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Back to China


As Laura Rozen and Mark Goldberg point out, it looks as if the foreign policy hawks are starting to turn their attention back to China. This shouldn’t be surprising, for a whole number of different reasons.

Remember that the Bush administration didn’t pay all that much attention to Iraq back in 2001, and that the first big foreign policy crisis involved Chinese possession of a downed US spy plane. This fit into the larger, state-centric policy that the Bushies were looking for. Before Osama Bin Laden helpfully came along and gave Bush his existential threat, China was going to be the new enemy. Since 9/11, China has virtually dropped off the Bush administration map, and has indeed become a partner is restraining North Korea and in attacking some terrorist groups (although the Chinese are more interested in hammering their own Islamic minority than in helping the United States out). The Chinese have played the United States very well in the past three years, as has just about everyone else. They’ve managed to buy themselves three years of relative indifference from an administration which had them in its gunsight as soon as it entered office.

So, why now? Rozen and Goldberg point to a potential dispute over West African oil as the proximate cause for US-Chinese disgruntlement. I don’t think that this gives the neocons much credit (or perhaps it gives them too much credit). The neocons are far too abstract thinkers to be distracted by some actual dispute. I imagine that they are far more concerned with China as an eventual strategic competitor, just as they initially coalesced around the idea of the Soviet Union as a relentless, remorseless, maleovolent and near omnipotent foe of America, apple pie, motherhood, and so forth. China fits the bill very nicely for the neocons, because they can put the conflict into ideological, strategic, and even civilizational terms, which makes their tiny little blackened hearts glow for a few short minutes.

Believe it or not, Iraq plays a part in the eventual confrontation of China. Neocons tend to believe unproblematically in the importance of reputation. Other countries pay attention to our reputation, they interpret it accurately, and they take account of all of our activities when assessing our resolve. If you believe these things, then the invasion of Iraq is just as important to deterring the Chinese as it is to frightening the North Koreans, Syrians, and Iranians. It shows that the US will, when necessary, kick ass and take names. The fact that the operation is going badly doesn’t even really hurt, as showing the Chinese we’re willing to pay a high, bloody price has value in and of itself. Of course, the neocon assumptions about reputation are nonsense; I’ll elaborate on that in another post.

The new focus on China helps the administration out in a couple of other ways, as well. Obviously, the more we talk about the “growing shadow in the East” the less we talk about the “fuck up of the century” in Iraq. Also, if China is really the Barzini of the world, then we don’t need to worry so much about intractable Tattaglias like Iran and North Korea. And, as Goldberg suggests, the China “threat” gives the administration a convenient excuse for its less than intrepid efforts to spread democracy:

By my reading, the article goes on to suggest that China may have the upper hand in the race for West African oil. Unlike the United States (or the World Bank for that matter) China doesn’t put many good governance conditions on any of its loans to dictatorships or struggling democracies in Africa. China is unencumbered by such idealism.

For the United States, and neocons in particular, “freedom is on the march” and promoting democracy in struggling societies is paramount. Sadly, the Bush administration’s foreign-policy geniuses seem to be squandering much of our soft power in Africa and have undermined America’s ability to achieve said goal.

Yeah. Well, freedom and democracy have always taken a backseat to a narrowly defined “national interest” for the neocons, and the situation today is no different. Oddly, Goldberg’s discussion reminds me a lot of Hans Morgenthau’s delineation of the six principles of power politics. Morgenthau’s purpose, in my interpretation, was less to construct a rigorous realist theory than to convince Western leaders that the Soviet Union would not play by their rules. This is why he invokes the example of the disastrous near-intervention in Finland; it only makes sense to play by liberal rules when you’re playing against liberals. The more I read Morgenthau, the more I’m inclined to interpret him as a semi-Straussian, rather than a realist.

Rob’s prediction: In the next four years even the rhetoric of democracy promotion is going to take a backseat to “strategic” concerns, of which China is going to be the most discussed. The more the situation in Iraq and the situation vis-a-vis Iran deteriorate, the more we’ll hear about China as an existential threat to the United States.

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