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Sunday, April 30, 2006

# Posted 1:01 PM by Patrick Porter  

IN DEFENCE OF JOHNSTON: I should start by saying that I'm a total novice to Chinese history, so I'll confine my comments to the reasoning of Johnston's book. Any Sinologists out there who can lend their expertise, feel free to come charging in.

Let me start by agreeing with David's overarching caution about monocausal theories. I would echo your warnings against an overly deterministic view of one strategic culture as the single motor of a state's policies.

And particularly towards the end of his book, Johnston draws ambitious links between medieval Chinese statecraft and post-1949 behaviour.

What impressed me, however, was the focal point of his study, which is devoted to a specific timeframe, the Ming dynasty of 1368-1644.

I don't think that Johnston's book is the reductionist behemoth you claim. As you may recall, he identifies not one but two competing strategic cultures with two conflicting views of statecraft, the use of war as a tool of state policy, the nature of the enemy and how security is to be ensured, etc.

One he calls 'Confucian-Mencian', which assumes that conflict is aberrant and avoidable, that prefers accommodationist strategies for dealing with threats, and then defensive over offensive strategies, that force should only be used minimally and only as a way of restoring the moral-political order.

The other he calls 'Parabellum', from the Latin 'If you want peace prepare for war' motto, which sees conflict as a permanent feature of human affairs, presumes the predatory nature of most adversaries, and has confidence in the effectiveness of violence as an instrument of policy.

Crucially, he sees the parabellum one as mediated by a doctrine of flexibility, in which coercion and force is measured according to the relative strengths of the state against its enemy, and only to be used when the time is ripe. A posture of watchful aggressiveness.

The point is, both of these strategic world views are to be found in the texts.

But on analysis of actual behaviour, the parabellum school continually wins out: there is a demonstrable pattern of state violence by which emperors resort to the more offensive strategies.

So this itself is an important insight: whereas many analysts bought the Confucian model of Chinese statecraft, Johnston sees instead a frequency in the level of state violence, arguing that the Confucian-Mencian model exerted comparatively less impact on state policy.

But: he sees the Confucian-Mencian strategic culture as operating on a symbolic level, which was used and appealed to by rulers to justify more conciliatory policies when they were on the back foot.

Unless I am flattering Johnston, it seemed to me that he does not argue crudely that strategic culture in China was all-determinative, but that it had a nontrivial impact on state behaviour.

On the 'realism' versus 'culture' point, Johnston makes an intriguing point: that in many ways the parabellum model resembled realpolitik assumptions. But he differs from 'realists' by refusing to attribute its dominance to ahistorical structural conditions - of anarchy in the interstate system, or the nature of the environment, or any other transhistorical, transnational set of conditions.

Instead he attributes it to a process whereby its core assumptions were learned. Chinese decisionmakers were socialised in its nostrums through education, etc. It begs the question, where does a realist policy/mentality come from?

Also: he doesn't rely exclusively on classic texts. He also uses Ming memorials to the emperor, and continually goes back to behaviour as well as discourse.

So the relationship between behaviour and discourse in his book, at least I thought, was an intricate one: there is an influential strategic culture of preferences, values and habits, but it is sometimes put aside by the pragmatic ruler, who appeals to an alternative strategic culture, to justify his policies. The relationship is a two-way street - strategic cultures shape behaviour, but elites can also manipulate strategic cultures.
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