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Conservatism and the China question

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15 July 2011 14:16

To me, the most fruitful line of questioning in response to my recent Wednesday Lowy Lunch presentation on conservatism in international relations was on the subject of change. Several questions came from the audience on this point, and it's also Richard Green's theme in his Reader Riposte.

So I want to address directly the question of China, and how conservatism, a political philosophy devoted to continuity and tradition, can cope with the introduction of such a radically new and powerful presence on the international stage.

The first thing to say is that conservatism is hostile to revolutionary doctrines like communism. Indeed, modern conservatism arose to resist revolutionary power, in the form of the French Jacobins. If conservatism has a founding text, it is Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France', which calls for all-out war against what Burke called France's 'armed doctrine'. (Pictured, Burke statue in Bristol, by Flickr user Ravages.)

So, although it is rather quaint these says to take the 'Communist' in 'Communist Party of China' very seriously, insofar as China itself takes communism seriously, the conservative is implacably hostile to China's worldview, and will resist its power on the international stage.

This is not to say that conservatives want war with China. China, after all, does not take communism all that seriously. And even if it did, there must always, in the conservative worldview, be space to consider the circumstances of the individual case. Burke's call for Europe's armies to rise up against the French revolutionaries was not a template for conservatives to call for war against the Soviet Union; Burke would not have countenanced global nuclear conflict. Similarly, conservatives should resist such facile transposition of Burke's ideas in the case of China.

The second thing to say is that conservatism, which tends to be associated with aristocracy and inherited privilege, is often reluctant to admit new players onto the political stage. As Waleed Aly noted in his recent Quarterly Essay, 'What's Right?', British conservatives of their time resisted democracy and the extension of suffrage.

Conservatives recognise that a political order must change in order to survive, but conservatives rarely lead that change. Instead, they are apt to rely on what Oakeshott called the 'intimations' of society, reforming government only when society is moving in a particular direction anyway. Conservatives, then, could never have led the movement to enfranchise women, but they did assent to it once it became clear that the role of women in society more broadly was changing.

As I said in the presentation, this reluctance to grasp change is a weakness in the conservative disposition, and it is one of the strengths of Australia's Liberal Party that, on a philosophical level at least, it manages to combine the conservative scepticism of change with small-l liberal enthusiasm for it. Each tends to leaven the other. 

In the case of China's emergence as a great power, I don't think the task of convincing conservatives to allow China to take its place on the world stage is a particularly difficult one, since its strength is so obvious, and the alternative, of shutting China out, is so unappealing. The argument is about the means of engagement, and here is where I think conservatism offers a key insight which foreign policy realists pay too little attention to.

As I said in the speech, the international order has its own body of laws, its own customs, traditions and institutions, even a shared diplomatic lexicon — it's an international society of European origins but which, since the Second World War, has had global reach.

Realists, to put their side slightly crudely, ignore all of this complexity and focus almost exclusively on the question of power. When it comes to China, realists only want to talk about changing power differentials, and how we can manage them. But although the question of China's power is clearly important, conservatism argues that political activity flourishes when power is tamed or sublimated, something which happens gradually as the authority of traditions and institutions rises.

So it seems to me that the conservative response to the rise of China is to embrace it fully into this 'international society' and to make that society stronger, so that the contest of raw power becomes 'clothed in constitution', to borrow the words of the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Whether the norms, customs, traditions and institutions of that international society are strong enough to resist China's 'tianxia' framework, as Richard Green describes it, remains an open question. As Hugh White has said, no action we take to accommodate China's rise will work if China is bent on hostility and domination. But until we know for sure that China aims to revolutionise the Asian order rather than merely taking its rightful place within it, we ought to at least try to smooth the way.

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