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Can a Change of Narrative Prevent the Worlds Descent into Suicidal War?

Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations at the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.

Contributed article for Working Group on Nuclear Weapons.

Photographer: Danial Hakim, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

At the recent meeting of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, in the context of rising tensions between the U.S. and China argued that a conflict between the countries would be an “unbearable disaster” for the world. On the same day it was reported that a collision between U.S. and Canadian war ships and a Chinese Military ship was narrowly avoided when the Chinese ship cut across their path. The American and Canadian ships where doing a freedom of navigation exercise in support of the UN law of the sea treaty that China is a signatory to but the U.S. is not. The absurdity of the U.S. defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which almost all of Chinas trade with the rest of the world, much of it with the U.S., takes place, is hard to miss. Mr. Li’s American counterpart Lloyd Austin was at the same event to cement a closer military alliance with Japan, Australia and the Philippines, squarely aimed at “containing” China. After the announcement of $440 million of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, shortly thereafter Mr. Li accused the U.S. of turning Taiwan into a “powder keg” and leading its people into the “abyss of disaster”.

How did we get to this point where war between these counties seems not only possible but ever more likely. The common answer in this part of the world is “Chinese aggression”, especially in threatening an invasion of Taiwan. But even the CIA admits it has seen no evidence of a planned invasion, which China has always maintained would only occur in response to a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan. There is little evidence that such a declaration is imminent, on the contrary both sides of the Formosa Straight seem content with the status quo and the profitable relationship it represents. Although the current President Tsai Ing-wen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has flirted with unilateral secession, they were roundly defeated by the KMT, which is friendly with the Mainland and supports maintaining the status quo, in recent local election. Polls taken in 2022 indicated only 5.3% favouring immediate independence while 82.1 support maintaining the status quo (1.3% want immediate unification). It is President Biden distancing his administration from the century old “One China” policy, that is destabilizing this relationship by encouraging a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan. Mr. Li called for dialogue to find “common ground and common interests to grow bilateral ties and deepen cooperation.” There seems to be little indication of a similar inclination in Washington or for that matter Ottawa. How is this possible?

Could the way the West conceptualizes it’s political and economic relationships around the world be the problem? Could the narrative through which the collective West understands its relationship with China be at the root of these growing tensions. Much has been made of the importance of “narratives” in shaping public perceptions and thus policy both in the US and elsewhere. Immigrant rights groups, for example, have put a great amount of effort into abandoning the use of the word “illegal immigrants” to describe those claiming refugee status. Sonali Kolhatkar has written extensively on how a change from the term “illegal” to “undocumented” impacts perceptions of immigrants in the US. Likewise, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has successfully changed discussions of police violence and public perceptions of it. Could a change of narratives have similar impacts on our relationship with China?

It may be necessary to examine some of our most basic philosophical assumptions about human societies to shed light on this problem. The “realist” approach to understanding international relations has of course predicted these rising tensions, as it has always seen the security competition between states as a 0-sum game. Any gain in power by China is a loss of security for the U.S.. If humanity is to overcome the cascading crises of climate change, extinction and nuclear Armageddon, a break with this approach to world politics is crucial. To say this is not to deny the enormous obstacles represented by the national security bureaucracies that realists correctly identify as the agencies shaping the foreign policies of states. They are no doubt correct that historically states have been above all focused on maintaining or improving their rank within the global competition for power. On a burning and melting planet however this mentality is obsolete and dangerous.

The liberal approach to world politics, that has been dominant in the halls of the U.S. State Department and Congress since the end of the Cold War supposedly had a different understanding that promised to achieve harmony on the basis of “globalization”, by incorporating all regions of the world into a single trade system, benefitting all and eclipsing the importance of states and their national security bureaucracies. The Biden administration’s foreign policy team consists almost entirely of what John Mearsheimer calls “liberal internationalists” that subscribe to this world view. Why has this project apparently failed?

To shed some light on this question a brief detour into the realm of political philosophy might be useful. In the brilliant introduction to their book “Everywhere they are in Chains” Gad and Asher Horowitz introduce the notion of “negative hallucinations” (more a rhetorical than an analytical tool). They argue that the history of western political thought can be best understood as the result of competing “negative hallucinations”. As we all know hallucinations are seeing things that are not there. Negative hallucinations, by contrast, are a refusal to see things that clearly are there. One tradition including most pre-modern thinkers, focused their attention on the core question of what is the most virtuous society, answering that it is one in which each person knows their place and contributes what they are able to its overall wellbeing. This is what they call the image of the “hive” (a bee has no existence separate from and solely serves the hive), in which individuality is “negatively hallucinated” away in favour of collective well-being (see Plato’s Republic).

Starting with the “enlightenment” the core question asked by political philosophers became what kind of a state is it rational (thus the age of reason) for an individual to agree to live within? Framed this way the answer to the question became, one that serves the interest of the individual, primarily by protecting his/her survival and basic rights. This they call the image of the “market” in which the role of the state is to cater to the interest of its citizens. This image they argue, “negatively hallucinates” away the extent to which individuals are social creatures, almost entirely reliant on the larger society of which they are a part for their basic needs and survival. Imagining the individual instead as atomized, like a Robinson Caruso, seen as entirely separate from and opposed to society.

The refusal to see something that is obviously there can have drastic consequences. Those that see societies through the image of the “hive” (as many traditional societies did and still do and as communist ideology tends to do) view expressions of individuality as anti-social selfishness to be rejected and punished, thus condemning countless individuals to misery for the greater good. Think of arranged marriages that suit the interests of the families and community but not the individuals involved. Think also of the social engineering in China or the Soviet Union in which millions were sacrificed for the “greater good”. Conversely, those that see the world through the image of the market insist, as Margret Thatcher famously claimed, “there is no such thing as society”, only a collection of individuals seeking to maximize their own interests. To see the world this way takes some considerable creativity. It requires an explanation of how human communities none the less appear to be relatively coherent and cooperative ventures. This all the more in the context of the 21st Century in which all states have developed extensive divisions of labour internally and supply chains stretch well beyond national boundaries.

A division of labour is a form of social cooperation. It is a way of dividing up the tasks necessary for our collective existence in such a manner as to benefit all participants. Ever since the brilliant Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith published his “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” in 1776, we have however been studiously educated to think of this cooperation not as such but as a form of “competition”. When we share tasks as a society, we as individuals are not cooperating with one another, we are competing in the job market against each other. When businesses and states trade goods with each other this is again understood as a form of competition. In competitions there are always winners and losers.

Hallucinations of either the positive or negative variety (outside the enjoyment of them in the context of psychedelic drugs) are always problematic. Slamming on the breaks to avoid hitting a non-existent pedestrian on the highway, is not a good idea for obvious reasons. Seeing party balloons and imagining them to be spy platforms needing to be shot down by missiles costing millions, is also problematic. In the realm of “negative hallucinations” the denial of “society” by seeing it as the sum of its individuals (as liberals and libertarians do), has resulted in the considerable neglect of collective goods (environment, infrastructure, health, education…) in the domestic politics of states that have most embraced this image. That’s bad enough. The real concern to me is the extent to which this has also impacted western liberal understandings of international politics. In this context the negative hallucination may go a long way toward explaining the rising tensions with China that in turn could bring us to the calamity of world war 3.

It has become sadly common in discussions of these rising tensions to hear U.S. and other western officials describe China, their largest trading partner, as an enemy. More responsible officials tend to distance themselves from such statements by insisting that China is not an enemy but a competitor or challenger of the U.S. for global primacy. The government of Germany for example, announced that it views China as “a partner, competitor and strategic rival” when pressured to delink its economy from that of China by the U.S. at the NATO meeting

in July. If we briefly try to free ourselves from the deeply established “negatively hallucination” we have all been conditioned/socialized to internalize, it should become evident that China does not have to be either an enemy or rival. Acting toward China as though it is an enemy may, none the less, make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

China has been our partner in a in a project to cooperate globally in rationalizing our economies for our mutual benefit, since the Nixon and Carter administration embraced it as a counterweight to the USSR in the 70’s. This cooperative project that began with China’s opening under Deng Xiao Ping, has been enormously successful by almost any measure. By allowing western companies access to its domestic labour markets at low costs, these companies have made enormous fortunes and drastically reduced the cost of many manufactured goods to their consumers. This investment in China has allowed the government of China to reduce poverty from close to 80% in the 80’s to virtually 0 today. This is a historically unprecedented transformation of a poor colonized country in a few decades. That this success came at the apparent expense of many workers in the U.S. reflects the problems with the distribution of power within American society (lack of labour unions, influence of money on elections…) not a problem with this cooperation.

The success of this cooperation needs now more than ever to be extended into other realms of global affairs. As the most dynamic economic power currently, the investment by China in its Belt and Road initiative has the potential, if managed properly, to do in the countries of the global south what was accomplished domestically, to lift large segments of those societies out of poverty. This in turn can help solve the growing problems of migration plaguing Europe and the U.S.. Perhaps most importantly, cooperation is required to deal with the threats of climate change and the collapse of ecosystems by replacing competition over the exploitation of the global commons with cooperation in managing them. The success of this cooperation and the benefits we have derived from our investments in it should also reinforce the lesson Eisenhower tried to teach in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953 and his warnings about the military industrial complex at the end of his presidency. Every dollar spent on arms is a meal denied to a hungry child…. Investment in cooperation pays dividends, investment in arms profits only the shareholders of the military industrial complexes around the world.

China’s communist party seems to be less inclined toward this negative hallucination than their western counterparts. This would not surprise the Horowitz’s, as the collectivist approach of China is very much in the “hive” tradition. As such China has emphasized it’s “peaceful rise” into a “harmonious world” and denied any ambitions toward replacing the U.S. as the hegemonic power. Instead it argues in favour of global governance based on multilateralism and the maintenance of borders open to trade, rejecting economic sanctions. The emphasis is on the mutual benefits of cooperation not 0 sum competition. This rhetoric should of course not be taken at face value but it does demonstrate the extent to which China benefits from the current global institutions, rather than being a threat to them.

We should also not be surprised that the denial of the importance of the individual would cause considerable misery among those subject to restrictions of the freedom of

worship, speech and artistic expression in the Chinese system. This should not be ignored and is certainly a problem for its citizens but it is not a threat to those outside of China, unless a misguided attempt by western governments to compete with China convinces them to similarly restrict these freedoms with respect to their citizens. We should certainly not minimize the impact China’s “collective modernization” project has on its traditional societies in Tibet and Xinjiang. Given the centuries long brutal involvement of western powers in their colonial projects around the world, not to mention the genocidal treatment of indigenous populations in their fanatical project of imposing “progress”, critiques of China on this score appear hypocritical at best.

The countries of Western Europe seem to be stuck somewhere in the middle of this dilemma. Like their American and British counterparts their cultures are very much a reflection of the liberal ideas developed there during the enlightenment. Their ties to pre-enlightenment traditions and the stronger influence of socialist ideas has permitted a more balanced approach to economic management and diminished the rise of neoliberalism, however. That is reflected both in the more expansive social programs within European societies and in their approach to foreign policy. European peace since the end of WWII is largely the result of economic integration, making war between Germany and France unthinkable. Few ask who is “winning” in this context, all have. Beginning with “Ostpolitik”, German chancellor Willy Brandt sought to lessen cold war tensions through economic exchange, which represents the beginning of Germany’s growing reliance on Russia as a supplier of energy. This was expanded with respect to Eastern Europe after the collapse of the USSR. A similar approach was enthusiastically embraced by Europe with respect to China in the succeeding decades.

Through the fears raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe has been convinced to stop its cooperation with Russia and to once again view it through the lens of 0 sum security competition. The cost to its public in military spending and higher energy prices is only too obvious. Whether the fear of a Russian invasion of Western Europe justified such sacrifices is looking ever more questionable, just as the costs become ever more apparent (thus the need to take out Nord Stream, in case European Governments change their minds). The U.S. and it’s “Atlanticist” allies in Europe are busily trying to do the same with respect to China, with talk of “Global NATO” and “Chinese aggression” in the South China Sea. We can only hope these efforts fail.

Chinas intervention in bringing peace to Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as its offer to play a similar role in Ukraine and elsewhere, is an indication of its commitment to cooperation in international affairs. That the Global South has refused to go along with western sanctions indicates similar inclinations as well as resentment of colonialism, neocolonialism and military intervention, not to mention their abandonment by the west in the COVID crisis. The U.S. dismissal and opposition to these efforts (as well as those by Israel and Turkey earlier) demonstrates the hold that our “negative hallucination” continues to have on the likes of Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken, not to mention their partners in Ottawa and London. The idea that China can not only “win” the economic contest but with it gain the influence allowing it to play a larger role in maintaining order in the international system is unacceptable. The willingness

to engage with China, demonstrated by Emmanuel Macron and Ursula van der Leyen visiting China recently provides considerable hope that Europe is becoming more sceptical of the need to end its cooperation with China. We can only hope they succeed and having done so convince their American and British allies of the futility of their approach.

To return to my earlier discussion of hallucinations, many would rightly point out that these are ideological tools used by elites to manipulate their populations to support a system and policies that benefit them economically or otherwise, not causal agents. This is certainly true but to be effective they must none the less be credible in the eyes of the target population. When the ideology of Marxism/Leninism no longer seemed convincing to the populations behind the iron curtain, the systems that ideology supported collapsed. We should also remember that elites can become captured by their own mythology and are usually the last to recognize that the “emperor has no clothes”. Changing the “narrative” must thus be part of the struggle for a more sane future.

It has never been clearer to me that a future of global cooperation offers solutions to our pressing global problems and will pay dividends to all (except national security bureaucracies and their industrial clients). By contrast a return to military competition between states will cause us to ignore the ecological crisis we face, instead pouring our limited resources into the dead end of arms races: the production of ever more destructive weapons we all hope will never be used. If they ever are used, as the comments by Li Shangfu suggest, it’s game over for all of us.


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