The conflict between China and the West has been simmering for some time now. For the previous two administrations, the policy toward China was buoyed by the belief that China would liberalize or, at a minimum, become less authoritarian, taking its place in the rules-based order as a partner rather than a competitor. American politicians were very careful how they talked about China, not wanting to unduly provoke a conflict or setback in what seemed to be China’s movement toward integration.
There was enough trust with the Chinese that many Western companies, with the blessing of the political establishment, moved major manufacturing to China, with the belief the Chinese could be trusted to keep supply chains going. When push came to shove in recent shortages of necessary goods the Chinese supplied, we have learned that this assumption is false. China has been willing to put politics and the image of the Chinese Communist Party above the interests and health of the US and other Western countries.
Many in West lament what they see as a rollback of liberal democracy around the globe the past couple of years. The twentieth century saw amazing growth of liberal democracies, and the slowing and backsliding of liberal democracy has many Americans on edge about the future of global democracy.
Part of this is fueled by an abiding, almost millenarian, American belief that liberal democracy is the best form of government and that it must ultimately win the day. Francis Fukuyama predicted that with the fall of communism in the late 1980s we arrived at “the end of history.” Liberal democracy was the final goal of a long historical process that we finally reached. Not all problems would be solved, but in terms of competition among competing political ideologies, liberal democracy prevailed decisively.
In contrast to this more optimistic thesis about the future of global politics, Samuel Huntington, writing at roughly the same time as Fukuyama, presented a competing thesis. Now that the Cold War was over, the emerging geopolitical fault lines between nations would be primarily cultural and not economic. Huntington predicted a “clash of civilizations” between civilizational entities, the dominant ones being the West, an order led by a resurgent China, Slavic peoples (Russia and Eastern Europe), and Islam.
Huntington pointed to the idea of civilization as the highest set of values that bound certain peoples together short of humanity. Western countries, for all their diversity, share a similar cultural ethos that binds them together in a common identity and set of values that other civilizations do not share.
Because Westerners insist their values are “universal,” they are often offended others cannot or will not share them. Americans usually fail to grasp, as hard as this sounds, that other nations and cultures do not share our basic values and have no desire to share them. The failure of Middle Eastern countries to liberalize after the pattern of Europe and North America is not so much a matter of being less-civilized or morally retrograde, but a clash of fundamental worldviews with ideas that are contradictory at their core.
The differences between cultures are deep and will not change quickly, if at all. Americans want quick results, and if change is not quick, they claim it’s a failure. Cultures as old as those in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia with thousands of years of history will not change overnight, and may never change to the extent that Westerners or Americans find acceptable.
China is the most interesting and important instance. China was the dominant power in Asia for most of the past two millennia. Its history and cultural values stand in stark contrast to America’s, but the thinking amongst foreign observers for a long time was that China would become more liberal like the West. As China participated in global institutions and adopted free-market reforms, the Chinese would adopt the governmental structures and human rights concerns that Western countries see as moral and right.
But China has not liberalized, and this last year, goaded by Donald Trump’s combative stance toward China in trade, the American foreign policy establishment came to realize that China is not liberalizing and may never liberalize. What was once considered an outlier position has cemented into a general consensus. China is a competitor.
In Graham Allison’s cogently argued Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, he asserts that our conflict with China is not merely a clash of interests but of civilizations, in which the idea of Chinese expansion and hegemony threatens not only American dominance but also Western values. Leaving aside Allison’s contention about whether America and China are destined for war, Americans would do well to appreciate our deep cultural and religious differences.
Allison, via Huntington, points out a couple of these divergent, sometimes completely opposing ways that Americans, and Westerners, often view themselves and the world. Huntington argues that China and Chinese-influenced countries share a common Confucian worldview. Confucian cultures place authority, hierarchy, harmony, and individual’s subordination to society as central cultural assumptions. The state is supreme over society and the individual. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the American devotion to liberty, equality, democracy, and individualism that are deeply woven into our culture. Whereas Confucian societies place great emphasis on consensus-building and saving face, Americans value self-expression, debate, and criticism as the way in which society moves forward.
When it comes to internal and external world order, the Chinese place the emphasis on harmony through hierarchy, with China and the Chinese leader as the rightful leader at the top. Chinese dynasties designated themselves as the “Middle Kingdom” because they, and the emperor in particular, played a mediating role between heaven and earth. This also helps to make clear why China is so defensive when it comes to domestic issues. Interference in Chinese politics is a disruption of the ordered hierarchy by a foreign agent seeking to subvert the harmony of society.
Where we stand on the question of the clash of civilizations and our conviction about the growth of liberal democracy will have a profound effect on how we view the world order. The Christian Realist will not downplay culture or hold the idealist assumption that cultures are fundamentally malleable. They are not. Cultural assumptions are enduring, and even if some can shift over time, some cannot. That is a reality we should accept.
However, this does not mean we should merely embrace cultural relativism. We can and should make moral judgments according to our deeply held beliefs. For instance, though the repression of the Uighurs in China may make the Chinese forced internment of this minority population comprehensible, it does not make it right. But what an appreciation of our deep cultural differences can do is adjust our expectations for the future, even as we continue to uphold and promote our values.
What the coronavirus has revealed is not so much a new reality but the fault lines of an already existing clash that was bound to occur. I do not think China will ever liberalize, if by liberalize we mean China becomes more like America or the West. We should not try to convert the Chinese to our way of life, but we should develop a workable relationship that benefits both countries. Rather than trying to transcend our cultural differences, we should realize our deep cultural roots will more than likely require us to manage tensions and misunderstandings.