Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reason #1,356 why I can never be a (International Relations) liberal

I've mentioned before that I do not, naturally, find myself comfortable in the same club as Henry Kissinger. Yet the sometimes incredibly frustrating thinking of American liberals drives me to shrill, unholy realism. The latest example comes from the Journal Democracy, where Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner write that China poses a unique and novel ideological challenge to America's liberal hegemony. But this is a rather long post, so I've hidden the rest of it here.

To break down their argument:
  • "The rise of China presents the West, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a formidable ideological challenge to that paradigm."
  • "The "China model" powerfully combines two components: illiberal capitalism, the practice and promotion of a governance strategy where markets are free but politics are not;..."
  • "...and illiberal sovereignty, an approach to international relations that emphasizes the inviolability of national borders in the face of international intervention."
First of all, if there is a "China model", then there's a "Korean model", a "Taiwan model", a "Japan model" and a "Singapore model" too. Not to mention a "Spanish model", a "Brazilian model", an "Argentinian model" as well. All of these countries combined illiberal capitalism and a demand for inviolable national sovereignty throughout their history as well. In Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, it turned out that illiberal capitalism was unsustainable - increasing wealth led for demands of political change. You would think at the very least, having raised the Asian tigers as examples of countries where growth produced democratic regimes, you would then have to explain why the same doesn't apply to China. Barma and Ratner concede that some China moderates make this argument - that economic growth will make China a more friendly nation - and effectively ignore it for the rest of their article.

This is an important point: Barma and Ratner are arguing that China poses a present and future ideological rival to the United States, but nowhere do they state or argue that China's current authoritarian government is sustainable over the long term. The most they say is that
Although Western analysts often have claimed to see the buds of freedom–such as in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, the spread of Internet usage since the mid-1990s, and the recent uptick in rural social protests–the regime’s grip on power has yet to crack, and liberty has yet to blossom. Underpinning its state-controlled capitalist experiment, the Chinese Communist Party has constructed a new rationale for totalitarian political rule that no longer relies on Marxist economic ideology.
Okay, here it's important to use proper words. The first important point is that calling the surge in rural protests an "uptick" is like calling the 2004 Asian tsunami "kind of a big wave." From the Rand Corporation:
The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) reports that the number of mass incidents (e.g. various forms of protest) has skyrocketed from about 8,700 in 1993, to 32,000 in 1999, to about 50,000 in 2002, and surpassing 58,000 in 2003 (See table in Appendix). Especially noteworthy has been the steady rate of increase: protest incidents have apparently increased every year since 1993 (although 2001 data are unavailable), and in no year did they increase by less than 9 percent.
Nobody thinks that the current levels of protests threaten the regime, but we aren't seeing the protests level off, or even slow down. We're seeing exponential growth in protests, doubling in volume in less than a decade. For Ratner and Barma to dismiss this is astonishingly dishonest.

Secondly, the current Chinese regime is authoritarian and illiberal without question. But it is "totalitarian" only if we define "totalitarian" so broadly as to be meaningless. Indeed, the historical trend is exactly the opposite of what B&R charge - since the reforms of the 1970s, China has become a far more "privatized" society in the sense that religious freedoms and other forms of association outside of the Chinese Communist Party have become far more common. Outside of politics, it is possible to form independent associations (obviously, there are limits to these freedoms.) This is the exact opposite of the traditional definition of totalitarian - where all forms of social organization are controlled by the state.

Aside from their linguistic sloppiness, B&R engage in some truly stupid association:
As a result, Chinese illiberalism is fast becoming a popular export throughout the developing world, even to those who don’t expect to replicate its dramatic success. In South America, Venezuela’s Hugo Ch├ívez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have embraced the China model. The latter visited China in January 2006 less than a month after being elected and, when asked why he had made the trip, Morales explained that he considered China a "political, ideological, and programmatic ally of the Bolivian people." In the Middle East, Iran’s conservative media have explicitly advocated following a "China Model" of development in the wake of President Mohammad Khatami’s failed reformist agenda. Iranian diplomats have traveled to Beijing to learn more about China’s governance strategy, subsequently returning to help the government enact components of illiberal capitalism, such as reaching out to foreign investors while clamping down on political dissent at home. In Africa, Nigeria has been drawn by the luster of what its Senate president called "a good model for Nigeria in its quest for an authentic and stable development ideology."
Boy, you'd think that Latin America had no history of charismatic populists using resource nationalism as the foundation of their power. And I'm sure that, until they visited Beijing, the Iranian Mullahs had never thought of shutting down newspapers or interfering with elections before. Yup, if it weren't for China, the Venezuelan and Bolivian poor would be just so happy to sell their oil to the US at $5/barrel, and pro-American (and dare I say it, pro-Israeli?) liberals would have won the last elections in Tehran. This kind of thinking is idiotic, and is beneath serious liberal thinking.

Moreover, it simply isn't liberal. Liberals are supposed to believe that humans are rational creatures with agency. Morales and Chavez have faced popular challenges, the democratic process, and have retained the majority support of the populations of their countries. That's simply a fact. Nobody except the embittered Venezuelan opposition seriously contends that these elections were rigged. So presented with that fact, you can either conclude that a) it's possible for leaders to do things American liberals disagree with, and still retain democratic legitimacy, or b) anyone who does anything that American liberals disagree with is by definition an autocrat in league with the ChiComs. Guess which one Barma and Ratner choose?

A side note: If Beijing really were capable of exporting "illiberal capitalism", you'd think that as a first step they'd have sold the Chinese people on it. They manifestly have not:
Chinese authorities have shut down an online survey that found most respondents would prefer a different nationality if they were born again.... Of the more than 10,000 respondents, 64% said they would not want to be Chinese if they were reincarnated. The main reason, given by almost 40% of the respondents, was that Chinese citizens lacked human dignity.
Chinese "illiberal capitalism" doesn't even pose a serious ideological challenge in China, yet Barma and Ratner want us to believe it has global reach.

So at this point, Barma and Ratner have argued that China poses a new, long-term ideological rival to liberalism (false, or at least highly questionable) and that illiberal capitalism is new, dangerous, and is being exported by China to the developing world (simply false.) The final claim - that "illiberal sovereignty" undermines (American) "democratic liberalism" is similarly unsound. Basically, B&R argue that because of Beijing's largesse with foreign aid, the IMF and the World Bank can no longer force developing countries to adopt Washington's preferred policies on trade and human rights. This, according to B&R, is a bad thing. There's so much sloppiness here that we've got to take this one at a time.

1) When liberals say that Washington was promoting "trade and human rights" throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it's as noxious a rhetorical ploy as when Republicans say there's a problem with "Social Security and Medicare." There is no fundamental problem with SS, and a massive one with Medicare. Lumping them together is deliberately dishonest and serves an obvious political purpose. Similarly, there is no combined "trade and human rights" treaty. What there was, for almost all of the 1980s and 1990s, was a strict, enforceable, multilateral organization devoted to expanding trade, privatizing services, and opening countries to foreign investors. During the same time, there was only the barest, unenforceable, fig-leaf of a commitment to human rights. Washington's priorities were clear, and it wasn't making sure that Indonesians could vote.

2) There was never any coherent form of "liberal sovereignty" for China to undermine, even if we concede that's what China is doing. Washington aided and abetted the mass killings in Turkey and East Timor, and never tried to intervene against the Russians in Chechnya. During the same time, America twice went to war in Yugoslavia to stop the killing there. Given the respective contexts of these decisions, all of these actions may all be defensible, but they certainly can't fit in to any coherent idea of liberal sovereignty. Barma and Ratner:
Unlike the United States and Europe, China does not subscribe to evolving international norms of multilateral intervention on the grounds of human rights and political freedoms, does not promote democracy overseas, does not demand open markets from its trading partners, and does not advocate selective violations of a nation’s sovereignty even in the extreme cases of genocide and the harboring of terrorists.
Here's the thing: neither did the United States or Europe until maybe 10 years ago. The idea of "selective sovereignty" only became accepted by the United Nations last year as part of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine. It is still incredibly controversial around the world, and highly contentious. Hell, I find the idea troubling some days. The fact that China does not agree with this idea is not an ideological challenge, unless - once again - simply disagreeing with American liberals makes you an autocrat. And American liberals need to stop talking about "promoting democracy overseas" for a while. Just sayin'.

3) There's no mystery to why China is finding so many countries willing, nay eager, to abandon the IMF and World Bank programs - they have singularly failed to produce the rapid growth that the developing world needs. Period. Full stop. Mark Weisbrot & Dean Baker, 2001:
Economic growth over the last twenty years, the period during which the policies advocated by the authors (and their institution) have been put into place, has been dramatically reduced. It may well be true, as Dr. Dollar argues, that "to ignore the importance of growth-enhancing policies is an injustice to the poor."[5] But to assume that the World Bank and the IMF have brought "growth-enhancing policies" to their client countries goes against the overwhelming weight of the evidence over the last two decades....

By any measure of economic performance, the last two decades have shown these rigid applications of orthodox economic theory to be a failure. Rather than defending this record of failure, the Bank and Fund researchers should be trying to discover what has gone wrong. And most importantly, they should allow governments to pursue their own, country-specific paths to growth and development.
The results of IMF policies since that paper was published have been even worse (Argentina, anyone?) Furthermore, note Baker and Weisbrot's emphasis that development policies should allow countries "their own... paths to growth." Gee, sounds an awful lot like the sovereignty of national governments should be respected, don't you think?

So there was only a laughable attempt by Washington to promote human rights, there was never any coherent formulation of "liberal democratic sovereignty" for China to undermine, and even if that's exactly what China is doing, it might actually be a good thing for the poor of the world.

All told, Barma and Ratner have made not a single argument that can stand on it's own, and they certainly can't support their claim that China poses a unique or novel ideological threat western liberalism. What, then, is this argument really about? Ah, here we are:
Thus, rather than arguing over how best to guide, manipulate, or suppress China’s power, the United States must meet the illiberal challenge head-on. The continued ideological dominance of democratic liberalism is crucial to the permanence and projection of American power, and to creating a world that lives up to universal ideals of freedom, equality, and justice.
This is the nut of the issue, isn't it? American liberals have yet to formulate a foreign policy that doesn't rely on continuing the "permanence and projection of American power", as they put it. (Though Matthew Yglesias seems to be trying.) The growth of China's influence in the world may (or may not) be a threat to America's power, but it's hard for non-American leftists and liberals to see that as a bad thing either way. It's especially hard for countries who have been on the receiving end of American power to regret Washington's diminished importance.

Barma and Ratner want the rest of the world to weep for the end of American hegemony as much as they do, and they're not above trying to scare us about China to do so. It's factually wrong, it's logically incoherent, and it's dangerous to boot.

How very Republican of them.

All done!

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