The conflict between Western and Asian values

Geoeconomics is gradually taking over from geopolitics. The shift was signposted by the onset of the process we know as globalization, a generation old now but still in its infancy, in which governments and governmental institutions have been discovering that they are no longer unchallenged key actors and overseers of world events (cf. p. 99 of the contribution by Wilhelm Agrell in Sigurdsson and Tagerud 1992). The process is the result of the end of the Cold War, and marks a shift of focus from political ideologies to economic realities.

The logic of geoeconomics has traditionally come in two varieties. One is government-driven, as in large parts of Asia -not only China and Singapore, but also Japan. The other variety is driven by private-sector corporations, as in most of the Western world, especially the USA. Nowadays it is less of a West versus East contrast than it was, as more companies are being privatized in China and many companies in the West have come under government control, particularly in connexion with the recent banking crisis. To complicate the picture further, what looks like a privately-controlled organization is often State-controlled in reality, since many governments are active investors and owners. China is a good example here, but so is Norway.

The concept of geoeconomics is not a new thing in the world. It can be traced back to the Chinese "Seven Military Classics", including Sun Zi's The Art of War, and to old Chinese strategies of non-military conquest, as when Sun Zi says that the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy's army without fighting. Warfare is costly, in human lives, in resources, and in morale. It is not rational for a State to wreak destruction and cause human suffering. Rather, we want to control the competitor's resources, if possible to get him to work with us and for us. This he will not do if he is defeated or outraged. Our goals are more effectively achieved by setting our multinational enterprises to work, building economic strength and implementing economic control. This is what the Chinese are doing all over the world now, while the West is still locked in to the old geopolitical logic of military action, with roots stretching back to colonialism.

Geoeconomics as a strategy carried out on a global scale did not begin with China but with Japan, as that country developed after the Second World War. However, the Japanese over stretched themselves in the 1980s. Since then they have been in more or less permanent recession. They are an insular civilization which has lost interest in going abroad and learning about other cultures. It is said that even Japanese diplomats now often prefer to stay at home. They never allowed foreign ownership of their land, but were forced to accept US military control as an aspect of their surrender at the end of the war. Hence the USA was always in a position to dictate terms in negotiations with the Japanese. In practice the USA never acknowledged Japanese sovereignty and always treated the Japanese as subordinates, and this explains why they systematically spied on the Japanese during trade negotiations (Solberg S0ilen 2004). So long as Japan accepted this inferior position and was able to produce the goods the US needed and to lend them money, the relationship worked fine.

The new creditor, China, has no intention of reproducing such an unequal relationship. China knows that the USA is stronger, so the Chinese treat their greatest opponent as their best friend, while continually improving their own position, making the US an ever-larger debtor, ever more dependent on foreign loans. Only gradually will they assume the role of leading superpower. Discreetly but quite rapidly China is building up its military capabilities, initially in the South China Sea and around its coasts. By building a superior military force China will push the US back step by step, preferably without any military incidents. The strategy is well described in the seven classic military books of China. The USA now needs China more than China needs the USA: that is the bottom line. Time will take care of the rest.

Not long ago China objected to US operations in the Yellow Sea as a response to increased North Korean aggression, forcing the US and its ally South Korea to use the Sea of Japan for planned maneuvers. Slowly US naval supremacy in Asia will be whittled away. Eventually China will want to settle the Taiwanese question. Meanwhile the USA will continue to borrow money from China and waste it on a military strategy which works against the country's competitive advantage and looks more and more like an irrational crusade. Obama would like to leave Afghanistan, but his generals are resisting, at least unless they can get something else, like a build-up in the Pacific Ocean or a war against Iran. The fact is that the USA got locked into the arms race during the Cold War, and is now incapable of changing strategy. There are too many vested interests at stake. The executive power is weak, and political will has become entangled with large economic interest groups - particularly the military-industrial complex and the health care industry, which between them account for about half the federal budget. When the US Army goes to war today it is primarily because there are strong financial interests that suggest it should, to keep the military machinery going, rather than because it makes sense from the perspective of national competitive advantage. What is rational for the Army and the military complex becomes irrational for the country; thus the nation declines.

Another way to describe this logic is to say that the USA, and to a large extent Europe too, are locked into the rationale of geopolitics, whereas China and the other BRICs (Brazil, Russia, and India) have shifted to the logic of geoeconomics. It is not because they are weaker that the Chinese have chosen this strategy (though it is true that China will not be able to threaten the US militarily for decades yet), but because they are able to see more clearly and think further ahead. Foresight is one of the grave weak points of a modern mass democracy. It is not that we are incapable of thinking ahead, but our politicians are not interested in implementing ideas whose outcomes will lie beyond the next election. Ideally this is the kind of longer-term insight we need social science to equip us with, so that we can prepare for the future; but the short-sighted logic of mass democracy extends even into academia, where it is setting the research agenda. Our socialscience scholars are not so much a body of independent thinkers, but have rather become technocrats at the service of the political establishment.

We who live in the West ought to question the perceptions we have of ourselves and of others as they relate to existing ideologies. The much discussed and criticized "end of history" is often interpreted as the end of one kind of history (not the end of history as a whole, a misunderstanding which led to much undeserved criticism): namely, history as competition between the values of two ideologies which shaped the world agenda for almost a century until recently -communism and capitalism, authoritarian rule and liberal democracy. Many in the West seem to think that it was not the system of capitalism as an ideology that "won", but the ideals it supports: in particular democracy, liberty, and human rights. Others, specially in Asia, see things differently; they believe it was not these ideals that gave us victory, but what the ideals had shown they could produce, namely modernization and a higher standard of living for a majority of the population. The free-market economy will only find the broad support it needs for legitimacy in a democracy for as long as it can convince the public that it can respect, defend, and maintain these ideals. But the ideals will also need to lead to a better life, defined by most people today as a higher standard of living. People want to feel they are better off. If they do not, the likelihood is that we will seek other political solutions, other ideals, which may or may not involve democracy.

A political ideal, such as democracy, human rights, or greater liberty, does not necessarily lead to a higher standard of living. Our experience in the West, especially since the 1960s, has shown us that it may also lead to more bureaucracy, more government spending, a dependency culture, and eventually to lower productivity. With the current financial crises, many people in the Western world feel that they are now worse off than they were ten to fifteen years ago. Masses of new voters who have been brought up to be irresponsible, demanding their rights but forgetting their duties, are putting great strains on the welfare state, which is no longer able to function efficiently. In this respect China with its continuous growth is showing us a different way, one that we are not yet ready to embrace: a renewal of the meritocratic model in a more pragmatic framework. Klaus Schwab talks about leaving capitalism as a political model and build a society more based on competence. This, and not authoritarianism or dictatorship, is the essence of the Chinese model.

It is a traditional Chinese model: those who rule are chosen from among the best pupils, are those that are best educated, who obtain the best results in national exams. Education in China does not mean over specialization, but a broad and deep general education. It is similar to the ideal which the Germans call Bildung, which is commonly mistranslated as "education" in English. Bildung is the process of developing a person's Geist, so that he becomes a balanced and sensitive human being. This kind of education is very different from what we offer our university students today in most parts of the Western world, where they acquire skills to fit specific job descriptions. Britain has for long been an exception, but its educated classes do not rule the private corporations, only parts of the bureaucratic sector. What has largely been lost in the West has prospered in the East. Go to the gardens of Suzhou and see for yourself: these properties belonged to the best educated, to civil servants, not to wealthy entrepreneurs or selfish businessmen. Or compare the education of leading Chinese political representatives today with those of our own national assemblies. Now tell me which society is more civilized. The China that is developing today represents not a new political model, but resurrection of the old one. Indeed it was the same while China was guided by Marxism-Leninism: Confucian ideals always existed alongside the foreign ideologies. Mao adapted Marx and Lenin to the Chinese model, he did not simply implement their recipe unchanged. And it is the same for the free-market economy of today's China. It is more likely to become Confucian than Western.

There are many problems with mass democracy as it has developed in the West today. For instance, our system encourages the individual as citizen to focus more on what he can demand from society than what he can bring to it. That is, it speaks more about rights than obligations. Furthermore it is full of vague ideals and terms which are poorly defined. The chief producers of these terms are the new social sciences. These have failed to grapple with the notion of values, or virtues. Thus our theories and research seldom help the individual to know how to behave in a given situation. We do not learn how to be "free", or "democratic". For that we need to learn about the virtues that can lead us to these ideals.

For a competitive advantage or for economic growth these values comprise: commitment, confidence, co-cooperativeness, courage, creativity, curiosity, encouragement, endurance, enthusiasm, excellence, flexibility, foresight, fortitude, honesty, imagination, industriousness, integrity, inventiveness, loyalty, obedience, optimism, patience, perseverance, prudence, purposefulness, respectfulness, responsibility, restraint, self-awareness, self-confidence, self-discipline, self-reliance, self-respect, sensitivity, service, sincerity, tactfulness, temperance, tenacity, trustworthiness, truthfulness, understanding, wisdom, and above all hard work. This has been true for all cultures in all times; but where do we learn this? Our social sciences today think they are too superior, too advanced, to deal with such unsophisticated ideas. Besides, they see them as "moral", hence subjective, and the social sciences do not do ethics. That is for the humanities, they say, it belongs to the study of moral philosophy, they deal with the normative sciences. That is all very well, but in that case we have to accept people beginning to question the value of the social sciences.

Identifying these qualities as values not only helps us as individuals to know what to do, but makes it easier to evaluate the properties of different cultures, organizations, and individuals. It makes misunderstandings in conversation less likely, and moves discussion away from political ideologies, which are emotionally charged and traditionally - especially in the West -couched to a great extent in vague terms, using a diffuse language which we have been led to think of as a mark of higher education. In this respect one could argue that Europe and the West were better off when they only had religion, before we became lost in our political ideologies. But then our religions are of course themselves ideological in nature. By focusing on values and virtues we could create a better democracy, or what is more important, a better society. Mass democracy no longer tends to foster these virtues, and it no longer guarantees a higher standard of living either. That is why most Chinese are content to live in what we in the West might call a semi-dictatorship, or a semi-democracy, depending on point of view. In the end the question is not so much about democracy versus lack of democracy as about what kind of democracy is best.

The Chinese political system has led to a higher standard of living for more people than what China could have achieved if it had conformed to a Western model and proclaimed itself a full democracy. Consider what happened to Russia after it allowed itself to be influenced by the IMF, the World Bank, and their experts. When things started to go seriously wrong in Russia, when average life expectancy and the birth rate both fell while unemployment and insecurity increased, these institutions told the country that it had to take the nasty medicine in order to get better. In reality things did not start to improve until Putin destroyed the structures built by the oligarchs and their supporters and reintroduced more authoritarian rule. Authoritarianism did not in itself solve the problems, but it helped oust the perpetrators. It was the same story for Malaysia in the 1990s. If conditions in Russia are now a bit too similar to the court of Ivan the Terrible, that is mainly because of the way Russians have learned to behave vis-à-vis their governors throughout their history. At least now they control their own destiny again, and the average citizen is starting to feel slightly better off.

Most Westerners today believe there are no real challenges to our modern liberal democracy, that democracy and free trade fit together like hand in glove. At the same time they see that the countries which are showing the way forward economically are ones we call "authoritarian regimes", "hybrid regimes", and "flawed democracies", such as China, Singapore, and Taiwan. This should make us question our perception of the world. The chief reason for their progress has nothing to do with the ideological label we put on them, but with the virtues demonstrated by their populations. We must start to ask ourselves about the quality of our own virtues. Is a more democratic society necessarily a more virtuous one? While we plan to retire early and prefer to stay at home and go out with friends, they go to work. While we are busy demanding our rights, they fulfill their duties. Ultimately, we are less willing to make an effort, while they take competition more seriously. This does not mean that it is impossible to combine democracy with meritocracy. Japan and South Korea demonstrate that this is possible, and so did much of Europe in the decades following the Second World War. Neither is it true that our societies are consistently becoming less meritocratic. Rather, meritocracy seems to move in cycles. The British Army in the Napoleonic wars was known for having too many useless officers. Most of them had risen to their positions because of their rank in civil society, not because of their martial capabilities.

While we in the West have broad discussions which often lead nowhere in particular, they in the East have focus and persistence. Some discussion is always good, even essential, but too much is inefficient and counterproductive. This is the reality of the European Union today. If we are still doing well economically in the West, this is because we had a strong lead, and because our companies are powerful and function very much like the hybrid regimes mentioned above. It is not the fact that Asian societies or Western companies are command rather than free-market systems which causes them to succeed, but rather the degree to which this allows them to be shaped as meritocracies. While Western, and particularly European, democracies abandoned the meritocratic spirit which prevailed in our societies until the early 1970s, many non-democratic States went the other way and became more meritocratic, less oppressive. They are today becoming corporate States, in the sense, societies in which the interests of society and corporate interests coincide.

The current Chinese political system will probably prevail for another generation at least, perhaps even for generations to come. At the same time we may expect that the Chinese State will come into conflict with the interests of its growing middle-class population. To some extent this is already happening, first of all due to restrictions and censorship on the internet, blocking a great number of sites and most of the video material (The Great firewall of China). Although the motivation for these policies can be seen to be noble, preventing crime and the over-sexualization of society by avoiding immoral content, it is questionable whether or not this policy will be effective. E.g. it is also hindering Chinese in getting updated on new technologies, making them less able to compete for Internet jobs. All of this is likely to modify the political model, but China will then be more likely to develop into a semi-democracy than into a Western-style full democracy with a comprehensive social welfare system. More important, this transition is not bound to result in large-scale social conflict. There was none at the time of the major Chinese policy change between Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping: it all happened without bloodshed. China's politics rather are shaping up to be the "revenge of the meritocratic model", even offering inspiration to the West as we are now forced to become more competitive. In many Chinese provinces and cities they are experimenting with locale direct democracy and the establishing of more elaborated welfare mechanisms to find their own balance. The consequences of the Chinese experiment will shape the politics of the future. They will decide how we reshape our own democratic model. Either that, or we shall decline.

In line with the evolutionary doctrine of Hegel and his American pupil Francis Fukuyama, we can expect that the wealth now being created in China, a country containing about a quarter of world population, will trigger a redistribution of power within Chinese society, just as it did in twentieth-century Europe. It is questionable whether this redistribution will go as far in China as it did in the West. Experience in the Western world suggests that, as a sustainable economic and political model, redistribution needs to be based on performance to function successfully. Europe and the Western world will be forced to adopt a more strongly meritocratic model for their societies in order to compete with Asia in future. This means that we can expect the Western world to move more in the direction of Asian political models, and not vice versa. It could even be that Europe and the West will become more Confucian, in the sense more pragmatic, meritocratic and moral.

The real question is how far, and when, Europe and the West are going to take up the new competitive challenge posed by the BRICs, particularly China. If they do not, they will quickly lose ground. The toughest competition is still to come. China has already most of its modern infrastructure ready and its megacities will be fully developed and operational within less than a decade. To avoid being overtaken by Asia, Europe may have to alter its political model in a number of respects, including everything from shrinking the welfare state to reducing the level of tolerance for crime and raising the levels of social responsibility and accountability in our societies. Following the logic of evolutionary theory, as expressed in the competition between societies, in the 21st century it will be the winner which imposes its values on the rest of the world, where winning is defined by a nation's economic strength.

For the moment, and as a reaction to the momentum created by the apparent disappearance of all ideological challengers, the Western nation-state has given the market economy a free rein. The financial crises that hit the Western world in autumn 2008 did nothing to change that, despite the fact that they resulted directly from too much power placed in the hands of irresponsible bankers. For the moment we have no widely-accepted political solutions for our free-market problems. Having lost the ability to take the initiative, we are waiting, hoping to ride out the crisis. The truth is that we are waiting because the answer is too radical to contemplate within our existing political paradigm. We need to reconstruct the entire banking system, separating casino banking from retail banking. We need to free the average worker from the burdens of his heavy financial outgoings. This implies a revolution of a sort; but it does not have to be a bloody one.

It is wrong to suppose that the Chinese want to become more Western. They want to become modern, meaning they want to share the same lifestyle that we enjoy via a process of rising material prosperity. They also want the same individual freedom that we have. For as long as the Chinese government puts restrictions on individual freedom a large number of those Chinese who can afford it will seek their luck abroad. Thus China stands to lose much of its talent. This by itself will force the Chinese government to change its policies. The main thing that will lead to a better life is more trade, and no one has understood that better than the nations of Asia today. It is as if this lesson has been forgotten in the West, entangled as we are with the rhetoric of the current social sciences, which ultimately just shifts us ever further away from the competitive mind set. Many of the notions which make up a nation competitive seem almost to be too simple for the modern social scientist to engage in, ideas like increased trade, more savings and a better work ethics. For the past few decades Asia has been selling products to the Western world with money we have borrowed from them (just take a moment to reflect on that "business model"). What looks like an obvious recipe for disaster has met very little criticism. Few academics, in particular economists or political scientists, have warned against this development. Why not? The only reasonable explanation is because we academics ourselves are entangled in the same logic and profit from this same system, in the short run at least. A standard academic response to many commonsense views, such as the idea that the economic pattern just mentioned is perilous, would be "There haven't been any studies done on that, so far as I know, so I can't say". And it is true that everyday life is full of problems that have not been treated in scientific papers. The reason for that is that social situations are rarely identical; differences between them are sufficient to make most existing research inapplicable. These studies are too narrowly defined, so that we cannot use them to draw conclusions about what we see. We ignore the fact that we have gathered experience about the world through individual observations, and that we can use that experience with some critical thinking and a few syllogisms. Instead we have learned to tell ourselves that anecdotal experience is biased, subjective, unscientific.

Western governments do not typically sponsor studies that question governmental action. Our research policies are primarily shaped to support existing political ideas. The doctrine of political correctness takes care of the rest, inducing researchers to align their topics with directions that will enhance their careers and to contribute beautifully-written articles to approved academic journals, where approval depends largely on government policy. For a modern academic career, writing monographs or books counts for little. It is commonly regarded as a waste of time, because it diverts time from activities that carry more academic brownie points. Books are at best seen as a contribution to pedagogy. This scale of intellectual priorities would have been almost incomprehensible to Europeans before the Second World War. In those days, moreover, scholars kept up to date on academic contributions from Continental Europe, from French and German universities. That has all changed. Today the English-speaking academic world, in particular the American, has been set up as a standard, a measure for all serious achievements. If a paper does not consider recent English-language contributions then it is "not up to date on theory" and will not be published. The tradition of geopolitics and geoeconomics, like the tradition of critical theory, is different because its roots lie in the Continental European intellectual tradition, which favours critical discussions, based on the study of history and philosophy.

If we are experiencing a renaissance of geopolitical thinking today there are good reasons for this. There can be no understanding of international relations without a clear real political analysis of events. At the same time, there are social-science academics who are trying to bury the field of geopolitics. Although the subject was considered pretty much taboo for decades after the Second World War, it has continued to exist and prosper (see e.g. Carlomagno 1997-8: 5-6). Geopolitical doctrines simply changed names. The Truman administrations talked about the Truman Containment Doctrine, and the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations talked about the Domino Theory. Both were based on geopolitical doctrines. Foreign-affairs advisers to American presidents from Kissinger to Brzezinski have always had a strong interest in geopolitics. If geopolitics is in fashion today this is not because it has suddenly acquired a relevance it did not have before, but because it has now become acceptable for academics and practicing politicians to discuss it.

The problem with earlier geopolitical theories, developed by men such as Friedrich Ratzel, Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914),47Rudolf Kjellén, and Halford Mackinder (1861-1947),48 was not their geographical analyses, but the political implications or "necessities" some people inferred from those analyses - and in particular, of course, the consequences which ensued when a certain Austrian painter entered politics and put some of these implications into practice. Many blame the German political system for that. Fascism and Nazism only became possible thanks to the modern democratic political model adopted by the Weimar Republic, between 1918 and 1933.

The elites in Germany in general abhorred the Nazis, just as they were critical of mass rule; but they were forced to accept the Nazis' newly-won political legitimacy. In the end they also had to accept Nazi influence over the army, though the military elite set one condition, that the SA is kept out of military affairs. The army was composed of professionals who did not want Hitler's rascals among their ranks. In what has been called the Night of the Long Knives Hitler then decided to eliminate his old drinking buddies in the SA, who were aspiring to higher military positions. Unfortunately the army had no objections to Hitler's praetorian guard, the SS. If they had to take orders from the Nazis, the army thought, at least they would be left alone to manage the war themselves. Spurred on by German successes on the western front, Hitler began to imagine that he had special strategic abilities. His increasing meddling in military affairs soon became fatal for the German army on the eastern front. To make things worse, behind the regular army Hitler sent his new SS elites to implement his ideas about Lebensraum, territory where the German people could multiply in order to achieve a certain critical mass in Europe. This was a geopolitical doctrine straight from the textbook, but the textbooks did not condone massive use of violence - and did not warn about the consequences of failure. When the project failed, the Russians turned round and visited the same pain on the Germans as they had seen the SS inflict in the east. The consequences for German civilians, especially women, were devastating. The geopolitical idea of Lebensraum had turned into a tragedy for everyone.

One can view this episode in German history as a clash between meritocratic and democratic structures. Hitler would not have come to power if he could not get control of the army, and that could not have happened without the legitimacy provided by the modern democratic system. That does not mean that moving towards ever greater democracy is a wrong direction to take, but it does have consequences which can de stabilize a country and make it less competitive. We see the same rabble getting into politics by the backdoor all over Europe today, even in Norway (Fremskrittspartiet), Sweden (Sverigedemokraterna), and Denmark (Dansk Folkeparti). In consequence there are now a growing number of fascists and right-wing extremists in the European Parliament. The movement is already threatening to get a grip in Southern Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, and along the Côte d'Azur. As always, fascism is appealing to the less educated classes. That should lead us to question the consequences of giving the vote to people who are so clearly unwilling to accept their social responsibilities, but regardless of education. For society to work properly there must be a balance between rights and duties. The lack of such a balance has made much of the Western world less competitive today. The workers' movements had the best of intentions and many good arguments when they demanded more rights at the beginning of the twentieth century, but demands for ever greater rights have subsequently spawned the overgrown, inefficient welfare state we see today, in which part of the population sets out to outwit the social-insurance system and other State institutions intended to help all citizens. The economic consequences of these abuses have in turn led to growing support for right-wing mobs.

For decades after the Second World War it was unthinkable to discuss geopolitics in Europe. In France it was otherwise. The subject prospered there more than anywhere else during the Cold War period. Early translations of German geopoliticians such as Ratzel and Haushofer helped to foster growing interest in geopolitical and geoeconomic matters.49 This paved the way for a number of French intellectuals to contribute to geopolitics, for instance Gérard Chaliand, who pioneered the use of atlases to display political and economic ideas in the 1970s and 1980s (see Chaliand and Rageau 1983, 1997, Chaliand 1990). He also received attention in the USA. The New Right, led by Alain de Benoist, was heavily influenced by geopolitical thinking when he defined his political agenda in the 1960s and 1970s and when he founded the journal Nouvelle Droite. Yves Lacoste gave his journal Hérodot, launched in 1983, the subtitle Revue de Géographie et de Géopolitique. Lacoste is considered a father of modern geopolitics. France never felt itself to blame for what the study of Geopolitics had led to, so there was no pressure to taboo it. There were plenty of criticism against the study from the French left, but France always had its heroic military tradition to preserve, much inspired by the visions and actions of de Gaulle. France has also always felt independent of Anglo Saxon thinking, even opposed to it. In recent decades France has also been openly opposed to its economic interests and what has been felt as interventions. As a consequence the new economic competition, whether coming from the US or from China, has been christened "economic war" (cf. Coulomb 2003), a metaphor which is still unthinkable in Germany.

Over the past decade, and especially since 9-11 and the start of the new confrontation with the Islamic world, geopolitical ideas have returned to the fore. Two generations traumatized by the Second World War are passing away. At the same time the problematic aspects of the subject are not resolved. Their lessons must not be forgotten.

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