21 April 2018

Wu wei as foreign policy

In these past couple weeks of bluster, danger and illegal missile strikes, the example of China has been one to study with care. China has never really been a nation which acts rashly, and the most recent diplomatic and foreign policy crisis has proven no exception to that rule. Xi Jinping’s cabinet has lodged the obligatory objection to our precipitous military action, of course. But they’ve also been calling for dialogue and attempting to diplomatically manoeuvre the situation away from a disastrous precipice. And that’s not all. China’s government and public policy apparatus have not been lazy or remiss. They have been quietly and unobtrusively studying the behaviour of its chief informal ally in the Middle East from a strategic standpoint.

Say what you like about the Chinese Communist Party, about its domestic governance, or about Xi Jinping’s recent consolidation of domestic political power into his own hands. But his actions on the international stage have been characterised by an admirable discretion, patience, restraint and subtle persistence. China’s recent behaviour serves as a small but apposite example of the traditional philosophical principle of wu wei 無為 as applied to international affairs.

Wu wei is a somewhat slippery philosophical concept, which is often translated into English with various permutations of ‘inaction’, ‘non-action’ or ‘passivity’. The temptation to render it as ‘laisser-faire’ is a common one (but nonetheless wrong) for those who want to coöpt the Daoist philosophical tradition as a proxy for political libertarianism. But the concept (which, by the way, is not specific to Daoism) isn’t necessarily an argument against government per se, though it is true Daoism has historically exercised a greater scepticism of government action than most other schools of contemporary political philosophy. Wu wei also has a dynamic quality, though; perhaps a better translation of the term would be something like ‘action without effort’. A decent explanation for the concept is given in this brief video, for which link (and for much of the idea that went into this post) thanks are especially due to Addison Hodges Hart:

Bringing this back to China’s policy on Syria: China’s policy isn’t exactly laisser-faire. What they are doing might look like ‘inaction’ or ‘passivity’ from the point-of-view of an American policy-maker beholden to military contractors and driven by an ill-thought impulse to ‘do something’ – that ‘something’ seeming inevitably to involve the deployment of ‘shock and awe’ and ‘smart bombs’ – in response to a crisis in foreign affairs. That impression would be mistaken.

China’s actions are far more interesting than that. They are deploying their ‘soft power’ tools – diplomacy, influence, scholarship. And they are exercising tact and patience in how and when they deploy these tools. More importantly, they don’t bluster and they don’t make impossible promises or empty threats. As a result, the government of Communist China is not entangled in webs of deception and intractable geopolitical struggles in the same way the American government currently is. They are free to position themselves and free to choose when, if or how to intervene. Most importantly: they can position themselves as an honest broker, a neutral and disinterested party and an effective mediator, in a way that we are now no longer able to.

The Chinese Classics, the zhuzi baijia 諸子百家, the operatic and literary traditions, and – last, but assuredly not least – the Daoist canon, all offer a vast wealth of strategic and practical wisdom. And regardless of what you may think of Xi Jinping – whether you believe him to be a true lover of the Classics (which is my inclination) or a cynical manipulator thereof – it cannot be denied that his education has left him with a distinct mastery of strategic questions. Neither he, nor the foreign policy apparatus of China as a whole, are to be underestimated, and perhaps we might be doing well to study China’s practical philosophical legacy, every bit as eagerly as Chinese students are imbibing Strauss and Schmitt.

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