Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Dangers of Imperial Thinking

It takes a special brand of self-flagellating bastard to go through the comments section of any article on China in any respected international publication. Filtering through the toxic dross formed by mixing xenophobic bile and the fifty cent party (not that those are mutually exclusive) is a task best accomplished with a plate of saltine crackers and tums. Simply tuning out, however, is something that I have not yet brought myself to do. Any way you look at it, reading what the other side puts out gives you some inkling of their thought process.

In this case, the "other side" means "anyone who is willing to spew vitriol on China," one way or another. One surprising observation I have taken from either side of the debate (pro- or anti-China) is the prevalence of a mode of thought that I'd believed extinct. Harking back to the international relations of the 19th century, many people - the pro-Chinese especially, but others as well - couch their debates in terms of Great Power clashes and Imperialism. This type of thinking is not only simplistic, it is outright bad for international discourse.

Under this paradigm of thought, the world is divided into spheres of influence and hegemonic oversight, and individual countries' national defense, foreign policy and domestic policy are subverted by their respective overlords. While this idea may have a grain of truth to it, the underlying assumption of an unthinking application of this idea is that the power of one area necessarily excludes others - in other words, that international relations is some sort of zero-sum game.

That idea leads to a colonial mindset, painting each part of the world with one flag or another. It recognizes neither the sovereign decision making process in smaller countries nor the potential for cooperation and mutual benefit in pursuit of shared interests that can accrue to world "powers." Instead, it is a philosophy of mutual exclusivity and antagonism - if China rises, then the West must "fall."

I don't want a return to the days of imperial powers jostling for control, nor do I want a return to Cold War days where developing countries get ravaged by proxy wars and open corruption is tolerated for the sake of stability. If we are to talk about China's rise productively and guide this admittedly inexperienced nation to be a respected part of the international community, we have to convince both its politicians and its people to stop thinking in this way - and convince ourselves, too.

There are few alternatives. People on either side of an international relations divide can either emphasize their rifts, and inch towards open hostility (and likely world war), or engage with each other to find common ground and mutual interest. Acknowledging that there can only be exclusive interests and a sphere of influence not only returns the atavar of colonial mercantilism to the fore, it obscures the modern potential for efficiency from trade and mutual gain. And if one side is unilaterally imperial in its manner, than what worse outcome can come from engagement by the other?

Thinking in terms of empires lends itself to jingoistic and absolutist rhetoric. To be fair, I see it most of all from the Chinese posters, whose overly patriotic posts couch all discussions in terms of monolithic power blocs. What troubles me, however, is that those who try to talk to the Chinese many times tacitly accept this dangerous and simplistic framework. While this is thankfully untrue in the highest levels of Western government, the presence of this phenomenon, even among a relatively learned audience that one finds on The Economist, is deeply troubling to me.

The sooner Imperialism is banished back to the dark ages of history, the better.

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