Monday, May 29, 2006

Seeing Ourselves Through Other Eyes

Last week, the Pentagon released its annual China Military Power Report. In the course of detailing China's ongoing military buildup, the 58-page report notes that "China's leaders have yet to adequately explain the purposes or desired end-states of their military expansion."

This phrase struck me as strange. Why would we expect China, or any country, to explain itself to our satisfaction? Would we believe them if they tried? Isn't the job of divining China's true intentions the job of our State Department experts and CIA spooks?

Besides, don't we already know the answer? China's economy is increasingly dependent on foreign-sourced energy. China therefore seeks a stronger ability to project power to secure sea lanes and otherwise protect those energy supplies. China also wants to pressure Taiwan, possibly to reacquire the island by force, but, even short of that, to cause the US to devote more forces to protecting its democratic ally.

Other explanations: China fears a US-North Korean conflict that could spill over its border. China has fought wars with neighbors India, Russia, and Vietnam, and if new tensions arise would like to deter or defeat them through greater military strength. China has a restive muslim population in its hinterland and would like to be better able to deal with it militarily.

Finally, China probably doesn't trust US intentions. They want to deal with us as equals on all fields, including militarily.

(I think that about covers it. Maybe now China won't have to explain.)

But the phrase isn't just strange; it's also probably unhelpful. China is nationalistic, sometimes to the point of prickliness. During a visit to the Macau museum several years ago, I was struck by the obvious "we are a great power and deserve to be treated like one!" subtext in the displays on the return of Macau by Portugal. I have western educated Chinese friends who are surprisingly vehement in insisting that Taiwan will always rightfully belong to China. And remember how way back in those halcyon, pre 9-11 days, Colin Powell persuaded China's leaders to release a US aircrew only by assuring them that we were "very, very sorry" (for once, a sensible, deliberate use of the double very!) to have unintentionally crossed into Chinese airspace?

(BTW, that episode also involved some thoughtful linguistic choices. Wishing to avoid inflaming public opinion, the administration never referred to our airmen as hostages or even captives. They were instead "being detained.")

So I can only imagine how an implicit demand that China's leaders explain their military policies to us will go over in Beijing. "Explain to you?" I would guess Hu and company are thinking. "No, you explain to us!"

And maybe we do explain ourselves to China, at least in our own eyes. But are those explanations any more satisfactory to the Chinese than theirs would be to us?

By way of explaining the request for an explanation, the report also notes that "Absent greater transparency, international reactions to China’s military growth will understandably hedge against these unknowns."

Something tells me the Chinese are aware of this possible problem. It's hard for me to imagine them saying, "Hey, that's a good point... maybe we should be a little more transparent with these guys."

The notion that we could insist on an explanation like this from China suggests to me that we don't have a good idea of how China, or probably other countries, perceives us. We see ourselves as the good guys, with a concomitant right to demand explanations from others. But whether we're good or not good isn't the point. How others perceive us is. For those who don't share our view of ourselves, demands like this one will come across as arrogant, irritating, suspect, and weak.

This isn't some touch-feely notion. If we misapprehend the other side's perceptions, there's little chance that our demands or other initiatives will achieve the results we want and expect. What do we do after that?

Part of knowing your enemy is knowing how he perceives you. Without it, the war on terror is going to be a long one indeed.


ZenPupDog said...

China wants the Spratlys Islands first ...

Anonymous said...

Hi Barry,

The problem is not what China thinks of it relationship with the US, it is the US's schizophrenic aproach to China. We want human rights to be respected but we also want 1 billion + consumers. Which do we want more, it depends on who is in the Whitehouse and how reactive Congress is in relation to both of these issues. China takes the long view (50+ years)when dealing with any problem. The US takes the longest view at 4 year election cycles, but mostly runs on a 24-48 hour news cycle. China (and many other nations) cannot respect a country with such a short term view.

Paul N. (also from the list)

Jamie said...

Barry and all,

I think you nailed it on the head when you said that we still view ourselves as "the good guys." We've stepped into the position of world policeman so heavily that Bush and company are actually starting to believe it. And now we're to the point where we expect other states to explain themselves to us for their actions.

Seems to me that we have a lot of explaining to do ourselves, given our activities of the past several years.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late with this. " Oil Industry Statistics from Gibson Consulting "

Lots of charts& graphs that even I could understand.

John McAuley

JD Rhoades said...


Unfortunately, modern political discourse has become so McCarthyesque that anyone who suggests that we should try to understand how our enemies perceive us is liable to get saddled with that "you just want to give our enemies therapy and cookies" nonsense popularized by Karl Rove. I've driven people to near apoplexy online by suggesting that a lot of Palestinians voted for Hamas for the same reason a lot of Americans voted for George W. Bush: they felt threatened and insecure and voted for the party they thought talked toughest.

Not much room thse days for the concept of walking a mile in the other guy's moccasins.

And to the "Japanese culture" poster: you'd better get off the computer before your mom finds out you're bothering the grown-ups.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I’m back … very briefly, though.

We do what every nation does … we hypothesize the same way they do … it’s the same way within each country itself (Dems vs. Reps, etc.) … depending on who’s ox is gored, we’re either good or bad … but one thing for sure, I don’t trust them (China) anymore than I trust anybody else (and they undoubtedly feel the same). I guess my point is: What’s the point?

Just now I was watching the start of the media assault on the marines allegedly responsible for a massacre last year in Iraq … and then two of the now famous six retired generals who were lionized by some and vilified by others are blaming the massacre (if there was one) on troop strength). Frankly, it continues to make me sick (the blame game) and it immediately makes me think the frenzy of the media (the crowd whipped into the frenzy) is probably wrong one more time.

I know this isn’t a popular view here, but it is what it is … I guess the tie in to how China perceives us (or how we think they do and vice versa) just leaves me blank. Barry posed the question: What do we do after that? I say: We do what every nation did and have done since the beginnings of civilization (for lack of a better word); we do whatever we have to do to protect ourselves and our self interest. That will not win us many humanitarian awards or a special on National Geographic’s culture issue (although there are probably a few nations who actually did appreciate our interference during a couple of World Wars, etc.), but it isn’t any different than what the rest of the world does (except MAYBE Switzerland). You can disagree all you want with the methodology, but don’t fool yourselves into thinking we’re the only guys on the block who look out for themselves at the expense of others (and perceive themselves as the good guys and everybody else as their competition). The thought that nations can come together is, quite frankly, tree-hugging with extreme prejudice … it is the nirvana that exists in manifestos (good and/or bad) … on the page only … or after a few strong tokes on one’s favorite bong.

law dawg fed said...


How far should we go back in our self-flagellation? What would be an appropriate time frame in your mind?


I agree. I also think that anyone who says that another culture/nation try and look at things the American way is also minimized. In many circles the only good thing the US can do is apologize. Sometimes, it would seem, for simply existing.

JD Rhoades said...

Well, LDF, I'm not one of the "apologize for simply existing" crowd. And I don't want to be characterized as one for recognizing when we truly have screwed up.

we do whatever we have to do to protect ourselves and our self interest.

Good to see you back, Charlie. But I think our "self interest" is served by knowing how others perceive us. It might just keep us from getting inot fights we didn't need to and saving ourselves for the ones we do.

Anonymous said...

But I think our "self interest" is served by knowing how others perceive us. It might just keep us from getting inot fights we didn't need to and saving ourselves for the ones we do.

I respectively disagree, JD (with extreme prejudice). It's good fodder for the classroom, but I'll suggest that it ends there. I'm not talking about total ignorance regarding another society/culture, etc., but I am talking about the bottom line. When push comes to shove, nation states (all of them) will look out for number one and rightly so. Life moves way too fast to (excuse the french) dick around with philosophical theory. Life happens on the go with people/nations thinking from the inside out ... whether that's good or bad is irrelevant (unfortunate, perhaps, but irrelevant nevertheless) or the United Nations would work and we'd all get along ... life would be one big Neil Young song. It isn't.

I do see your point, but I think it would require a very unified train of thought that just doesn't exist (as evidenced by these blogs). We can agree with this, though (albeit from different perspectives): We're perceived as the bad guy in way too many instances (sometimes deservedly so and sometimes not). I doubt it's because we're not more understanding (or knowledgeable) of those around us. I think it has more to do with being big dog. The big dog will always be the one to hate/envy. And that, like my assumption that we're the big dog, makes us appear arrogant. I can live with that.

JD Rhoades said...

The problem, Charlie, with being the big dog is that the little dogs won't stand for it forever if the big dog keeps pushing them around. They're going to start looking for an equalizer.

To shift the metaphor a bit, the toughest gunslinger in town had better stand for something other than just being a bad-ass, or pretty soon he's gunfighting all the time...and eventually someone, or several someones, takes him down.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Paul N, good to see you here. I'm not sure China is quite as farsighted as you suggest, nor the US as near, although there might be some differences there.

John M, was there a link? I think it's missing...

Jamie, I think an apology is a worthy step when you feel you've done something that calls for it. Of course, on the world stage, there are other things that need to be considered besides our personal sense that an apology is called for... as LD suggests, for some people an apology will never be enough, and in fact might be perceived (ah, the perception thing again) as weakness, which could lead to problems.

Speaking just for myself as an American, I don't feel I owe anyone an apology. I think Charlie's about right in saying that all nations pursue what they perceive to be in their own best interests. I think America has made a number of foolish and destructive choices lately, but again I don't know that this would distinguish us from anyone else (except that, being more powerful, our mistakes have larger consequences, per Charlie's "big dog" point). I'm more concerned about correcting our policies so that they are in fact serving our best interests than I am in apologizing to anyone whom the current policies might have offended.

JD, agreed, suggesting that we try to understand other viewpoints does drive the demagogues crazy. Which seems strange to me... more on which below...

Charlie! Glad to see you here again, my friend. I don't always agree with you, but you always have something interesting to say that makes me examine my premises.

Here, I agree with a lot of what you've said (as noted above). But I do think it's critical to understand the way others, most of all your enemies, perceive you. Short of always having to use force, how else can you get what you want in the world? Certainly it's not easy to understand the other side's viewpoint, but are you saying that trying to do so has no purpose and no value?

It's been my experience in business, romance, and life generally that I can't get what I want without understanding the way the other side perceives him or herself and perceives me. The closer my understanding is to the other side's, the better things go for me. The more dissonant, the more friction. I'm not proposing "understanding" for kumbayah purposes, but rather as an integral element of effectively pursuing our interests.

As for "excusing the French"... I'm pleased to say that according to my stats counter we have at least several French visitors lurking here. I wouldn't want to unintentionally insult them with the equivalent of "Dutch treat" or "Jewing him down" or the like, and I know you wouldn't, either.

LD, I agree, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Any country trying to get the US to do something would benefit from understanding the way we see them.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I'm in time for posting, but I agree with Charlie!

Anonymous said...

JD is right about others not standing for being pushed around (as the UK learned back in the 1700's; Germany a couple of times a couple of centuries later, etc.), but I suspect that pretty much anything we do is often times perceived as pushing others around when it really isn't (and I don't think we need to see ourselves as others do to figure out that those types of perceptions are more often political convenience than reality). We support Israel and Arab states see us as interfering (and perhaps pushing others around) in the Middle East. Is that an accurate assessment? Again, whose ox is gored. For some we're exerting our muscle ... for others we're doing the right thing.

We can't undo history and for some that would be a requirement to removing that "arrogant" or "bully" perception. Why I say the world (and life) is constantly in motion and moving way too fast to put the breaks on and govern by committee (with analysis ad nausea).

I did not intend to suggest that force is the bottom line, although I reread my post and saw it could easily be "perceived" (there's that word again) that way. My point about force was when push comes to shove (on the bigger issues), perceptions will be discarded by all nation states and national interest will prevail (again, maybe not for the better of humanity, but it is what nation states do to survive).

On the "french" stuff ... I meant no offense, but I didn't give it an iota of thought (I'm just not a big believer in being politically correct to the point of censoring myself--it's too uncomfortable). I think people need to lighten up on some of those types of things. That said, I had no idea that the "french" phrase was/is considered a negative. The others you mentioned I do know are negatives but I really had no idea about the "french" thing.

I learn something every day. Grazie.

JD Rhoades said...

Why I say the world (and life) is constantly in motion and moving way too fast to put the breaks on and govern by committee (with analysis ad nausea).

But isn't that, in the final analysis, an endorsement of dictatorship? "Government by committee with analysis ad nausea" would actually be a pretty good description of the three-headed system of Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary, with the checks and balances set up by the Founders. Washington, Jefferson, et. al, had seen "efficient" rulers, and wanted no part of it.

I did not intend to suggest that force is the bottom line, although I reread my post and saw it could easily be "perceived" (there's that word again) that way. My point about force was when push comes to shove (on the bigger issues), perceptions will be discarded by all nation states and national interest will prevail (again, maybe not for the better of humanity, but it is what nation states do to survive).

Absolutely. When push comes to shove comes to shooting, all bets are off. And anything can happen. "No plan surives furst contact", etc. So best not to get to that point unless absolutely necessary, no?

law dawg fed said...

In my bullshit opinion it's like church - everyone goes and promises to do the right thing and work together and think good thoughts about our fellow man and give to the poor and turn the other cheek and now we're all better people.

Until someone cuts us off in traffic.

"I wish that a_hole would pull over 'cause then I'd kick his _ing ass!! Lousy _ing drivers!! Serves him right if he gets in a wreck!! Then I can laugh at him!!"

The world stage is no different from this, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure I'm "totally" sold on democracy (I can imagine the gasps on that one), but I certainly prefer it to autocracy. Still, decision making, it seems to me, once the analysis is over (and the analysis just can't take forever, as it too often has) needs to happen without regard of polls and/or armchair QBing.

To the 2nd part, I guess I'm thinking about (for an example only) Iraq's invasions of Iran and then Kuwait. Obviously George the 1st thought it was necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait (and to leave it at that), but (as another example) Churchill was sounding alarms for a long time about Hitler before anyone took notice (and then it was very nearly too late--many argue it was too late).

My point being, it's great to have all the information available upfront (including perceptions of one another), but at some point it just isn't going to make a difference if nation states feel that their interests supersede discourse.

For me, there was (and remains) nothing to learn about Islamic Fundamentalism. I already know how they perceive me (as an infidel who needs beheading). It is too bad there isn't a nation state called Islamic Fundamentalism because it would be efficient to nuke it (more gasps, I'm sure).

While I understand how other Muslims shouldn't be the victims of such nuking (or any form of war they aren't a part of), it does me no good to understand the religion of people willing to sit back and watch the show (or why aren't they putting an end to something so disruptive to their own backyard?). And if my perception is arrogantly wrong and they are blessed with fundamentalism in their back yard, well, unless that version includes tolerance for the infidels in America (i.e., unless they permit me to keep my head), they can go the way of the great mushroom cloud too.

I'm not big on bumper stickers ... or joining anything for the sake of being a member. I'm not a republican party member (or an MWA member for that matter). But I do think there was "some" merit to that old bumper sticker (Nuke the Ayatollah)from back in 1979 when the guy I voted for, Jimmy Carter (along with my country) was made to look totally incompetent; when Islamic Fundementalism garnered an incredible ground swell of support.

25 years later, we might appear to be bullies to some, but we're no longer the pushover we were in '79 and I'm pretty sure those in power in Syria/Lebanon, et al, have figured that out as well.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Ahhh...language is everything.

"China's leaders have yet to adequately explain the purposes or desired end-states of their military expansion."

Given that the authors of this report work for an administration that has turned spin into an art, I'd like to venture a guess that the authors intentionally included this sentence with full awareness of its implications. So the question remains, why pose this point at all?

This administration may appear arrogant, but it chooses its words carefully. Again, I venture a guess: Could it be that this statement was posed in this report at this particular moment in time precisely to ruffle the feathers of the Chinese in order to accomplish a specific diplomatic goal?

Barry Eisler said...

"This administration may appear arrogant, but it chooses its words carefully."

Agreed on the first, not sure on the second...

"Again, I venture a guess: Could it be that this statement was posed in this report at this particular moment in time precisely to ruffle the feathers of the Chinese in order to accomplish a specific diplomatic goal?"

Certainly possible, although I'll confess my bias in thinking you might be giving the administration too much credit. The simpler explanation is usually the right one, and here simplity = thoughtlessness.

Regardless, what would the specific goal be?

Alan D. said...

I think the point, in short – CYA. From the endless possibilities as to the ‘WHY’ China is doing it, I think the administration is covering its bets. In a scenario where China’s increased troop strength goes unquestioned and they move to get their wicked step-children in Taiwan back under the wing, imagine the fallout or ‘perception shift’ if you will, here at home. The administration would get slaughtered by the media.

I agree with you Barry, on this line of questioning appearing pointless as a political negotiation strategy. But I don’t think that this was the aim at all. We both know that we are not using Dan Rather and company as our ambassadors to China. I think this was lip service for the American benefit. “If it hits the fan, at least you can’t say we were not pursuing it.”

As to the why, you have many valid points and one I would like to expand on. With China increasing its troop strength and weapons capability, causing America to at least consider a shift in assets closer to the region of Taiwan – it could take some of the pressure off of Iran and China’s energy sourcing stays intact and relatively stable for a bit longer.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who have the opportunity, I hope you will go to one of Mr. Eisler's book signings.

You will have the chance to ask him questions and you will see for yourselves why he isn't just a great writer, but also a wonderful person.

I went to the one in Dallas and I enjoyed it tremendously.

Frank "Pancho" Garza

Barry Eisler said...

Alan D, good point, the CYA hypothesis explains a lot of behavior. I wrote about this last summer on Sarah Weinman's Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog when then-CIA director Portor Goss testifed to Congress that "It may in fact be only a matter of time before al-Qaeda attacks us with WMD." I thought, "may be only a matter of time?" That's like saying it might be inevitable. But if it might be inevitable, then it might not be, so in fact it's not inevitable. So what the hell is the guy saying? And then it dawned on me: he's trying to say everything, so he can shoehorn it into whatever events later emerge...

Pancho, thanks for the kind words, my friend. They mean a lot to me coming from you. See you soon in Dallas!