That a lot of people miss that the Western emphasis on human rights in foreign policy is simply an advanced form of realpolitik is understandable. That Hu Jintao not only is among the people who miss that but also tries to deliberately spite that policy by giving direct aid to the Sudanese government to build a new Presidential palace is less understandable.
One of the most tragic consequences of the clash of civilizations theory is that it portrays current practices as inherent cultural notions. But the West has only imposed sanctions on regimes that violate human rights after World War Two, and especially after the Cold War. Before then, its central foreign affairs dogma was the same idea of strict national sovereignty that China’s trying to work from now.
What changed the West is obvious. But even after World War Two, realpolitik dominated American foreign policy. There was a significant contingent of liberals who wanted a greater emphasis on human rights in foreign affairs, but they were weaker than the moderates and conservatives, who favored political realism.
“They’re oppressing their people” remained a good way to get the people on board foreign adventures, but that isn’t a Western democratic notion. Arabs who aren’t Palestinians feel no particular affinity with Palestinians, and yet respond positively to propaganda campaigns based on Israel’s abuse of Palestine.
The processes that then caused the West to do something about a few human rights violations abroad were more about political pressure than about altruism: South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia. Elsewhere, it had no trouble doing nothing, as in Rwanda, or actively supporting totalitarians, as in Afghanistan.
Liberalism isn’t the only universalizing ideology. Communism, Islamism, Dominionism, and fascism are just as universalizing. Democratic governments are unlikely to be hostile to other democracies; not coincidentally, democracies try encouraging other countries to be democratic in order to protect themselves. Governments always treat exceptions to the rule as hostile political systems: the US overthrew social democracies in the Cold War, Stalin boycotted communist regimes that didn’t toe his line, and fascists only apologize for allied fascist regimes.
In other words, China’s foreign policy is based on the same idea as this of the US or the EU: support allies, increase your global influence, and protect your political system. The EU does this by promoting democratization in Eastern Europe; China does this by protecting authoritarian regimes.
The other contention in the article, the one about the Western approach to development, is more about competence than about ideology. The Western notion that economic development opens up the political system just doesn’t work. Singapore and the Gulf states have Western European GDPs per capita.
Normally, the mechanism that’s supposed to work is economic aid tied to political reforms. In that, China’s aid to the palace indeed shows the Western idea doesn’t work. The way to get allies is by subsidizing the leaders’ extravagances, and only giving the people enough welfare to discourage them from rebelling. That’s how American machine politics worked, how Islamist welfare works, and how Chinese aid works.
Doing anything useful to people with direct aid is impossible. The closest thing in modern history that came close to it and worked is the Marshall Plan, which also involved close economic cooperation and unilateral removal of American tariffs on European goods. The Soviet Union was offered aid but refused it, precisely because of the economic cooperation it entailed.
Direct aid is just charity: it’s a money sink that keeps people one step ahead of famine but doesn’t let them develop. Unfortunately, the main alternative to it is IMF-style restructuring, which doesn’t even do that. In contrast, a better form of development aid would concentrate on three things, two of which are unfortunately off the mainstream radar and one of which is practiced only on the limited basis.
The first is import replacement. Countries develop by having cities that replace imports and are productive enough to be able to absorb technological unemployment by redirecting the people to new kinds of work. Rural areas never develop; they just bleed people to the cities, as new technologies cause long-term unemployment.
The second is requiring governments to invest in productive infrastructure. Saudi Arabia will start developing the day Ghawar hits peak production. As long as it can invest in oil instead of in people, it can keep its population too poor and uneducated to revolt. This can be achieved mostly by a combination of technological developments that bypass problematics countries like Saudi Arabia, since it’s impossible to sanction resource-rich countries successfully. The Iraq sanctions only strengthened Saddam’s domestic power.
And the third is to promote democracy the right way. The Polish and Georgian models, which involve widespread delegitimization and NGO-induced grassroots liberalism respectively, work. The Iraqi model, which involves military invasion, doesn’t. The US doesn’t need to spend a cent of aid to democratize Iran. Five years ago, it needed to invest in some pro-democracy NGOs; today, all it needs is to stop engaging, in order to ensure the level of regime support remains abysmal.
There is no lesson to learn from China’s aid to Sudan that concerns the West’s conception of aid. The only lesson to learn is about the perennial intra-liberal debate: how does one turn a depressed dictatorship into a prosperous liberal democracy?
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