Commerce and Peace

What are they thinking, some of these people in Congress and on television who want to make more of the American spy plane near China incident than is warranted? One is not surprised, perhaps, at advocates of “benevolent” American hegemony like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan whining that the American side conceded too much and ended up losing face and prestige in the resolution – although it should be noted that if anything such bellicose bellowings before the plane’s crew was released increased the danger, at least marginally, to those very crew members when they were still being, er, detained. Certain neo-imperialists rather consistently place the thoroughly ephemeral image of uncompromising toughness far ahead of the mere lives of pawns of empire like members of the military.

But what is up with some conservatives who claim to be free enterprisers yet are now agitating for economic sanctions and other forms of subversion of free enterprise principles, for undertaking would-be punishment of the leaders of mainland China that can only strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Beijing? Is there really such nostalgia for the Cold War, such a fervent desire for a powerful enemy in the world, for windmills against which American lovers of conflict can tilt? Why such a yearning for villains against whom to urge regular three-minute hates? Can it be solely or even mainly a concern to keep the military budgets growing? If so, why? Why is a bloated military budget whose keepers are always on the alert for a justification for spending more anything other than a distasteful aspect of the Big Government conservatives claim to oppose?

Perhaps it is an aspect of what Rush Limbaugh, in some of his better moments and on different issues, calls the “Oprah-ization” of America. It isn’t how well you think or how much you know or whether you consider implications that’s important in modern America, but what you feel, how you’re using your feelings to feel better about yourself. Even “Nightline” on Monday night (with Ted Koppel taking the night off) participated in the orgy of feelings, interviewing family members of crew members in the hours before arrival and getting variations on the predictable “we sure had some anxious moments, we’re happy he/she is coming back, we’re looking forward to it” theme. What news or policy implications such understandable emotions had remains mysterious, but we were all invited to share the feelings.

A similar emphasis on emotions ranging from relief to renewed resentment characterizes much of the discussion about the supposedly fragile relationship between the United States and China as representatives of the two nation-states meet in Beijing today. The Chinese people are said (on what authority it seems not necessary to expound) to be angry at the softness of their leaders in not exacting more concessions from the Yankee hegemonists, and Americans are likewise supposed to be angry at the mollycoddling attitude of U.S. authorities vis-à-vis Beijing. Both sides are supposed to be in intractable moods, making demands the other side can’t or won’t meet because the blood is too bad and the hurt feelings too exposed. What will become of the young and the restless empires?

Actually, it might be better to have the dispute mediated on Oprah than through the supposedly respectable media. Oprah might have her pet psychologist Dr. Phil sit the sides down and say, “Cut the crap. You’re not two quarreling lovers with some inalienable right to have hurt feelings. You are powerful nation-states with complex sets of relationships and interests that that have – or should have – little or nothing to do with emotions or feelings. Grow up and stop acting like babies! Figure out cold-bloodedly what your interests are and negotiate like adults, with an understanding that neither side will achieve its most unreasonable and punishing goals. Nation-state relationships are based on interests, not on anger or hurt feelings or a desire to punish. The more you can minimize emotional investments the better chance you can achieve accommodation with little if any conflict. You don’t have to agree on everything and you don’t have a right to impose your view on the other party or feel like you’ve been dissed.”

In the case of the supposedly fragile relationship between the United States and China, cold-blooded calculation might even be the best route to relative peace. From a nation-state perspective, the United States is the dominant but often reluctant world empire and China is both an ancient regional power with a certain degree of continuity – particularly if you think of the Maoist and post-Maoist episode as yet another dynasty of emperors – and a rising power with more extensive ambitions. On a political level the two are bound to clash from time to time. But on commercial, personal and tourist-oriented curiosity levels the two countries have extensive ties from which both benefit. And in both international and commercial relationships, the truth that Americans seem to find hard to grasp is that you don’t have to admire or even like the person, business or country with which you have a relationship. And when you have inevitable clashes or disagreements it isn’t necessary to develop animosity toward the other side if you understand the nature of the game.

I haven’t yet uncovered evidence that American businessmen with business interests in China actively lobbied during the 11 days to get the matter resolved quickly, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some messages were discreetly passed along. But in a sense direct messages weren’t really necessary. The Bush administration knows, as the Clinton administration knew before it, that many applecarts would be upset if an incident were allowed to develop into a full-blown conflict that would lead to sanctions being imposed, plants being closed down, marketing mechanisms disassembled and the like.

Insofar as consideration of business interests related to China has received any discussion, it has mostly been from the perspective of sneering at those who would be influenced by nasty old multinational multimillionaires. But from the perspective of those who would prefer relatively peaceful relations – which is not the same as admiring, worshipful or willing to turn a blind eye to abuses – between China and the United States, as Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute has pointed out, perhaps we ought to view businesspeople who serve as a brake on militaristic tendencies as benefactors, if not necessarily as outright heroes. The fact is, as Rockwell puts it, “free trade helps quell government’s passion for war. It creates powerful lobbying groups on all sides that demand the preservation of peace and the triumph of diplomacy over hostility.”

Lew, in a busy couple of weeks since the spy plane incident, also noted that China, the country being spied upon, had potential grievances worthy of note by Americans who think their own government should be smaller and not engaged as policeman of the world and has even suggested that the US government really does owe China an apology. As the two countries sit down today to try to figure out when or whether China will return the spy plane, which will obviously touch on related issues in the complex relationship like arms for Taiwan, trade relations, human rights and religious freedom, it would be helpful to consider the possibility that it’s not simply a one-sided issue, with the well-meaning minions of beneficence in the United States as the uniquely aggrieved party.

The day a deal to return the plane’s military personnel was announced I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that the entire incident – which despite my general inclination to think all presidents and their people are beneath contempt I thought the Bushies had handled about as well as might be expected – would soon be forgotten. It looks now as if I was wrong. Although Bush himself deserves some sort of credit for not horning in on the homecoming personally, the administration stepped up the rhetoric almost the instant the crew was on US soil.

It’s interesting. Although I can’t claim to have spies listening everywhere, I don’t detect all that much interest outside the Capital Beltway – beyond the generalized and usually vague mild jingoism almost any foreign imbroglio stirs up – in punishing China or extracting admissions or concessions. Could it be that the people in general understand at some level that spying between two major nation-states, one of which seems like a potential competitor, is simply going to happen, that it doesn’t man they’re all bad and we’re all good? Could it be that beyond the Beltway people understand there’s a lot of gray, a lot of morally and geopolitically ambiguous activity in which both countries engage and it doesn’t do much good to mount a high horse?

If so, it could be that the people are more mature in their approach to international relations than are a good many of their would-be leaders who are busily holding press conferences and going on cable news demanding that the United States extract a pound of flesh.

Or maybe not. The American people, or at least the fuzzy snapshot we get of them through polls, talk shows and other imperfect feedback receivers, still seem to be suckers for the idea of morality and high indignation in foreign affairs. The fact that this requires pretending that the United States always wears the white hat (despite Kosovo, Waco, Ruby Ridge, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, cruise missiles obliterating aspirin factories and on and on) seems to bother only a few of us. The fact that the “we’re the good guys fighting evil” line requires that foreign leaders or foreign countries be demonized might only add to the fun.

For now, however, let’s just take a moment to celebrate the fact that commercial interests seem to have had a certain sway – even if indirect and difficult to trace – that militated in favor of getting the basic problem of US service people detained solved fairly quickly in a way that allowed both governments a modicum of face-saving. If there is a commercial interest in the next phase, over the return of the spy plane and some outline for future relations, it is probably that they be conducted fairly quietly, with a minimum of publicized accusations and few headlines.

It will be fascinating to see if that’s how the negotiations begun in a somewhat unpromising atmosphere play out.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).