Imperial Logic

Like many Chinese scholars, Yan Xuetong has been studying ancient thought. “Recently I read all these books by ancient Chinese scholars and discovered that these guys are smart–their ideas are much more relevant than most modern international relations theory,” he said. The thing that interested him the most was the distinction that ancient Chinese scholars made between two kinds of order: the “Wang” (which literally means “king”) and the “Ba” (“overlord”). The “Wang” system was centred on a dominant superpower, but its primacy was based on benign government rather than coercion or territorial expansion. The “Ba” system, on the other hand, was a classic hegemonic system, where the most powerful nation imposed order on its periphery. Yan explains how in ancient times the Chinese operated both systems: “Within Chinese Asia we had a ‘Wang’ system. Outside, when dealing with ‘barbarians,’ we had a hegemonic system. That is just like the US today, which adopts a ‘Wang’ system inside the western club, where it doesn’t use military force or employ double standards. On a global scale, however, the US is hegemonic, using military power and employing double standards.”

Mark Leonard: China’s  New Intelligentsia, Prospect March 2008

With remarkable consistency, the Bush doctrine proposed this logic for our time. In this thinking, the idea of global dominance is to today’s world what the idea of national sovereignty was to the time of the foundation of nation-states. It would amount to a system of something like Earth-rule by one nation. In a very real sense, Bush was proposing the United States as a benign global Leviathan. (His unprecedented assertion of presidential powers at home, under the doctrine of the “unitary executive”, would make the president a kind of sovereign over the United States as well.) In such a system, a double standard, in regard to nuclear weapons and much else, is not a flaw but a first principle and a necessity, as all consistent absolutists know. Whether in the context of nation-state formation half a millennium ago or of international order today, as large a gap as possible in both rights and power between the lord and the vassals is essential, for it is precisely on this inequality that the system, promising law and order for all, relies.

Jonathan Schell: The Moral Equivalent of Empire, Harper’s Magazine February 2008