Trollitics

Meet Grouchy Smurf. Grouchy Smurf hates pictures with quotes on them. Mind well, it is not that they hate this quote, or that they hate this picture, or that they hate this blog; Grouchy Smurf simply hates… because Grouchy Smurf is Grouchy Smurf. It’s not about the qutoe, it’s not about whatever, it’s about Grouchy Smurf. The important part of the sentence ‘I hate … is the ‘I’ at the beginning. Grouchy Smurf is the prototype of a troll.

Trolls are pure narcissists. Their negativity never relates to the event or person on which they comment. It is all about them. Trump sitting alone in his bedroom at night, with the TV and his phone as only lights, caught in his inner world of demons and shadows, tapping along on his phone, sending out tweets to nobody really, is the perfect image of the narcissistic monologue that is so characteristic of trolls. Trolls do not speak to anybody in particular, and they do not mean anything in particular. The point of their sputtered words is not saying something to or about the world, big or small, close or far, but to yell at this anonymous, amorphous outside of the I that ‘I am heeeeeeeere!’.  

Trollitics is therefore the complete contrary of politics. Politics, even the most vicious politics like fascism, are about the organisation of a collective. Politics is thinking, debating, fighting about the ways we live together and with (or against) each other. Politics is, even if by default, about the other and, in this respect, about me with others; it is about relations. Trollitics is only about the ‘I’; the other does not exist, at least not in any recognizable form. The other is merely a schematic, vague, imagined and distorted reflection of the ‘I’ and, because it is distorted, so unrecognizable.

This is why trollitics merge so easily with (neo)liberalism since the line between liberal individualism and atomistic narcissism is very, very thin. Trollitics might use the vocabulary of liberal politics for words like ‘freedom’ or ‘competition’ resonate well with the self-centredness of trolls (similar for the vocabulary of sports or business). However, these words are cladding and do not reflect any project, vision or (beware!) utopia of how we, the collective, can, should or need to live together since trolls cannot imagine or think ‘together’. The atomistic anonymity of the internet age and of decentralized urban modernity are the perfect habitat for trolls.

Because trollitics is not politics it is also so oblivious of its consequences. Trump sending off fighter jets just to call them back a minute later is, again, a prime example. As alpha troll Trump did not think so far as to understand the disastrous consequences his decision could have; his call back is not a sudden responsible reflection. On the contrary, it is simply the realization that, indeed, there is a consequence to what he says. Trolls rarely exist in face-to-face settings where one is forced to directly, physically talk to one another. The purpose of trolling is not towards the world, to act in any way upon the world; the only purpose is to say ‘I’ in as many variations possible.

Yet, trollitics are, of course, not inconsequential. Trolls are destructive precisely because they are so profoundly nihilistic. They do not even go to the length of denying the existence of the other; they do not even realise that there is a world around them that is not an extension of their own narcissism. Just as individual trollism becomes an essential way of life for individuals, trollitics practically means that the world is to arranged so as to suit the alpha troll’s ‘I’-ness. Obviously, this is an ideal world for smooth operators and con artists of all kind who will spin the world to turn around the troll. It is also an inherently unstable, destructive and capricious world as trolls’ whims and woos change in the blink of an eye as their narcissism can never be satisfied.

Language, abstraction and translation

Preparatory sketch for Guernica, Pablo Picasso, Musée Les Abattoirs, Toulouse

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.

Students shocked that they have to read and write in university classes

Latest reports show that many university students are seriously traumatised when they find out that they have to learn knowledge not known to them before. “In my class on the First World War they only talked about history!”, Eleanore tells us. Eleanore studies a bachelor of arts at UWRK-ULRN college. “We had to read books!”, adds her boyfriend John “and the lecturer really wanted to know from us what was written inside”. “Sometimes we have to read these articles, and boy, are they full of words”, adds another student in the group who doesn’t want to be named. “I thought it was really lazy of the lecturer that we had to read all that stuff by ourselves”, another one observed.

Often upon arrival in class students are shocked when they realise that their existing knowledge does not count. “I really love pandas, I have watched all Discovery Channel documentaries on them, that’s why I chose the topic of Panda Diplomacy for my essay”, Emerald recounts her experience in her class ‘Foreign Policy in Asia’. “I told the lecturer that I had never heard of panda being a diplomat but he just replied that I had to stop watching TV and read what was on the reading list! That was so rude!”

Many students reported their frustration that they had to read and write at university and how this threw them into spells of anxiety and depression. For students in social sciences and humanities words are particularly scary because there are so many of them. The sheer amount of words can be confusing like the number of jelly beans in the jar at the Christmas fair. Especially when it is assessment time students live in terror of not knowing how many words and footnotes are enough. The pressure to fill pages with words is a highly traumatising experience for many. Students feel seriously aggrieved that they cannot simply use any string of words they like. “When writing my essay about pandas, I said they live in South East Asia because, you see, that’s three words and ‘China’ is only one and you know I had to write 2000 words” explains Emerald “if I had said ‘China’ my essay would have been a third shorter and I’m sure I would have been penalized. But now I have a bad mark too and I’m really upset. I have put so much work into this, I wrote for three days without interruption and I read all the newspaper articles on my first google search page”, she adds. 

Our reporters have revealed even more terrorizing cases where lecturers do not even tell the student how much to write: “I once had a lecturer tell us that we can write between 1500 and 2000 words, can you believe that?”, John remembers. He recalls how he spent sleepless nights pondering what to do. If he wrote 1500 he’d spend a day less at the computer but what if his roommate wrote 1600 and get a better mark? In a particularly terrifying case students had to make a terrible choice whether to write two pieces of 1000 words or one of 2000 words. “I just didn’t know what to do”, Alex told us. “If I write two pieces I would have to write about two different things and isn’t that twice as much work? But then if I write one how am I going to fill the pages with so many words?” 

Many students feel particularly stressed since they are paying fees. “I pay all this money to the university and, seriously, they want me to read all that stuff?”, Tim points out. “All this reading makes my head spin. There should be really clear and precise rules how many words per penny we need to read so that we can be sure we get value for money.” Not all students blame the fees; some say that the university’s decision to hire lecturer who are not white, old men is clearly at fault. “My lecturer was a woman”, Alex says “I mean, she was nice and sort of pretty but, really, I shouldn’t be paying so much if I’m taught by a woman. Everyone knows they don’t want to do the job as I’m expecting them to do it”, he tells us and he gives an example right away “You know, I asked her what we had to do and, okay, she had said she doesn’t reply to emails over the weekend but, I mean, seriously what’s the harm to copy-paste from the syllabus? But no, she persevered and told me two days later that I should read the syllabus myself! I mean what good is she to the world of academia if she cannot even answer my question about what is in the syllabus?” Other students agreed with this. “With Dr. Smith (name altered) there was nothing to really helping the trying to figure out what was expected of me. She kept on giving all these lectures, hours and hours of them. But, honestly, I didn’t get it. I actually think she has some real talent and knowledge but what’s the point of talking so much? It really shows her incompetence, doesn’t it?”, John says. “And the worst, I think”, Alex  adds “was that there was no safe space to tell her how to do it right.  It was really hard to talk to her; she never came to me to ask me how I was doing. I had to go to her office and ask her how to deal with my word count because she would only send emails to everyone and not to me personally. Seriously I felt like she treated me like any other student!” 

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Note: This is a parody of student evaluations of teaching. The characters and situations in this parody are entirely fictional and not based on any real characters. However, the quotes are, unfortunately, not entirely fictional. They represent a small selection of mostly real comments that have been made in anonymous teaching evaluations; some have been transformed to fit the parody better but neither in tone nor meaning. Student evaluations of teaching are replete with extremely vicious  trolling, hilarious comments and heaps of unfounded, vague and clearly defaming accusations against lecturers, especially if these are women or people of colour.

It has been proven in a  number of projects that students often do not know what they have learnt or not in their class. A number of studies have also shown that student evaluations are discriminatory as they are heavily biased against women and people of colour. The design of evaluations often reinforces this bias. Evaluations also tend to be influenced by external factors such as the availability of cookies in class, or the weather. Student evaluations are believed to contribute heavily to teaching staff’s high levels of depression and anxiety. Yet, despite these studies, universities continue to use them, students continue to troll and teaching staff continue to be disciplined into the education-as-commodity logic of commercialising universities. 

I wrote this parody to allow us, university teachers, to laugh a bit about the sometimes highly aggressive but also hilarious comments we receive for our efforts to make students think critically about their political and social environment.

Kofi Annan and world peace

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has passed away. He was a good man, loved his job, loved his wife, and the United Nations certainly would not look the way they do today if it wasn’t for him.

Hmmm. Uhm. As author of a book on peacebuilders I certainly ought to write a more beautiful obituary of Kofi Annan, shouldn’t I? It could contain many more of these glamorous and slightly fantastic words like ‘peace’, ‘justice, ‘humanity’, ‘good’, ‘civil’ or ‘human rights’. I could dabble in such facile oxymorons like ‘soft-spoken spokesperson of peace’, ‘fighter for peace’ or something like ‘warrior for peace’ … Writing such an obituary should be easy…after all Annan has very carefully scripted what is known of his life and has watchfully controlled the public narrative of his career and especially of his time as Secretary-General. He had seen close-up how viciously and incessantly the media (US media in particular) and politicians (US politicians to be precise) have shredded, denigrated, dismissed and destroyed Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s public image, career and memory – up to the point that even today many titles on Annan’s death claim he was the first, not the second African Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Indeed, positively manipulating what was said and thought of him in Western media, policy-making circles and especially the US administration was probably one of Annan’s greatest skills. As every single Secretary-General of the United Nations, he sooner than later came into conflict with the United States during his tenure. Since their foundation the United Nations have been considered at best an extension of the US State Department, at worst an outrageously costly and incompetent press conference room. Secretary-Generals who speak their mind, think up their own policies and remind the US that it is, in the UN, only one state among 192 and bound to international law as everyone else, has never been part of the United States’ view of what the UN should do (no matter under which administration; even Obama was no exception since the lack of major conflict was rather due to his administration’s decision to cut down on the US global policeman role than to the UN’s restraining influence). Contrary to Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, Perez de Cuellar and Boutros-Ghali, however, Annan steered his policy initiatives and managed his public image in a way that he avoided any direct confrontation with the US – even if this meant giving up on the very idea of regulating warfare through international law and the United Nations.

He knew exactly which way to rub the US belly when he called the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 ‘illegal but legitimate’ or when he made sure that ‘reservations’ about the legality of the US’s Iraq invasion of 2003 were initially known only through the voices of French or Russian diplomats. In March 2003 when the US started its invasion of Iraq, Annan was content to warn of the ‘humanitarian consequences of war’ and to slip in the UN as post-conflict reconstruction lead agency. Not one word on the breach of the UN Charta or the respect for international law came across his lips, however. Even the usually highly discrete International Committee of the Red Cross was quicker in pointing out the many breaches of international law that the Iraq war represented. Annan himself only noted the illegality of the war out of the safe distance of one and a half years later in September 2004.

The Iraq war was not the only situation where thousands would die and the usually so eloquent Kofi Annan would comment with total silence. In 1994, Annan was Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations. The Security Council member states opposed calling the massacres in Rwanda a genocide and happily supported the cynical assessment of Iqbal Riza, Annan’s top aide, that the UN’s mandate in Rwanda had never been to protect civilians but to implement the Arusha peace accords (see Barnett’s opinion for Independent Inquiry). The debate whether external troops could have prevented or stopped the Rwandan genocide is highly speculative; yet, the report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations during the 1994 Genocide makes plainly clear that Annan like others in this drama did not seek at any moment a more active, initiative and especially protecting role for the United Nations in general and the UN mission in Rwanda in particular. The report draws the picture of an overcautious apparatchik who is more concerned about not upsetting the organisation’s internal power system and ‘the rules’ than he is about the lives of Rwandans. While the report acknowledges the lack of political will by Security Council member states to engage further and deeper in Rwanda, and the translation of this into a lack of resources for the UN Headquarters, it also points clearly to the responsibility of the then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Under-Secretary General of Peacekeeping Operations Marack Goulding (until 1993), his successor Kofi Annan and his Assistant Secretary-General Iqbal Riza for failing to appropriately appreciate and plan for the highly volatile and consistently threatening situation in Rwanda in the build-up of the genocide.

Defenders of Annan will not fail to point out that it was himself who ordered this damning report when he had become Secretary-General and that he sought to redeem himself from the mistakes of 1994. Annan himself presented his tenure as a constant quest for peace in his interviews and biography, using every time exactly the same words as if his life and career were a well-rehearsed play. He also apologized for his role in the UN during the genocide – something he neither did for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi who died in the wake of the Iraq war, the thousands who were abused by peacekeepers all over the world, nor for those who died of diseases spread by them like the Haitians in 2010. If the actions of the UN during his tenure are to be called a strong promotion of ‘peace’, these populations probably beg to differ. Yet, as another of Annan’s self-promoting legends goes, it is the Rwanda experience that made him such a fervent supporter of the idea of intervention that he pushed for the integration of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine into the World Summit Declaration in 2005 …. Just to be again falling into deafening silence when France abused the RtoP doctrine in 2012 for its bogus intervention in Libya that triggered a civil war that is now ongoing in its sixth year.

These silences make it difficult to conceive of Annan as a guiding force for good as which he is heralded now. Rather, it appears that it remains an irony of Annan’s careerism that his will ‘to do the job well’ facilitated his cowardly hushing in the face of cynical and killing power politics (that also showed in his total deafness when it came to allegations of sexual abuse or the spreading of diseases by peacekeepers) quite as much as it enabled his initiatives like resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security or resolution 1261 on child soldiering. Annan’s commitment to peace was much more banal: he was simply a highly career-minded bureaucrat who happened to work in an organisation that is dedicated to world peace and the largest provider of humanitarian assistance on earth. Hard not to claim the moral high ground here. His concerns for his own advancement in the UN hierarchy made him hugely successful in manipulating the pompous language of peace that the UN uses in its declarations, initiatives and campaigns. Yet, when it actually came to preventing people from dying of armed violence he silently ceded to the Security Council member states and their often cynical and imperial understanding of  ‘peace’ . He definitely lacked a warrior’s courage to speak truth to power. So, let’s stay with He was a good man, loved his job, loved his wife, and the United Nations certainly would not look the way they do today if it wasn’t for him.

 

So, you’re back to work?

School summer holiday has come to an end in Australia and I get asked ‘And you? You’re back to work?’, naturally implying that as an academic I, too, have spent the past seven weeks off like my children and just returned to work now. For most people outside universities the work academics do is hard to imagine. Those who had been students at some point in their lives know that we teach and somehow  imagine that teaching requires some preparation. Although — I’m not even sure that they do, given that one of my student evaluations last year accused me of being ‘lazy’ because I ‘only’ delivered 16 hours of lectures and made the students present in the last five sessions…

At the same time there is a debate raging on twitter not about whether we DO work a lot but if that’s a good thing or a bad thing and whether we should brag about our 60 hours per week or mourn about our family/love/social lives going to sh**. And newspapers recycling the myth that research is a walk in the park or, actually, something easily done during a maternity-leave holiday when nursing a baby or in between changing nappies.

Just to be clear: I don’t work 60 hours…anymore. I did for a long time and my health and family suffered so I am extremely careful nowadays not to fall into that trap again. Two children and a partner — a family, in short — need attention, time and love, and THAT needs time! And yet, the price I pay for sticking to my 40 hours a very slow career because I publish far less than most of my colleagues. And I moved from the country that presently is the busiest in making academic life hell to sun shine Oz.

That said, what do we do spend our time with when we work 40 hours even in teaching-off times? Maybe I should give a little breakdown of my week to make it real:

Monday

At the computer at about 9.30 after having dropped off my seven-year old at her vacation care spot. It’s been six weeks now that my research assistant has sent me her annotated bibliography that I wanted to integrate in the literature review I’m writing at the moment so from 9.30 to lunchtime I verify her sources, look up others that I think should be associated with them and write on my review. I manage to write my set goal of 1000 words so call it a good day at lunch. After lunch I skim through my emails: I’m Director of Teaching and Learning and as the new semester starts in two weeks there are couple of changes to their teaching colleagues want me to approve. It takes approx. one hour to read through the notes and requests and even though I just need to write ‘happy to approve’-emails, it nags away time. Then I go back to my own teaching. I have not finalised the reading list yet as I want to have more than half of the required readings to be books or articles by female colleagues. Despite the massive increase of women in academia and in IR, they are less likely to be cited in scholarly articles and less likely (by far) to appear on syllabi. Especially in my area of teaching (International Security, International Cooperation) the ‘canon’ is still dominated by men. If you use only google scholar and textbooks to constitute your reading list you will miss out on the excellent work of women who know stuff.  Because of this male dominance, however, it is extremely time consuming to put women and minority scholars on the reading list. Luckily other colleagues have started to establish reading lists and yet these are far from complete. But…it still takes time, so two hours of my Monday afternoon were spent on putting together the reading list for lectures 1-3 — out of 12 so still a lot to do! In the meantime it is 4 in the afternoon and I have one hour left before I my partner will pick up our little one and work time is up! Time to think up a couple of quiz questions for the assessments…

Tuesday

In the office at 9.30 I have half an hour before student A.B. will come to discuss her study arrangements for next academic year. Student A.B. has failed several assignments last year and requires special attention to get her back on track. It’s the same for students C.D. and E.F. who will come later in the morning for the same reason. None of the students have the same circumstances and student E.F.’s case requires a follow-up with the Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching as I have frankly no idea how to handle this special case. Lunchtime comes and I have not yet written one line or looked at my reading lists…After lunch I skim through my emails and this there are a couple that need more extensive replies so the afternoon is taken up by emails and working on my reading lists. No writing. 🙁

Wednesday same as Tuesday. Thursday I have the desk clear to write on my review just to discover that most of what I wrote on Monday needs redrafting. But another 1000 words get done. Good day. In the evening, after dinner, I get back to my reading list as a colleague had posted a request for reading tips on Facebook and I want to see if the responses he gets fit my reading list, too. Another two hours to add to a usual work day.

Friday starts with emails and following up on the literature tips from Thursday night. Lunch with guests. And an early end to the working day as we can only afford after-school care for three days a week.

That’s about 40 hours, i.e. 2000 words of a paper draft, three dozen emails, pastoral care for five students, two dozen administrative requests, half a syllabus written, a couple of assignments thought up, two conference panels organised but — lucky week! — no meetings and no classroom teaching yet, no student emails, no lectures to prepare (commonly two hour lectures), no papers/lectures/recordings to upload on the class site, no news paper read and no assignments to mark; also no research to organise or do (e.g. interviews), no special readings other than those I’m writing about, no journal articles to review, no grad student papers to read, no journal/book to edit etc. If I would want to do what I did this week and any of these other things, or what I did this week but write 5000 instead of 2000 words (as I should if I want to publish more) or what I did and any fancy admin or ‘academic community’ position (let’s say journal editor) then yes, then I would have to work 60 hours and so I’m not doing it. Good for my health and sanity, bad for my career. But if you sleep well, even guilt is easier to bear.

 

When the R2P is about saving white male egos

***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.

China and the UN: Playing Go in international relations

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.

Detail from the Jingban tianwen quantu, showing a world map derived from the Sancai tuhui (Illustrated compilation of the Three Powers; 1607). Source: The Library of Congress Map Room (online collection); taken from http://apjjf.org/2013/11/3/Richard-J.-Smith/3888/article.html

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.