Friday, July 16, 2004

Will Europe Arm China?

The topic of China's international relations has made a rare appearance in the Irish blogosphere. A new addition to the neo-con cause, Gavin writes dissapprovingly of the prospect of EU states lifting the post-June 4th ban on arms sales to the People's Republic, referrering to an IHT op-ed by Reginald Dale, a journalist in residence at the Hoover Institution. Dick O'Brien echoes this humanitarian theme.

As a way of interpreting the relations between states, the oldest, and to my mind the most firmly-grounded approach, is that of the realist school. Thucydides gives an account of of the dialogue between the leading citizens of Melos and the Athenians, who give them the choice between capitulation and annihilation. With a pithyness that would make Dick Cheney blanch, it captures the essence of the philosophy perfectly:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they canand the weak suffer what they must.
To turn granite prose into journalese: The international system is made of states, who are sovereign in action and answer to no higher moral authority. Only occasionally are called to account by some hegemonic power, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia have been. States have absolved millions of veterans of the sins of killing and destruction in a way that no church could. "International law" is often invoked as a moral standard, but, to borrow a phrase from the Gangs of New York, there's more international law in the average US Marine's bayonet than in any piece of paper the UN ever wrote.

To my mind, this is one of the touchstones of the difference between the mindset of conservatives like me or Frank McGahon and these two liberal men of letters. The bleaker view of the world seems to be a very uncommon idea in Ireland: The lion might one day lie down with the lamb and eat straw like oxen, but in the meantime the Irish lamb hopes that vegetarianism catches on.

Will the arms deal happen? I'd venture a guess that it probably will, for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the Chinese are masters at allowing foreigners to delude themselves as to the potential of the prospects for their market, as a whole string of hyped trade missions and failed joint-ventures shows. The Europeans show no signs of learning from the fairly dismal experiences of many, many businesspeople from Marco Polo onwards, who've gone to China and come back with nothing but their anecdotes about being fed scorpions, donkeys and deers' penises (the tip is the greatest delicacy, I'm told).

Also, the drivers here seems to be the French, who are likely to have regretted angering Beijing a decade ago by selling Mirage jets to Taiwan. With his history of selling anything to willing buyers, including nuclear reactors, ballistic missiles and himself, Jacques Chirac is unlikely to turn down the opportunity for some ready cash. Linkages may be especially important, the obvious ones might be orders for Airbus in a market in which Boeing has a stranglehold on civil aviation.

As in the case of the recent criticism by Chirac of America's role in fighting AIDS globally, the temptation to annoy the Americans, regardless of the justice of their case or the consequences will probably prove irresistable.

I don't have any illusions about the effect of human rights as a restraint on foreign policy. One reason that I tend to approve more of American foreign policy in general is that in Asia it is the major outside force for improving human rights, while Europe remains weak and divided in its policy, in spite of its greater economic involvement. In part, this is because Americans usually have little stomach for the explicit realism in the form of a Kissinger. Mainly though, I think the US learned how good a weapon human rights activism is in undermining domestic and international support for repressive regeimes, first in Europe with the Helsinki accords, and now in China.