MIKE SCRAFTON. Historical amnesia: Great power behaviour and criticism of China

Between 1890 and 1920 the democratic US became a great power. It’s trajectory from western hemisphere state to global power has some economic, military and foreign policy parallels with authoritarian China’s growth in the twenty-first century.

There are a number of superficial similarities. Both China and the US underwent domestic and external transformations. Both experienced a brutal civil war before their ascendancy. Brutal though it was, the American civil war was not of greater scale than the Chinese civil war, extending from the 1911 fall of the Qing Dynasty to the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949.

China’s treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans is rightly criticised, but there were deeply repugnant aspects to America’s domestic policies during its rise. An epileptic black man born in the early decades of the twentieth-century, would have been disenfranchised and segregated, and legally barred from consorting with or marrying a white woman. Along with disabled white people, he would have been liable to incarceration in an asylum for the unfit, and possibly forcibly sterilised. He would always have been in danger of being lynched.

The fear of ‘race suicide’ permeated Congressional debates and popular monographs, and shaped national policies. National leaders lamented the higher birth rates among immigrants and minorities, seen as a threat to the Anglo-Saxons who sat atop a racial hierarchy. Only the fit, productive white Anglo-Saxon males had real access to the liberties, protections and rights contained in the US Constitution.

America’s foreign policies were transformed between 1890 and 1920. The US’s debut in global affairs was broadcast through its victory in the brief Spanish-American War of 1918. The US became a colonial power in the process (putting aside the forceful annexation of Mexican territory in the 1840s), acquiring Spain’s Caribbean and Pacific holdings. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and Cuba became a protectorate of the US. In the Philippines the American forces brutally suppressed a nascent Filipino independence movement.

The US found itself, not unlike China today, facing a fading hegemon in Great Britain and emerging strategic competitors in Japan and Germany. Just as China now pursues military parity with the US, back then the US saw that the possession of strong navies was a key to great power status. As President, Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet, a large force of American battleships, to circumnavigate the globe in 1907. A gesture designed to demonstrate the US’s growing might and to intimidate competitors, especially the Japanese.

In Central America and the Caribbean during this time, US strategy can be compared to China’s ‘nine-dash line’ claims in the South China Sea, and its strategic seizure and fortification of atolls. In fact, the Monroe Doctrine was far more assertive of America’s self-determined rights than China’s nine-dash line. The defensive and isolationist interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine had given way by the late-nineteenth century to a more aggressive understanding. It provided cover for the US to occupy Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic and declare them protectorates.

The Panama Canal and the Belt and Road initiative have some symmetry; each a massive investment in infrastructure for economic and strategic interests. China has been accused of de facto undermining the sovereignty of involved nations through direct investment, debt and influence operations. However, the US actually fostered the secession of Panama from Columbia, breaching its sovereignty, in order to secure the construction and control of the canal it deemed vital to its national interests. Not unlike China’s strategic positioning in the South China Sea, US domination of the arc of Caribbean Islands was seen as essential to securing the approaches to the strategic Panama Canal.

This is not to excuse China for its activities. But to show that they are unexceptional compared to those undertaken by other great powers.  Positioning the adversarial relationship with China as one of morally superior western democratic nations in competition with a somehow illegitimate and malevolent China is an exercise in historical amnesia. Open any book on the history of the European colonial powers on any of the continents and China’s transgressions won’t seem quite so heinous in comparison.

Neither authoritarian nor democratic forms of government are a prophylactic against injustice, racism or militarism. Illiberalism isn’t the product of a political system; it is an innate human tendency that needs to be guarded against. That’s not an argument for moral equivalency in political systems. The vital element in the prevention against illiberalism lies in the adherence, by those who inhabit and operate the key institutions, to the key principles of justice, fairness, and equality.

The strength of a healthy democracy lies in good part in the potential of the unique institutions it fosters: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of movement and association, along with a fair and accessible justice system. But only in part. It also depends on the vigilance and self-reflection of national leaders in politics, business and civil society to recognise backsliding and take redemptive action.

A series of recent studies show that democracies today inhabit glass houses: for example, Nations in transit 2020: Dropping the democratic facade, Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 and Global State of Democracy 2019. Confidence in democracy is in decline in the democratic states.

Democracies are an attractive alternative to authoritarianism when, and only when, they live up to their promise. China should not be immune to criticism, but the same prudence, caution and risk management should be applied when dealing with China as when dealing with any other self-interested great power. And wise leaders should try to avoid historical amnesia when pursuing their international relations.

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Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

This entry was posted in Defence/Security, Politics, World Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Historical amnesia: Great power behaviour and criticism of China

  1. Agreed Evan, a lot more stories like this. The depressing thing is that the opposite is rapidly becoming the case and the ABC is prominent. RN used to be reserved for the thoughtful but now references to China are almost at Newscorp level. Late Night Live seems to have become a platform for the Right as well.

  2. Avatar Brian Kiernan says:

    Have we forgotten Admiral Perry tasked with forcing Japan to trade with the West in 1854? Comparable to the Brits forcing opium on the Chinese (they haven’t forgotten).
    And remember the takeover of Hawaii, an evangelical as well as commercial move.
    The role of US evangelicals around the Pacific worth comparing to other empires’ bringing of Christianity and Civilization (read exploitation) to lesser breeds throughout the second half of C19th. These processes were well under way before Civil War, as Monroe Doctrine manifested (“manifested” is good).

  3. “Neither authoritarian nor democratic forms of government are a prophylactic against injustice, racism or militarism. Illiberalism isn’t the product of a political system; it is an innate human tendency that needs to be guarded against. That’s not an argument for moral equivalency in political systems. The vital element in the prevention against illiberalism lies in the adherence, by those who inhabit and operate the key institutions, to the key principles of justice, fairness, and equality.

    The strength of a healthy democracy lies in good part in the potential of the unique institutions it fosters: freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of movement and association, along with a fair and accessible justice system. But only in part. It also depends on the vigilance and self-reflection of national leaders in politics, business and civil society to recognise backsliding and take redemptive action.”

    Thank you Mike for such an objective discussion of governance in your brilliant article.
    We are all human. I believe leadership in China since Teng’s time 40 years ago, has been studying hard how western governance has been so successful till now. They know full well the ideas of US founders Lincoln and Jefferson and other successful stories in Europe. We would agree that they have come a long way last 30 years. If anyone has been to China last 10 years, they would have noticed everywhere you go in China, the leadership has been preaching democracy, equality, justice, fairness , rules of laws etc throughout their country and citizenry. No different from what we are doing here. Surprise? No, they want a better society for their nation and their people and the world as any upstanding leader in the west worthy of his/her salt wishes.
    Have an open mind. Go and talk to them and you will be really surprised to find out more.
    I am a peace maker and dialogue is still the best to understand one another than gunboat diplomacy.

  4. Avatar NEIL Walsh says:

    Western political systems are the very picture of failure, to my mind. I don’t see much in the West’s ”democratic credentials” today, problematic as they were historically. London is flooded with surveillance cameras for eg.

  5. Avatar Cavan Hogue says:

    Well said Mike.
    The Philippine American War was from 1898 to 1904 when the US invaded the Philippine Republic which was besieging Intramuros, the last Spanish hold out, which would have fallen within a few weeks when Dewy arrived to make promises he would break. A brutal racist war ensued. The Spaniards preferred to surrender to white men and so the US bought the Brooklyn Bridge as a fig leaf. Manifest Destiny was alive and well.
    Who indeed is in a position to cast the first stone, As any aborigine will tell you that includes us.

  6. Avatar Fredy James says:

    Hi Michael,
    Its a great article. I see many parallels 100 years apart:
    – Technological advances – atomic physics, birth of computers, network then and quantum computer, AI and material engineering now
    – Pandemic in 1910s and now
    – Great depression and eminent coming depression
    – World wars I and II then and possible WW3 in 20-30 years (hopefully never happen)
    Your article firmed up the super power dimension back and now.

    Inextricably, I believe all of those elements led to great wars in the past and I fear the same can happen in the new future.

  7. Avatar Rob Wilton says:

    Thanks Mike, I always enjoy your articles, and your contribution to public life generally. Australia’s hypocrisy in setting up the mechanisms of a surveillance state, at the same time as criticising China’s authoritarianism, is not unnoticed by the Chinese. We must safeguard our freedoms.
    Just a note, there is some kind of misprint re the Spanish-American War, which was in 1898.

  8. Avatar Brian Toohey says:

    Great piece as usual from Mike. Show the Spanish American war be 1898?

    Brian toohey

  9. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    In perspective, it is difficult to remember a time when concepts such as “fairness” or “balance”, not to mention “justice”, ever constituted the fundamentals of international relations for any duration of time longer than a 30 minute speech. In their pursuit to influence public opinion large parts of the media falsly allude to such values, as if they exist on their own political and international side. From the Athenian demagogues, to Joseph Goebbles, to the rise of the “social media”, the sobering words of Gore Vidal come to mind “At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice”. Above all, Double Standards reign supreme, and while the reality of the climate catastroph continues to be subdued in the media, the mouthpieces of vested interests are given all the megaphones they can use.

  10. Avatar Bob Aikenhead says:

    Epileptic or not, mixed race marriage for all were illegal in the US well past the early twentieth century. Sixteen states still had anti-miscengenation laws when the Supreme court found in 1967 that they violated constitutional requirements.
    Spanish-American war: of 1898.

  11. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Sir,
    I love this piece. The US is what it is today because the Union won the American Civil War against the Confederates. That success would be in question without the European powers, France and England (who were in dire need of the cotton for their looms) keeping themselves out of the conflict. David von Drehlen (2012, p.131; Henry Holt & Co.) in his book “Rise to Greatness; Abraham Lincoln” says in regard to Licoln’s proclaimation of a national day of thanksgiving, “Lincoln included a suggestion that God was keeping Europe out of the war. Given the deepening cotton shortages, however, the president and his secretary of state weren’t content to leave foreign relations entirely in the hands of Providence.” Through frenetic diplomatic initiaves they managed to quell the the call for intervention by “powerful forces” in France and England. Yet when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwan, the US has short memory.
    Sincerely,
    Teow Loon Ti

  12. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Many thanks Mike.

    I wish there were lots more articles like this at the moment.

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