Tolerance and intolerance in international affairs
14 Jun 2017|

It’s tricky. On one hand, moral superiority can lead dangerously to intolerance. But too much tolerance can open up strategic problems. That seems to be the crux of Mark Thomson’s proposition in his recent piece for The Strategist on the ‘wickedness of China’.

Tolerance is a contextual quality. A theocracy allowing other some faiths, or an authoritarian state allowing some dissent, is simply giving what it can take back. A democratic state, with a culture deeply rooted in the mores and norms of a particular creed, regulating religious, cultural, or sexual diversity—whether that be the right to proselytise, use native dress or language, or follow sexual preference—embraces license, not liberty. No state has a claim to universally applicable institutions and values.

Genuine constitutional tolerance is to be found only in a state founded on the idea of neutral liberalism—neutral on what values and behaviours constitute a good life for individual citizens. As Rawls and Kant would have it, some basic individual rights override the government’s authority to act in the interest of the common good. That’s not the situation in Australia where the paucity of constitutional protection is transparent when contrasted with the individual protections in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights or the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

States have a sovereign Westphalian right to determine their own system of governance. Were an ideal neutral liberal state to attempt to impose its own particular constitutional and institutional arrangements on other states it would fall into both a contradiction and an error. Liberal neutrality applied internationally should accept that the genuine and fundamental beliefs and cultural norms of many societies are resistant, if not antithetical or hostile, to the values that underpin neutral liberalism.

The error is to claim, as Mark does in his piece, that ‘there can be no legitimate rule without informed consent’; that can only be a subjective, value-laden moral opinion in the absence of an unchallengeable authority able to distinguish legitimacy from illegitimacy. The question of political legitimacy is complex and morally fraught.

Mark observes that Chinese citizens lack ‘the same rights and privileges’ available in the Australian political system. As these are relatively limited, presumably he means the values theoretically inherent in liberalism and democracy. Denial of those rights and privileges to its citizens by the illiberal and undemocratic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is said to make it ‘wicked’—a moral term invoking something evil or morally wrong as opposed to something virtuous.

Apparently, acting in ‘economic self-interest’ is to be condemned as demonstrating that ‘our values have a price’. The obverse would be that Australian political values are somehow priceless, universal, unimpeachable and immutable. The argument I read in Mark’s piece is that the political constitution and the governmental institutions of Australia (and by implication those of other Westminster based or liberal democratic nations) are irrefutably superior because of their moral standing, and that any compromise on those values is therefore wrong.

Those institutions have ‘legitimacy’ because of those values whereas those of the CCP don’t. It’s an argument that the CCP can (and does) apply in reverse. And although liberalism and democracy are often linked, they aren’t the same thing. Many democracies—in Europe, and Russia, Turkey, and Iran—are more or less illiberal. Illiberal tendencies are on the rise in the US as well.

Apart from the paternalism and conceit of judging others by Australian values, there’s a far stronger strategic reason for exercising caution when criticising China’s domestic governance at present. That bigger issue is the abandonment of democracy promotion by the Trump administration.

The wisdom of American democracy promotion has been hotly contested since George W. Bush’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ in the wake of 9/11, under which the base causes of the terrorist attacks were assessed as the failures of the ‘political and economic doctrines’ tolerated in the Middle East and North Africa in the interests of national security.

By 2006, the best response to terrorism was seen as ‘the freedom and dignity that comes when human liberty is protected by effective democratic institutions’. That justification of democracy promotion found legislative backing in the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2007, which declared democracy promotion ‘a fundamental component of United States foreign policy’. More recently, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn have explained that, in their view ‘the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage’ and in which America First will be pursued with the US’s ‘unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength’.

Tillerson, McMaster and Cohn have outlined a Trump revolution in US foreign policy as radical as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan which led to NATO, a united Europe and containment of the Soviet Union, and laid the foundations for the liberal international order; the post-World War II consensus on security, trade, and international political norms and the institutions underpinning that order.

The Trump foreign policy is actually hostile to the most recognisable symbols of the liberal international world order—multilateral free trade, mutual defence and security agreements, and multinational institutions, including the supranational European Union. Tillerson has said that values have a minor place in this revolution; demonstrated by the administration’s praise for autocrats like Putin, Erdogan, al Sisi, Duterte, King Salman—and Xi Jinping.

Mark is right in noting that Australia is prudent, reticent and selective in criticising China and other nations for their failure to live up to Western standards. But describing that prudence as some kind of moral or strategic failing is neither good moral philosophy nor good strategic policy.

The naivety of offering a form of liberal moral universalism to guide strategic policy is problematic when all customary political and moral moorings are loosening—not just because of China, but because of the US, as well.