Monday, October 10, 2005

Not so super

There used to be an old joke in postsoviet times and places. How do you tell an optimist from a pessimist? An optimist studies English; a pessimist studies Chinese.

Human kind is generally obsessed with dichotomies. Everything must be bipolar, and in global politics, there needs to be a force for good and a force for evil. Greece vs Troy, Rome vs the barbarians, Rome vs Bysanthium, Rome vs Constantinopol (religious thing), England vs France, Catholicism vs Protestantism (Rome was exceptionally confrontational), Napoleon vs the Sacred Union, Kaiser Wilhelm vs the Antante, Allies vs Nazis, Marshall Plan vs Warsaw Pact... and I'm sure I'm missing some important ones.

At this point, the dichotomy is broken (although it still works very well within the US, on a good vs evil scale no less). People are desperately searching for an opponent to America. You can read about the EU below - it's pretty obvious that at least part of the driving force, especially today, is resistance to America. Then there was that whole world public opinion thing, all very embarassing. Recently everybody is all worked up about China either being or soon becoming the new superpower.

Um, no.

The original superpowers - the countries for which this term was actually used, although Britain at the height of the Empire was a superpower beyond any doubt - were characterized most not by the opposite ideologies, but for the creation of First and Second Worlds and the proxy wars that followed. Few people these days remember that the popular term 'Third World' originally designated not poor nations, but nations that had not yet decided whether to be capitalist or communist. (Like I said before: in particular circumstances, Marxism made a lot of sense.) The Golden Billion became the First World, and the Socialist Bloc became the Second, for no better reason than that the Westerners invented the whole scheme. With the juicy bits split up in the Yalta pact, the superpowers went after the less important ones. Proxy wars allowed the opposite numbers to report successes to their superiors without risking an all-out M.A.D. conflict.

China will never become a superpower of this sort. Or rather, if it does, it won't be in direct opposition to the western devils. For one simple reason: the Chinese system isn't appealing to anyone. China is an industrial powerhouse and has a huge army, but it does not appear to be in the business of exporting ideology. Historically the Chinese people, while undoubtedly arrogant and self-obsessed, were never hugely confrontational (the way Russians were, and remain). Communism works well in China, but it is simply a wrapper for the underlying mentality. Best we can tell, the Chinese want our money and our luxuries, but otherwise just want to be left alone.

I'm fine with that.

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