April 14, 2001

Resisting US Dominance

The usual crowd of foreign policy table thumpers is already screaming that dread word, "appeasement," in response to the Bush Administration’s expression of "regret" over the death of a Chinese pilot and its sorrow over the US invasion of Chinese airspace. "A sweet triumph for the philologists of appeasement," cries the New Republic with its usual originality. US policy towards China, the editors sneer, can now "return undisturbed to its customary pursuit of cash and abjection." Lawrence Kaplan, the magazine’s in-house rabid bomber, his seat always firmly planted in the comfiest armchair, blustered: "By eliminating any obligation to link punishment to offense, the administration has reinforced China’s belief that it need not play by the rules of the international game and emboldened those in Beijing and around the world who view the United States as a paper tiger."

"Punishment to offense"! Who committed the offense? Who deserves to be punished? The United States had been caught spying – a humiliating enough circumstance for any state to find itself. The crew then landed the spy plane on Chinese soil without permission, thereby effectively surrendering to the victims of the espionage. One would have thought that one "regret" and one "very sorry" for the loss of life, and one "very sorry" for entering Chinese airspace uninvited, constitutes very mild punishment. President Eisenhower was forced to pay a much higher price: He had to apologize for the U-2 flights. He also had to release arrested Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in exchange for US pilot Gary Powers who spent 21 months in a Soviet prison. Incidentally, the New Republic, a hate-mongering magazine specializing in stirring up resentment against every nation under the sun, applauding every act of US aggression and justifying every Israeli violation of human rights, is invariably described as "liberal." This tends to confuse people abroad. While self-proclaimed "liberals" denounce the Bush team for excessive belligerence and for failing to address the concerns of other nations, the "liberal" in-house journal sneers at the Bushies’ supposed "maturity" and "understanding" towards the Chinese, at their kowtowing and at their "turning a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses and…its execrable international conduct." Yet this somehow does not count as warmongering.

As expected, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Robert Kagan are foaming at the mouth. Writing in the Washington Post, they declare without hesitation: "[T]he Chinese see more clearly than we do that…they have won and we have lost. First, make no mistake: The United States has apologized. And the fact of our apology is all the more humiliating because the United States was in no way to blame for the incident." To Kristol and Kagan any outcome that does not involve the abject humiliation of another state must mean that the United States somehow "lost." "We can kid ourselves all we want," the CNN warriors go on, "but we have suffered a blow to our prestige and reputation, a loss that will reverberate throughout the world if we do not begin immediately to repair the damage. The problem is not merely that we have lost face…The bigger problem is that our reliability as defender of the peace and protector of friends and allies, especially in East Asia, has been thrown into doubt…. So far the lesson is all too clear: When you bully the United States, the United States searches for a way to apologize."

Leave aside for the moment the dubious proposition that the United States is indeed a "defender of the peace and protector of friends and allies." After all, the only power in the world that bombs other countries on a regular basis is the United States. What is most alarming about their argument is that because we have supposedly "suffered a blow to our prestige and reputation" we must now do something drastic to make up for it. Kristol and Kagan are not short on ideas. "First, we can resume our surveillance flights in the South China Sea immediately, without any deviation from the routes and methods used before the crisis. Then, in two weeks, the Bush administration should agree to the sale of a robust package of weapons to Taiwan, including a commitment to sell Taiwan the Aegis system…. That is the best way to ensure peace in the Taiwan Strait. The administration can also move to bolster our force structure in the Asian theater, use its influence to block Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics and vigorously push in Geneva for a UN condemnation of China’s miserable human rights record. Congress can do its part by voting against a renewal of China’s most-favored-nation status later this year." In other words, the most effective way of securing "peace" is to antagonize and humiliate the Chinese as much as possible. Taiwan is a sore point for the Chinese. They suspect the United States is working towards securing the island’s independence. So let’s arm it to the teeth so as to reinforce their suspicions. The Chinese suspect the world is ganging up on them? So let’s "block Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics."

"Needless to say, we do not seek war with China," Kristol and Kagan announced airily in their first Weekly Standard screed entitled "A National Humiliation." "That is what advocates of appeasement always say about those who argue for standing up to an international bully. But it is the appeasers who wind up leading us into war. We have been calling for the active containment of China for the past six years precisely because we think it is the only way to keep the peace." This is the tired refrain of the anti-"appeasement" lobby. There is no evidence, needless to say, that bullying, antagonizing and thwarting the legitimate interests of other powers is the most effective way of securing peace. As in everyday life, repeated confrontation leads to the exchange of physical blows. Kristol and Kagan believe America has had to endure "national humiliation." The Chinese believe, not unreasonably, that having to endure round-the-clock US surveillance of their coastline and having their Belgrade embassy destroyed without their being able to do anything about it constitute far greater "national humiliation." Incidentally, the "neo-conservative" argument about "appeasement" does not even work in the case of Hitler. Britain’s security guarantees to Poland failed to stop Hitler in his tracks.

The issue of "appeasement" is trotted out deliberately so as to confuse the public. The "neo-conservatives" want the United States to exercise global tyranny. Rather than come out and admit this, they prefer to talk of "rogue states" which can only be either destroyed or appeased. Kristol and Kagan admitted as much in their famous 1996 Foreign Affairs article "Towards a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy": "Most of the world’s major powers welcome US global involvement and prefer America’s benevolent hegemony to the alternatives….The principal concern of America’s allies these days is not that it will be too dominant but that it will withdraw." Which powers "prefer America’s benevolent hegemony to the alternatives"? Russia? China? Europe? India? All of these powers repeatedly express their concerns about rampant US power.

"The remoralization of America at home," Kristol and Kagan continue, "ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy. For both follow from Americans’ belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal, enduring, ‘self-evident’ truths….Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor." In other words, a policy of behaving like other states, abiding by international laws, not interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations, seeking United Nations mandates before the use of force, accepting that other countries have national interests not necessarily the same as – perhaps even in conflict – with ours amounts to a foreign policy of "cowardice and dishonor." In any country writers like these two would be declared insane and a menace to peace, both domestic and international.

In their "National Humiliation" rant, Kristol and Kristol expressed outrage over the "virulently anti-American Chinese military and intelligence services. In addition, there has been a surge of nationalist fervor in China, especially since the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade two years ago." Needless to say, they did not bother to wonder why the military should be "virulently anti-American" or why "nationalist fervor" is sweeping China. To Kristol and Kagan it is all a simple matter of the Chinese government stirring "up these nationalist passions in an attempt to compensate for the bankruptcy of Communist ideology." Interestingly, it was one of the apologists for the US Empire who let the cat out of the bag as to what it was that was annoying the Chinese so much. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Edward Luttwak revealed: "Last year, at a time when the Clinton administration was in dissolution, leaving him without firm direction or control, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of all ground, naval and air forces in the Pacific, decided to intensify U.S. Navy EP-3 and US Air Force RC-135 electronic intelligence patrols off the China coast." So it was the United States that decided to intensify to intensify the "electronic intelligence patrols off the China coast"! In other words, the Chinese had grounds to feel a little peeved. Luttwak goes on: "The Chinese military, evidently right up to the minister of defense, Chi Haotian, reacted to the EP-3/RC-135 patrols by aggressively close intercepts. The tactical aim was to intimidate the US into flying farther away from Chinese territory, regardless of international law. The strategic – or rather political – aim was to provoke exactly the sort of U.S.-Chinese confrontation that occurred, in order to secure more funding for the armed forces." Whether the aim was to "secure more funding for the armed forces" is just Luttwak’s speculation. The point is the Chinese were acting in legitimate self-defense.

Nonetheless even Luttwak feels he has to conclude like a good neo-conservative (perhaps those invitations to the Newshour with Jim Lehrer might stop otherwise): "In the meantime, many will feel that the crisis has ended with at least a partial victory for the worst people in China – the military bureaucrats who care for nothing but increased budgets for the armed forces." "Increased budgets for the armed forces"! That is an outrage. In a democracy like the United States such things would never happen.

Of course, we know that the Bush Administration was determined from the beginning to increase defense expenditure. It was hard to justify this by invoking a supposed threat from Russia. So a new enemy had to be found. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came up with China. In last month’s defense strategy review the Pentagon decided that China was now America’s principal enemy. Therefore, Rumsfeld told Bush that the Pacific Ocean should become the most important focus of US military deployments. How did China get to be our principal enemy? Almost no evidence has ever been presented to substantiate this finding. Opposing US dominance over Asia, insisting on its territorial integrity and being an awfully big country does not make a country an "enemy." Unable to offer concrete examples of China’s aggression, the "on to Beijing" boys like to waffle about China’s suppression of dissent. Now the Chinese regime may indeed be very nasty (though no more so than a lot of other countries with which the United States has very amicable relations). However, contrary to neo-conservative propaganda, there is no demonstrable correlation between internal repression and external aggression. Has China behaved aggressively towards anyone? Has China ever behaved remotely like the United States? Has China ever bombed other countries left, right and center? Would the United States have behaved with as much forbearance towards a seceding state like Taiwan the way China has? China has never threatened to use force to bring Taiwan under control. China has never promoted an armed irredentist movement on the island on whose behalf it could then threaten to intervene. China has only insisted that the United States not recognize Taiwan as an independent state.

Oddly enough, it was a well-known neo-conservative writing in the Wall Street Journal who revealed what lies behind so much of the US animus towards China. Joshua Muravchik, who has dedicated his life to the dubious proposition that it is the duty of the United States to "export" democracy to benighted nations who have the misfortune of not being the United States, declared: "[S]toking nationalist passions is central to the Communists’ strategy for retaining power." Standard neo-conservative stuff. Kristol, Kagan and the New Republic crowd never tire of repeating this mantra. But Muravchik goes on: "Originally, the party’s dictatorship was justified on the grounds that it needed to suppress the bourgeoisie in order to bring the people benefits of socialism. Such reasoning sounds antique in today’s China, where one of the party’s slogans is ‘to get rich is glorious.’ Instead, the rulers promote the image of a hostile outside world in the hopes of encouraging the people to rally round the regime. The model for this strategy was set by Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, the first Communist ruler to refashion himself as a nationalist. The Yugoslav example offers an answer to those who believe that China will inevitably assert itself in destructive ways. Under Mr. Milosevic, Yugoslavia started four wars in less than a decade, but with the triumph of democracy just a few months ago, that same country is making strong efforts to reintegrate itself into the international community."

China’s crime then is the same as Yugoslavia’s under Milosevic. Instead of embracing the US ideology of "market democracy" it developed an eclectic political and economic system. Stalinism was abandoned but there was no rush to give away the store to foreign investors. Aspects of socialism were kept on. China does not have a convertible currency. As a result it did not have to endure the currency collapses that devastated the economies of America’s Asian "allies." China has never had to invite the boys from the IMF to Beijing to help run the economy into the ground. Nonetheless, China continues to enjoy high economic growth rates. This infuriates Washington and leads to calls for the United States to do something to annoy the Chinese. Then when the Chinese respond by striking back at the bully, the Muravchiks of this world are on hand to explain how China’s "rulers promote the image of a hostile outside world in the hopes of encouraging the people to rally round the regime." The same thing happened in Yugoslavia. Milosevic became a hated figure in Washington long before the wars of secession and our alleged unhappiness "nationalism." Milosevic was refusing to turn the country over to foreign investors and the IMF.

But China and Yugoslavia are also very different. For one thing, China is very big. And Yugoslavia is very small. Bullying the Chinese is not as easy as bullying the Serbs was. This is why Kristol is on the floor chewing the rug. It was agony watching the United States go through contortions to come up with the right form of words acceptable to another power. This is an unusual experience for the United States. Usually, we are the ones telling others how to conduct themselves and how to apologize properly. When the United States bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two years ago, no apology was forthcoming. Instead, Washington cranked out one ludicrous explanation after another involving outdated maps and mid-level CIA operatives that no one in the world – other than the US media – took seriously.

Some of the more sensible pundits tried to imagine how the United States would have responded if it had been the Chinese who had been caught spying on the United States and had then landed their craft on US soil without permission. A more apt scenario to imagine is how the United States would have responded if some power other than China had forced one of our spy planes down. What if it had been Iraq? What if it had been Belarus? The United States would certainly not be apologizing. It would be bombing.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion.

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