More Western Soft War Aimed at China

February 24, 2014

At the Jamestown Foundation Nicholas Dynon of the Line 21 Project has a nice short piece on Chinese perceptions of Western ideological ‘soft war’.  In the Chinese perspective the West is engaged is a project that aims at ideological dominance.  This is simply a new case of  the ‘peaceful coexistence’ strategy that dates back to the time of John Foster Dulles.  This requires a dual response: ideological vigilance at home and the effort to ideologically shape the international order.

Dynon points to the work of Zhao Jin of Tsinghua University

in which “morality” and “justification” become the basis for a state’s relative power. In this sense, we see a link between moral authority and soft power: the more widespread the acceptance of a state’s moral authority within the international system, the greater its soft power. The logic of commanding the international moral high ground within a soft war era thus requires that a state achieve moral authority among a more dominant collection of states than do its competitors.

In reading this piece I’m struck by two things:

Firstly, how much this echoes the latter days of the Soviet Union when the KGB devoted huge amounts of effort to hunting down ‘ideological subversion’ , by coincidence last week War on the Rocks posted a link to a transcript of a 1969 meeting between the KGB and the Stasi devoted to just this issue – from their point of view any act of dissidence is evidence of Western interference.

Secondly, Zhao Jin makes a good point but what is the claim to moral leadership that China can make?  Essentially it’s a defence of a Westphalian state centred order, reinforced with a Herderian claim that we ought to have lots of different nations to bring out the diversity of the human spirit.  I think state-based orders are good but all state based orders have also had some kind of ideological or cultural content that doesn’t remain with state boundaries or within state approved cultural relations channels; that true whether that’s black market Levi’s during the Cold War or jihadi videos today.  Certainly I think that there are lots of people who will support the state sovereignty argument against western ideological exports but the problem is that the Herderian argument for diversity may work in theory but in practice nationalism isn’t that cuddly.  It can work to bind people and state but at the cost of alienating the neighbours.  We’re also more relaxed about small state nationalism than big state nationalism.

China is much more dynamic than the Soviet Union was but if it’s going to compete ideologically it needs something that is more universal that nationalism.


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