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China, Clinton, and Boolean Sovereignty

January 22, 2010

Yesterday Hillary Clinton made a big speech upholding America’s commitment to Internet freedom, notable mainly because she backed Google and called out China by name.  (Some analysis of the diplomatic niceties here.)  Predictably, the Chinese government is not pleased.

As someone who believes that China would be better off by moving, at least on the margin, towards freer expression and more democratic accountability, this reflexive dismissal is disappointing.  But unlike most, I think the vehemence with which it responds to these demands is quite understandable.  Here’s why.

Most Americans take the US government’s sovereignty for granted.  If the people, the government, and the New York Times all want to pass a law, we pass it.  Other countries can complain but they have negligible power to affect our policy.  For other countries, things look different.  Sovereignty is essentially Boolean: either you can define your policy regardless of international sentiment, or you can’t.  By this definition, most countries are not truly sovereign, and are essentially subordinate to so-called International Public Opinion, i.e. the consensus of Western democracies, with the US as its enforcement arm.  Get too far out of line, à la South Africa and Yugoslavia, and there’s a good chance you’ll get Dealt With.  (For this reason I doubt that Switzerland’s minaret ban will remain as a true law – it will be repealed or effectively circumvented in quick order.  Even democratic elections cannot stand long against the Western democratic consensus.)

There are really very few sovereign states around.  The US, of course, is one.  Russia is another, as shown by its brazen invasion of Georgia.  Israel, though supported by the sovereign US, is another, if only because it allows its instinct for self-preservation to outweigh the diplomatic pressure of other states.  China is a fourth.  (North Korea I would argue is essentially a Chinese protectorate, and Iran is tottering.)

On the scale of states, these governments are at least an order of magnitude less influential than the Western democratic consensus.  Nobody quotes the Netanyahu Doctrine or Russian revanchism in weighing their own foreign policy.  In fact nearly all of the clout of these states is used simply to defend their own ability to pursue their own goals unfettered: in other words, to maintain their sovereignty.

From these states’ point of view, the situation is really quite precarious. First of all, the balance of power is entirely against you.  Remember: South Africa had the bomb, and Iraq had various other nasties, and even then they were unable to defy the Western consensus.  Secondly, the Consensus is fickle and highly influenced by the media.  As Lee Kwan Yew wrote in his memoirs:

Notwithstanding the openness of the American political process, no country knows how America will react to a crisis in its part of the world. Were I a Bosnian or a Kosovar, I would never have believed that Americans would involve themselves in the Balkans. But they did get involved, not to defend America’s fundamental national interests, but to uphold human rights….Is such a policy sustainable? And applicable worldwide? In Rwanda, Africa, it was not. Hence American friends keep reminding me that their foreign policy is often driven not by considerations of strategic national interests, but by their media.

And yet, while the US (excuse me, NATO) was busy chasing out Miloshevich, it was turning a blind eye to Mugabe’s genocidal campaign against whites and political opponents, the plight of the Dalai Llama, Israel’s relations with its neighbors, and a host of other issues that it could pursue, consistent with its ideology, but chose not to.  Now there may be good or bad reasons for this, but from the outside what it looks like is: we can stomp on you hard, and you can’t always see it coming.  And it’s not paranoia if there really is a chance that they are out to get you.

Now, I’m not making any value judgments on who has the “right” to be sovereign.  Like most forms of power, sovereignty is a tool, which can be used for good or ill.  South Africa, of course, made poor use of its temporary sovereignty.  On the other hand, Israel’s sovereignty allows it to have a defense policy without which it would probably have collapsed long ago, and America’s sovereignty allows it to topple nasty regimes and chase terrorists around the globe (while reaping the attendant downsides and boondoggles).  But this perspective should show that when China reacts strongly to the United States telling it what to do, it is not being a belligerent power throwing its weight around, but is rather reacting as a relatively weak player trying to defend its sovereignty against the Western consensus.

Now there are two ways to go from here:

  1. Recognize, as a commenter here notes, that many of these speeches function more as pro-American pep talks, rather than an effort to effectively change Chinese policy.  Rely on the democratizing effect of economic growth and the necessity for the free flow of information to a modern economy.
  2. If you can’t persuade ‘em, coerce ‘em.  If you really want to directly change Chinese policy, you’ll have to change their incentives in a real way, and that means sanctions, international marginalization, and generally taking their toys away.

I highly doubt that America will go for #2.  We want China to become more Western, yes, but not at significant economic cost to ourselves.  So we should recognize that SecState speechifying serves only a PR function, and its effectiveness is inversely proportional to its strength.  If China is going to become more liberal, at least under the current regime, it will have to make that decision itself.


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