After 1989, it was hoped that global trade would bring all sorts of benefits in its wake, including global adherence to liberalism, broadly defined. Is one of the things that we need to talk about that geopolitics involves other forms of commerce—the exchange and assimilation of values, that kind of thing—that are central to the world getting along in a friction-free way?
Yes, and yes. The years after 1989 are best summed up by the stance taken towards the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. The view was that if China was liberalising economically, surely that would lead to their liberalising politically.
In that sense, there really was an End of History moment in Washington D. C.. It was not completely unreasonable to think political liberalisation might happen. In some respects, economic liberalisation promoting political reform happened in Britain through the 19th century and into the 20th. But it was extraordinary for the West, led by Washington, to put nearly all its chips on that. Tiananmen Square in 1989 had signalled the Party would do almost anything to hold onto power on its terms.
Even so, on a more slow-motion level, there’s definitely something to the thought that, by bringing people into contact with each other, trade in goods and services can enhance understanding, broaden perspectives, and even foster some convergence in relatively thin values. That’s partly what David Hume and others, writing in the 18th century, were getting at when they wrote about commercial society. They saw it as a massive change from what had gone before, and were very hopeful about it. I think that remains right but the time horizon for that kind of hope is not ten years or twenty-five years or, perhaps, even fifty years.
On that note, let’s move on to the books. We’re going to talk about Bernard Williams’s first essay in In the Beginning was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. In it, he argues that even with a “realist”—that is, cynical—view of the world, there is room for morality and values. Is that right?
Bernard Williams, who died just over twenty years ago, was one of the very top late-20th-century moral philosophers. Towards the end of his truncated life, he started writing political philosophy. It’s a great pity for all of us that he didn’t have time to write more. He was mostly focused on the state but with a realism that does not junk morality, and in ways I think important for international political theory.
He does something tremendously important. For half a century, most political philosophy has started from John Rawls’s famous question about what conception of justice we should have. Williams says that we can’t start off with any off-the-shelf external conception of moral obligation, be it Utilitarian or the Kantian theories that Rawls and his followers adapt. Instead, we ought to start by recognising that basic order—what he calls the First Political Question of how to establish and maintain order, safety, protection, degrees of trust—is a precondition for cooperation of almost any kind, including debating and pursuing justice. Since basic order is today invariably established via the state having a monopoly over coercive powers, we need to start with how that can be legitimised to the people in their particular circumstances.
This means the hierarchy of authority being broadly accepted on the basis of reasons and justifications that make sense to people. Otherwise—and I don’t think Williams says enough about this—there will be resistance, which could be either passive or active.
“Part of the attraction of this for me is that it avoids problems in the standard schools of international relations”
Going back to your question, although Williams writes about the state in the context of the challenge of achieving domestic order, his approach can be—and I think needs to be—applied to international relations and cooperation. What does maintain order in the world as a whole? And, for a given order, what are the legitimation norms that powerful states—superpowers, great powers—go along with in accepting each other’s power, or in living in the presence of a leading, hegemonic power, such as the United States over recent decades? How is any order justified to states that cannot project power? Why should they go along with the order they find themselves in (or under) rather than quietly resist it?
So, Williams’s way of thinking about the question of domestic order and the legitimation of domestic authority, can be taken to international relations.
As you said, for Williams, and I agree, this doesn’t eject morality because the legitimation norms that hold any kind of order together, domestically or internationally, have moral content, and also some moral force to the extent that they are internalised by people and states. But they emerge from the circumstances of politics rather than off a pre-political morality shelf.
Part of the attraction of this for me is that it avoids problems in the standard schools of international relations. Caricaturing somewhat, for realists everything is about power, with the focus on war and peace. At the other end of the spectrum, for idealists, everything is ultimately about values, with the focus on human rights, poverty and development. And for a group in between, everything is about how interdependence affects interests, with the focus on economic regimes, especially trade. By starting with both order and legitimacy, Williams helps us step around a rather stale ‘realism vs. idealism’ debate, and so is more realistic in the ordinary sense of the word.
For some years now, there have been active debates about Williams’s realist political theory, but not much actual application of his ideas and framework to particular fields. He would have hated the word ‘framework’, but he’s certainly laid out things that can be applied fruitfully, and that yield tangible insights. Both my books are basically attempts to do that.
When he was thinking about legitimacy and its validation, was he thinking in terms of democratic consent? Or might he have seen the way that the Chinese government runs China at the moment as having a valid form of legitimacy?
It’s true that he was especially focused on the role of liberalism in modernity—now and around here, as he liked to say—but I think he would have been very interested in what the Chinese people feel about their own system, and whether they feel free to discuss it among themselves.
He wasn’t keen on our reaching judgments about the legitimacy of historical regimes (such as medieval feudalism or the Athenian regime with its slavery) even though questions of legitimacy would have been just as relevant to them, within their circumstances and the norms that had some grip in their circumstances.
But, for states today, I think he would have thought that, as well as being curious about local legitimacy in China, we should reach our own view as China presents itself to the world as a realistic alternative. In a sense, commercial society brings those confrontations, as well as potentially promoting the convergence we discussed earlier.
Essentially, that’s what’s going on geopolitically now. People aren’t worried about whether or not China thrives for itself as such, and China, presumably, isn’t worried about whether we thrive for ourselves, but each is worried about whether one set of powers will press or even force the other to be like them when they don’t want to be.
Shall we move on to David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature?
Hume is widely held to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and I suspect features as such on Five Books. He wrote his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature, while in his mid-twenties, which is mind-boggling given its brilliance.
For very good reasons people typically focus on Books I and II of the Treatise, but Book III, Of Morals, contributes something that Williams lacks: an account of collective action and, therefore, of institutions. Hume effectively does that in ways that, I suspect, were hard fully to comprehend until game theory had developed and advanced to levels bringing people like Roger Myerson a Nobel Prize.
In doing this, Hume talks about how some collective problems and opportunities are addressed with conventions. Some are obvious: all drive on the right (or left). Others, less obvious, blunt incentives to free ride on others’ efforts, and so help cooperation.
He sets out how some such conventions are rooted in habits, while others develop into habits and even become social norms. If we then internalise the value of the social norms, they develop some moral force even when their original functional purpose has fallen out of view. These are stylised stories or, as people call them these days, vindicatory genealogies (not the subversive genealogies Nietzsche was fond of). A great example is the institution of promising and keeping promises, which Hume analyses in Book III. But to the extent that all that’s been picked up by scholars in our lifetimes, it’s been mostly by social scientists who can make Hume seem as though he’s purely a rationalist, whereas he’s nothing of the kind.
“Hume talks about how some collective problems and opportunities are addressed with conventions”
Anyway, we become attached to some of these norms, which can be useful if it helps us stick to our considered longer-term objectives. Ultimately, they are mechanisms for channeling our passions and redirecting our interests. So, he has interests and values intermingling, but we can also reflect on these norms—artificial virtues, as Hume calls them—and see whether they withstand reflection, and he wants to argue that many of them do. What’s unique and useful about this is that Hume, even more than Williams, manages to bring power, interests, and values into a coherent story; one that is explanatory but can also be normative.
But he does a lot more than high theory. He wrote many essays about topics ranging from the balance of power (which is explicitly about power and international relations) to money and trade (including how the jealousy of trade drives states into mistakes). And yet what eventually made him famous in his own lifetime was something that’s barely read these days, his History of England in many volumes. It’s a narrative history but also a political science, even philosophical, history of English governance.
Hume is stupendously interesting. There are few questions where he doesn’t have something important to say. And yet, the main schools of international relations scholarship I mentioned earlier follow Hobbes, Kant, and Hugo Grotius (the early international lawyer), with Hume not featuring much at all. I think he ought to, and that we need him right now.
In this third book of The Treatise on Human Nature, is he thinking about these issues in terms of politics or the state, or is it simply a useful mechanism?
Mainly the state (princes, as he calls them), but with observations on relations among them. He talks about how the institutions of government itself are based on conventions to help address problems facing really large groups of people, and about how we learn to give government allegiance except when it is horrible or abject. In his hands, legitimacy is a matter of opinion, but he doesn’t say enough about the things that get weighed in forming an opinion on whether a particular system of government is legitimate.
Williams says more about legitimation than Hume. He was evasive about his relationship with Hume. He started off his career pretty Humean but in a late interview commented that he found Hume, who was a jovial man, too optimistic. In a deeper sense, though, in my view William remained indebted to Hume. But in any case, he needed Hume, and I think he filled some gaps left by Hume concerning legitimation itself which involves offering justifications and, I would add, making compromises.
Hume is talking about these institutions where the initial rationale falls away but they continue to provide services. Is there something useful for us there, in terms of international relations today and the emergence of two superpowers in the world?
I think there is, and it comes back to the point about commercial society. Hume talks about international law and—I can’t remember the exact words—says something to the effect that relations among princes reflect the same kind of interests and forces that underpin domestic governments and law but tend to be much weaker because they depend on each other much less. I’m confident Hume would have been open to the idea that that was a contingent fact about the world in which he lived, and that the more interdependent and the more integrated states become, the more their leaders (but not necessarily all of the public) internalise norms that help underpin, constrain, shape degrees of cooperation.
What’s nice about this in Hume is that it’s historically contingent, with norms related to what goes on in the world. Expanding commerce will draw on existing norms and, over time, maybe change some of those norms as well. You might need new inter-national conventions because you face new problems, but that generates tensions because, for most of us, order and cooperation at home are more vital.
“Hume thinks that institutions and norms frameingpractices that have grown up spontaneously are more likely to endure”
Some people love and others hate the mushrooming of international organisations and international treaties since the Second World War and, in particular, since the end of the Cold War. Some of this has been a process of norms and institutions following the emergence of things in the world that people had shared interests in shaping or constraining or doing something about. Also, however, some of it has been people pushing treaties and organisations to further their own agendas about global integration.
There’s a sense in Hume that he thinks that institutions and norms helping to frame practices that have grown up spontaneously are more likely to endure. But, unlike some followers of Hayek (but perhaps not Hayek himself), Hume does not rule out design at all. In fact, he talks about the assumptions that should be made when devising a constitution, which I suspect we will come back to later when we discuss an ancient Chinese writer.
Why don’t we move on to Stephen Neff’s Justice Among the Nations: A History of International Law. Why have you chosen this book in the context of geopolitics and global commerce?
First of all, this is just a lovely book, as well as being one I happened to learn lots from. It’s a history of international law that, in keeping what we have been discussing, gives a place to power, events and wars, but also to ideas and values, and to interests.
Most people, including myself, would regard Hume as trying to escape from various natural law theories that had been promulgated and circulated over the previous 150 years or so before he was writing, but one can give a Humean explanation of why the natural law he wanted to reject had grown up.
That is a story that Neff tells wonderfully well without framing it in Humean terms. In the Old Christendom, before the Reformation (and Renaissance), disputes among peoples, princes, nobility, might be settled in the canon law courts of the church, with ultimate authority resting with the Pope—or, for large parts of continental Europe, in the institutions of the Holy Roman Empire, culminating ultimately in the authority of the emperor.
However well that worked, and it worked tolerably well in some respects, it could not work after the Reformation because, crudely, the Protestant states, princes and peoples weren’t going to accept the authority of either a Roman Catholic pope and his institutions or a Catholic Holy Roman emperor and his institutions. And yet, disputes and various kinds of conflicts still needed resolving if war was to be avoided.
Natural law grew up—very much, in a sense, as part of the history of international law—as an attempt to address the question: what common norms do we have that we can apply irrespective of where we stand? Neff tells that story really well, as a story about power and as a story about norms and ideas.
In other respects, the development of international law was, as modern scholars have pointed out, part of the history of colonialism. Right from the beginning, when Spain was taking control of parts of Latin America, there were debates in the University of Salamanca about whether it was permissible, and on what grounds it was permissible. Was it permissible if the emperor or the pope said so? Very roughly, did the emperor or the pope have ultimate authority over the seas and lands? And then, as trade expanded, was it permissible to interfere with another European state’s trade in the Far East?
“Neff tells that story really well, as a story about power and as a story about norms and ideas”
Grotius wrote one of his early contributions to what became international law in the context of a Dutch ship having clobbered a Portuguese ship in the East Indies. All those circumstances are morally ugly, but the people concerned found themselves confronting what they saw as problems for them, developing institutions and norms to help them maintain order among rivals. So, again, the development of the natural law tradition in international law comes from a set of problems that a unified Christendom could no longer resolve.
Neff tells another story that is tremendously important for us. During the 19th century, the commitment to positivism in all its forms, including legal positivism, was such that morality came to be seen as a separate realm from the concrete law. There are various ways of thinking about positivism in international law but to pick just one, it amounts to a series of contracts between states, with their force depending upon serving the parties’ interests.
And then, that broad way of thinking about international law was thrown into crisis after the Holocaust. Crimes against humanity (the language of Nuremberg), and of genocide (a term used in the Nuremberg indictment but not formally a crime in itself until a bit later) were things that seemed to transcend anything that positivists could fit into their broad framework.
We were back to some values that we couldn’t imagine life without. It was like a revival of the natural law tradition, or a part of it. I think that fits with an explanatory story along the lines of, ‘my God, we did that to each other. That mustn’t happen. That’s a problem for the world.’ Values help us address the problem but only so long as they are instantiated in some kind of positive institution.
Stephen Neff tells all those stories, and many others as well. His blending of the intellectual history and the institutional history and the power relations around them makes for a great read, hugely educative and at times moving.
Does he cover the story of the rise of an authoritarian China as well, and the issues thrown up by that?
Not right up until today, but he tells the history of international law as it bears on trade and commerce, including in and on China, in a really interesting way. To put it very crudely, the changes in international law as it applies to the economy are quite extraordinary.
Again very roughly, in the 19th century, as a last resort, war was permissible as a form of debt collection. You had to try everything else first. If you had tried everything else and it hadn’t worked, then force was permissible in international law. From the first quarter or so of the 20th century, that became the opposite: an act of aggression, and so illegal under international law. The other way around, once again in broad summary, there were probably more constraints on applying what we call sanctions, and secondary sanctions, in the 19th century than today. Physical war is more legally constrained than in the past, but de facto economic combat less so.
Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro at Yale have a wonderful book about that turn. It is also part of Neff’s broad canvas. Some of these things were quite startling for me. To realise that the international norms that govern trade and investment have, in some cases, changed enormously. In others, there’s continuity. Today’s cross-border investment treaties, which are mainly bilateral treaties without an international organization, codify a much longer-standing customary international law that you can’t just go around taking foreigners’ property. Neff helps us to see very concretely how the past informs today’s norms and institutions, which is a big theme in Williams and Hume.
Let’s move on to Ian Clark’s Legitimacy in International Society. What does this tell us that Williams and Hume perhaps don’t?
I see this as another book in the tradition of Hume and Williams, without that being up front in the book itself. In fact, given scholarly criticism of the English School of international relations lacking a principled grounding, we can say the English School needed a Scotsman.
The first thing to say is that Legitimacy in International Society is a fascinating read. I read quite a few history books, and many histories of wars or conflicts are devoted to the causes of the conflict and the navigation of the conflict. Then the conflict comes to an end, there’s a treaty, and everyone goes home. End of book. Alternatively, people sometimes write about the circumstances and negotiation of particular treaties (as in Margaret MacMillan’s book about the post-WWI Versailles Treaty). Thank goodness those books are written, but books that put a series of treaties in the broader context of the evolution of international law, norms, and order are rare.
Clark’s book takes some of the key moments of the past half-millennium—Westphalia, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War; Utrecht, at the end of the war of Spanish Succession; the Congress of Vienna, after the Napoleonic Wars; Versailles; and then the collection of treaties after the Second World War—and sets out descriptions of the negotiations, the contexts of the treaties, and most important the evolution of norms of legitimacy among powerful states. It’s not a long book.
It says that what’s always going on in these really big international pacts are questions about legitimacy, which are: who has to be included in the ‘we’ for order to be restored and sustained, and what are the norms they will sign up to, to try to sustain peaceful coexistence in the period ahead?
This shows that norms are both tools and something that we live with, but then can be found wanting if a new crisis arises. The book also tells the story of a familiar but still vital point for our generation. Whereas the Vienna Congress brought France back into the fold pretty quickly after Napoleon was defeated, that didn’t happen with Germany after the First World War and the Versailles Treaty, which of course didn’t bode well.
Clark also makes slightly less familiar points. After the Vienna Congress and the treaties that came out of it, some of the great powers (including Austria-Hungary, led by Metternich) wanted to agree a substantive principle of legitimacy that underpinned absolutist monarchy. Castlereagh, for Britain, didn’t want that at all. He wanted norms of peaceful coexistence, but he wasn’t going to sign up to their way of governing themselves.
“Clark effectively shows how norms and institutions can grow out of particular situations involving the interaction of power, accommodation, and compromise”
Although Castlereagh was trying to solve some of the problems the French Revolution had led to, one of which was continental war, he wasn’t trying to set up the norms of legitimacy in ways that prescribed the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian way of governing themselves under absolute monarchy. He wanted to avoid revolution but didn’t want to go further than that.
Clark effectively shows how norms and institutions can grow out of particular situations involving the interaction of power, accommodation, and compromise. For example, in some respects, the practices of the balance of power with a norm of consensus among the Powers ended up being crystallized and codified around the Treaty of Utrecht and afterwards.
Another interesting development, setting in train a process that accelerated during the 20th century, is that at the Congress of Vienna, the leading powers agreed to meet quite regularly. That met with some scepticism from some of Castlereagh’s colleagues in London, but it went ahead. It was successful on the whole, for a little under a century, at least until the Franco-Prussian War. Of course, it’s done for by the time of the First World War. But the key thing for us, I think, is that this practice of meeting regularly starts to spawn other fora that are recognisable to us.
For example, in the latter decades of the 19th century, there were international conferences on subjects beyond war and peace, including on the monetary system, essentially held under the auspices of the system of international relations that Vienna had ushered in. The system had the capacity to broaden participation, with the United States initiating some conferences towards the end of the century. Earlier, after the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century, the Ottomans had kind of joined the Concert, but not wholeheartedly for uncomfortable reasons.
Both Neff and Clark describe a distasteful international hierarchy, in which the Chinese, the Japanese, and differently the Ottomans, were regarded as civilised but incompletely civilised in what, god protect us from ourselves, was known as a ‘standard of civilisation.’ They’re participants in international law but not at the top table. That’s deeply unattractive, but we live in a world where there is still a top table, and not everyone’s there, which is a product of the conditions of some kind of basic order being sustained (power, not values). In fact, we live in a world where there’s a contest going on right now about who should be at the top table.
I think Clark’s book is instructive in the way that in the real world of policy-making power, order, norms, interests, commerce, war, and peace all come together, underlining the utility of drawing a higher level framework from Hume and Williams..
Let’s move on to the last of your five books on geopolitics and global commerce, Yan Xuetong’s Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. You pointed out very clearly in your book that just because a nation has a Confucian background doesn’t mean it can’t be a constitutional democracy, as Japan and South Korea show. What’s this book about and what’s it arguing?
Before discussing the book, let me say something about Professor Yan. He is a Beijing-based realist (in western terms, roughly Hobbesian) international relations theorist, who is very well-versed in Western political theory. He’s also a Chinese nationalist who in 2011 wrote a piece headlined (in the English translation) “How China Can Defeat America” but, it seems to me, is also someone who might have slight qualms about Beijing’s tactics of over recent years as he seems to prioritise political leadership ahead of military or economic might.
Anyway, he knows about us, if I can put it crudely, including the history of our thought, and he has been an influential voice and actor there. The book is fascinating because it’s a description (inevitably, selectively) of the history of ancient Chinese thought on politics, governance, and the ethics of governance, with a read across to international relations.
It contains several chapters written or co-written by Professor Yan, and also chapters in which other authors respond to his descriptions of Chinese intellectual history, plus finally an interview with him. As a device for Westerners to learn about ancient Chinese thought before unification under the Qin, which Yan believes is instructive for both theory and today’s global contest, it’s fascinating. In reading the exchanges, we don’t see just a single view of Chinese political thought; the back and forth is instructive. But there is also a message: that China can be a “humane authority” (elsewhere translated as “true kingship”) for the world, and hence an improvement over US (bad) hegemonic power.
The second substantive chapter of the book is about an ancient Chinese figure called Xunzi. This is after Confucius. Xunzi is more hard-line than Mencius (or Mengzi, as the Chinese know him). Xunzi thinks that good governance depends pretty much entirely on the character of leaders, and that institutions just aren’t going to do the job.
“Yan’s book on ancient Chinese thought is useful for westerners because China is a great power, and it’s going to carry on being a great power”
This is almost the opposite of what Hume says. Around two millennia later, he says that when designing a constitution you must base it on the assumption that all the men and women involved are rogues, even though that is untrue. He makes a point of saying that they’re not all rogues, but you’d be most unwise to design your constitution on the basis that they are all going to be benevolent all the time.
You can see there the seeds of James Madison, who of course had read Hume. Xunzi, also a profound thinker, is saying that institutions aren’t going to do the work because institutions comprise bunches of people, and if these people have bad character, the institutions aren’t going to deliver for you.
Interestingly, both Xunzi and Hume end up talking about the importance of education, as does Williams when discussing legitimation. That raises its own set of issues about whether education can be used to program people to support the regime they’re in (which brings to mind the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory). What a good system of education looks like forms an important part of thinking about politics.
Xunzi makes us pause about Hume, and Hume makes us pause about Xunzi. Hume would say, even though all these people of good character have been trained, and the emperor has appointed good people around him or her, are they going to manage to be good every day? Are they going to manage to be good when the short-term rewards are so much more tempting than the long-term rewards can be? Likewise, Xunzi can say to Hume, how are you going to avoid these supposedly robust institutions becoming an empty shell?
Both sides of this argument speak to us today. Think of the United States, whose institutions have been jeopardised by failings of character (and still are, in some parts of the system). But also, the institutions have functioned up to a point against flawed characters, so far preventing utter disaster. A reasonable conclusion is that you need both, and so, what does that mean? This is just one example I found, while reading Yan’s book, of an ancient Chinese theorist prompting us to think more carefully about some of the things that are central to today’s predicament.
In economics, the importance of institutions was emphasised by Nobel economist Douglas North more than a quarter of a century ago. From that starting point, political economists have gradually moved on to looking at culture. I predict that they aren’t very far from colliding with questions of the normative validity of values and even questions of character (virtue). When they reach that point— and if they do, it will be in formally very clever ways —they will have returned us to the middle of the 18th century, when Hume was both a political economist and a political philosopher.
But whatever the read across, Professor Yan’s book on ancient Chinese thought is useful for westerners because China is a great power, and it’s going to carry on being a great power. In any case, the history of Confucian states is extraordinarily rich and interesting. Either way, we ought to be more curious and know more about the history of their thought, as well as the history of power in China. By ‘we’, I don’t just mean the people sitting in the State Department or the British Foreign Office, but people who are interested in the world. In that sense, the publication of Professor Yan’s book in English is welcome.
We wanted to talk about one more book that might be specifically about economics and these issues that we’ve been talking about, War by Other Means: Geo-economics and Statecraft, by Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris. Can you tell us why that’s a good place to look at these issues with an economics focus?
The world order may or may not change profoundly, but it’s certainly being contested at the moment. The people whose books we’ve been discussing are all saying that norms and institutions are partly a product of the order that supplies stability but also shape that order. Today, we’ve happened to live in a stable order for quite a long time. Now it is under stress and the era of silos, in which you can be a monetary policy maker without knowing much about trade policy, or a trade policy maker without engaging much with the laws of war and peace, or, more prosaically, with security policy, is finished.
That is for lots of reasons but one of them is that when questions of order are up for grabs, states will use all the instruments at their disposal, and some of them are economic. Blackwill and Harris’s book describes geoeconomics as the use of economic instruments to pursue political and geopolitical foreign policy ends. Examples include seizing somebody’s foreign exchange reserves, throwing them out of the SWIFT international payments messaging system, and applying trade and investment sanctions of some nature.
It is not an economics book, nor quite a textbook. It’s a really excellent book for finding out about all the varieties of economic instruments that states can use, defensively or offensively, against each other. It was published in 2016. Less than a decade later, almost everything in the book is happening. Oddly, that was the year that I first set out my thinking and scenarios in the Tacitus Lecture in London.
Your latest book is called Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order. After having written it, did you feel more or less optimistic about the issues you were dealing with and the possibility of humanity organising itself in ways that would improve on the current situation?
I am not terribly optimistic in the short run. As I describe in the book, this is a contest that I think will go on for decades, maybe a century. It’s everywhere and in everything, neither side can knock out the other, and it is ideological—as evidenced by Beijing’s 2013 Document 9, which far too few people have heard of. The main powers face each other with two completely different views of how states should be governed and how the world should be ordered.
On the other hand, and this is where my book ends up, I think it is vital that we, in the so-called free world (including the Confucian heritage constitutional democracies), don’t forget who we’ve managed to become, that this is an achievement, and that while our values aren’t necessarily values we should impose on other people they are very much values we should hold on to.
Order may be the most precious thing, but a way of life that maintains domestic order in ways that most people accept, even if of course they don’t like policy all the time, is a tremendous achievement. You can’t name the people who achieved it because it happened gradually.
I’m not terribly optimistic, but I do think we should be very conscious that our way of life is one that is important for us to hold on to. At one level, my book is severely practical. I predicted what has come to be called de-risking, and I wanted some of that to happen even while accepting that there is a risk of overshooting, which would make people poorer, and that obviously would be a bad thing. But we mustn’t leave ourselves overly dependent upon or exposed to what could be a hostile state. I don’t say it is, but it could be. These considerations are symmetric, so there is bound to be some degree of decoupling.
In the practical parts of the book, I argue that I don’t think the business community has got its head around that at all, and nor, in a way, would I expect it to. In a similar vein, we see the large international organisations—for example, the WTO and the IMF—struggling. In a sense, they’re bound to struggle because they are creations of the order that is being contested. They’re a manifestation of a particular kind of world order, and they aren’t going to provide the solutions.
But the current order has also produced informal fora, like the G20, which can be incredibly valuable because they provide low-cost opportunities for the leading protoganists to meet each other. That, by the way, is why it was quite significant that Xi didn’t go to the Delhi G20 summit, which has extra resonance because India will most likely become a great power.
The West has been slow to grapple with this situation, hobbled as it was by the Hegelian myth of an end to history and a kind of myopia that you can be hegemon without being engaged with and having friends across the whole world. I don’t think the contest is going to go away any time soon. If China’s economy stumbles, as well it might, it will be a mistake to compare that with Japan in the 1990s. Even if the Chinese economy moves sideways for a decade, the PRC could probably continue to expand its hard power. A worthwhile strategy for coping—for maintaining peaceful coexistence without giving up on our way of life—needs to avoid both amoral “realism” and idealism. I think the books I have listed can help us with that great challenge, including at home.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.