SINOGRAPH The scalpel and the needle in foreign policy
By Francesco Sisci
VENICE - Differences in policy and strategy on issues of defense, the economy
and trans-Atlantic relations are not merely differences in interests or agendas
but have deep foundations in separate cultural traditions. If a consensus can
ever be reached between Europeans, Americans, and Chinese, it must start with
recognizing they have different approaches to problems.
This is perhaps one of the main emerging themes in the "Trialogue" a three-way
conversation between China, Europe and the United States organized in Venice by
the Aspen America, Aspen Italy and the Central Chinese Communist Party School.
The US is focused on a list of international issues to solve: Iran, North
Korea, Myanmar. On each front, Washington is calling on
Beijing to exert sanctions, support and various pressures - up to contemplating
the possibility of the military option.
Each time, Beijing tries to avoid exercising these options by limiting
penalties with vetoes, and certainly looks on the military option with extreme
suspicion. The reasons are certainly differences in interests, but also a
different view of the objective world - something that is very deeply embedded
in the cultural psychology of the two countries.
The two perspectives seem to derive from two different visions of ancient
medical traditions. American and Western thought springs from the Greek
philosophical tradition of violent medical intervention to resolve a problem
once and for all, through a surgical operation that involves the use of a knife
and the shedding of a patient's blood. The tumor or even just the pimple, the
sick part, is removed from the rest of the body, considered healthy, to heal
In China, the traditional medical philosophy is different: there is a belief in
the long-term practice of minimal external applications of needles that do not
cut or injure the patient. Acupuncture is used to restart the qi, the
vital breath of the person, which will help to heal the whole body, not just
the sick part. This is not something that requires shedding blood, which would
hurt the qi and be counterproductive. Conversely, shedding blood hurts the
body, which has to regain strength to heal the sickness affecting not just a
part but the whole body.
Handling psychological problems seems similar. The West prefers to confess to a
priest or a psychoanalyst and the painful process of confronting directly fears
and faults believing that only this will rebuild the mutual trust. China
prefers to seek common ground and shelve differences, confident that slowly
being together, the natural affection, will create an osmosis of sentiments
that will create a new mutual balance.
The contrast in approaches to foreign policy seems similar. America - and
Western Europe along with it - believes that "surgical" military intervention
can be decisive and uses the word proudly as if the country used anesthesia and
cleared away the dirt of what was known in the past as a war. China believes
instead that war does not solve anything - on the contrary, it is likely to
aggravate the situation on the ground - and other countries should instead try
to set in motion the internal forces that change the situation from the inside,
with minimal external intervention. In other words, the choice is the scalpel
or the needle.
There is no doubt that if the problem of mutual understanding in international
collaboration is not discussed, the situation can become like a ping-pong
match, where the ball passes from one side of the table to the other, with one
hoping to score a point when the other isn't looking.
For decades now, medical experts from both traditions have been working on a
reconciliation of the two systems. For chronic conditions that the Western
tradition does not recognize as "diseases" and for which it has no
intervention, the Chinese tradition - in which it is thought necessary to act
before the outbreak of the illness - can be used. For extreme cases, however,
where the Chinese tradition is ineffective, Western medicine can be used.
There are still many gray areas where the two traditions diverge, and many
degrees of sickness where both traditions could be used. There are further
differences between the systems, which have different definitions of what
constitutes a successful intervention. The Western system, motivated by daily
newspaper headlines and television "sound bites", wants clear results in the
short term: regime change in Iraq, the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The Chinese system, not dogged by an aggressive press or competitive elections,
can afford the luxury of thinking in the longer term.
China believes long-term answers should be all-inclusive. You should consider
not merely the overthrow of Kim Jong-il in North Korea, but think about what is
or should be the political geography of East Asia after Kim: Will there be a
united Korea? Should American troops remain in the south? Will the new Korea be
pro-or anti-Chinese? Pro or anti-Japanese?
The temporary solution may solve some problems, but other issues will expand.
There is also a vision of history and line of thought that adheres to
geography. The first history of Chinese philosophy, written by Fung You-lan in
the 1930s, compared Greek and Chinese thought on the basis of geography. One
springing from the mindset of city states sea merchants moving from coast to
coast in the Mediterranean and the other coming from the mentality of advisers
to princes of warring fortified continental states that were united by the same
river flood plain.
Specifically, during the eight years of the George W Bush administration, the
most successful foreign policy was possibly the non-action in North Korea -
rather than the action in Iraq. East Asia has generally developed smoothly
largely unaffected by the threatening postures of North Korea and beyond the
clutches of the tiny area around Pyongyang.
In Iraq, the US has squandered hundreds of billions, possibly starting the
present economic crisis, while the country is still fighting a bloody civil war
that has claimed thousands of lives and allowed Iran, led by anti-Western
fundamentalist clerics, to expand their power and influence in Iraq and the
Arabian Peninsula, while rushing into a very real nuclear armament program.
Today after surgery to fix a mistake in Iraq, the United States wants to
perform another operation in Iran. But from the Chinese point of view, this is
simply not credible, and is not in the national interest of the US or China.
This space for cultural understanding also opens a political space for action
in Europe, which is often skeptical of the American interventionist frenzy but
almost certainly not supportive of the wu-wei "no-action" policy of
This space could provide a necessary role for Europe to mediate between the US
and China. But instead, Europe is likely to be excluded from discussions
between the US and China, countries increasingly attracted to each other across
the Pacific Ocean. If the Europeans could dig into their cultural tradition and
bring something out to help draw the two sides together then they could find a
place in the new Pacific era.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and
can be reached at email@example.com