“Counter the Asian termites with a US-Nato free trade zone”

What a suggestion: the US and Europe must join forces to combat the approaching enemy, who lies in wait armed with smiles, bows and a blood-lust for domination of world trade. Although the author at times refers to these enemies as “Asia,” he is referring specifically to China and India. The solution to the imminent threat will be a US-Nato free trade zone that stands up to the advancing enemies, insisting on fair and open trade policies. As a side benefit, the European and US cultures will converge, each benefitting from their respective positive attributes, while economies on both sides of the Atlantic will be stimulated. (Now does that all sound dreamy or what?)

It’s a great day for metaphors. The article I posted about below compares China to a lobster. This one compares China and other rising Asian powers to termites. It’s a fascinating argument, excerpted at length from War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity, Germany’s best- selling book by Gabor Steingart. In some ways, it reminded me of the recent debate we’ve been having about Europeans and Muslims, and the challenge is similar: to what extent do you embrace and cooperate with those who harbor a vastly different set of values from your own? It is a question that every non-Asian doing busines in Asia has had to come to terms with at one time or another.

At airports in Beijing, Jakarta, Singapore and New Delhi red carpets lie ready, Western national anthems can be played flawlessly on cue — and they even parry Western complaints about intellectual property theft, environmental damage and human rights abuses with a polite patience that can only be admired. The Asians are the friendliest conquerors the world has ever seen.

A stoic and dark superpower

Their secret is stoic perseverance, the weapon they use to pursue their own interests while at the same time disregarding ours. What looks like a market economy in Asia, actually follows the rules of a type of society which former German chancellor Ludwig Erhard liked to call a “termite state.” In a termite state, it is the collective rather than the individual which sets the agenda. Tasks that serve the aims of society’s leaders are assigned to the individual in a clandestine manner that is barely perceptible to outsiders. It is a state that encourages as much collective behavior as possible but only as much freedom as necessary. We don’t know what they feel, we don’t know what they think and we have no way of guessing what they are planning. Indeed, this is what makes China a dark superpower.

Even if no one is prepared to say it outright, there are signs of a similar indifference to Western values all across Asia. But it is precisely that unspoken that separates the two worlds. Free labor unions are neither vilified nor permitted. Lip service is paid to the environment as something that should be protected, but at the same time it is torn apart like a car in a wrecking yard. Child labor is condemned even as it is actively tolerated. And a whole range of laws exist to protect Western intellectual property, but those rules are seldom applied.

The Asian elite politely brush off everything that matters to us — the social framework surrounding daily working life, the idea of individual achievement and state-guaranteed fair competition. What we see as essential characteristics of a civilized society, they see as nothing more than bourgeois niceties.

I’m ready for the “R” word to be invoked against the author. Risky as it is to make generalizations about broad groupings of people – especially when that grouping includes parties as disparate as the Chinese and the Indians – I found enough grains of truth in Steingart’s argument to make it worth thinking about. And yes, I know that some of the characteristics he defines as Asian, such as paying lip service to the environment, apply to my own government and business community as well.

Read the article – its alarmist tone is kind of quaint, its proposed solution seems hopelessly unrealistic, but many of its observations are thought provoking.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

Let’s see, he recycles that old chestnut about Asian collectivist vs. Western individualist societies with a twist, ignores Japan and South Korea, puts way too much into light manufacturing exports as proving the termite model is the “right one”, blames Asian competition for a reduction in standards in the West (as if there aren’t so many other reasons), doesn’t mention the completely different systems of Germany and the U.S. particularly on certain “Enlightenment values” such as freedom of religion and speech (scientology, hitler paraphenalia) – or on labor (one words: Volkwagen), dances past the huge wadges of cash the Middle East stands to make in the future on oil which will certainly complicate the mix, and, oh yeah, “termite state” and the “inscrutable Chinese” redux? Yes, that is in fact racist. He might actually know what “Asians” think and feel if he cared to find out.

Oh, and his last book Germany: Decline of a Superstar? Spelled out the disaster Germany faces with its current system of high government spending, high taxes, rigid labor market and general economic blegh. At least that’s his story, hell if I know. I always thought the West half of Germany was crying in their pilsners over being slightly less wealthy than 99% of the world, including the Eastern half of Germany. So it looks like he’s decided that to light a fire under Germany’s ass, he’s going to blame the auslanders.

October 29, 2006 @ 3:38 am | Comment

It’s funny you posted this, because a friend of mine has plans to develop a proposal for a rival to the UN – a global, free-trade alliance not unlike the EU.

Problem is you’d have to a be a functioning, multi-party democracy to join, with verification by a “security council” of founding members (probably the US, UK, France, Germany, South Africa, India and Japan), who take on board reports from recognised NGOs like Amnesty International, Reporters’ without Borders, etc.

The premise is that people will push for democracy more seriously if they think there’s real (i.e. economic) benefit in it.

So if you ever see someone suggest that, you’ll know who thought of it first!

October 29, 2006 @ 6:06 am | Comment


And what do you envision such an organization will do? Issuing resolutions to non-member countries? What international obligation does any nation have towards an organization in which they are not a member of? From a legal point of view this organization is dysfunctional from the get go.

Politically it will not work either because the “screening process” is discriminatory. Of course China wouldn’t be allowed to join. Any important oil producing country wouldn’t be allowed to join. Would a “democracy” like Russia be allowed to join? Or any of the leftist-leaning democracies in South America be allowed to join?

Being a democracy is not a carte blanche to moral high ground. I don’t think such organization will be effective because it is basically going to be ignored. It is basically going to be another talk shop that has no mandate.

One reason why UN is working as well(or as badly) as it does it everyone has a seat at the table. Allowing all the voices to be heard is important for the international system to work. Frustrated that the objectives are not being advanced? Well perhaps nations like US is not expanding enough political…

October 29, 2006 @ 9:14 am | Comment

Another article about the “clash of civilization” theme…

What i found even more alarming is the notion that everyone must conform to the “western values” else the free world is at stake. I don’t know if it is naivety or arrogance that led the author to believe any other values can not result in long term peace and prosperity. What’s wrong with looking at these “western values” with a cold eye? We hear things and compare that to the reality, and observes dissonance. Of course it makes for an interesting study. Jeez, Some people really need to pull their head out of their ass.

I like the imagery about Chinese working clandestinely to advance some dark objective. “Damn cooly-hats with their shifty eyes must be up to no good! Don’t really understand what they are thinking so they must be bad!!!”

October 29, 2006 @ 9:28 am | Comment

What it boils down to is “Us white people vs. the yellow ones.” (He MIGHT let Canada join his free-trade fortress?) Sounds like the German version of French whingeing about their loss of “puissance.”

When did you put up the frames around the comments? Makes it look more organised!

October 29, 2006 @ 10:41 am | Comment

@ Dave, first a brief response about calling the “termite” metaphor “racist”: China’s own foreign intelligence ministry uses the metaphor of “ants” to train its own spies. The idea (THEIR idea) is that if each single “ant” brings back just one grain of sand (just one small piece of information) then the ant colony can re-assimilate all of the bits of information back home.

So, maybe you with your sublime Liberal White Sensitivity can have a word with China’s intelligence organs and advise them to stop calling themselves ants, because it’s racist.
Or something.

October 29, 2006 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

The largest obstacle to expanded free trade in the west is protectionist sentiment in developed countries. NAFTA isn’t doing much good even securing free trade between Canada and the United States in areas which threatened US interests (ie. patently illegal American tariffs on steel or Canadian lumber exports).

Unless the United States is committed to free trade (and the public and media seem, frankly, not to give a damn — have any Americans heard anything about the lumber dispute?) this is a dead issue. Until the current US administration changes the take-home message for potential partners of the States is that free trade agreements are largely powerless against domestic lobbying campaigns.

If Asian countries actually stick to the free trade agreements they sign, they will be making a lot more progress than us barbarians have. As someone who cares about the way free trade lifts the boats of all participants, I welcome them handing us our asses on a platter here.

October 29, 2006 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

Ivan, I think Dave’s reaction to the termite metaphor is understandable. “Ants” and “termites” conjure up very different images. The former are seen as industrious, cooperative and efficient. The latter are seen as all of those things with an important distinction: they are destructive and menacing, an enemy to man, something we must always try to exterminate. As soon as i saw the metaphor, I felt the writer was leaving himself wide open to charges of race baiting, like calling blacks cockroaches. Now, I felt he made an effort to justify the metaphor and I might not necessarily call it racist, but I can easily see where Dave is coming from and suspect many others who read the same article had the same reaction.

October 29, 2006 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

@Ivan: Chinese Intelligence does not equal the entire Chinese population. Chinese spies could call themselves “miserable cunts” for all I care – they apply the term based on occupation, not being “Asian”. It’s not “Liberal White Sensitivity”, it’s called basic logic. “All X (Asians) who do behavior Y (work as spies) behave like Z (termites)” is not the same as “All X (Asians) who come from A (Asia) behave like Z (termites)”.

“the final great fight…between the yellow and white races in which Japan will lead the Chinese invasion of Europe. It will also be the final great fight between the Christian and the Buddhist religions; the culture of the west and the half-culture of the east.” – Kaiser Wilhelm, though instead Europeans butchered one another, and then later Germany supported the Japanese Invasion of China. So he was wrong.

October 29, 2006 @ 2:43 pm | Comment

You know, I have some serious concerns about the role of fundamentalist religions in modern societies (I think they are, well, bad, basically). But I just can’t get worked up about some kind of clash of civilizations between “Asia” and the West. I just don’t see the cultural differences as that extreme or insurmountable, and I think our goals are more or less compatible.

But maybe that’s just me.

October 29, 2006 @ 2:47 pm | Comment

Mmf. Well Richard you might be right, but I’ve never considered ants to be friends of man, or anything other than ugly, menacing creatures.

October 29, 2006 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

Lisa, I might have agreed with you until actually experiencing the business world in China. There really are some cultural differences that will never easily mesh. The most obvious example is the under-the-table payments to official to get just about any kind of license. This really poses moral dilemmas: when we do business in Asia, do we do things for which we could go to prison in our own societies. It’s the same challenge Google, the company that stands more than any other for openness and freedom of information, faced when it deided to offer a censored version of its search engine in China. Whether one side is good or bad, right or wrong isn’t the question, but there really are some serious differences in values.

October 29, 2006 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

Ivan, haven’t you seen any of those amazing Nature specials on ants? They are truly the master race. Bees are close behind.

October 29, 2006 @ 3:01 pm | Comment

Weird…I could have sworn I posted another comment here. What I said was something like, yeah, I take your point, Richard. I just think that the differences are not insurmountable and that our goals are basically compatible in the long run – unlike the conflict between modern societies and fundamentalist religions.

October 29, 2006 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

Okay, that’s weird. The second comment I posted appeared before the first one. Really. I’m going to go in and delete it because it makes no sense in this order, but that is an awfully strange glitch.

October 29, 2006 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

I’m having a number of comments issues today, Lisa. Maybe it’s because the IT person is working on the site. Sorry – a lot of these comments are posting at weird times. And comments were totally down earlier. I’m definitely having a bad IT week. Someone warned me i shouldn’t make any changes to my site during the current mercury retrograde. I should have listened.

October 29, 2006 @ 3:20 pm | Comment

It seems like Mercury’s in retrograde every other week – what can you do?!

October 29, 2006 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

Seriously, Richard? Where I grew up, I didn’t learn about ants from TV. I learned firsthand. Seriously, do you know what “carpenter ants” are?
They infest houses (and barns) and eat the woodwork just like termites. (And they’re BIG bastards which bite. You do NOT want to get any angry carpenter ants on your body.)

So, actually, I’ve had experience of seeing ant colonies exterminated as pests. Sometimes I did it myself – I’ve exterminated many an ant colony in my day. If they were in a tree, then we’d burn down the whole tree (because the ants had killed it anyway.)

Not to mention the Japanese Beetles (which really did come from Japan.) They’re the worst pests of all. When I was a boy they used to go for our grapevines first, or any fruit-bearing tree.
So the other boys and I would go around capturing Japanese Beetles, scraping them off of all the leaves in summer, and we would shout,
“Kill the Japs!” (Sorry, but yes this really happened; it was only one generation after the war, so the memory of “Jap = enemy” was still current in America.)

But then later, when I found out Kimba the White Lion was Japanese, I repented from cursing the Japanese Beetles in such a racist way. 😉
Although, I still say, you can never, never, never trust any Japanese Beetles.

October 29, 2006 @ 4:37 pm | Comment


Actually countries like Kuwait, Iraq and other Arab states which have made big political changes would probably be allowed in. And the fact South America has leftish governments wouldn’t matter. Russia – hmm, maybe. Depends what Putin’s successor would be like.

But the whole point is that it would start off as a trading organisation, so who is not a member wouldn’t matter as much. It’s not to govern those who aren’t members, but actually reward democratically-committed countries. Who wouldn’t want to be in a trade alliance with the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, etc? A heck of a lot of countries could be regarded as democratic. Bar China, you’d have the major economies of the world in there. And the fact China wouldn’t be invited wouldn’t make it not worthwhile to join.

If there is a tangible, economic gain from democracy then it will spread faster. Though to be fair the political side of it would come much later, if it did. But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be political changes across the world as a result. And that’s the ultimate goal, to foster democracy. If that happened the alliance wouldn’t need to supercede the UN.

October 29, 2006 @ 7:42 pm | Comment

I’m not an entomologist. But when I saw this article last week, I was struck first by the way it seemed to channel the musty old “Yellow Peril” journalism of the early 20th century.

That’s probably not surprising. Perhaps what makes this kind of clash of civilization article so “yawn worthy” for Falen, is that so much of the civ clash rhetoric relies on tropes recycled over and over again, whether the enemy is Asiatic Despotism, Communism, Islam, or the New York Yankees…Phrases like “Dark superpower”/”indifference to Western values” obscure more than they illuminate.

We should feel free to criticize those ideas and groups in our world that trouble us. There is some good analysis out there and there are also many things written a long time ago that still hold some truth when applied to today’s situtation. All I’m talking about is the overuse of certain tropes where only the names have been changed. That’s not real analysis, that’s analysis by mad-lib.

October 29, 2006 @ 11:59 pm | Comment

Richard, I think the graft and corrupt business practices you mentioned aren’t really a differenece in culture, but rather a difference in fighting said corruption. It doesn’t occur as much in the United states and Europe not because of culture, but rather because we have set and enforced laws to eliminate that kind of stuff. We wouldn’t have those laws in the first place if there wasn’t a problem, so I think this is one particular “cultural gap” that can be remedied with effective law enforcement. But I do think it is reinforced culturally (or should I say law of culture, since the CR pretty much destroyed culture in China, in my belief).

Otherlisa, I find it interesting you raise the point about fundamentalist religions influencing the world. I try to be a good christian, but in politics and economics I’m as athiest as possible. THey CAN’T mix!!! I would never condone an abortion, yet I am against outlawing it. I would never smoke marijuana, yet I think it should be legalized. I try to avoid media that I find tacky and degrading, but I find it sick that so many on the right are trying to tell me what I can and can’t watch on TV. I try to live my values, but really get pissed off when others use politics to force their values on me. What ever happened to decent pious people who were just as passionate about maintaining a secular society as they are about their own religion? Am I goofy?

October 30, 2006 @ 4:24 am | Comment

Lisa, sorry if I wasn’t clear enough: I agree with you!

October 30, 2006 @ 4:28 am | Comment

I hear ya, Chip, and I totally agree. Separation of church and state – it’s a good thing! Whatever happened to rendering unto Caeser and all that?

October 30, 2006 @ 10:08 am | Comment

All I’ll say is that a lot of you are falling prey to the logical fallacy of assuming that any argument which resembles prior bad arguments is just another restatement of those bad arguments.

More simply, consider what Arthur Koestler tried so hard to explain during the Cold War (mostly falling on deaf ears): Just because anti-Communism was used by some people in dishonest and opportunistic ways, did NOT mean that there was no reason to be anti-Communist.

Similarly, Westerners (especially Americans) have become so conditioned to recoil from – and to reject and to scorn as loudly and histrionically as possible, almost like making public religious confessions – any words which bear any remote resemblance to “racism”, that they have really lost the capacity to think at all about some matters which really need to be thought about.

October 30, 2006 @ 12:45 pm | Comment

@Ivan: “the logical fallacy of assuming that any argument which resembles prior bad arguments is just another restatement of those bad arguments.”

I don’t see how, if the resemblance is nearly identical, that’s a logical fallacy.

“More simply, consider what Arthur Koestler tried so hard to explain during the Cold War (mostly falling on deaf ears): Just because anti-Communism was used by some people in dishonest and opportunistic ways, did NOT mean that there was no reason to be anti-Communist.”

Ah, but is the problem “Asia” and it’s mysterious ways, or are the problems (with China) a morally bankrupt PRC government and (with Germany) a system that hasn’t adapted with the changes in and around it? If Gabor said the latter (in his previous book he went after Germany’s bloated and unrealistic system, which I find far more worthwhile), then I’d have no beef. But he didn’t, his argument is the former, and it’s a crappy argument. If we’re going to tackle the real, clear and present danger, then start by being precise about its nature, instead of using meaningless generalizations. My biggest problem with Gabor’s “Yellow Peril” redux, which I agree with Jeremiah that it is, isn’t that its racist. It’s that it’s stupid. It was stupid in the early twentieth century and it’s stupid today, because it doesn’t offer any clear understanding of the issues – instead it substitutes vague fears of unseen cryptic enemies.

And Germany has alot of problems that have nothing to do with China, and the U.S. isn’t going to bail it out. All in all, the article does nothing except suck valuable time and energy from real problem solving with its phantom of an ‘argument’. And to use his public standing (his last book was a huge bestseller) to misdirect blame to, not even a foreign country, but a continent/phenotype/region, is not simply nonsense but dangerous and pathetic.

October 30, 2006 @ 9:18 pm | Comment

Dave, “nearly identical” to WHAT? Who’s speaking in overly broad cateogories now? (You are.)

October 30, 2006 @ 10:30 pm | Comment

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