Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Temptation of Empire - Vox Popoli

 The War on Russia / War on China crowd constantly engages in psychological projection, insisting that their own dreams of ruling over a global empire is shared by both the Russian and Chinese leaders. But as anyone who has paid any attention to the thoughts of Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping in this regard knows, both leaders are very well aware of the fatal trap that empire poses to any powerful nation, and both leaders seek to avoid the temptation.

You know what the problem is? I will tell you as a citizen of the former Soviet Union. What is the problem with an empire? They think they are so mighty they can afford minor faults and mistakes. It is okay, we will buy these people and scare other people; we will reach an agreement with still others, give beads to those and threaten others with our warships – problem solved. But problems are piling up, and there comes a time when it is no longer possible to cope with them all. And the United States is firmly and steadily following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin

Xi Jinping’s thinking is never as transparent or straightforward as the Russian leader’s, being occluded by Communist Party jargon, the customary Chinese ornamentation, and a vast panoply of classical quotes and allusions, but those who are familiar with them don’t have too much trouble interpreting what he’s saying.

“Governing a state with vast territory is a heavy burden; succeeding to the crown is much harder than building an empire.”

Founding a state requires a multitude of talents, while succeeding and strengthening the inheritance of ancestors requires even more. By quoting the sentence, President Xi Jinping indicated that the glorious and resplendent Chinese civilization was founded by large numbers of outstanding people throughout history. Today we are being passed the baton from previous generations and carrying on a great historical mission. Strengthening and rejuvenating the country by cultivating talent has become a priority for the Party and the country. To carry forward Chinese civilization, to build a strong and prosperous country, we must use history as mirror and study and utilize outstanding intellects.

How to Read Confucius and other Chinese Classical Thinkers, Xi Jinping

The point is that neither the Russians nor the Chinese are foolish enough to seek empire because they do not wish to lose control of their national destinies. While both nations have the power required to pursue it, they also have a clear and obvious disinclination to do so, as Hazony recognizes in The Virtue of Nationalism.

The most natural state is, therefore, one nation, an extended family with one national character. This it retains for ages and develops most naturally if the leaders come from the people.… Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter. A human scepter is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it. Such states are but patched up contraptions, fragile machines,… and their component parts are connected by mechanical contrivances instead of bonds of sentiment.… It would only be the curse of fate that would condemn to immortality these forced unions, these lifeless monstrosities. But history shows sufficiently that the instruments of human pride are formed of clay, and like all clay, they will dissolve or crumble to pieces.

In this passage, Herder describes the imperial state as nothing other than a “curse” to all involved. According to this point of view, human government is inherently limited in what it can attain, and can be strong and effective only when it relies on the “bonds of sentiment” that unite a single nation in a national state whose leaders are drawn from the people. The “unnatural enlargement of states,” which forces many nations together under a single rule, is not based on such bonds of sentiment. It only increases the burdens and difficulties piled on the state as “incongruous parts” that are not bound together by mutual loyalty are added to it, until eventually it survives only as a “patched up contraption” groaning under the weight of these troubles.

Underlying such an approach is the recognition that the health of a nation is measured not only in terms of its military and economic strength, but also along other dimensions that are no less significant. What Herder describes as a “national character[, which] it retains for ages and develops,” refers to what I have called the internal integrity and cultural inheritance of the nation. And it is these things that tend to be lost as the imperial state expands. This is because conquered nations bring their own aspirations, troubles, and interests into the state. And this growing diversity makes the state more difficult to govern, weakening the mutual loyalties that had held it together, dissipating its attention and resources in the effort to suppress internal conflicts and violence that had previously been unknown to it, and forcing the rulers to adopt oppressive means of maintaining the peace. As this happens, the rulers become absorbed in intrigues and negotiations among distant parties in distant lands. This appeals to their vanity, as it allows them to see themselves as “men of the world.” But in reality, their understanding of the foreign nations they seek to pacify is nearly always limited to externals, to hollowed-out caricatures, so that they tend to do as much harm as good by applying the shallow, supposedly “universal” categories at their disposal to circumstances at the ends of the earth.52 In the meantime, when anyone approaches them with a matter that concerns the health and prosperity of their own nation, they have only scant attention to devote to it, and secretly resent this intrusion of “domestic affairs” when greater things are pressing. In this way, the minds of the rulers turn away, and they become almost as unaware of the concerns of their own people as they are of the interests of the foreign nations they seek to govern.

All of this is regarded with horror by peoples with strong national-state traditions, which tend to scorn the idea that their country’s leaders should lose themselves in efforts for the preservation and government of an empire of foreign nations, rather than strengthening the tribes of their own nation in their own land.

The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony