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Tag: "china"

Client States

[ 23 ] June 4, 2010 |

Back in the day, a fair amount of the policy oriented literature on international security focused on the question of relationships between patron and client states.  The reasons for this were obvious; the Soviet Union and the United States were in competition for the allegiancefriendship of a variety of states in the first, second, and third worlds, and both scholars and policymakers wanted a grasp on the dynamics of the competition. One school of thought, identified most closely with Hans Morgenthau and then later with the “offensive realists,” argued that client states wield inordinate influence over their would be patrons. Through threats to defect, clients can effectively extort economic, military, and political concessions from their superpower allies. If the one superpower doesn’t come through, then the other will, and the shift will have significance for the global balance of power. Consequently, superpower have to be very attentive to the needs and demands of their clients in order to prevent embarrassing and unpleasant power shifts which might then themselves encourage other clients to gravitate towards the other superpower.

An alternative way of looking at the problem came from “defensive realists” who argued that the balance of power was far more robust than the offensive realists allowed. States have a variety of reasons for selecting their patrons, and few are actually in a position to undertake strategic switches. For one, ideology and local interest aren’t incidental to selection of patron. As Stephen Walt argued in Origins of Alliances, most US allies preferred the US because they preferred the US, rather than because the US had offered a better deal than the Russians. Moreover, switching between alliance systems meant incurring substantial economic and military costs. A patron-client relationship created powerful interests in favor of the status quo within the client state; generals and admirals prefer not to have switch between Western and Soviet military equipment every five years, and the economic ties created an mercantile elite associated with a particular constellation of trade.  Consequently, superpowers should be more willing to “call the bluff” of a client state when it threatens to defect.

Whatever the logical merits of the second position, policymakers on both sides of the Cold War seem to have operated on the assumptions of the first. The US and the Soviet Union poured money and weapons into a variety of clients in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Soviet Union undertook politically and economically costly invasions of several clients in danger of defection (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan) in order to dissuade other potential defectors. The United States helped dozens of “friendly” regimes protect themselves from their own people. In spite of the fact that the actual defections (Vietnam, Iran, China, Egypt, Albania) didn’t seem to lead to catastrophic alterations in the global balance of power, Moscow and Washington acted as if future defections would.

This kind of behavior should have subsided with the Cold War.  As the threat of defection waned, the only remaining superpower should have been much less willing to make concessions to its clients.  To some extent, this appears to have been the case.  The US undoubtedly became less willing to protect friendly military regimes in Latin America as the threat of communism declined.  The US also became more assertive in its economic relations with Japan, China, and Europe.  In Africa, several states found themselves almost completely cut off from both US and Soviet support, because no one really cared anymore about the balance of power in region wherever.

Still, in a few key cases client states still seem to wield inordinate influence over their patrons, or at least to resist their patron’s political will. US issues with Israel are familiar to all; in spite of the economic and military dependence of Israel on the US (a dependence which can be overstated, but that nonetheless exists), it’s remarkably difficult for the US to make Israel do what it wants Israel to do. Chinese relations with North Korea should be understood in the same terms. Rather than thinking of North Korea as an asset to China, or as a key cog in China’s grand plan to dominate the Pacific, I think it’s better to understand the China-North Korea axis as a troubled patron-client relationship in which the patron has only limited influence over the behavior of the client. China’s economic relationships with the United States, South Korea, and Japan are all more important than the relationship with North Korea, and North Korea is of limited military utility to the Chinese in any context other than a war on the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea is almost 100% dependent on China for energy and other key sectors. While it’s possible that the North Koreans ran the plan to sink Cheonan by Beijing, I find it extremely unlikely; rather, I suspect that Beijing was deeply displeased by the North Korean move, but has been left without good options for disciplining its client.

Why can’t patrons always discipline clients, even after the Cold War? Let me suggest two reasons. The first is that, just as the patron-client relationship creates interests in the client, it creates interests in the patron. Outside of the state these interests can take the form of ethnic diaspora communities or groups that benefit economically from the relationship. Inside the state these interests take form through the multitude of contacts between a client and its patron. Diplomatic, intelligence, and military linkages between a patron and a client create communities inside the state with vested interests in the perpetuation of the alliance. Decisions on alliance commitment affect funding and organizational focus, which affects careers, which creates stakeholders. These stakeholders, often in combination with the interest groups outside the state, push back when the alliance is at risk. During the Cold War this pushback was particularly effective in both the US and the USSR (although in the USSR the internal state groups were much more important than the external groups) because the breakup of an alliance could be rhetorically construed as defeat, decay, and decline. Thus, even after a relationship has ceased to be of strategic use to a patron, some domestic interests will favor the status quo.

The second reason that patrons can’t discipline clients is that, on many issues, clients simply care much more than patrons. The US kind of sometimes cares about settlements, but the important actors in Israel really care about settlements, and the latter are willing to risk more than the former in order to pursue their policy ends. The clients bet on the likelihood that the patron will risk the entire relationship in order to get its way on the smaller issue, and often the clients win. Clients can take advantage of the fact that they care mostly about issues of local importance, while patrons have much larger strategic interests. Clients leverage their strategic value (and their constituencies within the patron state) in order to win patron concessions on the issues they care about the most. As their strategic value to patrons diminishes (with the end of the Cold War, for example) the ability to do this decreases, but doesn’t necessarily disappear. In the North Korea-China case, Pyongyang isn’t even leveraging positive expected utility (its positive strategic value to China); rather, it’s leveraging the negative expected utility to China of its own collapse.

Thoughts along these lines formed the context of my recent diavlog with Dan Drezner (yes, EVERYONE must diavlog Dan Drezner eventually)…

…which concentrated on the client state issue as it applied to Israel and North Korea. Matt Duss also wrote a bit about the topic, especially on the context of Anthony Cordesman’s comments about the strategic value of the Israel to the United States.

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Less to Worry About?

[ 2 ] May 16, 2010 |

Drezner is a touch concerned about a potential EFCA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) between Taiwan and China:

While China’s economic leverage over the United States is limited, this kind of agreement would ratchet up the asymmetric dependence of Taiwan on the Chinese economy. Maybe Taiwan has already crossed the point of no return with regard to interdependence with the mainland — but this agreement would surely guarantee crossing that threshhold.

What would China do with this leverage? I don’t know, I really don’t. If Beijing plays the long game, they would allow for the build-up of political interest groups in Taiwan with a powerful incentive to appease the People’s Republic in order to keep the economic relationship unruffled. The thing is, China has often been clumsy in its initial attempts to translate economic power into political influence, and I could easily see such a misstep occurring a few years from now.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid about this. The one thing I’m certain about, however, is that the most likely flashpoint for a great power confrontation between the United States and China is anything involving Taiwan. So I get veeeeeeerrrrrrry nervous about anything that upsets that particular apple cart.

Concern about the US getting dragged into a militarized dispute between China and Taiwan is well taken; I share Drezner’s belief that this is the most plausible flashpoint for great power conflict between the US and the PRC. Key to this concern is democratic solidarity. I’m queasy about the idea of simply allowing an authoritarian country to devour and digest a democratic state*. Defending Taiwan from Chinese attack would be considerably different than invading Iraq in order to create a democracy; Taiwan is already democratic, the PRC most certainly isn’t, and militarized re-unification would be really, really bad for the political freedom (not to mention the physical well being) of the Taiwanese people. I’m not, however, interested in any kind of strategic rationale for the defense of Taiwan, such as the idea that the acquisition of Taiwan would mean a loss of US power relative to Beijing, or a loss of leverage over China, or that Taiwan represents China’s gateway to the Pacific, or similar arguments.

Thus, any obligation to defend Taiwan is based strictly on Taiwan’s commitment to de facto independence. If the Taiwanese people and government determine that they can reach some sort of accommodation with Beijing that results in formal reintegration without military conquest, the US has no business standing in the way. An EFCA may shift the Taiwanese calculus regarding whether or not its sensible to reach an accommodation with the PRC, but is unlikely to undermine the ability or interest of the US to respond to a Taiwanese request for assistance against China. As such, I think it works in favor of stability, rather than instability, by helping to remove the key point of contention between the US and the PRC. In short, if Taiwan wants to pave the way to peaceful reintegration with an EFCA, they’re more than welcome. “Saving” Taiwan isn’t worth a war with China if the Taiwanese don’t want to be saved.

*But then why didn’t I support military intervention in favor of Georgia in 2008? This commitment to democratic solidarity is only operative under conditions including a) the democratic state not actually having started the war, and b) a reasonable chance of success. The Georgian situation was further complicated by the facts that the population of South Ossetia favored Russia, and that Russia sought neither long term occupation of Georgia proper nor regime change in Tblisi. In the Taiwan case, I wouldn’t favor wasting a single cruise missile in defense of Quemoy, and would be reluctant to support Taiwan in the wake of obvious Taiwanese provocation, such as a declaration of independence.

1969 Sino-Soviet War

[ 8 ] May 15, 2010 |

This claim has appeared in a few other places, but apparently without the official sanction:

Liu Chenshan, the author of a series of articles that chronicle the five times China has faced a nuclear threat since 1949, wrote that the most serious threat came in 1969 at the height of a bitter border dispute between Moscow and Beijing that left more than one thousand people dead on both sides.

He said Soviet diplomats warned Washington of Moscow’s plans “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer,” with a nuclear strike, asking the US to remain neutral.

But, he says, Washington told Moscow the United States would not stand idly by but launch its own nuclear attack against the Soviet Union if it attacked China, loosing nuclear missiles at 130 Soviet cities. The threat worked, he added, and made Moscow think twice, while forcing the two countries to regulate their border dispute at the negotiating table.

Some observations:

  1. Even if the USSR mooted the idea of a nuclear attack on China to the United States, it doesn’t mean that such an attack would actually have been carried out. Soviet conventional capabilities greatly exceeded Chinese, although perhaps not to the degree that the Russians could have ensured the destruction of China’s (fairly primitive) atomic forces without resort to nuclear attack. Suggesting to Washington that an attack was imminent may just have been an attempt to feel out the Nixon administration’s attitude towards China.
  2. Even if the US insisted it would respond to an attack on China by nuking the USSR, it doesn’t mean that such a response would have been undertaken. Nixon would have every incentive to bluff in this situation, and I have serious doubts as to whether he would have been willing to go full Armageddon in defense of the PRC. Obviously, the US had made neither an explicit nor implicit security guarantee to Beijing, minimizing potential reputational effects of a non-response. Of course, the threat of a nuclear response against Moscow would carry its own costs without follow-through.
  3. Launching nukes against China would have been an incomparably bad idea on the part of Moscow. Even assuming that the Russians managed to destroy the Chinese nuclear deterrent, it’s unlikely that the Russians would have been willing to completely destroy China as a political and cultural entity. We now know that the Soviet leadership was a) sensitive to international opinion, and b) at least somewhat nervous about the idea of butchering hundreds of millions of people. A nuclear attack to settle a border dispute would not have sat well with anyone in either the West or the Third World, and probably would have incurred serious resistance from within the CPSU.

Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in Fact

[ 15 ] April 23, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman notices what I noticed two weeks ago:

The Obama administration is poised to take up one of the more dangerous and hare-brained schemes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon. The New York Times is reporting that the Defense Department is once again looking to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The missiles could then, in theory, destroy fleeing targets a half a world away — a no-notice “bolt from the blue,” striking in a matter of hours. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the launches could very well start World War III.

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?

This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM. Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?

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[ 7 ] April 12, 2010 |

Seems like progress, if sanctions on Iran are your thing:

President Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In a 90-minute conversation here before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.

Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.

I’m skeptical of sanctions working, if by “working” you mean to effect a direct change in Iranian behavior. However, I do think that sanctions can have a substantial atmospheric effect, to the extent that they convey the disapproval of international society, and consequently help to build international norms. In that context, getting Russia and China on board is a meaningful achievement for the liberal internationalist project.

On How Neocons Feed Off One Another…

[ 0 ] January 16, 2010 |

American neoconservatives tend to get hostile when you make the point that every country has its neocons. The response typically runs something like this:

How can you possibly compare me with those Russians/Chinese/Iranians? Don’t you understand that I cloak my hawkish right wing nationalism behind a thin veneer of concern for human rights!?!?

Neocons also tend to get hostile when you point out that hawkish foreign policy pronouncements and actions feed hardliners in foreign countries. The ideology of toughness extends beyond the borders of the United States; the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian versions of Chuckie Krauthammer are at this very moment insisting that the projection of power, resolve, and toughness will force the Americans to back down/give up/stop poking us/do something.

The implications of handing foreign policy to people committed to the rhetoric of toughness should be obvious. A demonstration of “resolve” on the part of the United States is matched by a similar demonstration on the part of the Chinese; a weapon system intended as a “bargaining chip” spurs development of a corresponding system by the Russians; insistence on “regime change” in Iran empowers the people who have always argued that the United States intends to conquer Iran. And then we get things like this:

China said late Monday that it had successfully tested the nation’s first land-based missile defense system, announcing the news in a brief dispatch by Xinhua, the official news agency. “The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country,” the item said.

Even if news accounts on Tuesday did not provide details about the test — and whether it destroyed its intended target — Chinese and Western analysts say there is no mistaking that the timing of the test, coming amid Beijing’s fury over American arms sales to Taiwan, was largely aimed at the White House.

In recent days, state media have been producing a torrent of articles condemning the sale of Patriot air defense equipment to Taiwan. China views the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, separated since the civil war of the 1940s, and sees arms sales as interference in an internal matter.

I’m of the opinion that carefully managed and limited US arms sales to Taiwan are both wise and appropriate. However, even if you agree with the Chinese position, or at least believe that the US should stay out of the relationship, how could you think that a Chinese ABM test would have an even vaguely positive effect on US behavior? Does anyone now believe that it is less likely that the US will transfer F-16s and Patriot missile systems to Taiwan?

I appreciate that weapons need to be tested and domestic constituencies need to be appeased, but it seems clear that the Chinese intended this test as a warning to both the US and Taiwan. I suspect that the Chinese intended this message to say:

Please respect China’s territorial integrity, and right to manage its sphere of influence.

I very much doubt that this is the message Americans will hear. More specifically, I doubt that the right people will hear this message in the way the Chinese want. Instead, those voices who have always insisted that the Chinese are an incorrigible threat, that they cannot be dealt with, and that they only understand the language of force will be enabled. To manage the next foreign policy dispute with China in a wise and measured fashion will become “appeasement of the aggressor.” Voices in Beijing will be making precisely the same argument.

I suspect that international franchising of the Weekly Standard might be an excellent investment opportunity.

SRBMs Shifting Straits Balance Towards PRC?

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn’t really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan’s air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.

Although I haven’t read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:

  1. It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn’t matter very much.
  2. Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn’t necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.

Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it’s helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.

I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China’s direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.

The World Cannot Allow a Nuclear China…

[ 0 ] July 8, 2009 |

Speaking of Chiang Kai Shek, I have a short article up at Foreign Policy comparing the Chinese and (purported) Iranian nuclear weapon programs:

Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a “paper tiger,” and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: “We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?”


[ 0 ] July 8, 2009 |

I expect that future generations will view this as my crowning contribution to American public discourse.


[ 0 ] July 6, 2009 |

Andy McCarthy ingests more than his daily allowance of crazy pills (and let me tell you, that’s a lot of crazy pills):

The Wall Street Journal (as flagged in the NRO web briefing) reports on rioting in China by Uighur “students” that has left scores dead and hundreds wounded. The “students,” described elsewhere in the story as from a “predominantly Muslim ethnic group[, which has] long chafed at restrictions on their civil liberties and religious practices imposed by a Chinese government fearful of political dissent,” expressed their dissent by torching cars and buses, as well as — according to accounts of some witnesses to state-controlled media — rampaging “with big knives stabbing people” on the street.

No reason for non-Muslims in Bermuda, Palau, or the United States to worry, though. The lovable Uighurs are merely trying to address “economic and social discrimination.” Once they get social justice, I’m sure they’ll stop.

It’s hard to figure out where to start… for one, there was a time at which movement conservatives were mildly skeptical of the claims made in Chinese state media. Apparently this is no longer the case. There was also a time at which conservatives would have celebrated a provincial rebellion against our communist superpower existential foe*, but apparently there was a memo or something to the effect that “Anyone from any ethnic group that has members who have ever been incarcerated in Guantanamo deserves the swift, brutal justice of the Chinese state. Pass it on.” I also like how McCarthy has tossed aside the values of democracy and self-determination just to score points against liberals; this doesn’t even rise to the level of coherence displayed by Chucky “Bring back the Shah” Krauthammer.

The rest of the Corner crew, it appears, has tactfully declined comment.

Hat tip to Chet.

*of the week

The Mao Zedong?

[ 0 ] June 27, 2009 |

Fascinating; the unscientific popular choice for the name of China’s first aircraft carrier is Mao Zedong:

But which was the runaway favorite in two polls conducted earlier this month? Mao Zedong.

He may have been a monster to you and me. The number of Chinese who died as a result of his policies runs into the tens of millions. But to many, if not most people here, Mao remains – for all his faults, even when they are admitted – the father of the nation; his memory is endowed with supernatural powers.

Indeed, his name alone “has deterrent force,” believe some of the respondents, according to the International Herald Leader, a daily paper owned by the official Xinhua news agency, which commissioned one of the polls.

But there could be a drawback. “Aircraft carriers are used in battle, and they could get damaged,” the Herald Leader points out. “If that happened to a carrier named Mao Zedong, it might hurt ordinary people’s feelings.”

In such a naming scheme, would Mao be followed by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping? Then maybe Chen Yun and Yang Shangkun? Would an aircraft carrier serve as the ultimate redemption for Liu Shaoqi or (less likely) Lin Biao? Or is Mao singular enough that you could name the rest after cities or provinces? A note of caution to the Chinese; you start out by giving an aircraft carrier the name of a legendary leader, and you end up with the Carl Vinson and the John C. Stennis.

Via Galrahn.

Tank Man and Tank Commander

[ 7 ] June 16, 2009 |

What follows is a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man. Skip to the end for trivial observations about the current situation in Iran. Or just skip entirely…

The modern nation state is an extremely efficient killing machine. We know this from our Tilly; the nation-state replaced its competitors, such as empires and city-states, because it could develop and support institutions of internal and external domination. The nation-state successfully extracted a large surplus from its population, which it transformed into the coercive means for acquiring even more internal surplus and for waging external wars.

The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as large as normally assumed.

The modern nation-state is nevertheless tolerable because it substantially reduces private coercion (replacing it with less arbitrary public coercion), creates a relatively safe space in which commerce and the production of wealth can be undertaken, provides regulation necessary for the conduct of a modern (socialist or capitalist) economy, provides social services, and because it creates a sense of identity and political efficacy. Its murderous tendencies notwithstanding, I’d rather live in a nation-state than not, and would prefer a more complete and capable state to the rump that libertarians envision.

The long century (1789-1914) can be regarded as the period of consolidation of the institutions of the modern nation-state. The last competitors were either eliminated or co-opted, small statelets were amalgamated, and the lower and middle classes were fully integrated into the domestic processes of the state. The perfection of these institutions, as much as anything else, allowed European states to conquer the rest of the world, and to apply the institutions of the modern-state to heretofore unfamiliar populations. This was, it is fair to say, a bloody process. It saw untold colonial depredation, from the conquests of Africa, South Asia, and North America to the “opening” of China and Japan. The Wars of the French Revolution exceeded any previous conflicts in size and destruction, largely because of the increased extractive and warmaking capacity of the state. Still, the old ways were not wholly replaced; in Europe, at least, much of the traditional elite continued to hold the reins of the state.

This process of perfection would culminate in 1914, when the truly destructive nature of the state would be unleashed. Internally and externally, the major states of the world set about the task of murdering as many people as possible. Eighteen million or so were killed in World War I. In 1917, the Russians had a Revolution designed to hand their state to right thinking people, and those right thinking people murdered dozens of millions more. Between 1939 and 1945, the German state murdered six million Jews, along with roughly twice as many Poles and Russians. The Japanese state murdered about 20 million Chinese. The good guys in that war (and I use the term with no ironic intent) saw fit to incinerate millions of German and Japanese citizens by dropping bombs on them as they slept. Following World War II, the Chinese state killed some fifty million of its own citizens, concentrated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The various combatants in the Vietnam War killed about 4 million altogether, and the Khmer Rouge killed probably 2 million. All of this was made possible by the institutions of the modern nation-state; its extractive capacity, its efficient bureaucracy, and its ability to maximize military power.

The modern nation-state could murder at such an efficient rate because competent, well educated, healthy, efficient people staffed its bureaucracies. The medical systems of the modern state kept its soldiers and policemen healthy and capable. The educational institutions created unprecedented literacy, which maximized its killing capacity; soldiers and police who can read can also fight more effectively. The microfoundation of the story of the twentieth century is, thus, that the state created citizens, and those citizens made possible the murder of vast quantities of other citizens. This isn’t a particularly new idea; it’s more or less Arendt, and it’s something that I talked about in the context of Battle of Algiers a few years ago. Twentieth century evil is the efficiency and enthusiasm of capable bureaucrats.

Tank Man was not the first person to stand up to the coercive power of the state. People defying other people holding guns has a long and distinguished history, from Napoleon forward. The survival of Tank Man and of every other such protester depends on a decision made by the state employee carrying the gun. What distinguishes the few moments near Tiananmen from the Odessa Steps, thus, is not the heroism of the protester, but rather the decision by the tank commander not to run Tank Man down, or to shoot him. The video has always been more compelling to me than the shot; the tank commander actively tries to carry out his job without running over tank man, and eventually decides to hold up an entire tank column while Tank Man clambers on to his vehicle.

I feel that I can understand why Tank Man risked his life to stand in front of the tank column. I have less of a sense of why the tank commander decided to stop. For all I know, Tank Man may have been Tank Commander’s brother. Tank Commander may have been afraid that his superiors would have been pissed if he ran over a guy while cameras might be watching. He may not have wanted innocent blood on his hands, or on the treads of his tank. He may have sympathized with the demonstrators; perhaps his father or mother had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps he identified the Tiananmen demonstrators with the Cultural Revolution, and sympathized with them. I really have no idea.

The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.

1989 is the end of the Short Century, in large part because of the collapse of the Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Although the People’s Republic of China survived, I think that the moment that Tank Man and Tank Commander shared symbolizes the end of the era; the image and video of the moment, spread across the world by 24 hour news networks, signified a shift in the way that the state could interact with its citizens. It made the relationship between state and citizen explicit, and also exposed the weakness at the core of the state. States can still engage in brutal behavior, and horrible things can still happen, but the relationship has changed; the reliability of the bureaucracy of murder is in greater question now than it has been since the creation of the modern state system.

1989 is not 2009. The media trends that allowed the dissemination of the moment between Tank Man and Tank Commander have, if anything, accelerated; the ability of individuals to create their own narratives, independent of the state, is remarkable. At the same time, the state has developed new strategies for dealing with its citizens. This is as true of liberal democratic states as it is of authoritarian. I think, however, that the center of gravity of the state remains with Tank Commander. To the extent that the United States, other Western regimes, non-governmental organizations, and pretty much anyone else want to affect the course of events in Iran, the key is to convince Tank Commander not to shoot. The Iranian state has not deployed its full coercive resources against the demonstrators, and there’s no indication that it really wants to; even the CCP is said to believe that the massacre in Tiananmen Square was a serious mistake. The news to watch for is something like this, in which several members of the Revolutionary Guard were purportedly arrested for collaborating with dissident elements. Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.

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