Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:36 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Foreign policy conservatism

14 July 2011 13:39

This email from Richard Green is prompted by Sam Roggeveen's Wednesday Lowy Lunch address of last week. Sam will offer a response soon:

I am taking your interpretation of conservatism in international relations as a positive approach; ie. rather than prescribing behaviour it is a way of understanding and anticipating observed behavior in international relations by understanding the role that tradition, authority and inertia in ideas and institutions play. This seems fruitful (though as an outsider to IR it seems to overlap with the constructivist approaches).

This would lead us to recognise the importance of international norms, especially sovereignty, but also that they are rooted in long histories that are not necessarily universal. As I understand it, sovereignty is a norm that was given birth by the European context of multiple powers and treaties (including the Peace of Westphalia).

For countries with other histories there is a chance for different institutions to be resilient and affect their behavior. I would venture that a conservative framework would do a great deal to explain Australia's diplomacy, particularly in regard to America, to our history as a dominion under the empire. The all-in attachment to a great power is still present even after Curtin adopted the Statute of Westminster (and thus sovereignty).

This brings me to China, as one of your questioners did.

Since Imperial China claimed universal sovereignty (tianxia; 'all under heaven') a conservative framework would suggest alternative norms underlying its diplomatic behaviour. External states, where they existed, were always inferior tribute states that theoretically owed their legitimacy to the Emperor and not theoretical equals in negotiation.

This would help explain the behavior of the Qing dynasty when China, for the first time, came into contact with external powers of any significance and failed to address the novelty in the same way the totalitarian novelty was ill addressed. Ross Terrill made an argument that imperial tianxia assumptions still underlie the behaviour of the Chinese state, though from my (vague) memories the case was oversold. Nonetheless, would this qualify as a conservative approach as you envisage it (even if you don't agree with his conclusions)?

If so, it would make interpretations of the future of Asian diplomacy very interesting. It would be plausible to anticipate behaviour based on actors behaving under different norms, depending on their histories under tianxia or Westphalian sovereignty.