persistence of injustice. Is there any nation without its skeletons? On what grounds, then, should we exacerbate the sufferings of others on the claim that our way of living is the best? That is exactly what we should have learned from the atrocities examined above, from the Arab Spring and the Afghan fiasco.
Unfortunately, the reality in the world now is far from the ideal condition of harmony anywhere we look. In China, despite economic growth, a harmonious society is more of an ideal than reality in people’s lives, and during Mao’s China for much of the 20th century, ‘class struggle’ used to dominate social and political life and it may still have some influence. In recent years, nationalist sentiment is on the rise, particularly among the younger generation, and instead of opening up, the government is increasingly tightening its ideological control over the media, the education system, and intellectual life in general to counter the influence of Western ideas.
This shows a structural problem in the Chinese political system, and under President Xi, many are worried that China is moving backward toward Mao’s totalitarian rule, undoing many of the positive results during the period of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up. Outside China, The Five Eyes alliance, the QUAD, and more recently the AUKUS, all these intelligence and military alliances make Beijing feel, quite understandably, trapped and besieged. The response from Beijing becomes more assertive than previous administrations and has trouble maintaining the traditional idea of hé or harmony. And that creates a very dangerous situation, the forming of the Great Fracture, the intense competition and rivalry captured by the metaphor of Thucydides’s Trap.
In China, despite economic growth, a harmonious society is more of an ideal than reality in people’s lives, and during Mao’s China for much of the 20th century, ‘class struggle’ used to dominate social and political life and it may still have some influence.
At a dangerous moment like this, we must not forget that both China and Europe, both East and West, have long traditions that have made great contributions to human culture and civilisation. Cultural dialogue and diplomacy rather than military conflict and war should be the way leading to a peaceful future. If nations could put aside a belligerent, zero-sum ideology in favour of ‘live and let live’ there would be no rivalry between the US and China, and the world might survive and even prosper. Only then, through contact of real people, communication, exchange, dialogue and discussion, could democracy as a spiritual value have a chance of winning peoples’ hearts and minds, and eventually become a reality of many nations in their own distinct ways.
About the Author
Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation at the City University of Hong Kong
Zhang Longxi is Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation at the City University of Hong Kong. He previously taught in Beijing, Harvard and at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses in East-West cross-cultural studies, Chinese literature, Renaissance and seventeenth-century European literature, and world literature. Zhang is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities and the Academia Europaea. He served as President of the International Comparative Literature Association from 2016 to 2019. He has published numerous books and journal articles and is an Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of World Literature.
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