God, I Hate Confucius!

4 Dec

Confucius the JokeI would never eschew a humorous observation, but Stephen M. Walt’s laudable boost for the value of humility in IR study struck me as a bad path to take. I blame Daniel Nexon for associating a bit maladroitly Walt’s witticism to Robert Kelly’s excellent blog on IR and Asia, which provides guidance for why East Asia is an important topic to investigate. I would charitably associate Walt’s “confusionism” – Get it, Confucius? The Laughing Buddha smirks – with pragmatism; And, not the trite common meaning of that other abused word. Walt’s appropriation of Confucianism also has that watered-down, commercial quality, like an ancient greeting card.

Walt offers “confusionism” as a corrective against arrogance and folly, a theme humans don’t need Confucius or greeting-card Asian culture, to thrust into our stupid brains. Ask Odysseus. Or, consult the Old Testament. Actually, I can’t think of a folkloric tradition that wouldn’t be helpful to the moronic.

1. New circumstances. When leaders are facing a completely new set of problems, it will take them awhile to figure out what it all means. Until then, confusion will reign. It took a decade or more before Americans and Soviets understood the full implications of the nuclear revolution, and even then a lot of idiotic things were published and uttered on that topic for decades afterward. And because both sides were deeply confused about how deterrence worked, they spent trillions building well over 60,000 thermonuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy each other many times over.

2. Unfamiliar environments. It is hardly surprising that the United States has been stumbling its way over the past couple of decades, as we’ve wrestled with the politics of places that are vastly different from us. We were confused when we sallied forth to Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other places, and no country as ignorant of world history and as linguistically-challenged as America is likely to sort these places out. It’s the downside of American exceptionalism: if we’re as unique as we like to think we are, then the rest of the world is very different and is bound to confuse us. A lot.

3. Overflowing in-boxes. Policymakers are bound to be confused when they are constantly rushing to put out today’s new bonfire and don’t have time to think about what they are doing or saying. (This is what got Susan Rice into hot water, right?) Confusionism helps you understand why ambitious great powers get into trouble: they are always trying to do too many things in too many places, and that inevitably leaves them operating with a flawed understanding of most of the problems with which they are contending. Getting involved everywhere also makes you a prisoner of the locals on whom you have to rely for advice, and they’ll work 24/7 to convince you to do what they want. Needless to say, this is a good way to maximize one’s state of confusion.

4. Taboo topics. Nations are more likely to sort out problems when information is readily available and alternative views can be debated freely. It follows they will get confused when secrecy abounds, or when topics become taboo and hard to discuss openly. Small wonder, therefore, that totalitarian societies commit some of the biggest blunders (collectivized agriculture, anyone?), or that governments in open societies get confused whenever they start shielding their actions from public scrutiny and accountability (see under: Gitmo, drone warfare, covert action, etc.).

5. Ideological blinders. Rigid and all-encompassing world-views are a fertile source of confusion. A simple set of dogmas can provide great psychological comfort to believers, but they invariably clash with reality and thus provide a poor foundation for policymaking (or for running a national election, as today’s GOP seems determined to prove). Whenever you hear anyone offering up universal and unquestioned truths about politics or society, your Confusion-detector should start pinging and you should hope that they never get close to power.

6. Success. Paradoxically, states can be more vulnerable to confusion after victory, because it often fosters over-confidence. “Victory disease” is a familiar wartime phenomenon, as a string of successes increases the appetite and encourages leaders to believe they can do no wrong. And once leaders stop thinking with their heads and start operating with their hearts and hopes alone, they are bound to stumble.

There’s abundant pearls of wisdom here. “It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors…world leaders aren’t Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.” I get it – a little from all IR paradigms in moderation. Just don’t wrap up this nugget in the convoluted robes of a sage from China.

Recently, there was this kernel of an empirical notion i read in a blog, which led me to a Kindle sample, about pragmatism and (domestic) politics.

…Dewey thought that democracy should be justified on the pragmatic grounds that it created ways of resolving conflicts that were less costly than violence and coercion.

…Political theory cannot work on the assumption that there is a final truth about political institutions; rather, arguments and conclusions are fallible and contestable. But a steady point of reference is an assessment of how the institutions that a political philosophy advocates will actually work for the population governed by those institutions.

First of all, yes, category error. But, I think a pragmatic emphasis on understanding conflict on the international level is even more useful and plausible as an emphasis at the domestic level. After all, the international realm is autarkic, whereas the state is the final coercive power on the domestic level.

That understanding begins with defining terms, like Confucianism. I would define Confucianism qua IR paradigm as most likely an historical phenomenon and geographical phenomenon. In a Confucian system of states, one suzerain power (e.g., China or Japan) grants sovereignty to subordinate polities as a function of a hierarchy, where the suzerain has responsibilities to its vassals (e.g., military protection against non-system threats), who perform duties to the suzerain (e.g., .provide trade goods). Subordinate polities can become suzerain, as Japan’s remarkable rise in the 19th Century shows. And, as in the case of Choson, suzerains can opt to eliminate polities. Recognition, not power, is the most important aspect of this system.

With that said, I don’t like Confucianism, in its philosophical, cultural, or hypothetical IR conception. An example of why, is modern North Korea, which demands American recognition, as if it can anoint suzerains at will. Yes, Asian culture and history also offends my generally western liberal biases, which is another reason I think pragmatism is a useful halfway house between the two cultures.

But, please, can we stop punning on Confucius’ supposed wisdom!


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