the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 April 10


Democracy is, by definition, what the people want. The point of elections is to consult the people’s will and to allow them to determine their own course. Nothing in the theory of pure democracy prevents them from choosing rigid authoritarian governments or oppressive systems. But some rights, even under pure democracy, they may not justly deny their fellow citizens, and one of those is the right to regular elections. No electorate has the right to choose on behalf of all future electorates. But more importantly, no elite has the right to choose on behalf of an entire populace. ‘Elect’ means “choose”; ‘elite’, etymologically, means “chosen”. But the elite in this case is always self-chosen. Such self-appointment should fool no one. This elite is not entitled to speak for a people. It cannot reject democracy for a people, since, again by definition, a people can never reject democracy. Talk of “Asian values” is nothing more than the self-serving rationalization offered forth by dictators and elites to keep themselves in power, to deny power to the masses. It is a variation of what dictators and elites have always said in claiming to represent the people and to rule them by consent. The Lee Guan Yews of the world are reluctant to face a free electorate, because they know what we know, that their rhetoric is hollow, and that their way does not have the backing of the people. If this assumption is wrong, if Asian values and authoritarianism are so popular, let them be put to a vote.

Liberalism is a matter rather different from democracy, and involves a broad range of political and civil freedoms.1 A polity needn’t be liberal to be a democracy. But liberalism is, nonetheless, a body of inherent and inalienable rights. They cannot be denied, democratically or otherwise, to those who wish to exercise them. They cannot be lost or surrendered even voluntarily; they belong always to the individual, whenever the individual wishes to claim them.

Self-determination within the bounds of liberalism is one of the few enduring values that ought to exist in global politics. And its pursuit is not even solely altruistic. The more liberal democracies that exist in the world, through our encouragement and active support by many means, the more will be available to encourage and actively support ours should it ever lie under threat. A global community that is as dedicated to preserving liberal democracy among its members as NATO, for instance, is to preserving state security among its members, would be a powerful, valuable, righteous force in the world. It would serve the interests of all.

Taiwan is a liberal democracy. It hasn’t always been so, and like all such, it could be more liberal, but we can reasonably hope that will come in time. Perfection, in any case, will never come. But on the whole Taiwan is about what it should be. And though Taiwan has not been a genuine democracy for long (only since the 1996 election, in fact), its economy may be conducive to stable democracy, giving large numbers, including economic elites, a stake in continued stability, and denying the sort of excuses that often precede an interruption in the constitutional order.

Mainland China is an illiberal dictatorship. It has never been otherwise. While it would be simplistic to say that the long monarchic system in China was eternally without virtues, eternally without some liberal policies, and while it would be erroneous to suppose that imperial China, in a historical world of illiberal government, has been anything other than typical, nonetheless the present day finds China as the world’s most populous dictatorship, among its most illiberal states, without any history of liberalism by contemporary standards. On the whole, China is not at all what it should be. And its economy may be setting the stage for a democratic transformation, or it may be giving political and economic elites more of an incentive to maintain their grip on power. The greatest cause for hope in China is not its (supposedly) booming economy or the suave rhetoric of its rulers, but the presence of liberal-democratic opponents of those rulers, whether they are in China, often imprisoned, or in exile, often against their wishes.

United States foreign policy has seldom if ever been what it ought to be. But past misdeed does not preclude future good deed. During the Cold War, and specifically during the reign of Chiang Kai Shek, US policy was essentially backing one dictatorship on Taiwan against another on the mainland (and globally, countless dictatorships against a single dictatorship in Russia) in support of an economic ideology. The loss of control by capitalist powers (of whatever political nature) to Leninist-Stalinist revolutionaries or states was considered a threat to the United States’ short-term and long-term economic interests. In the short term, the government and particularly the businesses of the US feared the loss of markets for US goods, and labor and raw materials for US manufacturing, and the nationalization of US overseas properties. In the long term, the triumph and spread of quasi-communist ideals and Leninist-Stalinist geopolitical power threatened capitalism itself, even in the United States.

It may be true that the ruling parties of both Taiwan and China during the Cold War had idealist origins. The Chinese Nationalists, the Kuomintang, began as a party dedicated to liberal democracy. The Chinese Communists began as a party dedicated to economic equality. Of course, the apparently-capitalist ideology of the Kuomintang as rulers of Taiwan, and the apparently-anti-capitalist ideology of the CCP as rulers of the mainland, belied their fundamental similarity. Each group was an oligarchy designed to rule without consent, and to maintain that control indefinitely. Nothing in their economic ideologies affected their political outlook, and in totalitarian societies, like China and Taiwan during the Cold War, the economy under whatever guise is controlled by the rulers and meant to serve their interests.

With the end of the Cold War, even champions of capitalism are recognizing other values that must be considered in geopolitics ― though that has not prevented actions like the Bush administration’s undermining of constitutional democracy in Venezuela, for example.2 For too long the US has pursued a realist, geostrategic, even cynical foreign policy. Realism is important, and we should not delude ourselves about the truths in the world, or the likely outcomes of certain actions. But a realistic understanding of the world is not mutually exclusive with an idealistic approach. Unfortunately, cynicism and economic self-interest are still guiding US policy on the Taiwan issue. The United States is more and more interested in mainland China, more and more accommodating of its government, less and less willing to offend it, because of the value to US businesses of the mainland market and labor pool. Even granting the value to US stockholders (including those whose retirement funds are so invested) and US workers of the mainland market, and the value to US consumers, in the form of cheaper goods, of the mainland labor pool, the benefits of a tilt towards China are not worth the costs. The benefits can be measured in dollars. The costs can only be measured in lives and quality of life. These don’t translate well to currency values, and we would be shameless to try.

Of course, the issue is not so simple that we should merely side with Taiwan against the CCP. If a rational case could be made that appeasing China would lead in time to freedom for the entire mainland, then Taiwan’s freedom would be a rational, albeit terribly painful, sacrifice to make. But when has appeasement ever worked? What evidence has China shown that appeasement has ever substantially affected Chinese policy on political or civil rights? China has joined the UN Security Council and, more recently, the World Trade Organization, and has been named to host the 2008 Olympics, all international grants of legitimacy; and yet China remains an oppressive state, and the greatest political concession that has ever been extracted for these favors has been the periodic release of a token dissident from prison (where of course the dissidents should never have been), increasingly on condition of exile, by which China sheds a rallying point for discontent and is burdened with nothing more than another largely-ignored (though not rightly-ignored) voice in New York exile circles.

The people of Taiwan deserve their freedom, and they deserve our help in preserving it. Our commitment, whether made public or not, should be to defend this freedom, using means up to and including force. The diplomatic and geopolitical value of publicizing our commitment to Taiwan should be the guide to our decision on that issue. There is inherent value in confronting the dictators in China, both as an encouragement to the people of both China and Taiwan, and as a message to dictators and potential dictators in other parts of the world. The specious argument about the role of face in Confucian culture is made only by dictators themselves, or by those who do not understand Confucian culture any more than they understand human nature and in particular the nature of dictators. All tyrants want to be accorded formal respect and to have their august self-image validated by the world’s powers. Those Western commentators arguing for a conciliatory approach (largely pro-business conservatives with an obvious conflict of interest) were entirely for confrontation of Stalin and his successors and felt vindicated in their approach with the ultimate end of the Cold War. Any supposition that Stalin responded differently to public confrontation and attempted (and deserved) humiliation because he was culturally of the West is pure nonsense. But in the case of China, a blunt statement that provoked a war would serve no one’s interests in the short term, and there is no guarantee that the outcome of a war would serve the interests of the people of China, Taiwan, or the US in the long term.

That is partially because there is no guarantee that Taiwan and the United States could defeat a Chinese invasion. However, turning back a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be substantially more probable than a successful invasion of the mainland by the US. An element of advantage always goes to the defender, and the naval and air power necessary to overcome the naval and air power of the United States and Taiwan is probably not in China’s possession. Even so, it is reasonable to consider the cost in lives and even dollars of an attempted defense of Taiwan, and to consider whether the short- and possibly medium-term freedom of the island’s inhabitants is worth the cost. But the cost should not only factor in the freedom of the people of Taiwan. A successful defense of Taiwan could defend, through deterrent, the freedom and lives of people around the world. By demonstrating resolve to defend freedom, the United States could spare itself from several future wars to defend against aggression. Even the declaration of intent has some deterrent value. And US credibility is significantly higher on that issue at present, having demonstrated resolve and military superiority in the liberation of Iraq from what was, in essence, a military occupation.

A policy to defend Taiwan is an important microscopic expression of a commitment to liberal democracy as high geopolitical value. But a macroscopic approach holds more promise and probably less risk. The US should take the lead in developing a new system of diplomacy based on this value. As a beginning, it should withdraw every one of its ambassadors and decertify its recognition of every state in the world.

Nothing less radical can achieve the proper reorientation. The US should be both realistic and idealistic. As realistic, the United States should acknowledge the realities of power in the world, to a greater extent than it does with the present system. That means admitting that the sovereign power in the world is divided up differently than has previously been claimed. The sovereignty of rebel states, for instance, is apparent to all; our inability to speak the truth on this matter affects our ability to deal realistically with these unrecognized states. We should make clear that legitimacy does not grow from the barrel of a gun, but political power does. Who would understand this better than the heirs of Mao?

Realism would accept that the privileged recognized states will react negatively to any loss of privilege. But realism would also recognize that at this point in history the United States has enormous power, and can use that power for good in defiance of the rest of the world if necessary. Just as the United States created the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic system, it can easily remake the system of diplomatic recognition. And any system that allowed Saddam Hussein representation in the world while denying it to the sovereign, largely-democratic Kurdish states justly countering his control is obviously flawed. Finally, though, realism would admit that change doesn’t happen immediately, and that the US would in the meantime be required to deal with “states” as recognized according to international standards and in international institutions.

The idealistic approach centers on dividing the various definitions of ‘state’ from one another. One, clearly, is actual sovereignty ― impunity de facto, genuine physical control of a population or territory. Another is membership in international organizations. These are georealistic and should be addressed without any conferral of legitimacy. But a third is democracy. Any tribunate ― a body chosen through free, monitored elections by a populace, any populace ― deserves some degree of legitimacy, and support and cooperation from the United States (and other such states, of course). The popular will is not always right or liberal, but it is always important, and recognizing popular will has important geopolitical and humanitarian value. Geopolitically, the recognition of popular will reduces the tensions in the world, by reducing the discontent that festers among unrepresented peoples. Further, democracy does not appear instantly, and cannot be wiped out instantly (though it can be overthrown), and so there is an inherent degree of stability in such a system. Obviously, this system should apply outside of sovereignty considerations, so that a tribunate that is not in power, such as Burma’s National League for Democracy, or the presidency of Ange-Félix Patassé for the Central African Republic, is accorded the same respect, or at least a respect commensurate with the size of its mandate.

And finally, democracies that fully respect basic civil, political, and economic rights and protect the environment should be accorded special status. At a minimum, these rights should include freedom of expression, affiliation, worship, and petition, and entitlement to basic food, shelter, and health care.3 Respect for these rights and protections, and the practice of democracy itself, should be certified, perhaps annually with provision for change in status at any time, by the State Department. Having done so, the State Department would then be authorized to treat these just democratic states as full partners in international politics.

Two obvious areas for this partnership are trade and defense. In the area of trade, these just democracies would have every reason to engage in free trade, absent most of the justifiable grounds for trade restrictions, things like human and labor rights and environmental protections. The economic benefits of free trade would assist some of the developing just democracies to meet their obligations for economic welfare and environmental protection, and somewhat reduce the need for direct foreign aid from industrial states that would otherwise provide that assistance.

The just democracies should proceed immediately to a mutual-defense pact, committing each one to the active defense of the system of justice and democracy, internal and external. At a minimum, this alliance would commit the states to respond to any aggression by one state against one of its members, or to the overthrow of democracy within one of its members. At a maximum, it would support, though not compulsorily, the intervention in non-democratic states, through various means up to and including force. The invasion of Iraq by several democracies clearly demonstrates the lack of support an interventionist policy has even among just democracies at present. But since the just democracies also failed to intervene in so obvious a case as Rwanda, this non-interventionist stance is revealed to be less a matter of principle than a matter of reluctance and isolationism. And support for defense against aggression remains strong, as the reaction to 2001 September 11 demonstrated.

Clearly, under this system, Taiwan would find itself on the inside, and China on the outside. Any attack by China upon Taiwan would not only be met with force by the just democracies, but would be automatically discredited for its violation of established principles. But beyond that extreme, our engagement with Taiwan would be closer and deeper than with China, because Taiwan would be viewed as a partner, and China as the very powerful but illegitimate tyranny that it is. China and Taiwan are both sovereign powers. They are both members of international institutions, though in Taiwan’s case, not the most important. Our dealings with them, and our level of representation to them, would recognize these facts. But Taiwan would have by far the higher status, as a state operating according to standards of justice.

It may be impolitic to say, but any state that behaves as China does is our enemy, because it is the enemy of justice. And Taiwan ought to be a friend, as it is a friend to justice. The United States has long oriented its policy and its affiliations towards the defense of capitalism and the interests of individual capitalists and their corporations. Whether that is appropriate is a matter of opinion. But if so, we should state clearly that we care only about money, and be silent about all other matters. If not, if there are higher values than wealth, we should not only state those, but act upon them. We have not done so consistently in the past. The future is as yet unwritten.



1. Fareed Zakaria also makes this distinction, contrasting democracy with ‘constitutional liberalism’.

2. This recognition is not an endorsement of Hugo Chávez. Chávez is a putschist himself; he behaves autocratically, has sought (and won) expansion of presidential powers, and has taken a persecutorial attitude towards internal opposition. But it remains true that his election, restructuring of government, and re-election were all accomplished with overwhelming democratic support, and that the US tacitly endorsed his replacement by coup.

3. It will noted instantly that the United States does not meet these requirements itself. But obviously the election of a government that is sincerely interested in this reform of the diplomatic system would also herald the appropriate changes in domestic policy. Of course, I do not in any way fool myself into believing that any plausible presidency or congress in the near future will adopt this proposal


Robin Broad, ed., ‘Global backlash’, 2002. Rowman & Littlefield.
John Clark lectures.
Jacques B. Gélinas, ‘Freedom from debt’, 1998. Excerpted in Broad, ed.
Kenneth Lieberthal, ‘Governing China’, 1995. W.W. Norton.
Suzanne Ogden, ‘Global studies China’, ninth edition, 2002. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.
Fareed Zakaria, ‘The rise of illiberal democracy’. Foreign Affairs, 1997, v76 n6.


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