Asian Values

By Moody, Peter R., Jr. | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Asian Values


Moody, Peter R., Jr., Journal of International Affairs


In his 1995 speech to the United Nations, China's state chairman Jiang Zemin asserted:

The sacred nature of state sovereignty is inviolable. No state has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of another or force its own will on others. Some large countries frequently use the pretext of "freedom," "democracy" or "human rights" to encroach upon the sovereignty of other states, interfering in their internal affairs, damaging the unity of other countries or the solidarity of their nationalities. This is a major factor behind the lack of peace in the world today.(1)

This sentiment seems to be shared by the governments of other Asian states. In 1993, a caucus of Asian countries meeting in Bangkok prior to a major international human rights conference in Geneva proclaimed that human rights are, in practice, contingent upon culture, history, the level of economic development and the like, and that the "West" has no business imposing its views on others.(2) While this relativist view of human rights was pushed most vigorously by the delegations from China and Myanmar, the position was accepted by all "Asian" countries except Japan and the Philippines.

During the early 1990s, the enlargement of the scope of democracy and the promotion of human rights were major themes in United States foreign policy. They had been themes in the Cold War era as well, although they were often obscured by the demands of power politics. With the collapse of communism, however, the economically dynamic and increasingly self-assertive Asian regimes began to see universalistic American claims about human rights as an ideological complement to U.S. military supremacy -- both being instruments for asserting American domination. Prominent political figures, notably Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's prime minister Dr. Mohamad Mahatir, find in "Asian values" visions of personal and social life alternative, and perhaps superior, to the western norm.

From the Chinese and, perhaps, a more general Asian perspective, American post-Cold War triumphalism can be summed up in the two famous works by Francis Fukuyama and Samuel P. Huntington. Fukuyama argued that, with the decline of communism, history had come to an end. He did not mean that nothing was ever going to happen again; rather, the great conflict of human ideas and movements had culminated in a rather tepid technocratic secular liberalism, and that there were no presuasive competitors to this vision.(3) Huntington, for his part, argued that with the fall of communism conflict would henceforth take place along cultural or civilizational lines. Impressed, apparently, with China's propensity to sell weapons to disreputable Middle Eastern regimes and its help to Pakistan's weapons program, he speculated on the emergence of an alliance of "Confucian" and "Islamic" civilizations directed against the powerful "western" culture.(4)

On one level, Fukuyama and Huntington contradict each other: If only one culture is left, there is no clash of civilizations. Their theories can, however, be reconciled. Fukuyama notes that religion and nationalism persist as alternatives to the liberal paradigm, although presumably they are reactive to it and do not represent serious intellectual alternatives. Huntington's thesis can be construed to mean that those left out of the dominant western paradigm will attempt to resist and even weaken it. Thus, those who care about western civilization must be prepared to fight for it. On the one hand, Fukuyama can be interpreted to claim that the norm of secular liberalism in the West is the only respectable social theory left, while, for the non-westerner, Huntington's talk of a "clash" can be taken as a call for the West to arm itself to fight those who do not share its norms. As a Chinese commentator put it, "In fact, the difference between them is deceptive. The `clash of civilizations' is built upon the hypothesis of the end of history. …

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