In an era of multiple ‘world orders’ we need to embrace the grey in global politics. The nuances involved in the recent stoush over Winston Peters’ discussion about learning from Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, and a rise in COVID-related racism at home both underscore that there is a pressing need to not view the world in black and white, good and bad. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) isn’t automatically always ‘bad’. The United States of America (US) isn’t automatically always ‘good’. This might seem obvious (it might also not seem obvious, which is the point) but we are at risk of falling into this way of thinking in part because we retain assumptions about who is ‘like-minded’ in our approaches to foreign policy, giving more or less credit to others depending upon our preconceived assumptions without considering the utility and consequences of those assumptions.
In late 2015 I suggested that New Zealand might not be as ‘like-minded’ with the US and Australia as we like to assume. The election of Trump increased these differences. Economic protectionism and the withdrawal from CPTPP negotiations, the rejection of attempts to mitigate against climate change (indeed this refusal to act on climate change is shared by Australia, despite Pacific Island states clearly identifying climate change as their greatest security threat in the 2018 Boe Declaration and despite Australia’s assertion that they want to be the ‘partner of choice’ in the region) and the (lack of) federal response to COVID-19 constitute obvious and significant policy differences between the US and New Zealand.
It is more than likely that these policies, were they pursued by the PRC, would have automatically resulted in a wave of political and highly public condemnation and social-media-expressed instances of racialised (and sexualised) personal revulsion. Yet our enduring belief that there is a form of automatic ‘like-mindedness’ guaranteed by democracy and Anglo-centric values acts to dull criticism or even to help hide such moves from our attention.
The opposite is true for the PRC. Our fears of difference serve to increase scepticism. To be clear, China has pursued highly condemnable policies of its own. The mass internment of Uighur Muslims, the muzzling of #metoo and feminist voices, the recent crackdown and arrests in Hong Kong, censorship of the COVID crisis, the highly-probable public influence campaigns in other countries – including in New Zealand – and more generalisable concerns about human rights abuses and the rise of authoritarianism in an era of increased surveillance and population control are particularly abhorrent for New Zealanders.
Yet condemnation for these issues should be targeted at those issues in and of themselves, untainted by orientalist frames. Recent social media chatter prompted by COVID underscores the endurance of a latent racism that needs to be set aside to more genuinely engage with specific issues as they arise. The challenge is to weigh the actions and behaviours of the US and the PRC on their merits without automatically assigning a subconscious frame of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For example, as well as voicing concerns about unethical behaviour, it is important to give the PRC credence for pursuing actions that merit positive commentary – the championing of globalisation, being the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to increase UN peacekeeping commitments and announcing a decision to accede to the aforementioned ATT, pointedly just after Trump declared his ‘unsigning’, are cases in point.
Thinking in shades of grey is not an easy task. It is tiring and relentless. It is difficult to seek to weigh the relative merits and shortfalls of different policies, and risks misunderstanding without clear communication. At a diplomatic event in 2019 an American colleague was riled by parallel discussions about shortcomings in behaviour by both the US and China. Contributing to a tradition of well-documented American exceptionalism, his rage was palpable as he expressed disbelief that the US’s failings could in any way be compared to those displayed by China. He missed the point.
Seeking to weigh policies in and of themselves does not mean entering a competition to see who is best or who is worst. All states perform flawed behaviour. Identifying flaws does not equate them, but it does render a more honest and nuanced understanding of the domains in which we can seek to question and query the behaviour of allies, partners, friends and others in the realm of global politics. We need to get used to a more nuanced and complex interpretation of world events where we recognise that global politics operates in shades of grey and where preconceptions are set aside.
B K Greener is Associate Professor in the Politics Programme at Massey University in Palmerston North.