Connectivity Politics and Ecological Civilization
Abstract: Addressing the climate change and other ecological crisis and building an ecological civilization can not be done by any single country. It needs the widest cooperation of nations. However, fierce competition is undermining international cooperation. The U.S. newly released National Security Strategy seeing China as “the most consequential geopolitical challenge” instead of a cooperative partner is an example. In a more and more connected and interdependent world, the power politics mindset needs to be replaced by connectivity politics thinkings, through which, the relations of man-man and man-nature could be better improved. Ecological civilization is not only some protection and conservation works of our environment, but a revolutionary change of our whole society. We have to have new thinking to meet the new requirements to develop ecological civilization.
Keywords: Connectivity Politics; Ecological civilization; Human Community of Shared Future
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Fifteen years ago, the Communist Part of China declared the goal of building an ecological civilization at its 17th National Congress. (Hu, 2007) China has made great efforts toward this goal and is continuously striving on it. However, ecological challenges, such as the climate change, cannot be addressed by any single country. It needs collaboration of all countries and communities.
Unfortunately, the international cooperation to build an ecological civilization does not go well as will. Geopolitical rivalry is one of the most obvious obstacles among others. The deteriorated China-U.S. relations and the tensions between Russia and many Western countries are ruining the atmosphere for collaboration on combating climate change.
The National Security Strategy (NSS) released by the White House in October, 2022, declared “the post-Cold War era is definitively over”, saying “a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” As the U.S. government is following this strategic guidance, competition of major powers will be fiercer, as the biggest power puts that as its top priority. Just like what happened during the Cold War, national interests will be put higher over global concerns, and short-sighted strategy will replace far-sighted vision. It is not unreasonable to believe that climate cooperation will be more difficult under that kind of circumstance.
To avoid going into a new Cold-War, and to steer the human society evolution onto the right track towards an ecological civilization, we need to find out the flaws of our current international relation thinking, as well as why it cannot cope with the new reality, solve our problems, and meet our needs to build an ecological civilization. We have to fix the theoretical problem and deal with global issues with a new mindset.
Power Politics in Trouble
From Machiavelli’s political philosophy to Hans J. Morgenthau’s realist theory of international politics, and Otto von Bismarck’s “iron and blood” speech in 1862 to Antony Blinken’s recent talking about “approaching China from a position of strength,” power politics thinking has dominated international relations for at least 500 years.
In any conversations about international politics, power were at the center. “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.” (Morgenthau, 1985) Liberal thinkers created the idea of “soft power” and thought that less dependent actor can often use the interdependent relationship as a source of power. (Keohane and Nye, 1977) Constructivists also talk about the social construction of power politics. (Wendt, 1992) Even postmodernists like Michel Foucault argued that knowledge and power are intimately bound up -- every exercise of power depends on a scaffold of knowledge that supports it, and claims to knowledge advance the interests of power of certain groups while marginalizing others. (Pollard, 2019) Just like Morgenthau has stated, “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim.” (Morgenthau, 1985)
However, the limit of power is more and more obvious after human society entered the 21st century. There is even talking about “the end of power.” In his compelling book, Moises Naim elaborated how “those in positions of great power are best positioned to spot limits on their effectiveness and to feel frustration over the gap between the power they expect their rank to convey and the power they actually have.” (Naim, 2013)
In geopolitics, “small powers” -- “minor” countries or non-state entities -- have acquired new opportunities to veto, interfere in, redirect, and generally stymie the concerted efforts of “big powers”. Wars are increasingly won by militarily weaker side. Corporations have become much more vulnerable to “brand disasters” that hit their reputations, revenues and valuations. Power is decaying while “micropowers” are rising, Naim explained. (Naim, 2013)
The Western collective sanctions against Russia could be a good example to prove Naim is right. Russia did not collapse after the unprecedented large-scale and wide-range sanctions applied by the U.S., most European countries and some countries in other regions, such as Japan and Singapore. Among the nearly 10,000 new sanctions on Russia after it launched special operation against Ukraine, blocking Russia’s access to the SWIFT financial transaction processing system was described as a “financial nuclear bomb.” However, the outcome seems disappointing to those who expected Russia to back off. Ruble recovered very soon after a short drop right after the sanction. Russia’s economy goes on in the following months and its politics is still stable.
Afghanistan is another window to show that while it is more and more difficult for big players to “use power as will,” and in more and more occasions, the outcome of using power is unpredictable. The Biden administration suffered big loss in approval rate after it withdrew troops from the Asian country after 20 years of war there under the name of anti-terrorism. It is widely seen as a big failure of U.S. foreign policy.
Joseph Nye, Jr., admitted in one of his article after the outbreak of COVID-19 that “Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics has changed in a way that means that even if the United States remains the largest power, it cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone.” (Nye, 2020)
By examining more and more cases, we could see that power alone can no longer play the deciding role in international affairs. The U.S. can not use its unparalleled power to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons and firing ballistic missiles. It can not stop India and Brazil from buying Russian weapons, oil and fertilizer either.
In fact, as early as 1977, when Robert O. Keohane and Nye published their classic international relations theory book Power and Interdependence, they already observed the limits of power and the rising of interdependence as a factor that affects global decision makings. (Keohane, 1977) As the flow of money, goods and people boosted and sped up during the past decades, and information technologies greatly reshaped the international politics landscape, change of game rule is unavoidable.
Time to Think about Connectivity Politics
Almost half a century passed since Keohane and Nye developed their thinking of interdependence. Their foresight has been proven by the history to be right. The connections between countries and their interdependence increased to a never imagined level compared to those in the Cold War era. We have to have new thinking, new theory, and new mindset, to cope with the new reality.
The most important flaw of the Power Politics thinking is the binary friend-foe antagonism. Any clear mind can realize that the world nowadays is too complicated to be divided by a “friend or enemy” or “black or white” line. Though admitting that “shared challenges that cross borders require governments to cooperate,” the newly released NSS by the White House still divided the world to “Democracies and Autocracies.” The range of “Democracies” includes U.S. “democratic allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific as well as key democratic partners around the world”, while the “Autocracies” named by the NSS were Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Russia is seen as an immediate threat and China is seen as the most consequential geopolitical challenge. By taking this binary friend-foe world view, the U.S. government puts itself into a self-contradicted dilemma. It will undermine the U.S. ambition and effort to lead the world addressing the shared challenges.
As of China-U.S. cooperation, though the NSS admitted “climate change is the greatest and potentially existential for all nations,” and stated it will work with China on issues including climate change, its policies of interfering China’s domestic issues and supporting separatists in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang show that the U.S. government did not see China as a respectful partner to work together. Winning the competition with China is its major goal while cooperation with China on climate change and other global challenges succumbs.
China never see the U.S. as an enemy. China is committed to promoting a Human Community of Shared Future and establishing a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, equity and justice, and win-win cooperation. (Wang, 2022) During Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Wang said that “ Since the first day of engagement, the two sides have known that the two countries have been dealing with a country with different systems, but this has not prevented both sides from carrying out cooperation based on common interests, and should not be an excuse for antagonism and confrontation between China and the United States.” He urged the U.S. side to create a favorable environment for the two sides to resume normal exchanges, and steer China-U.S. relations back on the track of sound and steady development.
China’s foreign policy orientation, which is different from that of the U.S., originated from its traditional culture and Karl Marx’s philosophy of dialectical materialism. At the heart of Confucian role ethics is “a specific vision of human beings as relational persons constituted by the roles they live rather than as individual selves” (Ames and Rosemont 2011) In Marxist universal connections thinking, nothing in the world stands by itself, and the interconnection of things is absolute while their independence is relative. (Spirkin, 1983) If we examine China’s main proposals and efforts in it’s foreign policy, we could see that they are full of connectivity philosophy, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative. None of them, also include promoting Human Community of Shared Future and Ecological Civilization, is from a binary antagonism angle.
Keohane and Nye observed in 1970s that the decades after the World War II “ reveal a general tendency for many forms of human interconnectedness across national boundaries to be doubling every ten years.” At that time, the Internet is still on scientists’ sketchpads. The interconnectedness among countries exploded after the human society enters the information age. Nye wrote in 2004 that “This vast expansion of transnational channels of contact at multicontinental distances means that more issues are up for grabs internationally, including regulations and practices -- ranging from pharmaceutical testing to accounting and product standards to banking regulations -- that were formerly regarded as the prerogatives of national governments.” After the social media became popular, the boundary between domestic affairs and foreign affairs was further broken. Things happen in one country can be soon spread to the whole world. It is harder to make domestic policy without consideration of international relations. All kinds of connections with people and things beyond the border affect the result of policy.
That is why a new mindset of connectivity politics is needed to deal with domestic or global issues. As we cannot get rid of all the connections with others, we have to think about the positive and negative effects of the connections and try to let the connections have more positive effects, such as mutual benefits, and less negative effects such as conflicts and disputes. As Zhihe Wang suggested, Ecological Civilization needs a new thinking of “constructive postmodern organic diplomacy.” (Wang, Xue and Meng, 2022)
To Promote Ecological Civilization
Ecological Civilization is not only about environmental improvement. It means a huge and thorough change of the whole human society, including all respects of people’s lives and productions. Roy Morrison wrote in his groundbreaking book about ecological civilization that “Building such a civilization will involve a change that could be as significant as the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial civilization ... An ecological civilization is not a prescription for order, but a description of the arrangement of disparate societies, of the exquisitely complex web of their relationships with one another and with the biosphere.” (Morrison, 1995)
To scholars who know what it really means to human society, “Ecological Civilization describes a world in which human communities (our systems of economics, agriculture, education, production and consumption, etc.) are designed to promote the overall well-being of people and the planet. It’s a vision for a more sustainable and just society; a world that works for all.” (Institute for Ecological Civilization) So along with the effort of building an ecological civilization, at least two kinds of relationships will be improved -- the relationship between man and nature and the relationship among people.
That is why we must change our mindset from power politics to connectivity politics. Power politics lead to competition among nations that will at least undermine their cooperation, including cooperation on addressing global challenges such as climate change. In many cases, fierce competition for power deteriorates relations between countries, some times even leads to war. In power politics, only power matters, and the true well being of people and nature are nonsense, while thinking about the long-term sustainability of human society is seen as naive. That is against the good will of all people who want to develop a more advanced, harmonious, and prosperous civilization.
Change of our mindset from power politics to connectivity politics is necessary. On the one hand, connectivity politics view will encourage people to pay more attention to their connections and relations with others. If they realize that the connections with others are existing and can not be avoid, and positive effects of the connection, like mutual benefits, are better for them, while negative effects, such as conflicts, are bad for them, they will probably be more willful to keep good relations with others. As we are all connected, we have to be kind to ourselves by be kind to others. Polluters not only harm others but themselves as well. The Earth will be saved only when people join their hands. So connectivity politics view will benefit the improvement of relations among different people, communities, nations, and countries.
On the other hand, with connectivity politics view, people know that nobody can stay out when our planet is facing climate challenges and other risks. We are on the same boat. The human society is just a part of the Earth biosphere. The fate of human society is closely connected and rely on the health of our planet. Politicians need to do everything they can to jointly fighting against climate change and other ecological threats. So connectivity politics view will also benefit the improvement of the relations between man and nature.
During the long process of capitalist industrialization, big powers were never hesitated to exploiting the resources all over the world, polluting the air, river and soil, colonizing other countries and enslaving labors for profit. More and more people around the world, no matter in capitalist countries or in socialist countries, now realize that there must be revolutionary change to avoid ecological disasters. We need a Living Economy for a Living Earth instead of business as usual. (Korten 2015)
To build an ecological civilization, we need to put the health of our planet and society into a holistic context, see our world through a lens of connectivity, and think of global issues with a relational philosophy. We need to change the way of production, the style of living, and the most important -- our mindset.
Just as Jeremy Lent put, “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A worldview of deep interconnectedness.” (Lent, 2021)
Full text of Hu Jintao’s report at 17th Party Congress. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-10/24/content_6204564.htm
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Pollard, Christopher. (2019). Explainer: the ideas of Foucault https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-ideas-of-foucault-99758
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Nye, Joseph S. (2020). How COVID-19 is testing American leadership, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/26/how-covid-19-is-testing-american-leadership/
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Wang, Zhihe, Xue, Ying, and Meng, Dongjun, (2022) Ecological Civilization Needs A Diplomatic Mindset with New Nature -- Towards a New Constructive Postmodern “Organic Diplomacy, ” Journal of Wuhan Universtiy of Technology (Social Sciences Edition), Issue 1, 2022.
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Lent, Jeremy. (2021). The Web of Meaning. https://www.jeremylent.com/the-web-of-meaning.html
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