The contracting echo chambers of the Transatlantic powersMay 25, 2023
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
The pithy words spoken by US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 has been said to be his ideal policy for the US. But in recent years, the “big stick” diplomacy has proven to be too simplistic for the world they used to dominate.
The aphorism served the US well since its Monroe Doctrine days, although it must be insufferable to those who found themselves at the receiving end. Military power made the US increasingly dependent on the big stick to enforce their “rules based order” following WWII. In recent years, the “big stick” diplomacy has proven to be too simplistic for the world they used to dominate. Post-colonial assertiveness, higher educational and technological levels, and an increasing awareness of an economically interdependent world fostered among the smaller nations has created a sense of places which the US finds difficult to police with the stick. Even speaking softly is meeting its challenges. One begins to sense a Hegelian nature in the reaction of many smaller nations to the Western narratives. i.e. to every dominating thesis, they come up with an anti-theses and will only settle for a synthesis that respects their own sense of place. An increasing awareness of their own strengths, either in being blessed with natural resources, access to alternative trading partners or cultural worthiness has engendered partiality for a multilateral world. The Patrice Lumumbas of the world are now standing up to say “No!” to those who have been taking them for granted.
What is perhaps more threatening to the “Stick” cohort is that China, although it does not promote its form of government to the rest of the world, is setting an example that there are other ways to alleviate poverty without having to swallow the “democracy” pill that comes with hidden agendas. An indiscriminate “one size fits all” solution is a greater reflection of the ignorance and arrogance of the vendor than a solution to the problems of the target group. We are moving towards a bipolar or multipolar world and the minor economies seem to be quick to seize the opportunities that it offers. It is the keepers of the old order that are increasingly intimidated by the challenge. The response to this challenge is surprisingly unimaginative and coercive, using a combination of jaded military threats, defamatory propaganda and economic sanctions.
The US and its allies attempt to address their headwind by identifying China as the enemy. China is a threat because it has learned that a big stick is necessary to keep the robber barons at bay. With its recent “Meiji restoration” it has built up a stick big enough to match that of the major powers, causing insecurities unprecedented in recent history. China is also beginning to speak softly using a narrative that assures the Global South that the big stick it carries is for defence, not for coercion. Its soft speech of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, while music to the ears of the listener, is anathema to the prevailing hegemon. This attitude derives from Confucianism which constrains the use of military power, advocates peace, stability and ethical governance. Unfortunately, Confucianism did not augur well for the Chinese during the latter part of its last dynastic rule when the Qing Dynasty had to face the modern military might of the West led by Britain and Japan. Gunboat diplomacy saw its major ports of Canton (& Hong Kong), Amoy, Foochow, Ningbo and Shanghai carved up into British, French, American, German and Japanese concessions to be ruled according to their respective laws. Manufactured goods poured into the country and destroyed the local artisanal industry. More egregiously, opium from British India was used in exchange for silk, porcelain and tea in open defiance of Chinese law and attempts to control addiction.
The demise of the Qing Dynasty in the 1911 Revolution did not put an end to China’s trauma. With a weak replacement government, it was to experience the scourge of the Warlord Era, the insult and injustice of the treaty of Versailles leading to the May 4th movement, the war with Japan (WWII), and civil war between the communists and the nationalists before it regained territorial integrity and sovereignty under the Communist Party of China. Even in the Mao Zedong era, the Chinese people continued to be plagued by political and social upheavals – the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-1957), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which occurred almost end to end within a period of two decades. Eventually absolution was found in the person of Deng Xiaoping who exchanged obsessive ideology for pragmatism of the “feline” kind.
Deng unleashed the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people by opening the country up to the rest of the world for trade and investments. With their industry and eagerness to learn, China built up an industrial base and a network of trading partners with the objective of achieving a moderately well-off society they call “xiaokang”, a Confucian term for a functional middle class. They have managed to lift at least 800 million people out of abject poverty. It is an ongoing project which has kept them engaged albeit that time and energy has been spent fending off detractors and challengers who bought into the idea of the Thucydides Trap and live in trepidation of losing dominance.
The vignette of Chinese history above helps to underpin my view that China is unlikely to undo decades of their own hard work and achievement by initiating or provoking any war. The propaganda machines of present elitist governments work by preying on the ignorance, insecurity and parochialism of their audience; making allegations without historical context. History helps to explain China’s motivations and why it is so sensitive about the Taiwan issue. For about two hundred years, they suffered turmoil and privation (what they describe as having to “eat bitter”) before they were able to reestablish their national integrity. Taiwan is the remaining part of the whole denied them. Provoking them over Taiwan is unnecessary and unwise. Like every other human, they have a point beyond which they will not tolerate. Once this bottom line is crossed, we will have a war on our hands, an Armagaddon that we do not wish for.
Those of us who are old enough remember the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that started the Vietnam War. Another similar incident could occur with the US ships patrolling the Taiwan Straits carrying out reconnaissance operations. When the bottom line is crossed, even a small country like Vietnam was willing to take on the mighty US. If a war breaks out between the US and China, neither can afford to lose. The carnage will be inconceivable.
With our mainstream media acting as echo chambers for the transatlantic powers, the blood on their hands could well be their own.
I dedicate this article to Dr Anthony Pun who passed away on Wednesday 17th of May, 2023.