When Confucius meets Machiavelli

Jun 11, 2024
Close-up of stone statue of Confucius, pagoda roof in the background

The title of “Empire” is not ascribed to the United States by observers but revealed by astute journalists as indeed what the powers that be in the US think of itself.

The recent P&I article by Noel Turnbull (02/06/2024) titled “We’re an empire now, and we create our own reality…” attest to the statement above. Since World War II, the US Empire has been supported and sustained by the transatlantic powers, mainly through NATO. For the last eight decades, this global empire reigned unopposed until the meteoric rise of China both economically, militarily and to some extent diplomatically through its influence in the Global South. One way to look at the present geopolitical tensions is to consider how the present world has been organised and to consider what alternative models there may be.

It is an existential reality that the victors in a war reorganise the world as they see fit. In the last one, it was the US-led Allies that won.

One could look at this reorganised world as a power structure consisting of a ruling hub made up mainly of Western nations with the United States at its core. Other nations around the world are organised in concentric circles around this core according to their level of relevance to the centre. The word “relevance” is a loaded term and is crucial to the relationship between the centre and its peripheral rings. It implies whether these countries comprise people of European origin, profess an adherence to the idea of democracy and common values with the core, is endowed with valuable natural resources and willing to make them available to the Empire and its supporters on terms agreeable to them, are economically strong and political supporters, or pose no challenge to the ruling hub either economically or militarily; or a combination of such factors. Nations that are renegades, recalcitrants or possess nothing of value to the core are relegated to the periphery. In this sense, the arrangement is not static but dynamic with nations moving closer or farther from the core according to whether they have won the core’s favour. Japan is an interesting case. At the end of WWII it was among the outermost rings but have moved to the centre to become a member of the empire’s elitist G7 group. It has done everything to the US’s bidding including the Plaza Accord which saw the value of the yen rise to a point that resulted in economic woes. In recent years, in the Asia Pacific geopolitics, it jumped in favour of the US even before the US asked it to do so. The LNP governments of Australia was a step behind in asking “How high?”

If a renegade state refuses to fall in line, then trade embargoes could be used against them. The most extreme of embargoes would be a cold war if the country is strong enough to resist. If all else fails, military intervention or subversion and subterfuge are used to bring down the government. These are usually preceded by intense propaganda and demonising of the opponent. In order to share some of the burden, military alliances are made. It is not by chance that Europe and the United States have more military alliances than any other part of the world. The most unconscionable method is to use countries with leaders that they do not deserve to fight proxy wars. The Mujahideen of Afghanistan fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union, Ukraine is fighting a proxy war against Russia; the Philippines and Taiwan are next in line as convenient pawns. The status quo favoured by the US is also maintained by establishing military bases around the world. Estimates by various sources indicate an excess of 750 bases in about 80 countries. These military bases make threats of military intervention more effective.

A world organised to maintain an imperial centre is controlled through a number of different tools. One is the creation of institutions e.g. World Bank, IMF, WTO even the United Nations. Another controls the financial institutions and trade through the fiat/petrodollar and the SWIFT system. All these are grouped under a reality created by the US called “rules based international order” (RBIO). Any nation that commits an act that runs against the interest of the US and its ruling hub of European powers are told that they have broken the RBIO, rules that the US itself does not necessarily have to follow if it works against the ruler’s interest. At a time when the most advanced and wealthy countries are Western nations and Japan; when they are the main buyers of commodities, most countries in the Global South stick assiduously to the rules. There are advantages to be gained by moving closer to the centre. They could receive “most-favoured-nation” status in trade, promise of military protection, investments or aid; or be sold weapons to harass their enemies or protect themselves against other claims to what they consider to be their territories.

All these methods used to maintain Western and Japanese supremacy are of course very Machiavellian. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says, “For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the ruler has no more authority on account of being good.” 

With their industrial growth and economic success it became expedient for the Western industrialised countries to export and base some of their labour intensive industries in the peripheral countries which hitherto had only been their suppliers of basic commodities and markets for their manufactured products. The unintended consequence of globalisation was that it gave the recipient countries an opportunity to learn and emulate. Some, like the so called Asian Tigers grew quickly and some of the world’s wealth began to shift eastwards. China’s early industrial development derives hugely from such investments called Foreign Direct Investments (FDI).

Things cruised along very well for the empire and its system until 2011 when the Obama administration decided to pivot east in response to what they perceive as China’s increasing “assertiveness” in the Indo-Pacific region. By then China had become the biggest holder of American debt and the world’s second largest economy. With increasing wealth, its military strength was also rapidly growing and modernising to match other world powers like the US and Russia. The transatlantic powers saw China’s rise and its unwillingness to kowtow to the centre as a threat. No one can really read intentions, especially across cultures, but what most astute observers say is that the Chinese government’s legitimacy and continued survival is premised to a great extent on its ability to continue providing a better life for its 1.4 billion people. The West, through its history and intellectual tradition took China’s rise as a threat to its supremacy and fell steadfast into the Western narrative of Thucydides Trap. From this perspective rose the animosity and the China containment strategies. Clearly, China’s competition or challenge to the hegemonic centre is the unintended consequence of the power that comes with economic growth.

The economic transformation of China coincided with the revival of Confucian ideas. His voice was put to sleep during the Mao era but saw a recovery when China was led by Hu Jintao in 2014. Confucius Institutes were set up around the world and Confucian ideas of living harmoniously with others was most clearly articulated during the leadership of Xi Jinping. His ideas about how rulers, citizens and family, or about the ruler and the ruled, should conduct themselves work in clear contradiction to Machiavellian ideas. If we replace the word “person” with “country”, it is clearly a repudiation of Machiavelli. Each person has a role in society that is no less important than any other. He exhorts his followers to respect each other and behave virtuously; much in the same way that Aristotle said that only by behaving virtuously can we live the good life. And that in order to live harmoniously, we all have obligations towards each other. He said that rulers must not rule by force but with wisdom and benevolence. The idea of ruling with wisdom and benevolence, living harmoniously and having a responsibility to others and respect for everyone clearly has greater appeal than the rule by “speaking softly and carrying a big stick” using Machiavellian methods. Nevertheless, China is still the new kid on the block in terms of its “major power” status; suspicions of its motives persist, especially as the West’s propaganda machine has been extremely effective in demonising their competitors.

Now the Western organised world order with Western centred rings of relevance has two new challenges, economic (China’s success in industry and trade) and ideological (Confucian vs Machavellian ideas of a world order). It has a third problem of its own making. Since WWII, for mainly parochial idea, it kept ostracising Russia and keeping it among the peripheral rings. Isolated and spurned it has found a new way out by forming a no limits friendship with China. This coming together of two great nuclear powers threatens to form a second pole which must never happen if the world were to have peace. A bipolar world would exacerbate differences to mutual destruction. I believe that both China and Russia know this and have thus been proposing a multi-polar world which has no centrally concentrated power that attempts to rule in perpetual hegemony.

For such a multipolar world to work, there must be an agreed upon higher authority and a final arbiter of disputes to which all countries must voluntarily submit themselves. Presently, the only organisation that is a semblance of such an authority is the United Nation. The UN has been functioning commendably but crippled by the right to veto of the major powers. A reorganised, revamped and re-empowered UN is the only feasible alternative to the policing that the United States has been carrying out with the use of force and Machiavellian methods. With a reconstituted UN, the world would not have any self appointed ruler but an authority that is democratically elected to ensure that human competition does not get out of hand; and to consolidate efforts to combat common causes such as climate change and environmental degradation. From a revitalised UN might spring a Parliament similar to the European Parliament. We badly need an enforceable law to outlaw the sale of arms. The military industrial complex thrives on conflicts. Such a reorganised world would do justice to Martin Luther King’s hopes that begin with “I have a dream…”

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