For more than a week now, two of the world's superpowers have been nose-to-nose, endangering not only global security but their own valuable and increasingly important economic relationship, because one culture can't apologize for an obvious accident and the other culture insists that only an apology can end the crisis. Anyone who still harbors Utopian fantasies about the Virtual State -- you know, the Net and Web, global community, the digital economy and interactivity all combining to shatter existing boundaries, etc. -- should find the current U.S.-China confrontation finishing them off. The state is hyperreal -- it operates like software. It seems stable enough while the power is on and it hasn't run into any major bugs, but interrupt the power supply or corrupt it, and the state falls apart. (Read more.)
"U.S. and China Look for a Way to Say 'Sorry'," was the striking headline on The New York Times front page Monday. Some of the world's most senior diplomats have been fussing for days over how to phrase sentences in English and Chinese that will stroke both nation's egos, even though no sane person could believe anybody meant this incident to happen. The sticking point is China's public demand for an apology -- "dao qian," a legalistic and formal verbal idea that dates back to its imperial past.
Second to none when it comes to macho military posturing, the U.S. can't say it's sorry for the accident and bring everybody home. Various grim-faced U.S. officials, from the President and Vice-President to the Secretary of State, have been rushing around in their big black limos, and issued guarded expressions of concern and sadness, but nobody can quite bring himself to say the magic words.
Maybe these people could get on IRC and flame each other, then apologize and sort the whole thing out. Think of the money that would be saved.
If anything highlights some of the bankrupt, outmoded practices of the nation-state, and also the reason we will never be so lucky as to see it wither away, it's this incident -- taken quite seriously by the popular media, whose talk shows are full of soundbite-spouting eggheads, military experts and grave government spin doctors.
This all makes Jerry Everard, author of Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation-State look prescient. In his book, published last year by Routledge Press, Everard challenged the idea, long advocated by digital utopians, that the Net would ultimately break down the national barriers and boundaries and render them both useless and obsolete. If states are hyperreal, then so are agreements and understandings between nationalist governments.
That won't happen, wrote Everard, a professor at the Australian National University, because the new economy is promoting inequities and resentment in many cultures, and because people don't realize that nation-states have two economies: the goods and services economy, and the identity economy.
"While the state's role in the first may be diminishing, its role in the latter is stronger than ever. In today's climate of change and uncertainty, people are turning to nationalism and engaging in regional conflicts over identity," he noted. Identify resulted from the boundary-making process; it was a way of identifying the national Self from the Other, establishing an us-versus them.
The spy plane flap underscores Everard's idea. China and the United States do billions of dollars in trade together, thanks in part to computer networks, and China has spent billions to develop a new communications infrastructure. The country is wiring up rapidly, eager to jump into the new networked global economy, which the U.S. already dominates. Neither country has reason to jeopardize this new relationship, which potentially democratizes China, creates new jobs, helps stabilize that region, and distributes wealth to some impoverished corners of the world.
Except that cultural identity is stronger than the virtual kind, and the nation-state can't seem to overcome some of its most primitive conventions.
Both countries seem willing to damage their relationship over arcane language and diplomatic posturing, which shows why the idea of the virtual state is so unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. When push comes to shove, identity seems to overcome reason and self-interest. This style of identity politics crops up all over the world -- on the border between India and Pakistan, in Eastern Europe, all over the African continent, in regional and local conflicts in South America. Maybe we're lucky -- a century ago we'd probably already be at war. But this conflict is likely to be resolved eventually, maybe even by the time this is read.
Everard thinks that certain facets of governance -- the economy, research, media -- could in fact become globalized. But he doesn't see the nation-state disappearing. Seventeenth-century Europe was also turbulent, he points out, with countries popping up, disappearing and reforming as political and economic allegiances evolved, as new technologies changed the nature of war, economics and communications. And despite the Euro, it's still home to nations with fierce identities.
The U.S., birthplace of much of the digital revolution and of the idea of the virtual state, doesn't appear either fragile or hyperreal, but Americans are historically narcissistic and ignorant of other countries, blithely imposing their own traditions, values and practices on other parts of the world.
It's almost as if the more threatened these traditional boundaries are by new business models and technologies that connect people, the more these cultures need to assert their own identity, whatever the cost. The Balkans are a grisly testament to the enduring power of nationalism.
For all the new links between the U.S. and China, and for all the hype about new communications technologies bringing the world closer, neither culture seems to get the other. China doesn't fathom that a conservative U.S. president would be eaten alive by Congress and the American public if he apologized for a military confrontation that doesn't appear to have been our fault. The United States seems not to comprehend a tradition that places an enormous premium on honor, face, and responsibility.
Talk about hyperreal.