This essay explores the making of a “dominant identity,” a political mechanism that serves only one purpose: maintaining a state’s hegemony. It suggests that conflict should be examined from the paradigm of peace rather than that of violence in order to understand why violence can be provoked in seemingly non-violent environments. Introducing the current crisis in the South China Sea and reflecting on the 1956 Suez Crisis, it explores strategies used by “mighty” states to build coalitions and asks why some international actors cannot submit to the standard of a peaceful social life they claim to support.

Monopoly of Violence

‘Civilization’ is always at risk because the maintenance of civilized standards requires particular social structures such as social pacification—the non-violent settling of conflicts within the state and across states. Conflict is an aspect of social structure and is among the normal phenomena of social life that the pacifying institutions serve to resolve. Yet, in the attempt to understand conflict, the emphasis is usually on aggression and violence, rarely on peace.

Let us present the problem differently and ask a more productive question: How is it possible that so many people could normally live together relatively peacefully without fear of being hurt or killed by stronger parties—as peacefully as it has been generally the case in the post-WWII state-regulated societies of contemporary Europe, America, Russia or China, even though some significant conflicts have occurred? It is often forgotten, however, that never before in the development of humankind have so many millions of people lived together in peace—that is, with a significant reduction of physical violence. This becomes evident only when one realizes how much more violent were early periods of human development. Only then would it be possible to explain how some people nowadays cannot submit to the standard of a quite peaceful social life, which is the standard of contemporary civilization.

The question of how people can live together peacefully in large social groups was first answered by Max Weber, who pointed out that states are characterized by their rulers’ claims to a monopoly on physical violence.[1] The monopolization of violence is a sociotechnical invention of the human species.

When the word “civilization” is used, it is often assumed that it refers to a firm entity. This is a wrong assumption. There is a very sharp distinction between the standard of civilized behavior in domestic affairs, as distinct from international relations. In domestic affairs, violence among people is unacceptable and, whenever possible, punished. In international relations, a different standard prevails. Larger states continuously prepare for acts of violence against other states. Militarization, strategic alliances, denunciations of other states’ assertiveness, fabrication of evidence, and manipulation of information are common practices. When violence is carried out, those who carry it out are held in high esteem, often praised and rewarded.

There is no monopoly of violence on the international level. We are living today just as our so-called primitive ancestors did.

There is no monopoly of violence on the international level. We are living today just as our so-called primitive ancestors did. As tribes were earlier a danger to other tribes, so states today are still a constant danger to other states and leaders must always reckon with the possibility of being invaded by a stronger state. At the international level there is no overarching power to prevent a stronger state from invading a weaker state. International treaties are not sufficient and even they can be used to a state’s advantage to justify violence. Nobody can prevent a mighty state from doing this except another mighty state—and if such states exist they live in constant fear of each other, in the fear that their rival could become stronger than themselves. In the field of international relations, the strongest states are normally involved in hegemonic struggles with their rivals because they live in constant fear of them.

The Cold War confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union exemplifies this account, and so does the developing crisis in the South China Sea between the United States and China.

The Rise of China and Its Impact on U.S. Hegemony

The international system is undergoing a shift, strongly influenced by Asia’s rise and the economic challenges currently impacting the United States.[2]This has informed various assessments that question the notion of the United States retaining its current hegemony, especially within the Asia/Pacific region, through the remainder of this century. These regional changes include the re-emergence of China as a global economic power and a regional military power and its associated expansion in areas of strategic interest beyond its traditional areas of interest.[3] This presents a threat to U.S. hegemony.[4]

The Asia/Pacific region is made of a wide and complex structure of groups of various identities.[5] Ancestral differences in ethnicities, religions, political affinities, and economic interests have been the cause of numerous, and often violent, conflicts in the past. In this complex environment, both the United States and China need to redefine their zones of influence to protect their “national interests” by creating a “dominant regional identity.”

Dominant Regional Identity

Perceptions of conflict and violence between groups and states can lead to a transformation from multiple identities with multimodal meaning to a single identity with prevailing threat narratives: a dominant identity. This new dominant identity replaces all other core social and cultural identities to become the most salient in the system of social identities. Furthermore, a dominant identity is likely to overcome individual identities and influence the perception of situations relevant to groups. Even among members of individualistic cultures, a dominant identity can influence the weakening of individual values and attitudes and of individual responsibilities and positions. This leads to the perception of the world in terms of a positive “We” and a negative “They.”

The British Empire exemplifies the dominant identity paradigm. 

The British Empire exemplifies the dominant identity paradigm. Although Britain preferred to exercise its influence through agents, advisers, and collaborating monarchs, it also applied brutal force to annex territories such as in the Malaysian peninsula, northern Borneo, and much of Burma, for example.[6] In doing so, it reacted to three sets of circumstances that characterize the fundamental principles of a dominant identity: economic opportunities, international challenges, and local crises.

From the Suez Crisis to the Eisenhower Doctrine

By 1956, however, the British Empire was in decline. Its greatest possession, the Indian subcontinent had taken its freedom, and nationalist movements patronized by Soviet Russia were flourishing in most of the rest. Yet, there were still actors in the British “establishment” who refused to accept that Britain was no longer a leading power. They played a significant role in a campaign that would become the last of British interventions in the name of imperialism: Suez.[7]

The 1956 Suez Crisis was provoked by a U.S. decision not to finance Egypt’s construction of the Aswan High Dam, in response to Egypt growing friendship with communist Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. President Gamal Abdel Nasser reacted by declaring martial law in the Canal Zone and seizing control of the Suez Canal Company. Fearing that Nasser might close the canal and cut off shipments of petroleum, Britain and France—in agreement with Israel—intervened to regain control of the canal.

For the British, the intervention in Egypt was motivated by a widespread sense of moral and military superiority accreted in the centuries of imperial expansion. But, there was also a widespread feeling that Britain had a responsibility to protect itself from communism and other forms of demagoguery. The growing Soviet influence in the Middle East was also perceived as a threat by the United Sates.

In January 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower asked the U.S. Congress, first, for authorization to use military force if requested by a Middle Eastern country to address aggression from another state; and second, to set aside $200 million to help those Middle Eastern countries that wanted aid from the United States. Both requests were granted.[8] A year and a half later, Eisenhower sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon after its government accused the United Arab Republic (a union of Syria and Egypt) of supporting an armed rebellion. Other interventions followed. In a paradoxical historical twist, the United States had inherited the dominant identity construct from the British. This construct would become an inherent feature of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War and later.

The Making of a Conflict in Times of Peace

Creating a dominant identity that can oppose a perceived enemy is an important part of a mighty state’s strategy. In the Asia/Pacific region, both the U.S. and China are now competing to play this role.

In 2009, President Barack Obama announced that Asia would be a priority in his presidency. Two years later, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the administration’s plan for “America’s Pacific Century.” The so-called “pivot”—later, the “rebalance” —to the Asia/Pacific region came to permeate the entire U.S. government’s approach to foreign policy.[9] Its components were diplomatic, economic and military. Claiming credit for it was important for Clinton, who had the opportunity to prove that her role in crafting U.S. foreign policy went beyond implementing that of her former rivals.

Although no implicit mention of China was made, many observers commented that the new U.S. Asia/Pacific strategy was designed to counteract China’s rapidly growing influence in the region. During the same period, an important transformation in the global National Military Strategy of the United States was implemented with the introduction of “Forward Presence,” which is defined as: “... forces stationed overseas and afloat ... periodic and rotational deployments, access and storage agreements, combined exercises, security and humanitarian assistance, port visits, and military-to-military contacts.”[10]Forward Presence consists of: “Maintaining forward-deployed or stationed forces overseas to demonstrate national resolve, strengthen alliances, dissuade potential adversaries, and enhance the ability to respond quickly to crisis.”

Nowhere would this strategy to address a newly perceived security paradigm to protect vital U.S. interests be more needed than in the Asia/Pacific region where the economic metamorphosis had been dramatic.

The ability to determine the capabilities required of a future U.S. forward presence in the Asia/Pacific region was made difficult, however, by the absence of a significant threat. In the past, U.S. interventions were easily defined against distinct and measurable threats as it was in the Cold War—and later with terrorist organizations. That was not the case in the Asia/Pacific region and, while “instability” in a generic sense may have posed risks—such as those associated with long-lasting differences on the ownership of a number of strategically important islands—it did not lend itself to detailed threat-based force planning. The basis for the future U.S. forward presence could not be focused solely on potential threats, it had to concentrate instead on the capabilities needed to ensure the ability to execute effective military operations, if required.

China’s growing assertiveness and its claims the South China Sea have provide the U.S. with a justification to become the dominant identity ...

China’s growing assertiveness and its claims on the South China Sea have provide the U.S. with a justification to become the dominant identity so that its hegemony could remain unchallenged.

 

Strategic Alliances

U.S. strategists had to identify the capabilities required and how those forces could be structured, stationed, and incorporated into other states' capacity so that multinational forces could be created to support U.S. national security strategy. The ensuing intense diplomatic and political activities to build a complex web of bilateral and trilateral alliances across the entire region coincided with the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (T.P.P.) agreement, one of President Obama’s administration's most important trade agenda objectives.[11]After seven years of difficult negotiations, the T.P.P.’s 30 chapters were agreed upon in October 2015 by 12 countries—including seven from the Asia/Pacific western region. The agreement was signed in February 2016. To enter into force, however, it needs to be ratified by all members before 2018—and supported by the U.S. congress. As the British had done, the U.S. is now reacting on the three sets of circumstances that characterize the fundamental principles of a dominant identity: economic opportunities, international challenges, and local crises.

While military diplomacy and civil-military relations are high on the U.S. agenda, China is pursuing a different approach based on strategic economic positioning and cementing regional influences through an extensive program of large-scale development projects and investments. Its non-interference foreign and security policy has been welcomed by many authoritarian states for which “rights” are a hindrance. China is also speeding up its military infrastructure.

Beijing’s interest in developing a U.S.$3 billion oil refinery in Myanmar’s Dawei region in conjunction with the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ) would be the biggest foreign investment in Myanmar should it proceed and an important step in improving relations that have suffered in recent years since Myanmar opened up to the West.[12] The controversial project, which involves a partnership with the Myanmar military-linked Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, was approved on the last day of the previous government. The project would give China a leadership position in this enormous development, which could become the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia. China is by far the largest investor in Myanmar. It also has a vested interest in keeping strong ties with its neighbor as both countries share a common border of 2,100 kilometers and is eager to secure its access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal, which is pivotal to its transportation strategy along the lines of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

China’s influence is growing rapidly in Indonesia. In his first year as president, Joko Widodo has already met with Chinese president Xi Jinping and has made clear that building greater ties with regional neighbors such as China, Japan, and India that would bring foreign investment was higher in his agenda than being part of some mighty states’ geopolitical maneuvers. And, in a paradoxical twist, the tense stand-off between China and the Philippines over some disputed islands in the South China Sea could be revisited following the overwhelming success of Rodrigo Duterte in last month’s presidential elections. Among several controversial statements, Duterte—a populist—hinted that he would consider negotiating a solution to the crisis directly with China, rather than to continue the negotiation process through ASEAN, which he believes is too close to the United States.[13]This would be a radical departure from the policy of the previous government led by Benigno Aquino, who strongly opposed China and supported a greater military involvement of the United States in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, following President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam, the United States has lifted the embargo on the supply of lethal weapons to Vietnam, urging the communist leadership to ease its crackdown on civil society and support human rights.[14]

Conclusion

The Asia/Pacific region has experienced a considerable economic and political transformation in the last decades, following years of upheaval marked by sporadic violence, conflicts, and genocide. Unlike in the Middle East, regional Asian and Pacific states have successfully developed a wide range of transnational administrative and diplomatic mechanisms to address economic and cooperation issues. Non-interference in each other’s internal political affairs has been accepted as a rule.

Despite authoritarianism, human rights abuses, inequality, discrimination, and poverty—features that appear in most countries in the region—people continue to live together relatively peacefully, which has never happened before. This represents a significant difference between the Asia/Pacific region and the Middle East. Yet, in this time of relative peace, the Asia/Pacific region is experiencing the highest level of militarization since the Second World War, as the fear of a possible conflict is repeatedly impressed on people by the leaders of the mighty states. Regional states are now committing to unrealistic defense expenditures instead of addressing two of most important catalysts of conflict: inequality and poverty.

This account raises an important question: how is it possible that interventionism in the name of national interest by international actors who obviously cannot submit to the standard of a peaceful social and political life, which is the standard of contemporary civilization, still exist in the 21st Century, especially looking back into the previous century?


[1] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, trans. and eds., Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society (New York: Palgrave Books 2015), 129-198.

[2] See for example Ashley J. Tellis, “Strategic Asia: Continuing Success with Continuing Risks,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Andrew Marble and Travis Tanner, eds., Strategic Asia 2010-11: Asia’s Rising Power and America’s Continued Purpose (Seattle and Washington, D.C.: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2011), 1-22, accessed June 1, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/SA1001_Overview.pdf.

[3] See for example Shaun Breslin, “China’s Global Power/China as a Global Power,” in Jae Ho Chung, ed., Assessing China’s Global Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 1-17.

[4] For a representative example of this view, see Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States’ Unipolar Moment,” International Security 31, 2 (2006): 7-41, accessed May 31, 3016, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/isec.2006.31.2.7.

[5] See for example Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly, eds., Government Policies and Ethnic Relations in Asia and the Pacific (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

[6] See Anthony Webster, Gentleman Capitalists: British Imperialism in Southeast Asia 1770-1890 (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998).

[7] For a good discussion of this episode, see Rose McDermott, “The 1956 Suez Crisis,” in Risk-Taking in International Politics (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 135-164, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472108670-06.pdf.

[8] U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, “The Eisenhower Doctrine, 1957,” accessed June 1, 2016, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/eisenhower-doctrine.

[9] U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century.” Speech delivered at the East-West Center, Honolulu, HI. November 10, 2011. Accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2011/11/176999.htm.

[10] Admiral Jay L. Johnson, Chief of Naval Operations, and General Charles C. Krulak, “Forward Presnce Essential to American Interests,” America’s Navy [U.S. Department of the Navy], August 17, 2009, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=274.

[11] See Achara Deboonme, “Chinese firms seek part in Dawei SEZ,The Nation [Bangkok], March 6, 2016, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/business/Chinese-firms-seek-part-in-Daw….

[12] See Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark and Greg Chaffin, eds., Strategic Asia 2014–15: U.S. Alliances and Partnerships at the Center of Global Power (Seattle and Washington, D.C.: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2014).

[13] Richard C. Paddock, “Rodrigo Duterte, Poised to Lead Philippines, Is Expected to Take New Approach to China,” The New York Times, May 11, 2016, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/world/asia/philippines-election-rodri….

[14] Oliver Holmes, “US Lifts Decades-long Embargo on Arms Sales to Vietnam,” The Guardian, May 23, 2016, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/23/us-lifts-decades-long-emba….