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Can Hobbes’s worldview help the US and China to avoid war in the future?

“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” – Thucydides

What can Thucydides teach us?

The above quote by Thucydides was a description (and a justification) used by Athens to “justify” the invasion of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. This action strategically benefited the Athenians in their war against Sparta, but it was without moral justification. Melos fell, its citizens were enslaved, but perhaps the most morally questionable aspect of what Athens did was that it pre-emptively invaded Melos, since Melos had in fact desired to stay out of the fighting between Athens and Sparta. If we had to hold a competition of seniority between “realist” and “liberal” versions of international politics (realist versions being theories that place power at the center of logic and liberal versions being those that place other things at the center of logic, and of course there are many subtypes in both realist and liberal camps), then most would probably say that realism is the elder of liberalism, which would imply that all “liberally oriented” international systems of preserving world order need to not only demonstrate how they work, but also how they escape the fragmentary forces of realism constantly trying to pull apart the man-made systems of stability and return the world to a state of natural entropy. In fact, one might even say that realism is the father of liberalism, since it was through the experience of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the dropping of the 2 nuclear bombs on Japan, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War that there is the general consensus today that we need to escape international realism. Nuclear war is simply unacceptable to our imaginations for the future.

With the popular discussion of the “rise of China”, we are coming up to another watershed in our thinking on modes of international relations, but perhaps unsurprisingly enough, we see traces of Thucydides in Asia, so much so that Professor David Kang felt it necessary to specially write an article about why “Thucydides Didn’t Live in East Asia” in 2018. Professor Kang engages in a cultural-historical justification of China’s rise, employing examples of Imperial China’s historic peacefulness with respect to neighbors like Japan and Korea to argue that modern China does not want to injure its smaller surrounding neighbors in its rise “against” US hegemony, in the way that Athens injured its neighbours (and itself) in its war against Sparta. Indeed, the Peloponnese war example suggests that the current hegemon (US) also has a vital role to play in securing regional order in East Asia, because Athens was the hegemon of ancient Greece, and fearing the increasing power of Sparta, it pre-emptively attacked and enslaved the neutral people of Melos, not to mention plunging the world of ancient Greece into chaos.

What roles do the great powers play in situations of power contest? If Thucydides taught us anything, it is that great powers don’t tend to play the role of the moral saint when the contest for hegemony and security is on the line. For the small powers unable to prevent themselves from being sucked into the great power contest due to their strategic importance, it is better to not resist and instead appease the great powers that come knocking on your door – The Melians probably would have kept their independence if they submitted to Athenian demands for resources. Placing moral demands on the great powers to act with more responsibility when the drums of war approaches one’s doorstep is not going to work.

What can Hobbes teach us?

Hobbes’s writings is heavily concerned with the religious dogmatism of the 17th century, and he hated how the Vatican was an institution of moral authority that turned Christianity into a source of political contest for ambitious politicians – whichever side won the wars of religion would have control over the mind and soul of believers as well as moral dominion over those who do not believe. For those that know of Hobbes’s writings, many probably thinks of him as a radical supporter of the perfect totalitarian state sovereignty, who “enforce” peace at the cost of the citizens’ freedom. Moreover, the Hobbesian sovereign technically has no limits and checks on their power, and the only rule that they would break at their own peril would be to endanger the lives of the subject-citizens. If we are to stop here in the analysis of Hobbes, we would probably expect him to have loved the Vatican or dogmatic religious leaders like Oliver Cromwell, because they were symbols of control and authority. This would, of course, massively misread Hobbes’s specific version of totalitarian sovereignty, and certain people like Tuck have actually argued that Hobbes is a proto-democrat, although many criticize Tuck’s analysis for unwisely prioritizing Hobbes’s text of De Cive over his most famous work – Leviathan.

I do not want to get too deep into the domestic politics aspect of Hobbesian sovereignty right now – I hope to save this for a later article specifically on domestic politics. Suffice to say that the core justification of Hobbesian totalitarianism (in the sense that all is united into one entity and this entity is placed under the authority of one) is that it secures the safety of the subjects of the sovereign as long as the subjects remain submissive to the authority of the sovereign. This is primarily an arrangement based on fear and knowledge of the counterfactual – the state of nature, which makes live “nasty, brutish and short” for everybody. The accuracy of Hobbes’s evaluation of stateless “societies”, where one lives in constant fear of being betrayed, attacked, or killed while one is sleeping, is confirmed by what was recorded by Thucydides, as well as countless examples of violence and opportunism across the world where previously established centers of power weakens. For example, an overview study of Imperial Chinese relations with its Western nomadic neighbours, which China disparagingly labelled “barbarians”, shows that when the Chinese state is weak, the “barbarians” are more likely to launch attacks; and when the Chinese state is strong and confident, it is more likely to launch expeditions against the “barbarians”. Such observations contradict Professor Kang’s cultural-historic arguments about the “inherent” peacefulness of ancient China.

One might justifiably ask at this point: why place a premium on peace and security? What good is peace and security if one surrenders one’s freedom, independence and dignity? Again, the real meat of this particular discussion will be in the article on domestic politics but for both domestic and international politics, Hobbes did not see peace and security as that much of a threat towards freedom, independence and dignity. As far as the latter qualities, which we now fashionably associate with democracy and human rights, are compromised by ensuring peace and security, they are only minimally compromised. It’s safe to say that Hobbes didn’t believe in absolute freedom, independence and dignity of the Kantian format, because he thought that the in the state of nature where there was no sovereign to speak of, freedom, independence and dignity are all massively undermined by atrocious material conditions and a lack of moral self-constraint of most people. Once again, we are reminded of the countless historical crimes that states commit for the sake of ensuring their own power, security and prosperity. Thus, if we take Hobbes’s assumptions about the state of nature for granted, then it is clear that we loose very little by placing peace at the top of the agenda. Indeed, we might even gain net benefits in terms of our freedom, independence and dignity because Hobbes thought a good sovereign would ensure the wealth, prosperity and happiness of the people for the sake of generating more political capital to ensure the sovereign’s stability, although of course the absolute nature of the sovereign’s authority means that nothing could be done to ensure the sovereign is a “good” ruler.

Yet, there is a clear tension in Hobbesian thinking between international order and domestic order. Domestic order is to do with the rule of people by a sovereign, and it is kept stable by people’s fear of other people. The powerful and distant sovereign is ironically the thing that one could trust the most in a way, even though most of one’s satisfaction in life is to come from interacting with other normal people who no longer possess the power to attack oneself without authorization from the state. Apart from the clear capability of the sovereign to abuse power and command everyone to threaten the security of specific people (like in Mao’s Cultural Revolution), the main tension I want to talk about here is that unless a sovereign can literally rule the whole world, there is a lack of incentive for international peace to be kept. This is because if each individual sovereign possesses absolute authority over their respective peoples due to the peoples’ mutual fear of each other, then firstly there will be no “world population” that collectively surrender their freedom to a “world sovereign”, when they are in fact under the auspices of their own respective “local” sovereigns; and secondly independent sovereigns do not fear each other as equally as do people in a state of nature scenario. How much fear, for example, does the Netherlands have towards China compared with a geographical neighbour like Vietnam? The democratic peace thesis suggests that liberal democracies (at least the developed ones) fear each other less than if they had to deal with an authoritarian regime. Where you have uneven fear, what you end up with is not an universal agreement to suspend differences in implicit recognition that everyone is secretly afraid of everybody else, but instead the formation of competing power blocs, making international security only marginally less anarchic than if international politics was purely a state of nature.

However, perhaps this does not do justice to Hobbes’s view of how the Leviathan sovereign is formed, because Hobbes never imagined that the process would be bottom-up (i.e. all the people getting together and “voting” someone into the office of the sovereign) but rather top-down (i.e. a group of people or a person becoming the dominant power—holder and then subjugating citizens under his rule, gradually converting them to his religion, culture and values). In this way, perhaps the globalization of the Western order, for all its violence, slavery and imperialism, was an exercise in creating a Hobbesian world order, and the difficulties encountered along the way in internationalizing values like democracy and human rights (although these were hardly part of the experience of imperialism) are part of the process in creating peace. Perhaps. Needless to say, coercion and violence is tied with safety and peace in Hobbesian philosophy, and as such it is very difficult to distinguish a precarious balance of power between competing blocs of power, from a powerful and united front trying to create a dominion of worldwide peace. This is especially the case at a time when the “West” is looking increasingly disunited, with its leader – the US – visibly retracting some of its traditional foreign policy objectives under the Presidency of Trump.

One final thing I would like to note about Hobbes is that his theory of politics is rather more focused on domestic politics than international politics, and quite sensibly so, since he lived through the preface, the period and the aftermath of the English Civil War. It was not foreigners that executed Charles I, and who created such fear in Hobbes that he preemptively fled to France. As such, one might theorize that as far as Hobbes’s international politics went, it was an extension of his views on domestic politics. This is very important for understanding the role of the “dominion”, which is the imaginary society that both the ruler and the citizen has relations to, as captured best by Runciman’s diagram below.

hobbes sketch.png

Again, without getting into the nuts and bolts of Hobbesian domestic politics, suffice to say that as far as relationship goes, the relationship between the sovereign and the multitude is not a personable one. Rather, it is much more a military style chain-of-command schematic, where the sovereign is “authorized” to “own” the individual citizens of the “multitude”. The close connections are between the sovereign and the commonwealth, and between the multitude and the commonwealth. In other words, the sovereign and the multitude are both more attached to the imaginary notion of a commonwealth than they are attached to each other. As for international politics, this means that it is really up to the ambitiousness of the sovereign whether they want to think of their duty to the Commonwealth as the duty to a Kantian cosmopolitan world-society, or as the duty to a nationalistic people worried about the security of their borders. To achieve world-peace via the Hobbesian top-down schematic, it would almost require international politics to be replaced by domestic politics, where a sovereign would ardently claim the people of other countries as effectively their own. Such would require immense political courage, and as we know from Weber, courage is most often not enough for “good” politics. Awareness of political consequences is essential, and a good leader should be aware that certain acts of courage could be the very thing which precipitates their downfall. Hobbes seemingly acknowledged the same by not making his “commonwealth” a concept that could create a Kantian world. Hobbes’s pessimistic view of human nature means that he most likely underestimated the ability of democracy to allow the pursuit of divergent interest while keeping order, especially in the 21st century when security is far more than the ability of the police to punish criminals or the ability of the army to deter invaders. Yet, his pessimism also means that he is not prone to making overambitious predictions about the ability of humanity to create a global commonwealth, and while the Hobbesian state is quite minimalist, the minimal responsibilities the state does have does indeed seem very accurate (e.g. an imaginary commonwealth is far more essential in stabilizing the relationship between the ruler and the ruled than the actual connection between the ruler and the ruled).

What does this mean for the rise of China?

There is no aspect of the general global order that the rise of China does not affect in some way. The offensive realists say that the rise of China is overwhelmingly likely to end in war, most likely either because China will overstep its rights as a nation somewhat integrated into the Western international order, causing the US to retaliate, or because the US will simply grow too anxious and launch a powerful preemptive attack, like Athens did. Defensive realists say that war is not inevitable if the US and China recognize that the powers both countries possess are ultimately defensive in nature, and so would not be employed unless either side decides to do something offensive. Precedents include examples like the US implementing an economy-crushing embargo on oil upon Japan in 1940, culminating in Japan deciding to go to a war it knows it probably can’t win, and a war that it initially wanted to avoid. Indeed, history is filled with instances where both sides felt threatened by each other, and thus entered into a war neither side wanted to have in the first place. These realist theories capture very well what happens in the state of nature: a lack of authority from a higher power causes entities that are deeply suspicious of each other to eventually employ methods against each other to “guarantee security”, even though they realize that the methods they employ have virtually no moral justification other than the “suprema lex” of the “salus populi” – self defense. What we saw in roughly the last decade was the sense of China becoming more assertive in certain territorial claims, and this is putting pressure upon the smaller neighboring states to resort to methods that seems to take the regional order of East towards hostile posturing rather than the greater relaxed posturing produced when China helped its East Asian neighbors during the Asian Financial Crisis. Everyone knows that if a war was to break out between China and the US over some strategic asset in East Asia, then it would probably be a smaller state that would suffer most of the destruction of war, just like how Korea and Vietnam were the chief victims of proxy wars between the US and the Soviets/Chinese during the Cold War. Yet, despite efforts to prevent this outcome, a lack of a supreme authority in East Asia (both China and the US are contending for supremacy, with Russia and Japan on the sidelines closely watching the moves of the 2 great powers) means that mutual suspicions is generating a lot of heat.

Hobbes raises the possibility that in a period when everybody fears the outcome of violence but nonetheless mutually distrusts each other, there will be space for an agent espousing discipline to attract popularity, gain power, and impose order. Why are we not seeing this happen in East Asia? Well, as said before, when it comes to international politics, the sovereigns have a key (but of course not impenetrable) grip on the people under their jurisdictions, and as such even though the regular citizens in the East Asian countries probably could work together to create pan-Asian order, this isn’t feasible when the sovereigns actively divide them apart. If one had to identify the chief source of contemporary forces dividing the people of East Asia apart, it would probably be the “Century of humiliation” narrative of the Chinese. This is the notion that since Western imperialism got started in the Opium War, China had been effectively humiliated by a century until the PRC, after which it gradually recovered its sovereignty, economically liberalized itself, and gained international status. This notion is most Sinocentric because firstly, China isn’t the only country to have experienced imperialism, and unlike lots of its neighbors, it was never entirely conquered. Yet, the other East Asian states don’t have a special state ideology telling them that they have been humiliated for a century. Secondly, the notion of a century of humiliation looks over the complex history of China’s experience under imperialism, because it certainly wasn’t the case that the “West” was a united front that deliberately threatened Chinese sovereignty, and Japanese history shows that it by no means had a straightforward, positive development towards its militarism in the 1930s and 1940s. If China neither has supreme power in East Asia and neither does it seem willing to look past differences, then by the Hobbesian worldview the situation looks quite precarious indeed.

Finally is the issue of the dominion. Do Chinese leaders view dominion in a globalist way, or in a nationalist way? This is one of the biggest grey areas in scholarship on China’s rise, because for the most part, the Chinese worldview that espouse a sense of world-community is also highly self-serving, if not nationalistic. I am talking about notions like “Tianxia”, which translates to “All under Heaven”, which has become politically popular both within China and without. Certain writers have even been able to create a name for themselves by talking about “Tianxia” even though they are widely criticized in academia for wrongly interpreting the ancient texts (“Tianxia” was used by imperial China to express is sense of being at the centre of the world). Moreover, if we look at the historic record of how China treats its surrounding neighbors even while espousing the virtues of Confucianism, then it seems that the notion of Tianxia is similar to the self-professed virtues of the Vatican and the Holy Roman Emperors. If we are to take contemporary China’s actions into account, we would have to conclude that although its actions are not “that bad”, and although it does indeed act as a center for overall regional economic prosperity, the notion of a globalist “Tianxia” worldview is probably disingenuous. Hobbes lived in a time when people preached religious universalism and dogmatically attached themselves to it. East Asia seems to live in a time when both China and the US preach universal values, but both seem quite reluctant to actually bridge the divides that threaten regional order. As proponents of the English School of international relations say, China does not seem to threaten the primary institutions that really serve as the bedrock of the world order, such as sovereignty, free trade, nuclear non-proliferation, and even for democracy and human rights it is at least not launching an offensive against the principles. Yet, from our analysis of Hobbes, this is not enough. It is clear that the stability of the world order needs either a clear hegemon that imposes necessary values upon the weak insofar as this is conducive to order and unity (the global sovereign route), or that the various states overcome their differences in order to promote deeper friendships between the actual “multitudes” over whom they govern (the cosmopolitan route), or most ideally both at the same time. It seems the global sovereign route is becoming increasingly redundant with the rise of China, while the cosmopolitan route is struggling to fill in the void left behind.

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