Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Idealism, realism, and US China policy

Over at Foreign Policy, China scholar David Lampton and journalist James Mann debate the argument presented in Mann's new book, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. (The subtitle really says it all.) (Hat tip: China Digital Times)

There is no love lost between Lampton and Mann in this debate, and its implications reach far beyond US China policy.

Lampton challenges the argument in Mann's book that politicians, academics, and corporate leaders are making excuses for Chinese authoritarianism to justify close engagement with Beijing. He argues that policymakers have no illusions about China, but emphasize engagement because "there are economic, security, and intellectual gains to be made from working together."

Mann reiterates his thesis in response to Lampton, saying that his purpose is not to propose a new framework for US China policy but to expose the rhetorical compromises made by American leaders.

Mann's point is well taken, although arguably this problem is a matter of cognitive dissonance: the interests of the US, as observed by Lampton, lead the US to favor engagement in one way or another with China, but China's failure to meet political and moral standards determined by American values mean that engagement with China carries a certain sort of moral repugnance. Democracies, like individuals, often have a hard time coping with the mismatch between their ideals and a reality that falls far short of those ideals, and so they find ways to explain away the contradictions — hence the behavior observed by Mann.

I would prefer that US opinion leaders and policymakers be less squeamish about the contradictions, but their response is understandable.

I ultimately have to side with Lampton in this debate, because, as he suggests in his second contribution to the debate, there are real doubts about the ability of the US to influence political change anywhere, whether through the use of force, sanctions, or rhetorical pressure.

As Lampton asks, "...Even if democracy were to rank first among U.S. goals in dealing with Beijing, could the United States achieve or effectively promote it? Again, consider the dispiriting U.S. interventions in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Or if it’s verbal condemnations of human rights abuse Mann prefers, consider Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya—all states that have blithely ignored the opprobrium of human rights advocates and U.S. politicians for decades."

As he subsequently suggests, the only way for the US — or perhaps more appropriately, Americans — to influence political developments abroad is through the patient support of individuals working to strengthen civil society and building capacity for institutions essential to the rule of law. But as for the pace and content of liberalization in foreign countries, there does not seem to be much that the US can do, which raises the question as to whether democratization deserves the priority in American foreign policy it has been given in recent years.

Does emphasizing democratization, irrespective of whether the US has the ability to advance democracy, serve any purpose other than to resolve some of the unease that comes from having to lead in a world that so often seems to fall short of the high standards demanded by American values? And does emphasizing democratization without being able to follow through undermine the value of the message?

2 comments:

China Law Blog said...

Excellent post. Thanks.

NYkrinDC said...

Does emphasizing democratization, irrespective of whether the US has the ability to advance democracy, serve any purpose other than to resolve some of the unease that comes from having to lead in a world that so often seems to fall short of the high standards demanded by American values?

No, it also serves to undermine that which we are trying to promote. The more we move to the forefront of democracy promotion in China, the more it will be able to tag reformers as fifth columns in the service of foreign interests. The best we can do, is to quitely support institutional reform by appealing to the benefits it gives China in the market. Notice how quickly China backed away from its push to have bloggers register using their real names once the tech industry got involved saying that additional regulations would hurt business interests. Tom Barnett posted on this today, and is further evidence for his argument on using connectivity to move authoritarian regimes over time to adopt global rule-sets on democracy and the rule of law.