The blog ‘The daily feminist’ will document and discuss the many insidious little everyday events that reveal and reproduce mechanisms, behaviours and social structures that oppress people on the grounds of their gender. Obviously, these are observations of a white woman of upper middle class background in an affluent ‘Northern’ country (that is geographically located far in the Southern hemisphere). It is my perspective as this is my blog. Yet, I do hope that by recording these incidents that seem so insignificant when taken in isolation people of other backgrounds on the receiving end of misogyny can recognise their experiences or thoughts.
In the US, armed groups continue to ‘protest’ (although threaten would be more appropriate to say) public authorities about lockdown orders. These groups are armed, they are white and they are dominantly male. The celebration of violence orchestrated in these protests make them extreme examples of showing off toxic masculinity. They are not in any way contributions to a democratic debate over the question how societies best get over the Covid19 crisis.
As the negative impact of the coronavirus lockdowns has been massive on national, local and household economies, and as we are seeing increasingly the negative impact on mental health, the question when and how to ease restrictions is indeed an urgent one. It is, however, not one about freedom vs. state oppression as, in extremis, US protesters want us make believe. The right to move around at their whim and will that these people are brutally claiming does not equate the general and universal claim to freedom of movement. What these people are screaming for is the white, male privilege to roam the streets at the expense of others providing and maintaining the social care that is essentially needed to allow this privilege. The large majority of women, people of colour or working classes have never had this ‘freedom’.
The ethical question that is posed with the challenge of finding the right moment to ease lockdown restriction is whether the right to live of a range of vulnerable people in our societies is equal to the right of the majority to go out and to socialise at work, schools, or leisure. The virulence of the virus being such that the question of surviving disease and the right to live depends in an extra-ordinary fashion from the provision of life-saving medical care. It is the rapidity of the virus’s spread as well as of its ‘rampage through the body’ that requires that responses to this pandemic go beyond the ordinary epidemiological ‘some people will die’ approach. Under the condition of a functioning health care system and the obligation of this system to attempt saving every single life, an early easing of lockdown restrictions would mean that every dying person in overwhelmed and hugely under-equipped hospitals had to be told that they would be dying for the greater good of the majority of other citizens to get a haircut at the hairdressers, running their server heels off at a restaurant or stocking shelves in some unknown warehouse.
As this is obviously absurd, the other question would be if these same vulnerable people could be the only ones subjected to lockdown restrictions while all those who believe not to be threatened by the virus or who have good reasons to believe that they will not be infected would be allowed to go along their business. The ethical question then shifts to the question if the right of the majority to have their nails done by precarious immigrant women, babbling away entire days in call centres, or trading investment packages justifies effectively socially isolating and locking in a minority, those who by their health disposition are very likely to die from the virus. Which means whether the freedom of some to move around freely is more important than the freedom of others to do the same. Does the right of one person to go to work justify the locking down of a vulnerable person?
In the opinion of the right-wing militias that keep displaying their weapons in front of public authorities in the US, the answer to this is a clear ‘yes’. Yet, they do not think or say so because they have thought this through in any sensible way (if not for the improbability that they can think sensibly). They think or say so because this is how it always has been.
The freedom of white men to roam the city, to go out, to occupy public space through sports, hanging out or patrolling the street has always been predicated on explicitly or implicitly, factually and practically prohibiting women and people of colour to do the same. Socially different levels of freedom of movement have always been an indicator of unequal social power. Extreme inequality exists if a limited group of persons moving around do not have to give a sh** about others who could be negatively impacted by their absence from home and family or who experience their driving, walking, drinking, playing or even working outside as physical or psychological threats. Such inequality exists whenever or wherever the ‘freedom of movement’ of one group of people leads to their occupation of public spaces, of public discourse or of public forums that they had to violently take from others (who might be the rightful owners like the land that settlers had the freedom to take from native populations, or other potential occupants). For these people, the power of freedom of movement is the freedom not to care.
The white man’s power to ‘get their way’ has as necessary corollary that all those who have to take over the social care and looking-out-for-each-other roles that are indispensable for our societies to exist, cannot move around freely. Women and people of colour are bound by the obligation to care for children, elder or vulnerable, for their communities as they are bound by the obligation to respect, often at the risk of their lives, the restrictions to the times and places where they can be found outside their home. Having to stay inside in order to care for and even save other people’s and their own lives is the normal existence for most women and people of colour. What these gunmen are protesting therefore is not the loss of freedom but the loss of their privilege of white, male power as the Covid19 crisis has generalised and socialised the restricted mobility of a care society where every single person’s freedom is dependent on the well-being of the generalised and anonymous other. What they are protesting is that they have been made equal to the people whose mobility and freedom they have been ordinarily restraining when exercising their power over the outside and public space. By prominently displaying their weapons and staging their protests like military parades they are not indicating that they are willing to defend liberty as universal right but their determination to use violence to restore their power over others.
Their protests must not be confounded with the democratic debate over the question how to ease lockdown restrictions to alleviate the negative impacts on the economy, livelihoods and mental health, all the while protecting the most vulnerable in our societies. The masculine screaming over the ‘loss of freedom’, however, places such discourses at the outer limits or even outside the ethical limits of a democratic debate, even if not accompanied by open displays of means of violence as in the USA, as the matter at stake for these people is not the welfare of the demos but, on the complete contrary, their oppressive, exploitative power over others.
Amid all the changes that the Covid19 pandemic is bringing to our societies and will bring in future one is particularly close to the heart of feminists: the realization in large parts of society that it is care workers who are essential to survival and wellbeing of a society. Yet, far from promoting care work to become ideologically, politically and economically the centre point of our future economies, all signs point to feminist advances for women sliding back. Some fear that we will return to the 1950s as women increasingly shoulder the greater burden of unpaid care work in families and home throughout the lockdowns and, probably, in the future. Women are more likely to be employed in casual jobs which are/were the first to be slashed and will probably be the last to come back. Women are also in most families the lower wage earners and therefore keeping their job is probably not the priority. Women earn less than men and are therefore more likely to have spent their savings after this crisis. Women are also more likely to have been doing the double shift anyway: working in a job at day, caring for the family in the evening.
What is clear in this picture that this sanitary crisis shows how insufficient feminist advances have been in the past decades. ‘We work like men, but we are not married to wives’, as a colleague once said. While women have fought their way into jobs and sometimes up the career ladder, they have done so without radically upsetting the foundations of companies and institutions. Women have made place for themselves at work and, to a lesser degree, in politics – but men have not gone out of their way for that matter. As women have gained their place in the workforce and in the public realm not at the expense of men, they have only been able to break out of the house by accepting and benefitting from the outsourcing of care work to other women, whether in salaried form as nannies, cleaners and teachers or in informal form as female family networks where grans, nans and nieces baby sit and take over after school care. Parity in the workforce has yet to be matched with parity in the house. Men still do far less household work and child care, and the families where the work-care relationship has been turned upside down are a tiny incy-wincy minority. Women are also far more often single parents with children as it is still the social and legal standard that women have custody of children after a separation or divorce. Yet, this also means that in the current situation of lockdowns and social distancing or isolation they face the burden of home schooling while working (if still holding a job) alone.
Paradoxically, it is also feminists who find themselves thrown back into the carer role and who discover that their feminist lives have extensively relied on the professionalised outsourcing of care rather than on achieving parity at home. It almost seems that by providing women the chance to work and develop their own careers, patriarchal institutions have effectively undermined feminism from within. The patriarchal bargain has been far too often that both, the woman and the man in the household should have a career; not that the men would give up theirs to become father-at-home and househusband. Or, even less conceivable, that our economy and economic institutions would change and accommodate a parity household and family.
The Covid19 crisis opens up opportunities to see this changed. Not only is there a growing realization that care and education jobs are essential in our societies but also that there is a death-and-life limit to their outsourcing and privatisation. The strict barriers that capitalism has erected between home and work are practically showing how porous and artificial they are. How much gender and social division they need to be upheld. How detrimental they are to every single one of us, individually and socially. How much those feminists who have focussed solely on women-in-jobs and their careers have contributed to upholding them.
Now, that we see how detrimental they are because we are all locked up at home together, juggling work, family, care, sorrow, fear and hope, is the time to rethink these barriers. I’m not talking of neo-liberal work-life balances to increase work’s efficiency even more. I’m talking about returning to another meaning of economy, that of balancing productive and reproductive work, of thinking work, care and production together as social and collective project, not as individual self-fulfilment with a fat salary cheque for mindful but capitalist individuals. We need to use the insight that we can only get through this crisis through altruistic acts like staying at home even if I am personally not in any known risk group, wearing masks not to protect myself but others, stepping up for my vulnerable family members or neighbours or colleagues or simply others not for my own protection but for their survival. We have to find ways how we can work all the while taking care of each other, and how we can take care of each other as meaningful and meaningfully rewarded work.
Care, education and service have to be recognised as essential beyond this crisis, rewarded correspondingly and, most importantly, be seen as collective responsibilities and not as opportunities for profit and exploitation. This means changing our institutions, from our families to our companies, not forgetting our political institutions – the matter of organised activist struggle – but it also means changing our own behaviour. We have to slow down, we have to withdraw from the demands of ever greater efficiency and we have to make the case that careers are as much caring for the collective as they are ‘producing’ something. Our natural environment is already showing its gratefulness for the forced degrowth all across the world and while my facebook and twitter feed contains a range of sad and frightening and irritating news, there is also a lot more solidarity, friendliness, gratefulness and, simply, fun as people are forced to spend time with their families, with their fears and hopes, and are unable to run or work away from their undeniable presence in society.
Covid19 is not throwing feminism back to the 1950s. But it does show that there is still a very long way to go until we live in a world where productive and reproductive work will be in balance.
Just like me you have certainly a male member of your family who has never called in sick at work, who hasn’t seen a doctor in years, who thinks that medicine is for whimps, and who passed away before his 70th birthday. According to a study in the UK, the consultation rate for men is more than 30% lower than for women. In the US, demographers and public health experts believe that men die on average five years earlier than women because they are reluctant to seek out medical help when needed. For many men, going to the doctor is unmanly and a sign of weakness, or as one researcher titled their article on masculinity and health, it is ‘better to die than to cry’.
Unsurprisingly, we can see the same pattern on display on the international level in the (non)management of the Covid19 pandemic. States where governments have established their rule on particularly masculinist premises such as the authoritarian-paternalistic Chinese Communist Party, or righteous super-Imam Iran, or white-supremacist Trump America struggle to admit the extent and severity of the epidemic. Numbers get cooked up (or rather down), formidable denial spectacles are put on display and falsehoods or conspiracy theories spread as quickly as the virus itself. When undeniably proven wrong, these governments put enormous efforts in maintaining their image of ‘strength’ by pretending that they are in full control and that they most certainly do not need outside help or assistance in dealing with the epidemic.
For authoritarian governments, the disease represents an excellent opportunity to tighten the screws of control over their population. It is as if the CCP, for instance, had only been waiting for such a wonderful opportunity to suppress citizens’ assembly and communication, and to reinforce surveillance. Travel restrictions around the world allow governments to show off their full might of border control and of re-inforcing insider-outsider divides. Australia has swiftly reanimated its well-proven system of casting off unwanted arrivals from abroad to penitentiaries on tiny pacific islands. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has also provoked a row of nasty racist incidents in Australia, Europe and the US.
Better to die than to cry. Except that it is not the manly men in government who die but the population. It is the population more generally who suffer from the masculinist phantasies of their rulers, and those in particular who are denied recognition of their illness, then denied appropriate treatment and the possibility to hold their governments accountable for their failures.
One of the more shocking revelations of the US 2016 election was how it showed how deep rooted misogyny is in politics… not only on the right with the dumbest orange sexist ever, but also on the left. It seemed for some time that the preferred avoidance strategy of serious introspection in the Democratic Party took the form of Clinton bashing. Of course, no leftie man or complicit woman admitted of blaming Clinton for losing the presidency with the greatest voter win in US history because she was a woman. Of course, they blamed her for losing the electoral college for all sorts of other reasons: that she was too elitist, that she had been debating, speaking and politicking too well, that she was not enough or too leftist, that she was wearing $3000 shoes, that she didn’t speak to ‘left-behind white working class’, yaddayaddayadda. Basically, that she was not Bernie Sanders who, for some delusionists, would have won the election left-handed and blind.
This time round, that the key woman running for the Democrats candidacy, Elizabeth Warren, is a woman who is clearly more on the left than Clinton, who does not wear $3000 shoes, who is sometimes short of words or uses the wrong ones, who is a fierce and sometimes oversimplistic debater and who proudly claims her connections to workers and minorities, so this time we should really see the Democrats, and especially the so-called progressive left, rally around the woman. In the current backlash and white supremacist atmosphere of US politics having a woman run for president would seem revolution enough, wouldn’t it? Sadly, no.
Even though Sanders’ and Warren’s platforms differ mainly that Warren doesn’t call herself a socialist, it is again the man, the white, old and white-haired one that is portrayed as the more competent, more compassionate, the more woke and more able. Bernie, the daddy figure, will fix it. Whatever he might be accused of, sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign team or financial obscurities, some lefties happily pardon by citing his oh-so-progressive program. Whatever program Warren proposes, on the other hand, gets clouded in out-spiralling debates over her heritage or the fact that she, contrary to Sanders, has worked in other jobs than politics in her life. As Clinton before Warren is caught in a catch-22 she cannot win: either she is too inexperienced as a politician or she is too politicky a politician; either she is too far left and daring in her proposal, or not enough; either she is too old or too young. Whatever, she’s simply not a white, old man.
In the face of a feud between the two helping the more centrist Joe Biden or Peter Buttigieg the common proposition hence is that Warren should cede to Sanders. The patriarchal understanding of parity and equal treatment: if a woman is as qualified (or even more than) a man, she’d be a perfect assistant to him. Sexism sits deep even (or especially) on the progressive left.
I’m an average woman. And I am fifty. So, as a good average person I am premonopausal. I get a hot flush every two hours or so, some stronger, some lesser. A hot flush feels like extreme blushing but there’s nothing you are embarrassed about. Nobody can see a hot flush because actually you are not blushing. It’s just the heart racing, the head becoming all hot from the ears, and sweating, sweating, sweating as if I’ve just done 25 push-ups in 30 seconds (or so). At night it wakes me up and I can appreciate my stress level by the time it takes me to fall asleep again (sometimes never) and how quickly loss of sleep will turn my commonly very soft tinnitus into a wild water river racing through my ears. As an average woman, I do what the majority of women do in this case. I suck it up. Eventually get nervous and do what far fewer women do: I go and talk about it, and seek out whether this is not something else like hyperthyroid or (beware) some strange cancer, look it up on the internet, see the doctor and get blood tests done.
And yet, the response is the same everywhere. That’s how it is, we know that it’s a symptom of your body not producing as much oestrogen as before and, no, we don’t know why that causes hot flushes, headache, dizziness, migraines, muscle and joint pain, and exceptionally unpredictable mood swings, and, no, there’s no real thing medicine can offer you except munching artificial hormones that might cause breast cancer in 10 years. Your cholesterol is fine, by the way.
A long list of well intended advice follows: do more yoga, get the shrink in, eat more tofu. What? Yes, eat more tofu because in Asia and Africa women do not complain about menopause because they eat more tofu (in Africa?) and tofu has some sort of fake oestrogen (or was it progesterone?) and that’s why they don’t experience all the ‘uncomfortable’ symptoms of menopause. Because that’s what they are; they are ‘uncomfortable’. Not really worth talking about, actually. Like trousers sitting too tight (did I mention the weight gain?), a mosquito bite or a fibre between your front teeth. Uncomfortable.
There are a multitude of studies now that show that a doctor’s attention to a patient is dependent on gender, race and class. Every woman will have at least one story to share about how a serious disease of hers has been not taken seriously by the doctor she has been seeing, how she has been administered useless or, worse, inappropriate medicines, and how she had to insist and fight to get the right diagnosis or treatment. For many women, this means that serious illnesses are not diagnosed early enough, treatments ill administered and lives cut short (as for instance in the case of my not-to-be-colleague at the University of Sussex, Dr Lisa Smirl). Every time this means that women’s experience of pain or bodily dysfunction are downplayed or outrightly ignored. They are considered as ‘discomfort’ in the best case, as ‘hysterical’ in the worst – a disdain that gets reinforced if a woman is of lower social status or of colour as the doctor as the experience of even such a powerful woman like Serena Williams (who should really be trusted of knowing her body in and out) shows.
So, when I am told that women in Asia and Africa do not seem to experience ‘uncomfortable’ symptoms of menopause, what does this mean? Well, it can actually mean anything and a lot except that women in Asia and Africa don’t experience hot flushes, migraines, muscle and joint paint, heart rate roller coasters, mood swings, depression, fatigue or abdominal pains. It can mean that they do not complain because they know that they will not be taken seriously, because they have so much internalised that all this is just ‘discomfort’ that comes with being a woman (and shameful discomfort as it is since it’s our sexual reproductive organs that are changing!), that it’s all in our heads and a question of the right attitude. Or it can mean that they do complain but that nobody listens, nobody records, nobody who has the power to record does so, or that nobody takes them seriously. Or it can mean both. It definitely means that women’s bodies and especially women’s bodily functions that have to do with sex, reproduction and intimacy continue to be shamed, denied, neglected, ignored, silenced, disdained, and only taken so far into consideration as they can serve as consumerist dumping ground for the pharmaceutical industries. It also means that modern medicine is more dominated by capitalist and consumerist logics than by genuine interest in the functioning and well-being of human bodies; and that these logics are, in turn, gendered, classed and racialized (which wouldn’t really come as surprise) as they sort out what is worth medical attention and what is not.
When going to a museum with a 8-year old one needs to find ways to tell the stories that the pictures on the wall tell. The more explicit the story is the easier this is of course. European paintings from the Renaissance to the 19th century are always easier to translate than abstract modern art. Contemporary art often tells such strange stories and is so much defined by breaking common narrative or disturbing ‘normal’ codes that children are sometimes much faster to grasp their ideas. Looking at this preparatory sketch of Picasso’s Guernica with my 8-year old proved to be a particularly difficult exercise of abstraction. Not only should she understand that what is depicted here as relatively real-looking (a horse’s head in pain) was symbolic but also that the symbols reflected something she had never experienced from close or far (and hopefully never will): war, bombs, rubble, pain, screams, dust, panic, pain, blood and grieve so deep the deepest black cannot tell.
The stories therefore do not tell themselves but need to be translated into the experience of an 8-year old. When our worlds come to an end, our words must not necessarily but we need to find the images, experiences, resonances, thoughts and feelings that can replace the failing words. How do you look if you feel pain? What colour do you associate with fear? What movement would your body do? What sorrow do you see in my eyes now?
Silence, too, can be such a translation. If we have nothing more to say, if our silence indicates that words cannot be enough or right, then silence speaks. It is the recognition that we cannot enforce meaning or understanding but we can create an impression and a memory of the story that is told. Like a song whose sadness we understand by its melody and not its lyrics.
Such silence requires a lot of respect and acknowledgment. Our own self, our words have to stand back and let space be filled by the images, stories, ideas and feelings of others without being able of controlling, measuring or judging them. This is probably the most important reason why academia does not like silence and has no space for it to be expressed. Even the symbolic … is followed by words. Silence cannot be a space of power or authority. It diminishes the academic, it relativises the knowledge and stature that have been so studiously achieved through words, and more words. And this, this, makes the poverty of academia.
***news from 22 March: Nicolas Sarkozy has been indicted for passive corruption, illegal financing of electoral campaign and embezzlement of Libyan public money ***
Imagine a candidate for a presidential election in a Western, industrialized democracy who is in constant quarrel with his own political camp. In fact, the candidate had to found his own splinter party after he voted against the former party head while being his minister…Imagine this candidate being on search for campaign money. Now, imagine an authoritarian leader of another country. A leader who had been in power for almost three decades. A leader of a country under international sanctions. Imagine the two strike a deal, with help of some dodgy businessmen dealing in arms: ‘I give you some 50 Million campaign money, you lift the sanctions’. The candidate becomes president. But instead of keeping to his part of the deal he has an even better idea: he convinces his allies to engage in a military strike against his sponsor – all under the mantel of the United Nations’ ‘Responsibility to Protect’ regime and with applause from the ‘humanitarian hawks’ in his own (one of them actually being his Minister of foreign affairs) and foreign countries. The noble R2P abused for a petty campaign financing affair? Pure imagination?
As it happened, one of those dodgy arms dealers was seized and interrogated in London early in January 2018 and then set free on a bail of £1 Million. His name is Alexandre Djouhri and he was sought after with an international mandate by the French financial authorities. The presidential candidate and president-elect in question was Nicolas Sarkozy whose 2007 campaign was apparently financed by Muammar Gaddafi. The investigations into his campaign finances are ongoing. They are complicated by the fact that French air forces and their NATO friends have bombed Libyan ministerial buildings and destroyed their archives. Although the investigations are ongoing and have not led to substantial indictments yet, there is sufficient circumstancial evidence that the newspapers Mediapart and Le Monde have pieced together to conclude that Gaddafi’s middlemen handed over a considerable sum of the money in cash to Sarkozy’s aids in 2007, and that the 2011 intervention was first of all a mission to destroy this evidence and kill Gaddafi.
Indeed, the uprisings in Libya and the R2P came in handy in 2011 to eliminate Gaddafi under the mantel of humanitarian motives, and, by the way to destroy as much evidence as possible of these unsavoury relations. At the time, there were a number of speculations about economic or financial motives behind the intervention. Rumours were floated that Gaddafi had been planning to create an African currency union and, of course, access to cheap oil was suspected to be a prime motive for France to take the lead. Yet, it might well be that the motivation of the campaign was all more personal and petty, and the worst nightmare for R2P advocates – with Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan the world had got used to seeing humanitarianism abused for geostrategic or national economic interests, yet with Libya Sarkozy managed to set in motion the whole machinery of liberal humanitarianism and UN ‘peace’ missions to save his own, little a**.
Yesterday Emmanuel Macron apologized in Tunis for the intervention in Libya. Although well timed in his own foreign policy terms which seek to fashion France as the great integrator in a world falling apart under the ineptitude of the Trump administration, the apology was little more than lukewarm. The mistake France made when intervening in Libya was the lack of an ‘after-plan’, he said, while the actual mistake clearly was (and is) that the current UN interventionism allows any powerful state to export its own dysfunctions and to create misery and bloodshed for the posturing of male egos in Western democracies.
The trouble with China is that it is not behaving the way either Realist or Liberal theories of international relations want it to behave. In terms of these traditional approaches to IR, China is becoming bigger and stronger and more powerful every day. China holds more than 14trillion US$ in foreign exchange reserve; it has a population of almost 1.4 billion; in absolute GDP it is the strongest economy in the world and its military is, if not the largest (that’s by far the US) big, modern and equipped with nuclear weapons. All this, so tell us realists like John Mearsheimer should push China to become extremely competitive and nasty as it grows stronger, eventually leading to a confrontation with the USA and to war. Yes, yes, that is what will happen, tells us Graham T. Allison, even if nobody wants it because becoming big and strong when there is a big and strong superpower in the world has always led to war in Europe in the past couple of hundred years.
Now, looking into European history for knowing what will happen with China is an excellent way to show that Eurocentrism leads to weird ways of thinking about international politics. China has a thousand-year old history of diplomacy, war and peace of its own. Its geopolitical as well as economic position in the world is rather different than that of Spain in the 16th, France’s in the 17th, Russia’s in the 18th, Great-Britain’s in the 19th century or Germany’s in the 20th century. Its history of national unity and nationalism, its internal political structures and the way it has rather slipped than marched into the international scene over the past thirty years… these are only few of the factors that should make you think twice about using European or North-American analogies if you are seriously interested in understanding where this country is heading .
Very obviously the way the international system has been built upon diplomacy and international law, and how the discipline of international relations has come to take the European war-state paradigm as universal feature of the international do not seem to fit the bill with China. Yes, China does behave like a high school bully in the South China Sea, it does not hide its military and wants everyone , and particularly Taiwan, to see how many shiny new toys it has; yes, the Chinese government and media often display high levels of aggressive nationalistic rhetoric; and yes, they also follow rather closely the script of 20th century discourses on sovereignty, non-interference and inviolability of borders. In short, China does tend to be ‘assertive’ when it comes to its territorial integrity (notably with respect to Taiwan) and its undoubtedly traditionally defined sovereignty. These are the moments where China’s behaviour seems the most congruent to IR textbooks on international diplomacy. But as good student of international relations, China also plays the game extremely nicely to the rules and has yet not shown even the slightest signs of the hubris and destructiveness other ‘rising powers’ have displayed. If it is supposed to emulate Germany in the early 20th century, then China clearly does not play this role very well.
Indeed, China has shied away from direct military confrontations after its ill-fated incursion into Vietnam in 1979. It has shown a pragmatically cooperative approach in the international organisations it has joined since 1949. It is seeking to build up cooperative ties with its neighbours. It has used its huge economic power wisely and cooperatively in the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global economic crisis. And it has engaged more and more in multi-lateral international aid and United Nations security politics. And it has now declared loudly and strongly its intention to support UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s remodelling of the UN.
“China is ready to work together with other countries to forge a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, to build a community with a shared future for mankind, and to build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity,” they write in in their recent position paper on UN reforms. These are not very original words and the further pages of the Chinese position paper carefully follow this common-talk, vague-and-nice line of UN talk.
Yet, given the current state of American UN ‘diplomacy’, China’s position paper comes as a clear eyes-on-the-prize announcement that China would be happy to take over the US role as motor of international multilateralism should the US leave that post vacant. This move is not formulated as an open challenge and the strategy rather seems to be to discretely slip into the gap that has opened between the Trump’s USA and the rest of the world. The position paper cleverly focuses on all areas the Trump ‘administration’ has decided to shun in the past year: development assistance and here particularly women’s rights and gender parity, peacekeeping and conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, and internal management, budget and human resources reforms.
It formulates clearly three fundamentals of China’s foreign policy: the insistence sovereignty in its full territorial sense (inviolability of borders) and of states as sole subjects of international law (reflecting precisely its ‘one country, two systems’ politics towards Taiwan); and a focus on pragmatic, technocratic and managerial, hence, ‘apolitical’, approaches to challenges of international cooperation. So far, its approach corresponds to the classical liberal-institutionalist view of international politics where states understand quickly that the relative gains of cooperation are more important than the absolute gains of domination.
However, China also slips in a third principle that quite fundamentally disturbs the basic tenets of liberal institutionalism, namely a carefully but persistently formulated refutation of globally applicable UN politics. Although the position paper repeats the universal value of the UN and its Charter, its overall tone tells a different story of de-centralization, regionalisation and differentiation of cooperation. Whether in terms of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and fighting terrorism, or in terms of economic and social development, the position paper proposes each time a ‘everyone-their-own’ approach. It proposes to leave the UN as central bureaucracy to coordinate and funnel human and financial resources. But the real decisions, those on what to prioritise, what to define as security risk or development need, what to do simply, these decisions should be left to nation-states and, as far as possible, regional arrangements or arrangements between those states that are primarily concerned by such measures. The UN organs and institutions should be remodelled to allow such decentralized, case-by-case and variable geometry decision-making. For instance, decisions on peacekeeping and conflict resolution should be removed as much as possible from the UN Security Council and taken by the UN peacebuilding commission under consultation of the host country/ies and the contributing countries. Development policies equally should be more deeply anchored in specialized agencies (for instance by reviving the Economic and Social Council) and consultation mechanisms of receiving and contributing states strengthened in these, or, even better, delegated to regional sub-divisions.
The Chinese position paper shows that China clearly wants to write its own story of international cooperation but not according to the frontal confrontation rules of 19th century European-style war-and-concert diplomacy. The Europeans invented the two-dimensional, linear chess game to mimic diplomacy and war; the Chinese invented Go which thinks strategy fluidly in multiple spaces. The UN position paper shows that China today orients its foreign policy on principles of Go rather than chess and that it is time for Eurocentric IR to learn something new.