Rise of the Hans

Why a dominant China could spark tribal warfare.

When Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to Washington this week, there aren't likely to be many surprises: Hu and Barack Obama will probably keep their conversation to a fairly regulated script, focusing on trade and North Korea and offering the expected viewpoints on both. But seen from a different angle, everything in that conversation could be predicted, not from current events but from longstanding tribal patterns.

With China's new prominence in global affairs, the Han race, which constitutes 90 percent of the Chinese population, is suddenly the most dominant cohesive ethnic group in the world -- and it is seeking to remain that way through strategic alliances, aggressive trade policy, and attacks on racial minorities within the country's boundaries. The less tribally cohesive, more fragmented West is, meanwhile, losing out.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book called Tribes that sought to trace the role of ethnicity, race, and religion in economic and geopolitical affairs. At the time, there was some skepticism about the continuing influence of ethnicity; some considered the work, frankly, regressive and racist. Now, however, my thesis from 1992 has really come to fruition. We are living in the age of tribes -- and China is just the start.

Such primitive racial instincts were supposed to be long ago passé: We're supposed to be living in Thomas Friedman's "flat" world or Kenichi Ohmae's "borderless world." By now, supposedly, everyone is increasingly interconnected and undifferentiated. Affairs should be managed neatly by deracinated professionals, working on their iPads from Brussels, Washington, or any of the other "global" capitals.

But most people do not really see themselves as members of a large multinational unit, global citizens, or "mass consumers." Instead the drivers of history remain the essentials: the desire to feed one's family, support the health of the tribe, and shape the immediate community. The particularistic continues to trump the universalistic.

This has only become more evident as our world becomes more multipolar. During the 19th and much of the 20th century, the world was dominated by a European capitalist mindset that glossed over many of the ethnic and racial differences simmering under the surface in the regions under its rule. Particular groups, including Chinese, Muslims, or Hindu Indians, might have harbored a sense of unique identity but, for the most part, either melded into the Euro-American mold, or, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, into the alternative Soviet one.  

Today this has changed dramatically, as once suppressed racial and ethnic groups express their power on a global level. The rise of Chinese national identity, increasingly stripped of its socialist clothing, must be seen as the driving force behind the new tribalism. The country's re-emergence as a great world power expresses the cultural ascendency not so much of Marxism or Maoism but of the Han race, which in only a few decades could control the world's largest economy.

This represents a major shift in the identity of the Chinese tribe, a combination of political and economic power with a very homogeneous worldview. The best way to explain China's economic and foreign policy is most accurately seen as a tribal expression of what Friedrich Nietzsche called a "will to power." Essentially, the Han has become a tribal superpower that treats other groups -- from China's non-Han minority to much of the rest of the world -- as a vast semi-colonial periphery. And with its growing economic and military might, Han China may soon be able to impose its will on some of these "lesser" cultures, should it desire.

China may be setting the underlying tone of our new world, but many other groups have responded in similarly tribal fashion. Like China, Russia has abandoned internationalist communism for a kind of Leninist state-capitalism with racial overtones, as evident both in the increasingly rough treatments of darker-skinned ethnic minorities such as Chechens and an aggressive ethnic Russian retro-imperialism -- once disguised in socialist trappings -- toward "near abroad" countries like Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The state-sponsored restoration of everything from the Orthodox Church to Stalin -- as well as the consolidation of state ownership over the lucrative energy sector -- reflects the deeply nationalist core of the modern Russian state, which, for historical, geographical, and cultural reasons, has, with few exceptions, always bent toward authoritarianism. The end of the Soviet Union, it turns out, did not usher in a wider embrace of universal capitalism so much as engender various forms of ethnicity-based irredentism and, in Russia itself, a renewed Slavic nationalism.

As they have modernized and globalized, other races -- Persians, Arabs, Brazilians, for just a few examples -- have turned out to be far less cosmopolitan and more tribal. These nationalisms, or tribalisms vary widely. Some, like China and Russia, are specifically racial in character. Others, such as Brazil, are remarkably multi-racial. In some cases historic resentments are at the base. But all are less interested in adopting globalized norms of free markets or capitalism than using state power (through sovereign wealth funds and state-controlled corporations) to increase their influence and wealth.

The new tribalism is also increasingly evident in Europe. Just a few years ago Europhiles like French eminence grise Jacques Attali or left-wing author Jeremy Rifkin could project a utopian future European Union that would stand both as a global role model and one of the world's great powers. Today, Rifkin's ideal of a universalistic "European dream" is collapsing -- a process accelerated by the financial crisis -- as the continent is torn apart by deep-seated historical and cultural rifts.  

Europe today can best be seen as divided between three cultural tribes: Nordic-Germanic, Latin, and Slavonic. In the north, there is a vast region of prosperity, a zone of Nordic dynamism. Characterized by economies based on specialized exports, a still powerful Protestant ethic, and a culture that embraces authority, these countries -- including Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, and, arguably, the Baltic states -- are becoming ever more aware of the cultural, fiscal, and attitudinal gulf between them and the southern countries.

At the same time, the attempt to build a new European identity fused with immigrants appears to be failing. As Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, Germany has failed at "multi-culturalism." Such sentiments may be reviled by the media, academics, and even business leaders in Northern Europe, but they are clearly popular at the grassroots. Once considered paragons of liberalism, countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have incubated potent anti-immigration movements.

In a world dominated increasingly by Asia, northern Europe cannot be anything more than a peripheral global power, which may explain its new introversion. Instead these resilient cultures more accurately represent a revival of the old Hanseatic League, a network of opportunistic and prosperous trading states that ringed the North and Baltic seas during the 13th century. This new league increasingly battles over issues of trade and fiscal policy, often with ill-disguised contempt, with the southern European countries I call "the Olive Republics": a region typified by dire straits, with rapidly aging populations, enormous budget deficits, and declining industrial might. Southern Europe now constitutes a zone of lassitude that extends from Portugal and Spain through the south of France, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, and Bulgaria.

The last European tribe includes the Slavic countries, centered by Russia but extending to parts of the Balkans as well, places like Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, and Moldova that historically have looked east as well as west and are currently defined by shrinking populations and weak democratic institutions. A historic pattern of Russian domination is evident here, based in large part on a revived Slavic identity that embraces similarities in religion, culture, history, and language with countries living under Russia's shield. In this sense the czars are back, not a great development for the rest of the world or for the fading chimera of a "common European home."

What does this resurgence of tribalism mean to the foreign policy community? Clearly more attention needs to be played to such issues as cultural vibrancy, birthrates, and economic "animal spirits." In some sense, we need to return to the perspectives of ancient writers like Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun, who attributed the rise and fall of nations to the vitality of what the latter called "group feeling."

Tribalism will also threaten the efficacy of international organizations, which tend to assume common interests between groups. Instead we have to think of future international cooperation in more traditional terms, balancing distinct sets of tribal interest. As tribes continue to pursue their own interests ever more zealously, the idealistic rhetoric of multinational organizations will become ever more risible. The way China and other developing countries snarled up the Copenhagen climate conference reflects this shift.

Similarly, the problems with controlling trade to Iran have to do with long-standing economic relationships that are closely linked to cultural ties. Sanctions imposed from the West cannot compete with far more long-standing trade relations between Iran and places like Dubai. In the future, the best hope may lie in more temporary, ad hoc alliances based on the self-interest of individual tribes, such as how the U.S. and Russia may cooperate in space exploration as a means to preserve their hegemony in that field against newcomers such as China.

In essence, we need to shift from seeking labored, politically correct commonalities among cultures and work more on learning to reconcile and co-exist with people who always, inevitably, will remain strangers. This means, for example, throwing out the idea that any international model -- say, the Anglo-American version -- can be imposed or grafted onto other cultures.

"What about us?" Anglo-Americans may ask. In a globalized world that speaks and writes in English, the Anglosphere retains some natural advantages. This is where the most elite colleges and universities are located, and where the top financial firms are concentrated. Equally important, the Anglosphere also controls much of what the developing countries will most need in the future -- food -- through the unsurpassed fecundity of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Demographics and a unique ability to absorb a wide range of immigrants make the Anglosphere economically and demographically vibrant -- a point often missed by political scientists like the late Samuel Huntington and some elements on the political right.  By 2050, the Anglosphere will be home to upwards of 550 million people, the largest population grouping outside China and India. English-speakers may not straddle the world like the 19th century empire-makers, but they are likely to remain first among equals well into the current century.

Ultimately, this will depend on how the English-speaking world evolves and learns to embrace its multiracial population without losing its sense of a common identity. Ideally, the Anglosphere can offer an alternative that embraces not merely a language but a set of historically achieved values such as democracy and freedom of speech, religion, and markets. Already many of the English-speaking world's exemplary writers, artists, industrialists, and entrepreneurs hail from a vast and ever expanding array of backgrounds. It is in the melding of many into one dynamic culture that the Anglosphere may retain a powerful influence over our emerging world of tribes.

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Anatomy of an Autocracy

Tunisia's deposed president once swept to power with bold promises of reform. What went wrong?

As the end of his reign quickly approached this week, Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to conjure the spirit that buoyed his government in the months after he seized power more than 20 years ago.

In a televised address to the country on Jan. 13, Ben Ali -- speaking in colloquial Arabic and in unusually humble tones -- pledged not to run for reelection when his current term ends in 2014 and to usher in a gentler phase of governance in the meantime.

The offer was far too little, far too late, as the reaction in the streets of Tunis made immediately clear. But it wasn't just Ben Ali's tone that recalled an earlier era: In fact, Ben Ali's fall from power has had a remarkable similarity to his original rise.

In 1987, Tunisia teetered on the brink of a civil war between the tottering authoritarian government of President Habib Bourguiba and a popular Islamist movement. Ben Ali, who served as both interior minister and prime minister under Bourguiba, removed the president on the grounds that age and senility rendered him incompetent to govern.

In the months that followed, Ben Ali was widely hailed as the country's savior -- the prescient leader who pulled the country back from the abyss. By thwarting chaos, Ben Ali had saved a struggling economy as well as the country's secular political order.

But Ben Ali was more than a savior. He was also, people believed at the time, a democrat. He said all the right things about the need for political competition, transparency, freedom of opinion and expression. He also spoke about individual liberties -- freedom of conscience, the right to hold and express contrary opinions, and human rights. Ben Ali didn't just sound like a democrat. He sounded like a liberal democrat.

It was the prospect of legislative elections in 1989 that really ended the honeymoon. Ben Ali was not willing to allow an Islamist party onto the field. Nor was he willing to accept electoral reforms that gave the secular opposition parties any meaningful chance of winning. In fact, the electoral code became one of Ben Ali's handiest tools. On several occasions, and with much fanfare, Ben Ali announced "reforms" in the code. In reality, all of these measures were designed to limit opposition gains and prevent the parties from forming an effective alliance.

Some, perhaps even the president himself, might say that Ben Ali honestly intended to be the leader he appeared to be in his first year and a half and that he was forced to step back because of the need to make difficult economic reforms and fend off an Islamist movement at a time when the raging civil war in neighboring Algeria offered a grim reminder about the dangers of Islamist political influence.

But the results were undeniably ugly. Moroccans frequently refer to the 1960s through the 1980s as the "years of lead" -- a time of intense repression against the political opposition. The 1990s became Tunisia's decade of lead. The Islamists believed they had done everything required to satisfy the law and become a legal party. Ben Ali's refusal to admit them into the political game ignited a fierce and bloody conflict with the government. When push came to shove, Ben Ali pushed back -- hard. More than 10,000 Islamists and other opponents went to Ben Ali's prisons in the 1990s. As happens with many embattled regimes, Ben Ali's government developed a sense of paranoia. Any bit of criticism was considered aiding and abetting the Islamists. The government went after anyone who dared to complain.

Some of its tools of repression were bland and bureaucratic. Ben Ali never severed the umbilical cord linking the ruling party to the institutions of the state. His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was the state, and the state served Ben Ali. As a result, all manner of rules, regulations, and procedures became political weapons that officials wielded to enforce loyalty. A newspaper might not be able to get paper or might see its issues confiscated off the streets because of a story that stepped beyond the state's ambiguous red lines. A businessman might not get a license because he failed to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the president.

Other tools were blunter. The police force, uniformed and plainclothes, became the regime's praetorian guard, operating directly under the control of the president and Interior Ministry. There is more than a little irony in the fact that the government recruited heavily for the security forces in the same disenfranchised regions that generated the wave of protest that broke in mid-December. The military, on the other hand, remained very professional but relatively weak -- a fact that will no doubt affect Tunisia's future political development.  Once it became clear in the mid-1990s that the government had forced the Islamists out of the country or so far underground that they could not organize any meaningful opposition, Tunisians began to lose their patience with Ben Ali's authoritarianism. Human rights activists and dissident journalists began to complain more loudly, and the government cracked down even harder. Stories about beatings by plainclothes agents, arbitrary arrests, and torture mounted.

So why revolt now and not a decade ago? The media coverage of the last month has emphasized frustrations over unemployment and prices. However, it is easy to forget that for most of Ben Ali's rule, Tunisia's economy grew at a respectable rate. Tunisia has a larger middle class and a higher standard of living than any of its neighbors. As long as you stayed out of politics, Ben Ali's government left you alone and allowed you to make some money, buy a nice house or apartment, and live a better life than your parents lived.

More recently, however, the Europe-dependent Tunisian economy was experiencing global-recession-related contraction -- which hit university degree-holders of the sort that took to the streets against Ben Ali particularly hard.

Then there is social media. When the definitive history of this era gets written, Facebook will get its own chapter. Activists used Facebook to organize on the one space that the regime couldn't control -- cyberspace.

Not long ago, police firing on protesters or funeral marchers in out-of-the-way towns like Thala or Kasserine would have remained a bit of local lore, something to whisper about. Not now. Facebook brought the events in Thala to Tunis and helped build coalitions that the government could not break.

Tunisia now enters a truly novel stage. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has become the transitional president, with orders to organize new legislative and presidential elections in six months. But that only delays the inevitable questions. Tunisia's opposition parties are small organizations with narrow support bases, no experience in government, and no experience working in a meaningful coalition. Moreover, they didn't play a particularly important role in organizing the protests that have presented them with this new opportunity. Can any of them, singly or together, convince Tunisians that they have the ability to cope with the country's pressing problems and build a democracy? 

And what about the presidency? Ghannouchi has the virtue of experience, but his long service with Ben Ali will be a real handicap if he wants the job for a longer term. Other possible candidates have the virtue of principled opposition to Ben Ali, but they have been in exile or lack the bases of support in the country and its administration to easily assume such a critical post.

This transition is vital for Tunisia, and not just in the short and medium terms. Tunisia has never experienced a transition in power at the ballot box. It must develop the institutions to do so, and it must establish meaningful limitations on presidential authority. There are only so many times this country can revisit 1987.