IPD Executive Research Director, Arta Moeini interviewed Professor Claes Ryn to discuss “The New Cold War” rhetoric in American and Chinese exceptionalism. You can watch the full discussion below or through our YouTube channel.
Claes Ryn joined IPD Director of Research Arta Moeini to speak about some of the philosophical, moral, historical, and psychological drivers of hawkishness and militarist mindset in North Atlantic foreign policy particularly with respect to recent confrontational attitudes toward China. Claes Ryn observed firstly within realism, the enduring question is not the possibility of conflict but how great powers can learn to manage and mitigate conflict. He noted that diplomacy is often stagnated by the vices of human nature. In Ryn’s estimation, “human beings tend to become preoccupied with their own interests, or they tend to be disinclined to see the point of view of the other side.” The self-absorbed feature of human nature, Ryn claimed, is a key obstacle in maintaining peaceful international relations and is a major catalyst of the Sino-American adversarial mindset today.
Apropos of the increasing friction between Washington and Beijing, Ryn argued that the U.S. “is operating on the assumption that it has a monopoly on truth and virtue, that it has the authority to speak for all mankind; that, by definition, sets up a confrontation.” He stated that this attitude is inherently inimical to the “Other”, which is often cast as the opposition, and asserted that such Manichean framing compels also the Other, in this case China, to define its interests totalistically in terms of a whole-of-society resistance to “missionary” power’s threat of aggression.
Ryn emphasized the similarity of traditional approaches to governance within Chinese civilization encouraging virtue and restraint to the classical preoccupation with virtue, habituation, and character-formation in the West, particularly immanent in the American founding. He objected to how, instead of prioritizing such important parallels, Washington instead inflates differences to the level of threat based “on the assumption that America is, by definition, superior to its competitors or opponents” and “that it has a moral mission” to impose its truths upon the world.
Thinking through the ideological undercurrents that inform America’s foreign policy establishment, Ryn argued that neoconservatives and their fellow interventionist travelers embody the Jacobin impulse which sought to expand liberal enlightenment through force. Tracing this idealistic drive back to Woodrow Wilson, he suggested that such liberal progressives believed that America’s role in the world would be to realize a “global democratic revolution” and that “muscular American military power is made to order for this great task.”
Ryn agreed that China represents a challenge for U.S. foreign policy, but cautioned that it is more important to probe whether or not that challenge is existential or even geo-political. He noted that China is historically more interested in inward control, and that Confucian notions of self-cultivation appear to map onto an intellectual culture of restraint. In contrast, Ryn worried that the “neo-Jacobins” at the helm of American foreign policy are more concerned with “virtue” for the sake of demonstrating the “exceptional nature” of the United States. Ryn further observed that Washington is prone to reducing China’s ruling party to a monolith, whereas the reality of Chinese leadership today does not preclude a degree of political and strategic diversity.
Given China’s experience with colonialism and Western imperialism, Ryn maintained that the major driver for China’s rulers is the quest for recognition as an equal great power to the West. Despite the historically “defensive” notion of exceptionalism in China, Ryn worried that the “offensive”, absolutist exceptionalism of America and its allies could beget its mirror militant exceptionalism among some Chinese elites. Although China’s classical tradition, especially Confucianism, could be hoped to restrain some of these more aggressive tendencies, he remained troubled that such external pressure could generate even greater nationalism among the Chinese and fuel conflict.
Finally, Ryn expressed hope that cooler minds could eventually prevail and find new common ground between Western and Chinese civilizations around their comparably-restrained classical traditions. In the United States, however, Ryn was alarmed by the general confusion over American history of constitutionalism, which some would interpret abstractly, anti-historicistically, and reductionistically to justify further projects of exceptionalism and empire. Moreover, Ryn warned that the very fact that despite their record of profound failure, “the neo-Jacobins are able to return to center-stage and offer their views routinely, sometimes even with increased influence” reveals that “there is something profoundly wrong with the ability of American society to recognize where the problem really lies.”