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Justice essential in reshaping int’l order

Zhang FeNG and Richard NED Lebow | 2021-11-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE Photo: The high-level general debate at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly began on Sept. 21, 2021.


The world today is undergoing dramatic changes, at the domestic, regional, and international levels. Influence in this changing world is only partially based on national strength. It depends just as much on advocating policies that are in accord with the two dominant principles of justice: equality and fairness. They give national policy, and regional and international orders, their legitimacy. How China puts these two principles into practice and handles the tension between them will, to a large extent, determine how the international community responds to its desire to play a larger role in regional and international affairs. 

Tensions between order and justice
Fairness, traditionally the dominant principle of justice, asserts that those who contribute the most to the well-bring of society should receive the greatest rewards. It was the ideology of aristocrats and found resonance in the great power system where certain powerful states were given special privileges in the expectation that they would defend and enforce the values and practices of regional, and later, international society. The Security Council of the United Nations is based on this principle.
 
Equality, an equally ancient framing of justice, maintains that there should be an equal distribution of whatever is valued. Equality has become the dominant principle in the modern world and an underlying reason for the emergence of democracy and socialism. But it has not replaced fairness. People support both in differing degrees in different domains. Much of politics is about the trade-offs this tension requires in practice. In international relations the tension between the two principles is evident in the conflict between the hegemonic liberal order and demands for change on the basis of equality.
 
The current international order is going through a profound crisis. Some believe that this order is a liberal order controlled by the United States, while others think that it is a power-based order dominated by a few major countries. Either way, a fundamental characteristic of this order is its hierarchy, meaning that there is an inequality of power, wealth, and influence between large, wealthy states and the rest. 
 
Western international relations scholars, especially those who uphold the American liberal order, are supportive of both principles. They insist they can be reconciled. All individuals and states should have an equal opportunity to compete for whatever it is they want. The resulting hierarchy would be “fair” because “equality” was the starting point. But, of course, there is nothing fair here, especially among states, because they are hardly equal at the starting gun of this imagined race. 
 
In practice, all domestic and international orders are hierarchical. This can be beneficial in circumstances where the powerful receive honor and respect in return for providing practical security and material advantages to the less powerful. The ancient Greek conception of hegemonia and the Confucian concept of wangdao theorize such orders. It can be exploitative and unjust when the powerful use their position to conquer or exploit others. The current order, to the extent there is such a thing, is closer to the latter than the former. 
 
The legitimacy of order depends on whether the order meets the needs of most actors. Toward this end it must sponsor and uphold norms and practices accepted by others and that provide the basis for achieving common goals through cooperation. All legitimate orders therefore rest on principles of justice. They are the foundation of order’s legitimacy and operating in terms of them is the surest way to gain respect and influence. 
 
In an ideal state, order and justice should reinforce each other. But in reality, there is always a certain tension between the two. Therefore, the founders and defenders of order must be able to come up with discourses of justice that acknowledge both principles, make trade-offs among them, and justify the resulting hierarchy. There will always be a gap between theory and reality, and the defenders of order must narrow this gap as much as possible, or the order will lack legitimacy.
 
East-West consensus
Since ancient times, the East and the West have had differences and similarities in their understanding of justice. In terms of justice, both the East and the West believe in equality and fairness, though these principles have had different forms and manifestations in Chinese and Western history. 
 
In Western history, the principle of fairness first appeared in honor-based societies, such as Ancient Greece as described in Homer’s epics. Plato and Aristotle legitimized the elite politics of ancient Greek city-states with the principle of fairness. These two philosophers were less concerned with the principle of equality, because it tended to lead to democracy, which was not their favored form of government.
 
The principle of fairness has long been the dominant principle of regional and international order. In recent history, European powers acquired glory, territory, and wealth through military conquest, leading to a hierarchical order dominated by them. As mentioned, any hierarchical order needs a discourse of justice for legitimation. The discourse of justice of the European powers maintained that this hierarchy was necessary for them to assume the responsibilities of great powers and maintain the international order. 
 
This assertion of legitimacy was particularly evident in the peace conferences that followed the great European wars, especially the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars and the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I. Even the United Nations, established after World War II, embodied the principle of fairness in the Security Council, as it granted permanent membership with veto power to only five major countries.
 
Chinese history also manifested the principles of fairness and equality. There are two types of fairness in pre-Qin thought: fairness based on merit, virtue, or status, and fairness based on the reciprocity of obligations. As for equality, there are at least four conceptions of equality in Confucianism. The first is the equality of human dignity, especially in the concept of shu (putting oneself in the other’s place). The second is equality of moral potential. Mengzi’s saying that “Every person can become Yao and Shun” exemplifies this conception. The third is political equality. Mengzi said, “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest.” This is an important declaration on the agency of people’s political rights in ancient China. Finally, there is the equality of friendship. Mengzi says, “Friendship should be maintained without any presumption on the ground of one’s superior age, or station, or the circumstances of his relatives. Friendship with a man is friendship with his virtue, and does not admit of assumptions of superiority.”
 
In addition to Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism also have a lot to say on fairness and equality. Daoism is particularly outstanding in its conceptions of equality. 
 
In summary, justice is an important subject of intellectual thought across East and West, and both sides acknowledge equality and fairness as two core principles of justice.
 
Reflections on current int’l order
If we think about international order from the perspective of our two principles of justice, we readily see that they are honored more in the breach than in practice. In general, the more powerful a state is, the more likely it will seek international privileges and justify them with the principle of fairness. Less powerful countries, by contrast, tend to use the principle of equality to constrain the dominant powers and protect their interests. Greater and lesser powers attempt to justify their policies in terms of these principles of justice, but the goals they seek are often at odds with this principle. 
 
Those states that wield influence disproportionate to their power do so because they pursue or take the lead in calling for and implementing policies that are perceived as consistent with justice and in the general interest. 
 
China is now becoming a rich and powerful nation. A major concern of the international community is whether China will follow the example of some Western powers in seeking international privileges and special interests. The United States claims that American hegemony is necessary for global stability. This is a dubious claim, as security and material well-being benefit more from cooperation of the many as opposed to the rule of one. It is also a claim based entirely on fairness, a principle on the decline in international relations. 
 
There are two lessons for China to draw from such experience. First, the practice of the principle of fairness must be thorough and comprehensive. China should not maximize its own interests at the cost of other countries, especially the less powerful ones. Second, the principle of equality is increasingly becoming the dominant principle of the international community. Hegemony has lost its legitimacy. Only countries that truly practice the principles of equality and fairness and creatively manage their tensions can gain wide support from the international community.
 
Zhang Feng is executive dean of the Institute of Public Policy at South China University of Technology; Richard Ned Lebow is a professor of international political theory in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and Bye-Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.
 
 
 
Edited by YANG XUE