The invitation from the Academies of Social Sciences of Changsha and Shanghai came innocently enough. Last week, I participated in an academic conference co-sponsored by both organizations on great power relations with regional neighbors. My task: discuss the history of U.S. intervention in the Western Hemisphere.
There is a lot to write about and criticize on the subject, stretching back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and all its interpretations, its declared death by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, and its resurrection by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2018. But there is also a lot to recognize as positive, including the third wave of democracy that swept through the hemisphere starting in the late 1970s and the series of democratic and commercial commitments that have followed. This era of democracy in the Americas—that despite ups and downs and recent setbacks, we are still in the midst of—has brought the longest sustained period of political and economic development and improved relations in the hemisphere’s history. In short, it hasn’t been all about the ugly American; America’s presence and initiative have helped to usher in and support political and economic freedoms that brought unprecedented prosperity and unity (save a few cases) to the region.
But of course that wasn’t what the conference was about. Silly me, thinking that an academic conference in a repressive country would actually want a debate about the merits of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, the one-day event, which brought together participants from Pakistan, Russia and Latin America (I was the only gringo) was really a way to highlight how China’s policy of harmonious relations was a far better method of securing the friendship and support of neighbors. (I guess that doesn’t apply to Tibet, since it’s not really considered a neighbor by Beijing; if the U.S. had annexed Cuba after 1898, we arguably could have claimed the same about our Cuba policy.)
The panel before mine consisted of speakers from the broader neighborhood praising China’s efforts, with some gentle criticism—from Korea—of not doing enough.
Mine was the second panel. I was the first speaker, which I foolishly thought was a position of honor. Instead, it was the platform to make me a piñata. When I got to the part of my presentation that talked about the third wave of democracy and its benefits, I was unceremoniously told that my time was up (it wasn’t—other speakers had gone on far longer) and urged to finish quickly. I was cut off a minute later. (Admittedly, because of formatting issues, my PowerPoint was not just the sloppiest presentation I have ever given but the worst I have seen in decades of attending conferences.)
As he walked to the podium, the next speaker, from China, asked “So, Dr. Sabatini do you think the U.S.’s interventionist policy is not the way to go?” He then proceeded to extoll the virtues of China’s policy of harmonious relations, at one point putting up a slide with the Chinese characters for harmony and commanding us all the write them down—looking specifically at me. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer any evidence as to how this had translated into positive popular sentiments or state-to-state relations, other than cooperation over the belt and road initiative. The later speakers went on to give the standard presentations detailing the litany of U.S. interventions, though one conceded that some U.S. interventions were done with the best of intentions, and another argued that NAFTA constituted a successful effort by the U.S. to build close relations through the modernizing effect of trade, even in the face of Mexican nationalism.
On the following panel, the presenter listed the series of power-hungry Russian interventions that have failed to generate a ring of friendship around Mother Russia, especially when compared to the glorious success of China’s historic policy. The lesson: harmonious relations work best. Write it down. I got it.
In the “discussion” period (during which I was the only one asking questions) that followed, I had to ask the Chinese presenters: if the ring of neighbors felt so much in solidarity with China, why did a number of them, such as Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia, join the Trans Pacific Partnership? No one answered it directly. Their only response was the rote recitation of the benefits of harmony.
The same was true when I asked another question: was the unstated subtext of the conference the best means for a large state to gain and sustain regional power? Whether it was through intervention or harmonious relations, the intended, not-so-subtle goal of either set of policies—and of the conference in general—was about power: what is the best way of extending and consolidating power among neighbors to future a great powers’ interests? When I asked, though, one participant repeated that the conference and China’s policy are really about harmony. But in the end, it wasn’t. By highlighting its supposed harmonious, win-win regional foreign policy, the conference really revealed that China is bent on extending its influence and power in its neighborhood like the U.S. has done—it just thinks its tactics are better. Upon reflection, maybe I didn’t need an invitation to travel to Changsha to realize that.