The Empire Strikes Back

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Robert Pollack interviews Yale professor Charles Hill on challenges to the liberal, state-based world order:

One, the aggressive kind, is exemplified by China. The other, very different, can be seen in the European Union.

China has been a believer in the international system in recent decades, he says. It has seen advantages in the doctrine of state equality (which it uses to defend against human-rights complaints) and has gained from the liberalization of trade. But as the U.S. pulls back—a shrinking Navy, President Obama’s foreign policy—things are starting to change.

The Chinese are talking about how they used to approach the world in the dynastic era, says Mr. Hill. “‘[We] know that states are not equal and therefore we need a world order in which that reality is recognized.’ This meme is getting around in China and is what accounts for statements starting two years ago as regards the South China Sea to Vietnam or the Philippines saying openly ‘We are a big power and you’re not a big power and therefore you should follow what we say.’”

The problem of the European Union, by contrast, is not the over-assertion of state power but the abdication of it without a suitable replacement. Of the current troubles in Europe, Mr. Hill says, “They took away the sovereign powers of the states” but they “didn’t take enough power to Brussels to be able to run the Continent under crisis situations.”

Why did Europe do that? Mr. Hill suggests that German and other war guilt was a big factor. “It so sickened the European intelligentsia” that “it was almost as though they said, yes, Europe has been the cause of all the world’s problems. Napoleon and colonialism and imperialism and Stalin and Marx and Lenin and Hitler and the Holocaust. But no more. Now we’re going to be the most moral people in the world. And the Americans who have been causing these problems along with us? They represent the past, we represent the future.”

In short, “the European vision is we’re just going to be nice” and “people will follow our lead. The Chinese view is why should we not do what we want to do with these little people who used to pay us tribute?”

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