You will no doubt have been advised against adopting any view that seems or seeks to attribute all events to one single cause. (I am not speaking here about your relationship with the Almighty, which lies well outside the scope of this column.) But it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the absolutely central and consistent role played, in so many of our difficulties, by the People’s Republic of China.
Look at almost any point of the compass. From where does Iran propose to acquire its long-range missiles? From whom does North Korea receive economic and military backing and diplomatic protection? To what source did Robert Mugabe turn when he sought to import a massive infusion of small arms in between the first and second “rounds” of Zimbabwe’s “election”? Who is it that trades blood for oil in Darfur, acquiring most of Sudan’s oil and furnishing most of its armaments? When the stone-faced junta that treats the people of Burma like state property is challenged even slightly at the United Nations, which country moves to block any effective condemnation or action? This list is not by any means exhaustive.
Behind this near-axiom of solidarity with all manners of despotism lie two elements that are highly dangerous either singly or in combination: an increasingly powerful naval and military and aerial capacity and the inculcation by state media of a highly xenophobic and chauvinistic public opinion. We had a glimpse of the two things in concert in the very early days of your first administration: a mid-air mishap over the Chinese island of Hainan led to the impounding of one of our planes and its crew, and the orchestration on the streets of Beijing of demonstrations of massively regimented paranoia. (That this is a tactic that presents itself readily to the Communist Party leadership cannot be doubted: after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade under the Clinton administration—on another occasion when China was being warm and helpful to an international outlaw regime—the crowds outside our Beijing mission very nearly went out of control.) The decline of Stalinist ideology and the new challenges posed by cults like Falun Gong and unofficial movements like underground Christianity have meant that the Party’s one sure and certain recourse is to the passions of nationalist resentment. As we have good historic reason to know, these emotions once stoked are difficult to damp down.
There seems to me to be a real danger that the toxicity of this nationalism may blind Beijing even to its own interests. If North Korea continues to act as it has been doing—testing missiles without warning by firing them over the Sea of Japan, for example—it will tend to create a nationalist counter-reaction in Japan and perhaps even induce the Japanese to abandon the disarmament and anti-nuclear elements both of their culture and their constitution. It is manifestly in the interests of the Chinese that these developments not occur. And yet their immense and exclusive leverage in Pyongyang goes, as far as one can judge, almost entirely unused.
The sign and symbol of China’s penchant for authoritarianism, allied to its regional and international ambitions, is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Its membership—China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Iran—contains only one state (Kyrgyzstan) that cannot be explicitly described—in Robert Kagan’s formulation—as an “autocracy.” Vladimir Putin, a man of whom it must be said that he disdains to conceal his true feelings and ambitions, has openly described the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a reborn version of the Warsaw Pact and as a direct riposte to the expanded NATO that has been such a centerpiece of your own diplomacy.
Thus far, outside the formal membership of the SCO—which stretches across the Caucasus and indeed the Urals—are China’s virtual allies and clients within the ASEAN group. The salient case of Burma illustrates the position very plainly, and repeats in microcosm the tactics of Beijing at the United Nations. When broadly democratic countries like Indonesia and Japan and the Philippines attempted to isolate the Rangoon regime, their initiative was thwarted by a concert, evidently Chinese-orchestrated, of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that was last year, before the stark and appalling truth became apparent: the Burmese generals will see their “own” people die en masse before they will allow their hold on them to be loosened by even one degree.
I myself have no idea of how I would set about explaining the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia to Burma’s starving and diseased and immiserated subjects, but it seems to me that an opportunity here presents itself to assert both our interests and our principles in one initiative. You will remember that the so-called duty to “protect,” adopted in Kofi Annan’s time, on the urging of the Canadians, was the “soft” UN alternative to the allegedly “hard” option of regime change. Very well. Why not accept the principle? (It is, after all, already partially enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in some of the provisions of the Genocide Convention to which we are a signatory.)
Senator John McCain’s recent proposal for a “league” of countries which respect democracy and human rights might not have been mocked and derided as much as it was if more Americans had been more aware of the existence of another “league”—the aforementioned SCO—that is dedicated to the contrary proposition. As matters stand even now, there are informal groupings within groupings, such as the UN, ASEAN, and the African Union, which attempt to keep up a commitment to the principles of law and accountability. (A recent and pleasant surprise, for instance, has been the role of Zambia’s leadership in pressing for a properly arbitrated outcome in the affairs of its Zimbabwean neighbor.) It’s also a fairly safe bet that there are many Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council who see the rise of a sectarian and potentially nuclear Iran, with designs on Bahrain as well as Iraq, as a menace at least as great as, say, Israel.
In the recent past, there has been some talk about the parallel possibility of reviving what has been called “the Anglosphere”: otherwise known by a recent dinner guest of yours in the White House, the historian Andrew Roberts, as “the English-speaking peoples.” The Churchillian echo here is beyond doubt an intended one, designed to evoke the historic alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the three great confrontations of the last century. It was in fact that “coalition of the willing” that promulgated the very idea of a “United Nations” in the first instance.
Recently, two distinguished Anglo-Americans, Professor Robert Conquest of the Hoover Institution and John O’Sullivan, formerly editor of National Review, have re-floated this idea in different forms. Professor Conquest has gone so far as to suggest an actual structure or secretariat, based in Bermuda, and the admission of non-“Anglo” but largely English-speaking democracies such as Gambia and Denmark. My own chief interest is in the two largest democracies on their respective continents, South Africa and India. South Africa under its present leadership is a terrible disappointment for a number of reasons, but the strengthening of our bond with India is one of the few unarguable successes of your foreign policy. It has made Congress and the press and the wider American public more aware of the existence of another ethnically plural and multicultural democracy, with a flourishing literature and English as one of its official languages, that has been fighting against Islamic jihadism for rather longer than we have. India acts as a counterbalance not only to the rogue aspects of Pakistani politics in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but also to the ambitions of Pakistan’s historic ally and patron, China. It seems unthinkable that any of your successors will not wish to build upon our enhanced relationship with New Delhi, which for obvious reasons is also a large and natural extension of the “Anglosphere” concept. (In a recent speech given at Oxford, India’s president said that the English language had been one of the crucial factors contributing to his country’s rapid modernization.)
I have already mentioned the instance that might and probably should become the test case for this unspoken alliance of democracies. The most outrageous reports continue to reach the outside world, not just of official Burmese government indifference to mass starvation and the breakdown of health services, but of actual prevention of measures taken to relieve it. An old Burmese joke has it that George Orwell honored the country by writing a whole trilogy of novels about it: the first being entitled Burmese Days and the second and third Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the spring and summer of 2008, we saw in the most graphic and ghastly way how the totalitarian principle eventually and inevitably becomes the negation even of its own basest propaganda. Having claimed state provision for the people as the trade-off for its abolition of their human rights, the regime then stands directly between the citizens and even the elementary aid that might make the immediate difference between their lives and their deaths.
Here, surely, is a case where the Bush Doctrine and the Annan code can be brought into a positive alignment. As we saw in the case of Indonesia after the tsunami, there is almost no more imposing projection of American force than the arrival of an aircraft carrier that can convert thousands of gallons of sea water into fresh water every day, that can plug in and run massive generators of electricity, and that can serve as a base for dozens of long, and short-range mercy flights, to say nothing of the provision of medical and hospital facilities. If our status as “hyperpower” is sometimes in itself the cause of resentment, there is nonetheless this reward in terms of economy of scale: the sheer size and scope of American warmth and generosity, which has astonished the world before, may be able to impress it again. For dialectical rather than merely “bipartisan” purposes, I give the conclusion recently offered by Professor Philip Bobbitt, perhaps known to you as a liberal Texan Democrat, a nephew of President Lyndon Johnson, and a counsel to the Clinton National Security Council. The words are drawn from his recent book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century:
An alliance of democracies that includes the United States and Great Britain will intervene in three circumstances: when substantial strategic interests and substantial humanitarian concerns intersect; or when absent a vital strategic interest, humanitarian concerns are extremely high owing to an acute crisis—famine, civil war, disease, genocide—and risks are apparently low; or when truly vital strategic interests are in truly imminent danger.
Can it really be that the “sovereignty” of the Burmese dictators is a large enough consideration to place in the opposite scale, when the situation is as defined by his second condition above (which, one might point out, does not even specify the connection between dictatorship and the nature of the “acute crisis”)? The concern of many of us now is not so much that this—an abstention on Westphalian principle—would prove to be the case, but that the proposition is not even being put to the test. I am writing this toward the close of May 2008. The people of Burma are being forced to shift for themselves while their rulers, or better say owners, are safely located, like some oriental despotism of antiquity, in a purpose-built bunker-city deep in the jungle. One would have hoped that by now an American appeal would have been made to the United Nations, citing the Annan stipulations, and that our allies in NATO and ASEAN and the GCC and the AU would have seconded it with regional initiatives, demanding an international rescue of the Burmese, with sanctions on any local force that attempted to obstruct it. Even the Clinton administration was able to act this way, with British help, in NATO when the United Nations thwarted action in the Balkans.
It cannot reasonably be argued that Burma possesses any natural or mineral resources on which we cast a covetous eye. Nor, if we were seeking to pick a “pre-emptive” quarrel with the People’s Republic of China, would we really be likely to do so on such obscure and unpromising terrain. The case, in other words Mr. President, makes itself. If the possibility of failure may have to be admitted (and when is this not true?), it would still be highly clarifying, to that large constituency which interests itself in democracy and human rights and humanitarian aid, to see which nation had said and done what in this latest crisis. The worst outcome, in other words, would be, and would have been, for us not to try, or not to have tried.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution.