“So do you have any questions for us,” was the line my colleague and I used to bring our meetings with Chinese intellectuals to an end. Usually, you are saved from any interrogation yourself. Not in Beijing. Without exception our interlocutors leapt – after lengthy interviews on Russia and Central Asia – into action with the question why did Britain and France invade Libya? For them it wasn’t a non sequitur. It was the key development in global politics.
“Imagine you are sitting in Beijing, reading the newspaper in Beijing, watching the television in Beijing and see you Sarkozy and Cameron fighting in Libya, how can you explain this?” I am sitting in a strangely decorated room designed to receive Europeans in a vast research centre. Friends from the old continent are supposed to be put at ease by paintings of Dutch windmills, Greek white-washed cottages and London Bridge.
“China has been looking to Europe compared to the United States as a model of peace trying to build a rule based system. We can’t explain this. When asked we have to say this war is because these powers have a history of imperialism.” Obama’s lead from behind policy hasn’t fooled Congress or the Arab media - but seemingly the Chinese intelligentsia. The intervention is seen as an Anglo-French campaign.
The smog outside obscures the sun and flickers of a Gobi sandstorm throws orange tones into the sky. We are sitting with the editor of an influential foreign affairs journal drinking a delicious iced-tea drink only available in the Asiatic franchises of Starbucks. The Chinese open up slowly. They expect you to understand and do the same. If you manage to get them outside the building and especially if there is food or tea involved, the conversation can become more fluid.
“What we are really angry about is that we have spent a large amount of time trying to convince North Korea that they can give up nuclear weapons and they will not be attacked by the West. We were using the Libyan example. Now we cannot. This is a real blow to East Asian security, thank you very much,” says our friend as he sucks the straw and rattles the ice.
Military interventions seen from London or Washington seem clear and situational. Seen from Moscow or Beijing these same interventions seem random and unpredictable, and the type of disorder that these fragile superpowers would rather live without. “Where will you intervene next? Will the West intervene in Central Asian states on our borders, or North Korea?” When we indicated this is unlikely the Chinese start to roll-call places that had seemed off bounds to Western intervention – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the sands of Libya.
The Libyan intervention has intersected with the reset between Washington and Moscow. Sitting through formal meetings with the Russia watchers of Beijing, the Kremlin’s choice to abstain in the UN Security Council vote has ruffled feathers. “Russia always used to be on the front-line against the West and we would be behind,” grumbled one debate leader.
The decision is blamed on Dmitry Medvedev. “Medvedev is pro-Western and Putin is pro-Russian,” one poised and party-line analyst in a red tie blurts. The decision by Obama to pursue the reset may not have been the ‘Nixon in China’ moment some of his advisors hoped. But it has sprinkled distrust into Russia-China ties and ensured a Medvedev succession will have fewer friends in Beijing. China is worried Russia will no longer be a useful idiot to hide behind, and they will have to face America alone in global institutions.
A defence of the Libya intervention - “London and Paris did not want to let a Mediterranean city be massacred” - hits far more incomprehension that simple, cold realism in Beijing and Moscow. Most analysts in Moscow and Beijing struggle to take Western idealism at face-value. This seems to me only partially due to the grim realities most interventions produced. Chinese and Russian politics itself has been devoid of idealism for almost twenty years, and those that wrap themselves in the flag or any cause are cynically suspected of ulterior motives.
The Arab revolutions have not been reported with the same zest and intensity in Russian and Chinese, thanks to censorship in the media. The Middle East seems distant and the spirit of Tahrir Square that gripped the West reminded people in both countries of the failure of their own idealism in 1989 and 1991 - the last time people massed by candle-light because they believed in new politics in either Moscow or Beijing. The Arab revolutions are seen as the prelude to the politics of failure and instability.
But above all Western idealists are also deeply unpredictable and difficult to work with.
“We are missing the professional politicians, like Kissinger in China. We knew what they wanted and would do. The new generation – there are too many idealists. They are too emotional. We don’t know what they do next,” confided a Chinese think-tanker to me within the walls of a lift.
I suspect we would find Russian and Chinese idealists even more troubling.