Politics & Policy

Don’t Kowtow Now

"Thank you Sir, may I have another?"

All joking aside, this is no wok in the park (okay, okay, I just needed to get it out of my system).

Seriously, this has turned into a serious situation. At this point, our servicemen pass the duck test for hostages. They look like hostages, they’re kept like hostages, they’re not allowed to walk — like hostages.

What fascinates me about all of this is how little classical definitions of “national interest” have to do with this. Eliot Cohen writes an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal explaining that there are “two interpretations for any crisis in international politics. The first is the clash of rationally calculated interests conducted through the medium of disciplined armed forces, controlled by thoughtful statesmen…who basically understand what’s going on.”

The second interpretation, according to Cohen, sees international crises as “the damnable consequence of blunder, compounded by pride, anger and muddle.” You don’t have to be Metternich or Alec Baldwin to see that this falls pretty neatly behind curtain number two.

That said, this doesn’t mean that a lot isn’t at stake. Honor among nations is important; at least that’s what my copy of Honor Among Nations says. It’s a handy little collection of essays, put out by the Ethics and Public Policy Center a couple years ago and edited by Elliott Abrams (I know: It does get difficult to keep the foreign-policy Elliotts/Eliots straight).

It offers a series of case studies about how for the last 2,500 years nations have regularly expended blood and treasure for reasons directly at odds with their so-called vital national interests. “The common practice of calling such motives ‘irrational’ reveals how narrow the professional understanding of what matters to people has become in our day,” explains Donald Kagan, the Bass Professor of History, Classics, and Western Civilization at Yale University. He goes on:

“The notion that only economic benefits, power and security are rational goals is a prejudice of our time, a product of the attempt to treat the world of human events as though it were the inanimate physical universe, susceptible to scientific analysis and free to ignore human feelings, motives, and will. Such an approach is no more adequate to explain current behavior than to explain the actions of human beings throughout history.”

I wish I had that handy when all the kitschy liberals on my college campus were singing, “Give Peace a Chance” during the Gulf War. Then again they would never have been able to stretch their attention spans that long. By the time I got to the word “rational” they would have gone back to hugging each other and tearing their L. L. Bean ponchos in solidarity with the peace-loving people of Iraq.

Cosmo (as promised in Friday’s column)

Anyway, Kagan and the other essayists examine all sorts of instances when glory, honor, and the personal reputation of leaders drove events more than mere green-eyeshade considerations. World War I, an incalculably stupid war, was launched almost entirely on the basis of honor. Turkey and the Austro-Hungarian Empire based their decisions almost entirely on the fear that nobody would take them seriously anymore. Many of the most famous colonial, civil, and revolutionary wars violated the narrow criteria of Marxists and realists alike. One instructive example conspicuously absent from this wonderfully handy little book is China, specifically the example of Lord George Macartney, the British envoy charged with opening permanent trade relations with China in 1793.

There was one hitch. Traditionally, the Chinese required that representatives from other nations kowtow before the Emperor. This isn’t just kneeling or even what Joe Conason does for Bill Clinton. A full kowtow requires three kneelings and nine prostrations — meaning the supplicant actually lies face down on the floor. The kowtow was designed to convey complete obsequiousness and humility before the Son of Heaven, a.k.a. the emperor.

The tradition was a holdover of China’s feudal experience, which held that there was no greater civilization than the Middle Kingdom, and that all visitors were essentially vassals to the Emperor. Macartney, who as envoy was essentially a stand-in for the British crown, refused to kowtow to a foreign throne. He would kneel out of respect, but not touch his head to the ground nine times in submission.

The Chinese couldn’t deal with Macartney without his recognition of the Son of Heaven’s supremacy. And Macartney couldn’t concede that the King of England was merely a vassal to the Chinese. After a huge amount of discussion and argument in both hemispheres — “Tonight on Hardball: Should Macartney Say ‘Thank You Sir May I have Another?’ To China?” — Macartney went home empty-handed.

Now here’s the rub. According to the modern sensibility, both China and Great Britain acted completely against their obvious self-interests. Britain had just lost most of North America to a bunch of taxaphobes with muskets. The Chinese had been stagnating economically for decades. In short, they needed each other.

The similarities between the United States and China are not exactly parallel. My stock portfolio notwithstanding, America is doing fine economically. And even militarily, we may have a lot to worry about down the line but for now we’re king of the hill. And China is getting more powerful, not less. But the fact remains that China is still expecting something akin to a kowtow from the United States.

If we apologize to China we are admitting that we did something wrong and that we would be wrong to do it again. We would also be accepting the propaganda line that we are hegemons and all of that stuff, too. (What exactly is wrong with being a hegemon I don’t know.)

In a sense it’s all irrational, in the same way it makes no sense that I should beat the crap out of somebody my first day in prison just to keep from being someone’s wife. But once you factor these variables — honor, pride, “face,” prestige, etc. — into the equation, it makes complete sense. People who idealistically refuse to grasp the way the world operates are impressive, noble, and decent people. But they also more often than not are precisely the sort of people who end up doing the laundry for guys named Tiny in the federal pen.


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