A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (1): Does Shared Culture Stop War?


confucius 2

(For part 2 of this post, click here.)

This article is an excellent introduction to the tangle of East Asian security problems today. Chung-in Moon and Seung-won Suh lay out all the nasty problems of territory, nationalism, and historical imperialism that make EA a powderkeg. There is a running debate in IR theory about how peaceful EA actually is. A lot of it focuses on China. Aaron Friedberg and John Mearsheimer worry that China’s growing strength sets it on a collision course with other Asian states, and eventually the US. David Kang thinks that China’s claim to a ‘peaceful rise’ is real. He notes that for all the sound and fury in EA about nationalism or territorial disputes, there is no serious anti-Chinese coalition forming, nor has their been a major war out here since Vietnam and Cambodia in the 70s. This is a historically and theoretically rich debate; you should read about it if you can.

But I want to focus on remarks by Moon and Suh about how peaceful Asia’s IR was before the arrival of the West. The issue of today’s security dilemmas and tensions in Asia are hyperresearched. Everyone out here goes to one conference after another about Asian security. (I will attend 6 by year’s end, with 2 more scheduled already for next year.) But the counterpoint between Asia and Europe’s earlier history is far more fascinating, because no one ever talks about it. There is a vague argument that while European states were destroying themselves in early modern warfare, Asian states were getting along reasonably well under a Chinese umbrella of soft hegemony. Moon and Suh use the terms ‘long peace’ and ‘Confucian peace’ to describe EA IR until the late 19th C. This is woefully underresearched; there is a great dissertation here.

The “Long Peace” is an uncontroversial idea in IR theory. It says that it is pretty remarkable that there has been no global general war or systemic conflict since WWII. That was the last time all the big global powers lined up on one side or the other and destroyed one another. We are now in the 64th year of the Long Peace. And that does seem like quite an achievement… from a Eurocentric view of the world system. Kang has written a lot to convince me that actually Asian IR was a lot more peaceful than European IR before the Europeans arrived in force in the late 19th C and brought the strict state sovereignty system with them. Kang, Moon, and Suh all suggest that East Asia was a characterized by a much longer (as in centuries) “Confucian Peace.”

The deep cultural and historical details of the confucian peace really need to be researched a  lot more. But here is what I pull from Moon, Suh, and Kang. The ‘confucian’ peace suggests that nations/states in the confucian zone (that means China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam) shared a lot of values and cultural similarity. This sharing acted to slow the march to war; that is shared Confucianism has a war-dampening effect. The specific causal mechanisms are Confucianism’s emphasis on 1. respect for the older and more educated, 2. social harmony, and 3. social hierarchy.  China, as the oldest, most culturally ‘advanced’ state in the region, enjoyed formal superiority to Korea, Japan and Vietnam, but allowed them substantial informal leeway. War violated harmony and order and showed disrespect to the older brother (China). Think of this as ‘feudalism that works’ (unlike in Europe where vassals routinely rebelled). So causal arrow goes from shared culture to the specific war-dampening cultural aspects of Confucianism to peace. Someone needs to write a good IR history of this idea and whether or not it was really true. I have 3 criticisms: Go To Part 2.

5 thoughts on “A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (1): Does Shared Culture Stop War?

  1. Dr. Bob:

    Great post. I found this part very fascinating, “But I want to focus on remarks by Moon and Suh about how peaceful Asia’s IR was before the arrival of the West”. This is that same stuff that many scholars say about Africa.

    I don’t know in Asia’s case, but in Africa’s it is false. Africans were fighting tribal and territoral wars, long before the Europeans arrived. And long before that, Africa experienced the Moslem conquerors from M.E.

    I am very surprised to see the same repeated in EA.

  2. Pingback: A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (2): Probably Not… « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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