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Foreign Policy

American Universalism vs. Chinese Nationalism

Jun 04 , 2015

Every day in the media—not least in relation to disputes in Asia—we hear of the problem of Chinese nationalism.  In reality, the much greater problem in international politics is American “universalism.”

Modern Americans are educated to think of nationalism in negative terms:  As a cause of political, racial and ethnic conflict and as an obstacle to peace and security.

In America’s hyper-sensitive, multi-racial, culturally confused and fraught, individualist society, nationalism—with its tinge of ethnic and national identity, its purposeful emphasis on shared national customs, values, and goals—is felt to be somehow benighted and antediluvian, oppressive and reactionary, even dangerous.

In the place of nationalism, what elite, progressive Americans have come to regard as a politically and morally imperative is supra-nationalism:  That is universalism, which recognizes no nationalist, ethnic, or cultural values or norms, only “universal” ones.

The great contradiction and problem with American universalism—most often expressed as universal values—is that it is not really universal at all.

As the late Singapore leader and statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview published in the March 5, 2013 Atlantic magazine, said:

“Americans believe their ideas are universal – the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they are not – never were.”

What American—and the American government—claim are universal values are in reality present-day American liberal and politically progressive shibboleths.  The apex of these supposedly universal values is (American style) democracy.

In eschewing, even anathematizing, a domestically nationalist orientation, American universalism has perforce become the dominant theme and construct of United States foreign policy—the ethos of policies and programs of deliberate disruption and quasi-imperialist interference in the cultures, politics, and values of other societies, usually under the rubric of promoting democracy, human rights, or “diversity.”

The contrast with China’s nationalism could not be greater. For the Chinese people, nationalism has been, and remains, a positive force that has powered modernization, liberation from foreign invasion and quasi-colonialism, and social stability.

Chinese nationalism inculcates the values (including contemporary “socialist values”) and ethics of Chinese culture to the Chinese themselves, strengthens patriotism and enhances national and cultural identity.

Contrary to America’s universalism, China’s nationalism does not substantively inform, much less direct, China’s foreign policy. Rather than nationalist (or universalist), Chinese foreign policy has been constructed on the nation state-based “internationalist” conventions of the Westphalian system about which Dr. Henry Kissinger writes in his recent book World Order, the cardinal principles of which are respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs.

Like the G.W. Bush administration, the Obama administration has invoked America’s universalist doctrine to claim the right to exercise American “leadership” everywhere in the world, including in Asia. Compliance with American leadership requires adopting an approved model of democracy. Where the model is absent, the United States will endeavor to impose it.

One of the purest expressions of this posture was the speech by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan B. Rice entitled “America’s Future in Asia” delivered at Georgetown University on November 22, 2013.

Said Rice:  “In the early years of this new century, we must help to consolidate and expand democracy across Asia to enable more and more people to participate fully in the political life of their countries.…

“The United States will support those working to pry open the doors of democracy just a little wider—from Cambodia to Fiji….in every country of the region, we will strive to improve protections for ethnic and religious minorities and help nations see the diversity of their peoples as a source of deep strength.”

The philosophical and operational difference between U.S. universalism and Chinese nationalism can be seen in the institutional contrast between the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, on the one hand, and China’s Confucius Institutes on the other.

The State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s website introduces itself as follows:

“Promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world are central to U.S. foreign policy…. The United States supports those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.”

The Bureau has a fund, The Human Rights & Democracy Fund (HRDF), annual outlays of which topped $200 million in FY2010, as its “flagship program.”  From the website:

“The HRDF is designed to act as the Department’s ‘venture capital’ fund for democracy and human rights….Often politically sensitive, HRDF programs have a dramatic effect on democracy promotion and personal liberties. The programs enable the U.S. to…support democracy activists worldwide, open political space in struggling or nascent democracies and authoritarian regimes, and bring positive transnational change.”

By contrast, the mandate of China’s Confucius Institutes is to promote friendly relations between the citizens of other countries and those of China by enhancing mutual respect and understanding, especially in the area of culture. The Institute’s website describes its work as follows:

“Over recent years, the Confucius Institutes’ … have provided scope for people all over the world to learn about Chinese language and culture. In addition they have become a platform for cultural exchanges between China and the world as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world and are much welcomed across the globe….”

During the past year controversy has flared in the United States as some university faculty have alleged a threat to “academic freedom” from Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses. The complaint is that the institutes (Chinese government sponsorship of which is openly acknowledged) could be offering an official Chinese government line.

We should compare this totally illusory “threat” to the frequent, deliberate active undermining and destabilizing of foreign local governmental, cultural, and social institutions and cultures that is the avowed purpose of initiatives being pursued by the U.S. State Department directly and through NGOs, financed by the Human Rights & Democracy Fund.

Every nation has a right to its own political, social, cultural institutions, and value system, based on its history and people, to be expressed, if desired, as nationalism. No nation has a right—even in the name of universal values—to impose its values or institutions on another.

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