Today’s China Is Communist and Modern, Not High Modernist

This rebuttal to my recent post on China is a cross-post from Jeremy Wallace’s blog, Science of Politics, with his permission. You can see the original here. Thanks to a shout-out from Marginal Revolution, my post got a lot of views, and I hope Jeremy’s response will get the same. He’s the expert on China, so his argument has me reconsidering my views.

The Chinese government released its long-awaited urbanization plan (国家新型城镇化规划) on 16 March. Ian Johnson, who has written extensively about China’s urbanization for the New York Times, begins his piece on the announcement of the plan in grand terms:

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting.

These descriptions of nondemocratic regime’s releasing “sweeping” plans to reshape their economic geography made Jay Ulfelder think of High Modernism, largely from Jim Scott’sSeeing Like a State. Scott describes significant disasters that have emerged out of failed social engineering projects. Ulfelder quotes from a review of Scott’s excellent book by Cass Sunstein:

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

In some ways, then, the summary of the plan in the NYT looks like a classical example of High Modernism. As Ulfelder writes,

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. ”We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

Such a characterization leads Ulfelder to two predictions.

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure.

I disagree with the assessment of the plan as high modernism and with the causal mechanisms underlying the predictions that arise from it. It isn’t high modernist because China doesn’t “plan” like it used to and the described policies incrementally adjust the status quo. The predictions themselves are not wrong so much as they are already correct.

First, the nature of planning in China has gradually moved away from the intense micro-managing of the eponymous Planned Economy to something much more akin to policies that shape the incentive structure of local governments and individuals by allocating marginal resources more to one locale rather than another. That is, China governs like a modern state, not a high modern one. Even the words used in plans have changed, as pointed out by Philipp C.C. Huang:

If one looks to the evolution in the Chinese terms for planning, we can see that the words have changed first from jihua 计划 and zhilingxing jihua 指令性计划 or “commandist planning” to zhidaoxing jihua 指导性计划 or “guidance planning,” and, more recently, to abandoning the old term jihua completely in favor of guihua 规划, now the commonly used term for what the new National Development and Reform Commission (国家发展和改革委员会), which replaced the old National Planning Commission (国家计划委员会), undertakes.

This semantic change reflects a real reduction in the Party’s control of the day-to-day operations of the economy. This can be seen in the fact that this document is often described as “long-awaited.” It is long-awaited because it was supposed to be announced last year. As Jamil Anderlini of the FT put it,

The urbanisation plan was originally expected to be published more than a year ago, but deep divisions between government departments and dissatisfaction from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who has been a strong champion of the scheme, delayed the plan’s publication until now.

I would argue that this slowly rolled out plans like this one are less likely to be sweeping than those that emerge out of nowhere. Additionally, this dissatisfaction implies that, unlike in China under Mao, local implementation of the plan is unlikely to be anything but grudging. There is a growing literature on local resistance to implementing central dictates in China (e.g., Margaret Pearson and Mei Ciqi have a nice forthcoming paper in China Journal entitled “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: Sanctions, Shared Beliefs and Local Defiance in China” that I can’t find online).

Second, the document is not a radical departure from prior policy. Johnson’s statement “the plan [is] the country’s first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history” fits awkwardly with a history of policies regulating and restricting migration that have existed since 1950s (I might have just finished writing a book about China’s management of urbanization).

The household registration (hukou) system was established when Soviet-style industrialization was initiated to control that true high modernist policy’s unintended consequences, namely blind flows of farmers into cities looking for work and escaping rural taxation. This system of effective migration restrictions has been tinkered with at the national and subnational level countless times during China’s post-Mao Reform Era (1978–). Over the past ten years, such reforms have been constantly trumpeted but implemented reality rarely measures up to the hype of policy announcement. Yet reforms have certainly taken place; Tom Miller’s great China’s Urban Billion summarizes many recent changes well.

The newly released document describes policies that are broadly similar to what we have seen time after time in recent years: continued “strict control” of population growth in the largest cities and encouragement of development of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in the country’s central and western regions. What is different here is a central commitment to assist local government’s fund the infrastructure of their cities and efforts to contain “land urbanization,” where local governments claim rural land from village collectives, pay farmers a pittance, and sell it at a huge profit to developers. The urbanization of land causes the “forced urbanization” of individuals that Ian Johnson’s reporting decries, so attempts to reduce its prevalence going forward should be welcomed.

Why does this plan sound high modernist then? Because it emanates from a Communist Party-led regime that still tends to use language more appropriate to the grand pronouncements of Marxism. It is a Communist state. The regime retains the power to manage the economy and guides it towards in desired directions but in general refrains from stating desired ends.

As for the predictions coming from classifying China as high modernist, the country already is dealing with serious problems of ghost cities where any return on investment is questionable. It is certainly possible that aiding the development of small and medium cities will turn out being wasteful economically, even if it might be savvy politically. In terms of urban instability and violence, I’m sanguine. I see this plan as continuing in a long line of policies that the regime has put forward to try to avoid urban unrest–incorporating slums, expanding access to urban social services, and slowing down land confiscations–are all reasonable levers for the center to use to tamp down the possibilities of protest in cities.

In the end, the Chinese regime speaks with archaic language–that is indeed, occasionally frightening–but acts like a modern state. Today’s CCP leadership certainly prefers to depoliticize and to quantify, to argue that it is pursuing “development,” “progress,” and “modernization” without giving the Chinese people much of a voice to prevent them from doing so. But so do other modern states. China today is far from the catastrophes of its high modern era, namely the Great Leap Forward. Let us all be thankful that this is so.

Proto-Democratization in China?

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a story that seemed to portray the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to track and respond to popular opinion as a kind of democratization. Reporter Simon Denyer wrote:

The government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

According to Denyer, these endeavors represent a significant change from the past and are having a real impact on decision-making:

The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the Chinese people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism…Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform.

When I read the article, it reminded me of a school of thought in Soviet studies that saw important (if underdeveloped) features of democracy in the workings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).  By incorporating an array of interest groups and creating channels for members of those groups to transmit their concerns to Soviet leaders, the thinking went, the CPSU after Stalin had built a form of organized pluralism that wasn’t as different from Western democracy as we conventionally thought. Other Sovietologists, however, countered that these claims about interest-group politics missed the forest for the trees. In a society that still had gulags and secret police and sharp limits on public speech, they argued, the hints of pluralism and responsiveness that some saw in CPSU politics were overwhelmed by the enduring organizational and cultural legacies of totalitarianism.

So who was right, and what does this tell us about China today? I think Charles Tilly’s ideas about democracy provide a useful fulcrum here. In contrast to procedural definitions of democracy that start (and sometimes end) with elections, Tilly jumps up one level of abstraction to emphasize the broader issue of consultation. In his words (2007: 13-14),

A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.

In their classic discussion of what democracy is and is not (here), Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl get at the same general idea with their emphasis on the principle of accountability. Still, I think Tilly’s notion of consultation better matches what most of us have in mind because of its more affirmative connotations. To me, accountability implies responsibility after the fact, the idea of holding someone to account for things he or she has already done. By contrast, consultation connotes a much wider array of interactions at all stages of the policy-making process—setting an agenda, formulating options, debating those options, making a decision, and evaluating the results—that better accords with the notion of government of, by, and for citizens.

At this level of abstraction, there’s no single form of consultation that is necessary and sufficient to qualify a regime as democratic, no single route across that threshold, and no point in time at which the process is completed. Elections are the chief mechanism we use today, but they are not the only form of routinized consultation that is possible or that matters. Political philosophers continue to discuss the merits of alternatives like deliberative or direct democracy, and some observers argue that new communications technologies are making these alternatives more realistic for large societies than ever.

So, back to that China story. Using Tilly’s definition as a prism, I think it’s easier to see why those social-media monitoring efforts and polling firms in China call democracy to mind, but also what’s different about them. Asking people what they think and listening and responding to their online chatter are forms of consultation, but this consultation isn’t protected, equal, or binding. It’s not protected because Chinese citizens still face harsh punishment for speaking out on sensitive topics. The state still chooses who gets to speak about what, and transgressions of those boundaries carry steep costs. The consultation isn’t equal because not everyone can participate. According to Denyer, “Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online.”

Finally and probably most important, the consultation isn’t binding because the state decides when it will respond to what it hears, and citizens still have no way to hold them accountable for those choices. This is why competitive elections are so important. Without a formal mechanism that gives all citizens a chance to reward or punish political decision-makers for their behavior, the Chinese Communist Party can continue to cherry-pick its “listening” efforts in ways that are meant to maximize its own corporate interests without really attending to citizens’ preferences. There may be an element of democratization in these polling and eavesdropping endeavors, but if so, it’s an awfully thin and fragile form of it.

PS. For an excellent academic treatment of China’s online monitoring efforts, see “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression” by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. For a nice review of the debate over pluralism in the USSR, see this 1984 paper by Jeffrey Hahn.

Wishful Thinking on Popular Uprisings

In a recent blog post that tries to draw lessons for today’s “democratic insurgents” from the triumph of Poland’s Solidarity movement, Freedom House’s Arch Puddington engages in what I see as a bit of wishful thinking about what determines the fate of nonviolent revolutions and how much influence foreign governments have over that process. In crediting Solidarity’s success to effective communication and external support, Puddington ignores the more powerful role played by favorable structural conditions. This tendency to view politics as a wide-open space in which the right strategy can produce any outcome desired is something of an American affliction, and I think it’s one we need to question more often.

Puddington starts his post on lessons from Poland by asserting that Solidarity’s success depended heavily on the extensive communications machine the movement built in the 1980s, an operation Puddington describes as “an independent, uncensored press that included serious political journals, regional newspapers, and mimeographed bulletins that covered events in a single industrial enterprise.”

This “press” was, of course, an illicit operation, and Puddington credits material support from the United States with keeping this worthy endeavor going in the face of state repression. “The United States was critical here,” he argues; “the Reagan administration, the new National Endowment for Democracy, and the labor movement all worked to ensure that Solidarity had the means to communicate with the Polish people.”

Importantly, Puddington also argues that the existence of this communications network was a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for the success of the Solidarity movement. The other essential ingredient was the inclusiveness of the message the movement chose to spread through the machine it had built. “If the Solidarity press offers a lesson for today’s freedom movements,” he argues, “it is in the organization’s determination to address its message to the entire population, and not simply to a narrow group of urban intellectuals…No audience was considered too small, insignificant, or hostile to ignore.”

From that analysis of the causes of Solidarity’s triumph, Puddington deduces that other nonviolent resistance movements stand a better chance of repeating the Polish movement’s success if they mimic its strategy of building a powerful communications machine and using it to reach out to all of their countrymen (and women!). Looking at the recent failures of “liberal democrats” in Egypt and Russia, Puddington diagnoses the absence of these ingredients as a major cause of their struggles.

The challenge of speaking to and winning over these ordinary citizens, who get their news from traditional sources, has baffled the advocates of liberal reform to date. Solidarity succeeded because its leaders were committed to communicating with the majority. Those who today claim the mantle of democracy in authoritarian settings are not likely to prevail—even with the smartest technologies—unless, like Solidarity, they develop a language and instrument to convey their message to the millions they have thus far failed to reach.

I think Puddington’s story about why Solidarity won mistakes marginal effects for root causes. In so doing, it echoes what I see as the losing side of a debate about the impact of “messaging” on American political campaigns. In an oldie-but-goodie blog post from September 2010, political scientist Brendan Nyhan cogently summarizes the problem this way:

More and more pundits are jumping on the Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging bandwagon…What we’re observing is a classic example of what you might call the tactical fallacy. Here’s how it works:

1. Pundits and reporters closely observe the behavior of candidates and parties, focusing on the tactics they use rather than larger structural factors.
2. The candidates whose tactics appear to be successful tend to win; conversely, those whose tactics appear to be unsuccessful tend to lose (and likewise with parties).
3. The media concludes that candidates won or lost because of their tactical choices.

The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in ’02 to Bush ’06, or Obama in ’08 to Obama in ’09-’10). But that doesn’t mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president’s party, whether it’s a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.

My interpretation of the roots of Solidarity’s success is closer to the structural story suggested by Nyhan’s critique than the strategic yarn Puddington spins. Among the countries of the Soviet bloc, Poland offered some of the most propitious conditions for democratization, with its history of elected government and resistance to Soviet and Communist rule; its relatively well-off and well-educated population; its large and well-organized urban working class; and its occasional bouts of experimentation with limited economic and political liberalization. In spite of these relatively favorable conditions, Solidarity failed in its initial attempt to topple the Communist regime in the early 1980s. The major change from that time to 1989 was not improved messaging; it was the withdrawal of the grim threat of Soviet intervention!

This conflation of coincidence with cause has important implications for policymakers trying to draw lessons from history. For example, Puddington credits the Reagan administration’s support for Solidarity’s communications with helping tip it to success and infers that this beneficent effect can be replicated by having the U.S. government invest in communications support for popular uprisings elsewhere.

But was U.S. support really so important in the Polish case? It’s true that the U.S. verbally and materially supported anti-Communist movements throughout Eastern Europe and in the USSR, and all of those regimes crumbled in the late 1980s. According to my reading of the literature, however, most academic observers of those events give very little credit for that outcome to foreign support for dissident movements. Instead, they largely agree in casting the unsustainability of the command economy and the dilemmas inherent in Soviet nationalities policy as the root cause of the USSR’s disintegration, and, in turn, they see the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe as the crucial catalyst of regime change there. As John Lewis Gaddis describes in his biography of George Kennan, the U.S. was more often criticized by human-rights advocates for having done too little to support those dissidents over the years, essentially leaving them to make their own fate—which they eventually did, when conditions became more favorable to their cause.

More generally, I wonder if we’re coming to a point in our thinking about nonviolent revolutions that’s similar to the collective optimism about democratic transitions that prevailed in the early 1990s. At a time when authoritarian regimes were dropping like flies, theorizing about the causes of democratization swung away from the structural preconditions that were long thought to enable or constrain these transformations toward a more opportunistic mindset that saw political leadership and imagination as the limiting factors. This shift in scholarly work aligned nicely with policymakers’ desire to cement gains from their victory in the Cold War, and this intersection of beliefs and interests led to a surge in Western interventions in various “countries in transition.” The single work that best captures the zeitgeist of that time is probably Giuseppe Di Palma’s To Craft Democracies, a 1990 monograph that cheerleads, cajoles, and prescribes far more than it theorizes. As Di Palma optimistically proclaimed, “Democratization is ultimately a matter of political crafting;” instead of fixating on structural constraints, we need “to entertain and give account of the notion that democracies can be made (or unmade) in the act of making them.”

The wave of popular uprisings that has swept the world in 2011 and 2012 seems to be having a similar effect on our sense of what’s possible and our ability to shape it. From our collective surprise at the breadth and success of these movements, we infer that they were unpredictable. From their supposed unpredictability, we infer that they can happen anywhere, any time in a world with improved health and education and unprecedented opportunities for communication. In other words, structural conditions are no longer seen as such a limiting factor, and the chief barriers in most cases are thought to be the more plastic problems of strategy, will, and courage. In the role of Giuseppe di Palma, we now have Gene Sharp, whose sophisticated analysis of nonviolent resistance has been widely adopted—and, arguably, misinterpreted—as a virtual key that can unlock the door to democracy in any context, as long as it is properly applied.

Before we get carried too far away by this new sense of optimism, we would do well to step back and consider what actually happened to those countries in transition in the early 1990s. In fact, many of those countries never made it to democracy, and many of the ones that did have since reverted to authoritarian rule. Of the 15 Soviet successor states, only the three Baltic states have sustained liberal democratic government since 1991, and they were the last patch of land the USSR annexed. Even Eastern Europe has produced a mixed bag of results, with marginally democratic regimes in places like Albania and Bulgaria and recent backslides in Hungary and Romania in spite of their membership in NATO and the EU. In short, many of the supposed successes that propelled the optimism of the early 1990s now don’t look much like successes at all. With hindsight, we can see that the structural conditions we declared irrelevant for a while have ultimately reasserted themselves, and some tweaked version of the old regime has often prevailed.

Philosophically, I consider myself a liberal, and I would love to see nonviolent uprisings run all of the world’s remaining autocrats out of office as soon as possible. Analytically, however, I am an empiricist, and my 20 years of studying democratization and social movements tells me the deck is still pretty heavily stacked against these challengers. The collective action problems, elite resistance, and other sources of institutional inertia that have made it hard for these movements to succeed in the past have not been erased by economic development and the spread of new communications technologies. Kurt Schock and others have persuasively shown that structural constraints do not determine the emergence and outcomes of nonviolent uprisings and that movement strategy and tactics also matter, but as far as I know, no one ever really argued that they didn’t. The useful question is, “How much do they matter?”, to which my answer today is, “Less than Arch Puddington thinks.”

In Defense of Particularism in American Foreign Policy

I’ve just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s terrific biography of George Frost Kennan, a towering figure in American foreign policy after World War II whom Henry Kissinger described as “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” Apart from recommending the book, which I do without hesitation to anyone with an interest in world affairs, I wanted to talk about how Gaddis’ distillation of Kennan’s ideas helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the conduct of foreign policy.

Nowadays, discussions of grand strategy in U.S. foreign policy are usually framed as a battle between realism, which emphasizes power and encourages statesmen to focus shrewdly on their national self-interest, and liberal institutionalism, which emphasizes cooperation and encourages statesmen to build institutions that facilitate it. Kennan–who was not trained as an academic and apparently didn’t care much for formal theories of international relations–saw the same terrain from a different perspective, and I think his map may be the more useful one.

For Kennan, the crucial divide lay between universalists and particularists. Gaddis spells out this theme most clearly in his discussion of Kennan’s thinking about how the United States ought to respond to the successes of Communist revolutionaries in China in 1947. Mao’s gains posed an early test of the recently pronounced Truman doctrine, which had seemed to pledge the United States to do all it could to prevent Communist advances anywhere in the world. While Kennan was dismayed by that doctrine’s absolutist language, it overlapped with the containment strategy he had begun to advocate as a response to the global ambitions and aggressive nature he saw in the Soviet Union.

Even so, and despite loud calls in the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to defend Chiang’s regime, Kennan convinced Truman to provide only a bare minimum of support to the Nationalists. According to Gaddis (p. 299), Kennan had thought that

Americans had clung too long to the idea of remaking China, an end far beyond their means. The [State Department’s] Policy Planning Staff [which Kennan headed] should determine what parts of East Asia are ‘absolutely vital to our security,’ and the United States should then ensure that these remain ‘in hands which we can control or rely on.’

Kennan framed this recommendation within the need to choose between universal and particularist approaches in foreign policy. Universalism sought to apply the same principles everywhere. It favored procedures embodied in the United Nations and in other international organizations. It smoothed over the national peculiarities and conflicting ideologies that confused and irritated so many Americans. Its appeal lay in its promise to ‘relieve us of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.’ Particularism, in contrast, questioned ‘legalistic concepts.’ It assumed appetites for power that only ‘counter-force’ could control. It valued alliances, but only if based on communities of interest, not on the ‘abstract formalism’ of obligations that might preclude pursuing national defense and global stability. Universalism entangled interests in cumbersome parliamentarism. Particularism encouraged purposefulness, coordination, and economy of effort–qualities the nation would need ‘if we are to be sure of accomplishing our purposes.’

Kennan’s recommendation on China seemed to contradict his own grand strategy, but this contradiction reflected his deeper beliefs about the importance of particularism. He understood that a Communist victory in China would be a setback for the U.S., but he didn’t think it would be a disaster, and he believed that even massive American assistance was unlikely to stop the Communists from winning.

In this history, I hear echoes of contemporary debates over the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the mass atrocities occurring there. As in the arguments over China policy in the 1940s, universalists often make the case for intervention in Syria on both moral and strategic grounds. Mass atrocities are morally abhorrent, of course, but acting to stop or prevent them is also an essential function of America’s role as the producer and defender of a liberal global order, a universalist might argue, just as stopping Communism in its tracks was during the Cold War. In a recent call for more forceful U.S. action against Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, a successor of Kennan’s as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, made just such a case. She wrote:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place…If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.

After reading about his approach to China, it’s easy to imagine Kennan responding to this universalist argument by asking: “Yes, but how likely are we to succeed, and at what cost?”

To universalists, that kind of equivocation may seem immoral. Kennan, whom Gaddis portrays as a religious person and a philosopher, was not insensitive to these concerns. His rejection of universalism was not meant as a rejection of moral thinking. Instead, Kennan’s commitment to particularism was informed by his judgment that stark views about right and wrong were poor guides to foreign policy-making.

Could governments behave as individuals should? His preliminary conclusion, sketched out in his diary, was that politics, whether within or among nations, would always be a struggle for power. It could never in itself be a moral act…Foreign policy was not, therefore, a contest of good versus evil. To condemn negotiations as appeasement, Kennan told a Princeton University audience early in October [1953], was to end a Hollywood movie with the villain shot. To entrust diplomacy to lawyers was to relegate power, ‘like sex, to a realm in which we see it only occasionally, and then in highly sublimated and presentable form.’ Both approaches ignored the fact that most international conflicts were ‘jams that people have gotten themselves into.’ Trying to resolve them through rigid standards risked making things worse.” (p. 492)

As a frequent critic of the U.S. government’s attempts to provoke and promote democratic revolutions elsewhere–here and here are some blogged examples–I was particularly interested in how Kennan’s commitment to particularism was evidenced in his frustration with policies aimed at supporting the “liberation” Communist-ruled countries during the Cold War. In Kennan’s view,

“[A policy seeking ‘liberation’ in Communist-ruled countries] is not consistent with our international obligations. It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations. It is not consistent with the maintenance of formal diplomatic relations with another country. It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent that it might be successful, it would involve us in heavy responsibilities. Finally the prospects for success would be very small indeed; since the problem of civil disobedience is not a great problem to the modern police dictatorship.” (p. 479)

Those concerns may sound cold, but Kennan was not indifferent to the liberationists’ cause. In fact, his views on the subject were also informed by a conviction that democracy would prevail in the end without active American support. According to Gaddis (p. 495), Kennan believed that

Democracy had the advantage over Communism in this respect, because it did not rely on violence to reshape society. Its outlook was ‘more closely attuned to the real nature of man…[so] we can afford to be patient and even occasionally to suffer reverses, placing our confidence in the longer and deeper workings of history.’

Like Churchill, who famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Kennan saw many faults in Western society in the 20th century, but he saw the available alternatives as even worse. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that any gains realized by pushing for liberation were not worth the entanglements, lost opportunities, and even wars that might result, especially when war could be nuclear.

Kennan saw himself as more of a “prophet” (his word) than a theorist or practitioner, and his views on “liberation” illustrate how he often thought about international relations on time scales that most people either don’t consider or consider a luxury. His containment policy was founded on the prescient expectation that the Soviet Union’s internal flaws would eventually lead to its own disintegration, but he did not expect to live long enough to see that happen.

When contemplating the plight of actual people suffering under actual dictatorships, the idea that democracy will eventually prevail can seem a little too convenient, like it’s just a way to absolve us of any responsibility for the injustices of the here and now. Is it really more convenient, though, than the belief that righteousness is always right? Where Kennan’s view is materially convenient, implying that we can achieve the desired result through inaction, the liberationist’s view is morally convenient, presuming that well-intentioned actions will always bring good results.

And there’s the matter of the historical record. Long-term trends clearly support Kennan’s expectation that democracy would keep expanding, albeit fitfully and with many reversals. More important, these advances have usually come either without direct U.S. support, or in places where U.S. involvement was incidental to the eventual outcome. The events that precipitated the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe mostly caught the U.S. by surprise, and the U.S. response to them was generally modest and ambivalent.

Likewise with the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 started in Tunisia, where the U.S. had done virtually nothing to promote democracy. It soon spread to Egypt and Bahrain, where U.S. support for military “deep states” vastly outweighed its material and verbal commitments to opposition groups, and to Libya, where the U.S. had actually warmed to the dictator in recent years in response to his decision to give up weapons of mass destruction. In other words, theses revolutions were hardly American-made; if anything, they occurred in spite of American indifference and support for the status quo. In this sense, the Arab Spring supports Kennan’s expectation that American intervention is hardly a prerequisite for democratic revolution, and that democracy will advance on its own through the “longer and deeper workings of history.”

If universal principles aren’t the way to go, how, then, should foreign policy be conducted? For most of his adult life, Kennan owned and worked a small farm in southern Pennsylvania, and he often did the yardwork at his home in Princeton, too. It’s not surprising, then, that he may have best expressed his commitment to particularism and penchant for thinking on long time scales in a horticultural metaphor that envisioned a patient, process-oriented approach as the best way to strike a balance between moral ambitions and animal interests. This metaphor was offered up during a series of four lectures Kennan delivered at Princeton in 1954–lectures that became the book Realities of American Foreign Policy, and I think Gaddis’ summation of those lectures (pp. 494-495) it makes a proper coda to this post.

Americans could no longer afford economic advances that depleted natural resources and devastated natural beauty, Kennan insisted. Nor could they tolerate dependency, for critical raw materials, on unreliable foreign governments. Nor could they tear their democracy apart internally because threats to democracy existed externally. Nor could they entrust defenses against such dangers to the first use of nuclear weapons, for what would be left after a nuclear war had taken place? These were all single policies, pursued without regard to how each related to the others, or to the larger ends the state was supposed to serve. They neglected ‘the essential unity’ of national problems, thus demonstrating the ‘danger implicit in any attempt to compartmentalize our thinking about foreign policy.’

That lack of coordination ill-suited the separate ‘planes of international reality’ upon which the United States had to compete. The first was a ‘sane and rational one, in which we felt comfortable, in which we were surrounded by people to whom we were accustomed and on whose reactions we could at least depend.’ The second was ‘a nightmarish one, where we were like a hunted beast, oblivious of everything but survival; straining every nerve and muscle in the effort to remain alive.’ Within the first arena, traditional conceptions of morality applied; ‘We could still be guided…by the American dream.’ Within the second, ‘there was only the law of the jungle; and we had to do violence to our own traditional principles–or many of us felt we did–to fit ourselves for the relentless struggle.’ The great question, then, was whether the two could ever be brought into a coherent relationship with one another.

They could, Kennan suggested, through a kind of geopolitical horticulture. ‘We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ‘to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ‘gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’

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