A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (2): Probably Not…


(For part one of this post, click here.)

1. I am skeptical, because shared cultural bases have rarely stopped conflict in other areas. Instead, they often seem to encourage it, as various states claim leadership of the cultural space as a whole. Every Continental would-be hegemon from Charles V to Hitler said they were ‘uniting Europe.’ Further, we usually save our worst fury and anger for dissenting insiders, not outsiders. So Plutarch and Thucydides both noted somewhere that the ancient Greeks, despite their shared culture, were far more zealous in destroying each other than uniting against their common foes, the Persian, Macedonians, and Romans. Hedley Bull and the EU framers argue that European ideals and perhaps Christianity provide a shared cultural base for a ‘European society,’ but Christendom hardly stopped the Europeans from fighting bitterly to dominate each other, particularly over which form of Latin Christianity was right. Today, the Arab state system shows the same problems. Supposedly united by common language, culture, and religion, the Arab states have vied brutally against each other, frequently recruiting outsiders like the US or USSR to help them defeat local rivals.

Now, one can argue that Confucianism has special or unique war-reducing or –dampening properties, but that needs a lot of research and detailed process tracing rooted in specific examples of conflict averted by appeals to shared values. A far simpler answer is to say that China was a regional unipole (i.e., huge, when others were small), and therefore war against it was pointless. IR strongly believes this logic explains the current global Long Peace; war against the US unipole today is fruitless. So why not simply apply the logic to the regional level? Chinese preponderance made war in classical Confucian Asia less likely, because China’s opponents never stood a chance and so never tried. Following that causal logic, we should speak of a Chinese hegemonic peace, not a cultural Confucian peace.

2. The idea of a Confucian long peace stumps IR, because we aren’t really sure what to do with ‘culture’ as an explanation for outcomes. In fact, social science in general dislikes ‘culture,’ because it feels like a cop-out reason when you’ve got nothing else. If you can’t explain something otherwise, say it is ‘just their culture.’ So if I don’t know why Russians like vodka, the Irish like Guiness, and the Koreans like soju, then it is just ‘cultural preference.’ But that is awfully soft. It does not actually tell me much; it provides no account of mechanisms and choices. Besides, lots of so-called cultural artifacts actually have functional roots. For example, the Jewish and Islamic prohibitions on pork are rooted in the possibility of contracting trichinosis from flesh that might quickly sour and rot in the sun of the ME. Social science prefers such rationalist explanations. Actor X does Y, because there is some tangible material benefit. Maybe Confucian Asia will bandwagon with China for cultural reasons, but the causal map for this behavior feels soft, especially in contrast the explanatory clarity of the regional unipolarity thesis.

For examples of culture’s softness, look at the other three systems I noted with multiple states functioning within a shared culture (Greeks, Christian Europeans, and Arabs). They did not enjoy any war-reducing affects from common culture. In fact, the evidence from psychology points the other way: we tend to save our harshest opprobrium and violence for lapsed insiders (national traitors, religious heretics) than outsiders who are comfortably relegated as ‘barbarians.’ This was Plutarch and Thucydides’ tragic insight, e.g., on the ancient Greeks.

3. If there was a Confucian peace, I don’t think it is coming back. Kang does. He thinks China’s EA neighbors will accept some amount of Chinese hierarchy; that is why they are not balancing against China now. I don’t buy it. Koreans and Japanese strike me as way too nationalistic today to accept that. If anything, the Koreans and Japanese look down on the Chinese as culturally inferior. Koreans will tell you that the Chinese will eat anything (scorpions, beetles) and that Korea should ‘mediate’ China to the West. Sizeable chunks of Japan still think its imperialism liberated Asia from the West and brought modernity. EA states today are just way too nationalized now. Just like the nationalization and de-arabization of contemporary ME states that sets them against each other despite shared culture, EA states may share a vague Confucian background unity, but vague is all it is. EA is far from the level of cultural sharing and trust that undergird a project like the EU. And remember that the Europeans had to destroy each other for 400 years before they decided to live with each other. If no one is balancing against China today, as Kang says, then, 1. they can avoid it, because the US is still around to reassure everyone, and 2, they are certainly hedging against China, if not openly balancing it. No one in Asia is openly running with China, not even NK. This nationalization of EA states is why Samuel Huntington’s proposed Confucian civilizational bloc never really ignited local opinion here; it was based on the Sinco-centric past, which although attractive perhaps as a route to peace today, no longer exists. Asians will have to do the hard work of forging institutions to build trust; culture is not enough…

4 thoughts on “A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (2): Probably Not…

  1. Pingback: A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ among East Asian States (1): Does Shared Culture Stop War? « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. In deference to the white men, they did not brought war to the lands they conquered and seized by force or imposed treaties on local rulers. Conflict had been there before they arrive- competition over resources, transgressions of one tribe’s taboos, blood feuds, and expansion of one kingdom’s dominion at the expense of its neighbors. But Europeans were credited for revolutionizing the conduct of war in the lands they colonized, introducing firearms, which exacerbated rifts, tensions or animosities that were already there. Before the advent of firearms, the huge resources to be mobilized in order to wage a campaign against another kingdom act as a deterrent for prolonged hostilities and wanton destruction. But with modern firearms and lessons from their colonizers (i.e. the practice of confining the civilian populace in concentration areas in order to deny support for native insurgents which incidentally brings about the destruction of a people’s culture as it disrupts their traditional relation to their lands, eventually destroying their culture and means of subsistence), the chances of obliterating or inflicting huge losses to a rival tribe or kingdom became more achievable. Before, the knowledge that no party can completely vanquished its opponent and, made more susceptible to compromises and peace pacts as the most effective means of settling disputes. Natives knew that victory cannot be final and continued conflict would only breed a war that could go on for generations wherein no clear winner may stand. But thanks to the colonizers, this view had been changed. And the proliferation of firearms remains a major stumbling block for the pursuit of peace in war-torn regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, some of the conquered peoples also made use of the white men to win wars over rival tribes as was the case for some Native American Indians. But it must stressed that given the European colonizers’ divide and rule stratagem, it was the natives who shed more blood to expand the frontiers of European colonization. Recruiting “pacified” and “civilized” natives to fight “heathens” had been widely practiced by the white men. Native Americans, for instance, were involved in the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, although they have little influence in the outcome of the war.

    Familiarity breeds contempt, but it can also breed amity. The tributary system of East Asia was not an oppressive devise of an imperial power to control the affairs of their vassal kingdoms. By and large, vassals retain their title and enormous powers to directly lord over their subjects. For so long as they pay homage, give gifts and acknowledge the power of the imperial throne, they are largely free to conduct their own affairs. Peace is, thus, attained simply by the nominal recognition and establishing harmonious ties with the imperial center. And as the center is known as the seat of arts, science, culture and learning, aligning to it was also deemed necessary by vassals in order to benefit through knowledge diffusion.

    But Western notions of nationalism and ideologies eventually set in through contacts, trade and colonization by the West. The West’s notion of nationalism tended to highlight differences and downplay similarities and parallels. This, I believe, is in keeping with their divide and rule tactics, cultivating and exaggerating differences in an attempt to break the unity and accord of neighboring kingdoms. Europe is far and the cost of raising an army is high so local allies have to be won, if not created.


  3. It sounds like you have been reading Guns, Germs and Steel. I don’t really disagree with any of this as theory. You are correct about the use of locals against other locals, and the spread of technology enabling unheard levels of violence. However China already had firearms before the West arrived.

    But if you intend to comment on Confucian Asia, you far underestimate the level of cvilizational in the cases I discuss. Ming and Ching China, as well as their Confucian neighbors were highly organized, wealthy, densely populated, stratified, complex polities. The image of imperialism and ‘native’ warfare you paint does not really apply to northeast Asia. It better fits the Americas and Africa. In Asia, the whites could never hope to thoroughly control, much less colonize; there were far too many locals who were far too resistant, and who were far too connected to very ancient ways. Whites could not undue this without enoromous demographic and cultural pressure. Hence they relied on subtle control mechanisms like the ‘treaty ports’ of China and the highly anglicized Indian Civil Service. A veneer of white control politically humiliated these states, but was never a major cultural challenge to their civilizational integrity, no matter how brutal they might have been. Whites were never going to successfully turn Koreans or Chinese against each as occurred in Africa. Your image of deeply intrusive imperialism never really caught on here; control here was informal, centered on enclaves, and limited to the very top of the political heirarchy.


  4. Thank you very much for the great analysis. Also read you article “A ‘Confucian Long Peace’ in pre-Western East Asia?” in EJIR, it’s fascinating.

    Two questions / comments I have in mind.

    In your article you explain peace during the Qing system by cultural factors, i.e. anti-war ethics and sense of shard community in the Confucian tradition. On the other hand, we can explain peace in that period by applying Robert Cox’s hegemony framework (power, ideas, institutions). So for synthetic purposes, can we explain peace in the observed period by China’s cultural hegemony instead?

    Also, you identify the puzzle between “Christian hypocrisy and Confucian integrity” (and the contrasting war-ness and peacefulness) as a prospect for further research. A possible explanation is the difference between the inherent logics of the two traditions. While Christianity regards human beings as inherently sinful, Confucianism treats them as inherently good. In the former case sinfulness needs to be corrected; in the latter goodness needs to be nurtured. Using IR language, European Christendom displayed realist logic (and therefore inadvertently begetting more wars), while Confucianism was constructivist in nature (and therefore reinforcing peace). Both from a theoretical and policy-making pints, this implies that internalized religious / ethical norms matter a lot in world politics. What’s your reaction to such explanation?


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