My Take

Sometimes it's better the devil you know

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 2:59am

Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of the English civil war, applies his notion of the state of nature to how societies will degenerate into anarchy or civil war when there is no overarching authority to rein in people's passions and greed.

Extending his idea to relations between states, scholars have argued international relations are anarchic unless they are lorded over by a hegemon like Napoleon or a world cop like the US.

It's remarkable how this Hobbesian argument is central to two of the great ideological debates today. When Beijing's defenders get tired of arguing for the legitimacy of one-party rule, they point to a simple cause and effect: it's us or chaos.

When critics complain about US President Barack Obama's reluctance to commit militarily in Syria, they revive the international side of the Hobbesian argument.

There is no one left to enforce the rules if the US doesn't commit.

We have seen how a US-led G6/G7 of industrialised powers expanded to G8 and now G20. Once you get to double digits, collective leadership just becomes leaderless.

There were vague talks of G2 - China and the US, which proved illusory. Instead we are probably approaching what political writer Ian Bremmer calls a G-zero world.

Many Russians and Chinese, myself included, often look on with glee to such a world.

But on further reflection, if there is only one bar in town, you might want the US to be its owner or at least co-owner rather than being just another drunk - because in a bar brawl this drunk will still be the strongest.

A similar Hobbesian argument applies to Communist Party rule. What's the alternative in China? Those who rhapsodise how the Arab spring must reach China should now have the honesty to admit its failure has only strengthened Beijing's hand.

From Mursi to Sisi, we have just seen how the overthrow of a mild tyranny in Egypt led to a democracy of demagogues, ending with the people's embrace of an even harsher tyrant.

And Syria-style civil war, anyone?

Like it or not, we will be stuck with Chinese one-party rule for another generation or two. In all likelihood, that's a better outcome than its sudden overthrow or collapse.