The Contemporary China–Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 2: Differences


imagesHere is part one.

This is the second half of my series on the analogy of China today with Germany in 1914. This was originally written for the Lowy Institute in Sydney. China today = Wilhelmine Germany is a pretty common analogy in international relations writing, especially in the op-ed ‘literature’ on China. I thought it deserved a little more deconstruction given how much we use it. Here I argue that there are enough dissimilarities to undercut the predictive value of the analogy.

Once again, I can’t find a good image of Wilhelmine Germany and China. Someone please find me a pic that doesn’t use the modern Germany flag like this one. Here is that post:

“In my previous post, I noted that China today is often analogized to Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to WWI. This is probably captured most famously in well-known argument observation, ‘will Europe’s past be Asia’s future?’ The basic idea is that intense nationalism, seething historical and territorial grievances, and rapid modernization might plunge Asia into a WWI-style general war, with China as the neo-wilhelmine villain provoking it all. Previously, I argued that there are four shared structural characteristics that drive the China today-Germany 1914 analogy: encirclement by suspicious powers, rapid economic expansion, grievance-driven nationalist ideology, and rapidly expanding military power upsetting the regional balance of power.

But many other, perhaps less hawkish observers, such as Timo Kivimäki, David Kang or Amitav Acahrya, have regularly noted that east Asia has enjoyed a robust peace since 1979, and that realist-hawkish predictions of Chinese aggression have been around since Tiananmen Square yet never come true. Predictions that never pass but are regularly re-warmed by saying that we should just wait a little longer, are theoretically weak and deserve re-evaluation. 1979 was the last time a serious inter-state war – between China and Vietnam – occurred in East Asia. And Kang has argued for awhile that declining military expenditures in East Asia belie the standard western op-ed page narrative of rising Chinese power and fear of it throughout Asia. Asian behavior seems not to support that contention of the ‘China threat’ school.

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My Latest for Lowy: “On the Contemporary China-Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 1: Similarities”


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There is so much analogizing of contemporary China to Wilhelmine Germany (here’s yet another one), that I thought a longer treatment would be in order. I wrote this originally for the Lowy Institute, whose blog I write for. I like this post, as I feel like it takes a widely thrown-around, yet poorly elaborated meme and fleshes it out. Part 2 will go up in a week or so. And yes, I know that the German flag in the pic is the modern one of the FRG, not the old black-white-red. But I couldn’t find the two of them together…

Here’s that essay:

“Contemporary China is frequently analogized to pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany. A host of commentators have made this comparison in the past few years: Walter Russell Mead, Martin Wolf, Edward Luttwak, and Joseph Nye, and a little further afield, Gideon Rachman, and Victor David Hansen. Similarly, it is often suggested in these analogies that East Asia today is like Europe before WWI; one famous formulation has it that ‘Asia’s future will be Europe’s past.’

So in this and my next post, I want to examine the China-Germany analogy in some detail. In brief, I think the comparisons are enticing, particularly because it is hard to find a good analogy of a ‘peaceful rise,’ as China, until recently at least, seemed to be pursuing. That is, we use Germany 1914 as an analogy in part, because we can’t find others that seem to China fit well, and we routinely use analogical reasoning in social science to improve our understanding. But I also think the contrasts are stark enough that the predictive value of the analogy is weak. Ideally, this would be pursued more seriously as a full-blown research paper, so to any graduate students reading, this is a nice IR project with an Asian empirical focus.

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Morgan Tsvangirai, not the EU, should have Won the Nobel Peace Prize


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The EU? Over a guy regularly facing down death-threats, bullying, and intimidation from one of the worst dictators on earth? Boo to the Nobel Committee for missing this obvious choice.

If they can give the prize to the drone-warrior with a kill-list (Obama) and an institution run by wealthy, comfortable lawyers, bankers, and white collar professionals, then surely they can give it to someone who every day is making a far more direct, personal, bodily commitment to peace and social change. In fact, why Tsvangirai hasn’t won yet is beyond me. It seems so obvious. (Yes, his personal life is somewhat chaotic, but I don’t think that is normally a consideration. Kissinger called himself a ‘swinger.’)

Here is a good profile from the BBC. Note how badly he got beaten up by the thugs of President Robert Mugabe in 2007. He’s be charged with treason multiple times, and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been harassed from the beginning. That is commitment, far more than endless EU meetings about some treaty no one will read.

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Say Ron Paul Won…Which US Allies would get Retrenched? (2) Japan?


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This post series is getting so much traffic, here is a part three on likelihood of retrenchment. Here is part one where argued that America’s 8 most important allies are, in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, and South Korea.

I argued for 3 quick-and-dirty reasons for that ranking, but I got some criticism on these in the first post, so here is some elaboration :

1. National Security: Some places, like SA and Mexico, may not appeal much to Americans, but they are so obviously important, that abandonment would be hugely risky. So yes, SA is a nasty, reactionary ‘frenemy,’ not really an ally at all, but we’re stuck with it. A Saudi collapse would set off both huge economic and Islamic religious turmoil; all the more reason to slowly exit the Middle East and pursue green energy. But until then, I think we have to be honest and say that we can’t really leave the Gulf. But the bar of this criterion should be awfully high. With some frenemies, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, we don’t really need to pretend to be allies actually. We can just get out if have to.

2. Need: In some places, the US can get a lot more bang for its commitment buck, because without us, our ally would likely collapse/lose/fail. Taiwan is the most obvious example. Conversely, other places, like Germany, pretend to need us, because they don’t want to shell out the cash (and we’re so bewitched of our God-given, history-ending, last-best-hope-for-mankind, bound-to-lead neocon unipolar awesome-ness that we let ourselves get taken for a ride).Between Taiwan and Germany, I would place Israel and SK.

3. Values/Symbolism: I don’t like this criterion much, because it reminds me a lot of McNamara, ‘credibility,’ Vietnam, the Munich analogy and all that. But still, there are a few places where the American commitment has taken on an almost ‘metaphysical,’ good-guys-vs-bad-guys dimension. The whole world is watching, and a departure would be seen as a huge retreat from critical values that would bolster dictators everywhere, especially in China and Russia. SK is the most obvious example. NK is so bizarre, frightening, and horrific that while the US commitment isn’t really that necessary anymore, it’s taken on a symbolism wholly out of proportion to events on the peninsula. Taiwan also comes to mind, as does cold war West Germany. Avoiding another such perpetual commitment was one of the important reasons to get out of Iraq. If we’d stayed, we might have have gotten chain-ganged into never leaving our symbol of GWoT ‘success.’ We really don’t need more of that sort thing

So back to the list. Now come the ones that can more easily be retrenched, because either they are wealthy enough to defend themselves, or their value to the US has fallen:

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Korea 1997 & the Greece mess today


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Here is a good article on Korea and other near-defaulters or defaulters, and what lessons they might have Greece now. Greece can in fact recover if it leaves the euro, and increasingly, I think both it will and it should. However, one important element Greece should not pass up, is using the crisis to force discipline on the parts of the economy that caused the currency run to begin with. The Korean government was partially able to discipline the out-of-control chaebol who had caused the crisis by wildly over-borrowing on Wall Street in the mid-90s. Koreans hate to hear it, but their political economy got substantially cleaner and less corrupt because of the 1997 brush with default. Greece should do the same; it should not leave the euro just so it can go back to its bad old ways. That would be a catastrophe and turn Greece into a prototypical Middle Eastern patronage state.

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China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (2): ‘Swarms’ in the Pacific


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Part one is here, where I noted China’s growing fear of encirclement (I get Chinese students a lot who talk about this). So, in the role of China, I argued for an Indian charm offensive to prevent encirclement, and how China might buy off Korea from the US camp by abandoning North Korea. Here are some more ‘B-Team’ style ideas for pushing back on US local dominance, including swarming the US navy in the western Pacific with cheap drones and missiles:

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Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US


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Part two is here.

I get lots of questions from Western readers about this or that aspect of Korea in comparison. We don’t really know about Korea too much, but Americans often use it as an example for some larger political point they want to make. Here are a just few examples: 1) Obama: SK is kicking our butt on education and tech; 2) Obama: SK is an example of a country that modernized but didn’t westernize; 3) Michael Crichton and Amy Chua: SKs and other East Asians are work robots who will take over America and cost your kids a job; 4) John Bolton: Long-suffering SK gives us an excuse to stomp on NK.

Of these, I really think only the second is valid. A few years here can rebut the others without too much trouble:

1) Korea has huge educational problems that Americans don’t really know about. After taking insanely difficult tests in high school in order to place into a good universities, Korean college students often slack and party as a ‘reward.’ Too much of university here is about building the informal social network that will carry you through your professional life and not actually clamping down to do the work. Korean students are also not the readers that college education demands, which is why they often struggle in US graduate programs. And far too much of K-12 is focused on rote memorization, so plagiarism is a huge problem. Also, in case you ever wonder why Korea is so wired (which Koreans love to brag about), recall that Koreans live in very dense urban clusters, frequently in high rises. These are very cheap to wire, compared to the far more diffused American population and the high expense of the US ‘last mile.’ (That said, my broadband here is awesome and is about to get even better.)

3) As for Crichton and Chua, gimme a break. America’s inability to balance its budget, control its imperial temptations in the developing world, fix its K-12 schooling mess, reduce hyper-inequality and high crime, etc. are the reasons for US ‘decline.’ Asians like the Japanese, Koreans, or Singaporeans don’t have some magical growth formula. I will agree that East Asians are better ‘socially disciplined’ (crime here is mercifully low), but not the way Amy Chua’s ridiculously racist domestic fascism would have you think. I’ve been here close to 4 years, and I have never seen anything like what Chua describes in the Korean side of my family. As for the ‘Asians-as-work-robots’ idea so popular in the US in the 80s and 90s, once you’ve experienced the East Asian post-work business culture of hard drinking and debauchery, you know that’s bunk too. I have seen enough Korean ‘salary men’ lean out taxi windows on Friday night to vomit while the driver waits complacently to know that the whole ‘Asian values’ schtick is a fraud.

4) Bolton: I resent the way neo-cons manipulate SK unhappiness about national division to suit pre-existing ideological preferences for regime change and US military activism. This is cloying, pretended sympathy in service to American, not Korean, goals; that’s extreme bad faith. I have noted before that SK want nothing to do with ‘Axis-of-Evil’ talk.

Given this mediocre record of popular comparison, here are a few comparative classifications of SK with countries western audiences might recognize better. Compare and contrast is a basic social science method. And comparative politics in political science is always looking for similarities among states on which to build generalization. So here are the ones that have leapt out to me:

1. Like Israel, Korea is a barracks democracy striving for international normalcy. Both are democracies but under long-term siege. Both would like to join the global economy, get rich and be normal, but can’t. Both struggle to maintain civil liberties in an threatening environment with inevitable slippage. Korea, for example, blocks internet access to NK websites; in Israel, Israeli Arabs can’t join the military. Both are trapped in partial or incomplete states. Korea is half a country, and Israel’s borders are up for debate. Both are too militarized for a democracy, but still, they are doing a really good job balancing a huge military role in society with democratic freedoms. By comparison, look at simlarly over-militarized democracies like Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey.

2. a. Like France, Korea has aloof, farily corrupted political class in a too-cozy, corporatist relationship with business. Both also have weak political parties and weak legislatures. So voting doesn’t really make much difference; political participation looks for other avenues.  As a result, both have a vibrant street protest tradition. Working for serious change within the system feels pointless because of an entrenched, circulating elite, toothless opposition, close party-state relationship, and a bureaucracy rather insulated from popular pressure. So when Koreans and French are most angry, they turn to extra-parliamentary means. They march on the streets. Immobilist, scandal-ridden politics channels real political grievance onto the streets.

b. Also like France, Korea is extremely centralized on the national capital. Seoul dominates Korean life, vacuuming up talent, wealth, and prestige from around the country. The goal of just about everyone is to go ‘up’ to Seoul, whether for school, the best jobs, or the best cultural life. You even see it among the expats. Even we foreigners in Busan say we wish we had a Seoul gig! And, as Paris does to the provinces, the rest of Korea is impoverished by this.

c. Finally, both Korea and France are semi-presidential systems. Both have a tradition of a megalomanical ‘father of the nation’ who created a super-presidential post above ‘grubby’ politics. In France, de Gaulle directed the ship of state from a constitution he set up for his own personal benefit as the living embodiment of France. In SK, Park Chung-Hee did the same thing. In both countries though, political institutions are weaker than you’d think because of their ‘great man’ origins. Eventually a succession must occur – no one lives forever – and both France and SK have struggled to tame the office of the president and build more routinized, democratic institutions open to the public. To date, France has succeeded better. Korea remains a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. Ironically, that may help Korea, because the rise of the prime minister in French semi-presidentialism has effectively created a bifurcated executive, particularly when the PM and president have different party affiliations. In Korea, the reduction of the PM to essentially the first cabinet minister has helped unify its executive.

3. The cultural gap between the West and East Asia is wider than the between the West and Latin America, Russia, or even the Middle East. In terms of food, music, religion, and language, the differences are far greater. So it is therefore all the more surprising how Americanized Korea is. English is everywhere – in the schools, on street signs, music, TV. Its institutions, especially military ones, are heavily patterned on the US; until 1981, the Korean version of the CIA was even called – the KCIA! Today there is still the K-FDA. Koreans watch lots of American TV and film. They eat our fast food and junk food (and are getting heavier for it). And they are beginning to pick up the American culture wars. They fight increasingly over stuff like abortion and the death penalty as we do. Korean evangelicals (yes, they are here too) even say that God has a special mission for the US no less! (Now that really is brainwashing.) My own personal guess for why Korea is so Americanized, is that if Korea can close the cultural distance between it and the US, the US is more likely to honor its alliance commitment and fight for SK. In other words, cultural Americanization is a national security strategy to reduce the ‘otherness’ of Korea to average Joe American, in order that he will agree to fight here. Kinda smart if you think about it.

Don’t push any of these analogies too far, but Obama mentioned Korea five times in the 2011 State of the Union, so I thought this might help.

Continue to part two.