A Chinese academic restates Western philosophies as Beijing upends the power dynamic operating between China and the residual West.
By David B. Kanin
Yan Xuetong, a professor of political science and dean at the International Institute of International relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has written an allegorical narrative of Chinese leadership framed by an analysis of the theory and practice of power. (Yan Xuetong, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Princeton University Press, 2019, $29.95.) Readers may be tempted to focus on their own raised eyebrows when they read his assertions of fact and idiosyncratic interpretations of Western political theory – especially the schools of thought lumped under the term “realism.” They might want to spend time wrestling with his take on early modern icons or contemporary political scientists and their various works. What they might more usefully do is take seriously a view of international relations marked by an approach having more in common with classical political philosophy (Western and Chinese) than with any contemporary academic system. Yan could have stripped way all the stuff he writes about “realism” and political science and replaced it with deeper assessment of the relationship between moral categories and the actual behavior of political leaders.
At its core, Professor Yan’s argument (even with its Chinese characteristics) comes straight from Plato and Aristotle. His notions of national or universal morality – which are central to his view of the world – are presented as Platonic forms. He does not define his terms so much as assert them as Aristotelian first principles and use them to build declarative logic trains. So:
“Universal morality (such as patriotism, obligation, or justice) is accepted by all members, even adversaries, of a given international system. Therefore, we will use universal codes to judge the morality of a state’s leadership. Governmental morality thus refers to those universal moral codes.” (9)
Full stop. Yan says a state’s morality is not structured on any arbitrary set of standards, but rather on the actions that the state undertakes “irrespective of the individual policy maker’s motivations or personal beliefs.” (6) This is the basis of the “moral realism” he champions as his own take on how international relations work. The bulk of the book discusses Yan’s take on the meaning of power, authority, global systems, global system change, norms, and the relationships among these terms. It does not grapple with ambiguities, nuance, or tensions that might provide cautionary considerations or otherwise complicate his laser-like argument that the capabilities, policies, and moral as well as functional behavior of leaders are what largely determine the rise and decline of great powers. Yan states categorically that “when a rising state’s political leadership surpasses that of the dominant state, the power disparity between the two states reverses, rendering the rising state the new dominant state.” (3)
Yan is careful not to offer a simple argument that China is overtaking the United States. He presents a fairly standard realist take on what he calls “corollaries of international change” (Chapter 3, 54-80). His Chapter Four, “Power Redistribution and World Center” (81-103) contains useful insights on recent and current leaders in Beijing and Washington. Yan’s discussion of leadership types, power dynamics, and system change includes many citations of classical Chinese political theory, especially from Xunzi (Xun Kuang), the Warring States period Confucian philosopher. Yan often juxtaposes Xunzi’s thoughts with those of modern and contemporary Western political science; comparisons and contrasts with pre-19th Century Western political philosophy would have been more congruent.
Interestingly, Yan defines the Western terms and concepts he uses, but their Chinese counterparts sometimes lack clarity. He explains and parses Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s concept of soft power (13-14), but when employing Xunzi to highlight the importance of a leading state’s credibility, all he offers the reader is “accordingly, one who uses the state to establish justice will be a sage king; he who establishes trust will be a hegemon; and one who establishes a record of expediency and opportunism will perish.” (22) The book never makes clear what it is to be “sage.” Is it enough to follow the “universal morality” of a given system? Must a sage ruler perceive distinctions between synchronic rules relevant during the operating era of a world system, the characteristics and norms of a newly emerging system or order (if there is one), and diachronic truths or principles?
Professor Yan’s organization of world history is a bit disjointed. A chart on page 159 lists the components of intestate systems “academically defined.” He breaks the world down into the Huaxia universe, Europe, and a Muslim region before presenting a post-World War I global taxonomy divided into a Versailles-Washington system (1919-1939) and Yalta system (1945 -). The Huaxia system consists of states now within the single state of China, a unity Europe never achieved — a difference Yan ignores. Although Yan mentions in passing an historical East Asia of which China is a part, he never discusses a regional system and has little to say about China’s neighbors other than Japan. He does analyze Russia, but largely as a European rather than east Asian power.
After the Roman era and Middle Ages, Yan’s version of the European Westphalian system goes only until 1791. He considers the years of “anti-France coalitions” (1792-1814) to make up an era rather than an interlude interrupting the evolutionary adjustments from Westphalia, through Utrecht, Vienna and Versailles to San Francisco and afterward. To make his system internally consistent and more tightly connected to the book’s overall thesis, Yan might have included the years of the German drive to seize supremacy in Europe (say, 1890-1945) as a separate “system” and channeled Plutarch by comparing Napoleon’s and Hitler’s leadership styles and accomplishments.
It is interesting to consider Yan’s version of twentieth century Europe. In his view, “although World War I had a dramatic impact on international relations in the early twentieth century, it failed to bring about a transformation of the international system, because there were no changes in the type of either configuration or norms.” (181) The disappearance of centuries-old dynastic empires apparently did not make the system-changing cut. Also, perhaps Yan considers the largely unexpected coming to power in Russia of a Marxist state a development that, although it appeared momentous for seven decades, in the end did not matter much.
Then, after World War II, Europe was able to retain its “status as the central area of international politics” because it was the focus of the “fierce” competition between the US and USSR. (95) This does not take into account the diminution of Europe’s status from powerhouse of the planet to merely a theater of rivalry between the now-dominant giants on its flanks. The subsequent European “project” continues to be a reaction to the old continent’s geopolitical smallness, no matter rhetoric regarding the enduring centrality of formerly colonizing and extractive European powers.
Yan later gives a nod to this condition when he notes that none of the European countries possess the potential to become a superpower. (97) He also says the engine driving the shift in the “global geopolitical center” is the combination of China’s rise and Europe’s decline, not America’s relative decline. (103)
Gradually, Professor Yan gets to his assessment of the emerging US-China bilateral rivalry. He believes the next decades will amount to “bipolarization without global leadership” because neither the US nor China can provide such leadership. (199) In his view, there exists only a minimal danger of a war between these states (200), but the world they compete and/or cooperate in will be marked by an unstable order. Yan believes there could be “kaleidoscopic competition” (139) between various ideologies for regional dominance or influence in “certain types of states” (does this include inside a fractious United States?)
At least that is what the “realist” in Yan says. The classical political philosopher says something else. The really interesting part of his book is Chapter 6, “International Mainstream Values.” (126-154) After sections on the decline of liberalism and competing ideologies on China, Yan prescribes a values-based way forward for our era’s great powers based on a set of dyadic combinations between specific Chinese and American principles. He places these combinations under an umbrella distinction between “justice” and “fairness,” disagreeing with what he cites as John Rawls’s encapsulation of “justice as fairness.” (145-6) Yan says justice must accord with righteousness of result – again, he provides no further information on what that latter phrase means or how a citizen or participant in a transaction identifies “righteousness” of result. Fairness, to Yan, has something to do with a morality favorable to the disadvantaged.
Each dyad of values involves a Chinese concept embracing – actually smothering – what Yan presents as a Western counterpart. First, benevolence embraces equality. (146-7). For Yan, the ”Christian tradition” of equality is problematic because it is “enjoined by the natural law of life.” People are anything but equal in physical and mental abilities, social conditions, and so much else. Therefore, benevolence, which Yan identifies as a core idea and social norm of Confucianism, can popularize the value of fairness on a global level. Unfortunately, it is not clear who decides what is benevolent. Yan uses the existence of weight classes in rules of Olympic boxing as an example of benevolence ensuring equality. He might have considered a different analogy, that of the demonstrated prevalence of corruption in so much of international sport as a cautionary tale that underscores the lack of equality, benevolence, fairness, or justice in many international and transnational organizations.
Yan’s second dyad involves righteousness’s embrace of democracy. He notes that representative democracy does not always produce “just” decisions, citing the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as an example. Righteousness, which Yan says is an ancient Chinese moral code “shared among a number of philosophical schools” (149) is the proper corrective to this flaw. Yan acknowledges that the concept has broad connotations, but says its core is “upright, reasonable, and proper behavior” (all undefined). The value of righteousness can help constrain the unjust legitimacy of leading states’ conduct by requiring justice in both form and result. Presumably, the sage leaders Yan postulates as the key element in proper state behavior will know how to get this done. Whether these individuals will be constrained or even monitored by any checks on their powers or balances to their legal authorities is left unsaid. Professor Yan’s lack of comment on such matters leaves these concepts functioning on their own, as idealized states of mind left to the interpretation of – someone.
Yan’s proposal that the traditional Chinese value of rites embrace freedom is the most incongruous of his proposed conceptual partnerships. Freedom, to him, is an “instinct common to all animals,” and a “primal need.” (150) However, to build a social order it is necessary to sacrifice some degree of freedom to “the norms that regulate an individual’s behavior.” Proper rites (social norms or customs formed according to a given ethics) are the “foundation of civility and advance the social significance of human life beyond the principle of freedom.” (151) Rites help to “guide” humans toward civilized behavior. You get the idea. In this scheme, someone gets to define what is civilized and what is not, enforces on society the civility of approved rites and individual behavior, and calls this “freedom.”
Yan’s discussion of this dyad could provide an instructive gloss on future bilateral interactions between China and the US as these powers grapple with how to establish and maintain a constructive context for negotiation and conflict resolution. When he moves from using rites to corral individual freedom to establishing the basis for global security Professor Yan (unknowingly?) rehearses what happened during the Cold War. Yan says the United States and China should together establish norms of civility to regulate their competition for global domination in a peaceful manner. It would be helpful to know if he believes the arms control regime established during the détente that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis was an example of how to do this. US and Soviet experts forged not only specific treaties and inspection regimes, but also the choreography – “rites” – of inspection procedures and resolution of disputes. Some of those experts got to know each other so well that they felt more comfortable exchanging views on the arcane details of their mutual field of interest with each other than they did dealing with the politicians and administrators on their own sides. After the collapse of the Soviet Union some of these people maintained their relationships at Pugwash meetings and other venues, and so preserved the ”rites” that had guided decades of negotiations.
This book provides Western readers an opportunity to adjust their frames of reference regarding the subject-object relationship in the post-Western world. Western politicians, diplomats, and academics are going to have to learn how to focus on the context of arguments like those of Professor Yan rather than on internal logic or the facticity of detail. Chinese leaders and thinkers are not going to be satisfied with being relegated to the role of a responsible actors working within the confines of residual Western institutions, norms, and ideational systems. This will happen no matter who runs the United States and the various pieces of Europe. Yan Xuetong’s conceptualizations and insights provide blueprints for the velvet glove and enclosed fist the Chinese will wield as their global power increases.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.