Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mencius and "Soft Power"

In book six ("Duke Wen of T'eng, Bk Two"), chapter 5, of the David Hinton translation of Mencius, a disciple of Mencius asks him about the limits of righteousness when it comes to asserting power in the world. He points to the small state of Sung (also translated as "Song")  "Sung is a small nation. If its government became that of a a true emperor and it were therefore invaded by Ch'i and Ch'u, what could be done?"

Remember that Mencius was writing at the time of the "Warring States" period, which was when a group of individual nations emerged from the old Zhou dynasty. Because what we now call "China" was fragmented into different states, it was a time of intense competition as various governments experimented with different philosophies in order to create the most successful society. This is when Daoism, Confucianism, Moism, Legalism and so on competed with one another in much the same way that Communism, Capitalism, Fascism, and so on vied for supremacy in the 20th century.

Warring States China:  450 BC
As you can see in the above map (click on it to get a good view), Song was one of the smaller states in this group---situated between the much larger states of "Chu" (ie: "Ch'u") to the South and "Qi" ("Ch'i") to the North . The assumption that the disciple is making is that there is nothing that the rulers of Song can do to avoid being swallowed up.

This is a significant concern for Mencius, because he posited that rulers only governed at the sufferance of their people. This is the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven", or, the idea that if a potentate was so bad that his people successfully revolted against him, the divine right by which he rules was revoked and handed to whomever replaced him. The question being raised is "what happens if a ruler with the Mandate of Heaven (ie: a "true emperor") arises in a small state like Sung? Will the mandate protect him from being squashed like a bug?"

Mencius's answer is to make an analogy from The Book of Documents, (also called The Classic of History). I've not read any of it myself, and Wikipedia says that much of it was lost during the Qin Empire's book burning that followed the end of the Warring States period, so I don't even know if there is anymore than can be learned about the incidents that Mencius refers to. But what he does say is pretty self-explanatory. The ruler of Po (T'ang) was concerned about the ruler of the neighbouring state of Ko neglecting some sacrifices. So Po sent Ko some "foreign aid" in the form of animals to be sacrificed. Instead, the rulers of Ko just ate them. Again, Po asked why the sacrifices weren't being followed, and the response was "Ko doesn't have enough millet". So Po sent some "Peace Corps" workers to help with the plowing and planting---Ko had their food and seed stolen and even killed one of the young people that was sent.

After this outrage, Po sent an army to remove the leadership of Ko. Mencius says "---everyone within the four seas said:  It isn't lust for all beneath Heaven:  it's revenge for the abuse of common men and women." Mencius then goes on to say that T'ang then went to mount eleven other expeditions to build his empire. He says that "When he marched east, the western tribes complained. And when he marched south, the northern tribes complained:  Why does he leave us for last?"

The reason why people wanted T'ang to invade them was because of the way he ruled that nations under his sway. Mencius says
People watched for him the way they watched for rain in the midst of a great drought. When he came, they went to market unhindered again and weeded their fields without interference. He punished the rulers and comforted the people, like rain falling in its season. And so a great joy rose among the people. The Book of History says:  We're waiting for our lord:  his coming will end our suffering.
In effect, when T'ang marched into another country it wasn't seen as an invasion but rather as a liberation.

What Mencius is talking about is soft power. This is when a state or institution is capable of influencing other states or institutions through example rather than by using either bribery or brute force. At one time there were countries that actively tried to use soft power in the world---Canada at one time was one of them. But after the attacks of 9/11 and other incidents of terror, a different narrative took over, one that finds appeals to reason or the better nature of other people totally inexplicable.


Take a look at the following clip from a speech by Canada's current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. In it, he is outlining Canada's new policy for dealing with Isis. It involves three elements.

First, he is removing the six fighter bombers that are currently involved in attacking ISIS position. They will be replaced by some support services for the bombers being supplied by other nations such air tankers for refueling and surveillance aircraft to help identify bombing targets.

The second element involves military support for the emerging nation state of Kurdistan. This ultimately means that Canada supports the ending of the boundaries that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the emergence of new borders that actually reflect the ethnic identity of the population.
Where the Kurds Live
In practical terms, this support involves sending more military trainers and light weapons such as assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and ammunition to help the Peshmerga with their campaigns against ISIS. This support makes real sense from a geopolitical point of view in that the Kurds are the only effective local fighting force in the area and are committed to the long term project of establishing their own state. As such, they offer the hope of becoming one of the pillars for long term stability in the area. This really is part of a strategy that actually offers some hope for ending the threat of ISIS once and for all---as opposed to the current one of trying keep the present borders through unending warfare.

Unfortunately, helping Kurdistan goes directly against the stated goals of Syria, Turkey and Iran---all of which have sizable Kurdish minorities and who would ideally like to take their parts of said countries and incorporate them into the eventual Kurdish state. (Iraq has pretty much given up already and already ceded the parts of its territories where Kurds live.) This is a tremendously "ballsy" foreign policy move, but has the advantage of being the only thing that I've heard on the subject that actually makes sense.

In addition, the Canadian government has committed itself to increased foreign aid to the nations that are currently hosting the brunt of refugees from the fighting:  Lebanon and Jordan.

Soft power isn't just about countries being "nice", it's also about not being stupid. And the willingness of the Liberals to actually support the Kurds is, I suspect, an example of creating a foreign policy that is meant to not be stupid. In politics there is a constant pressure to pander to the electorate. And there are well-organized constituencies who feel it is their job to "bang the drum" and whip people into frenzies of anger, fear and hatred in order to mobilize the masses. I've always felt that one of the jobs of a politician is to do the opposite---to prevent panic, calm people down, and come up with the best policy possible. If you listen to the tone Trudeau is projecting in the speech, I would suggest that that is exactly what he is trying to do in that clip I posted above. In effect, his speech is the verbal equivalent of the famous WW2 poster.

If, however, you look at where I originally got the link of the Trudeau speech, it was from a YouTube channel called "Rebel Media" where it was posted with this title "Trudeau displays his troubling world view in ISIS announcement".  Presumably, they would have also complained bitterly about the British government trying to calm down the populace in the face of nightly bombing attacks and the possibility of a German invasion. (I can only assume that they believe that the only patriot response to a threat seems to be panic and thrashing around blindly.)


Daoism teaches about the "soft" overcoming the "hard". Indeed, I was taught in my taijiquan school how to take a punch by totally relaxing my body and allowing the force to flow through my body and into the ground. But how we define "soft" can have several meanings. As Trudeau says in his clip, the "the lethal enemy of barbarism isn't hatred, it's reason". The soft, calm voice of an intelligent foreign policy---based on an objective assessment of the situation---is much more productive than the shrill populist attempt to mobilize support through fear and anger.

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