USA, China and the Weaponisation of Culture

The invasion of a sovereign state implies fighting the internal ‘resistance’. Therefore the adoption of counterinsurgency strategies is necessary. What does this mean in a Second Cold War scenario? The analysis of Andrea Monti, Adjunct Professor of Law and Order, University of Chieti-Pescara – Originally published in Italian by

The inoculation of values and lifestyles of an adversary civilian population plays a fundamental role in any form of conflict. Disrupting the adversary’s social structures is the prerequisite for weakening its resistance, facilitating the acceptance of the foreign presence in one’s territory in case of invasion or domination, in case of defeat.

Theoretically, the reasoning is coherent and shareable from a strategic point of view but, as counterinsurgency experts know, its concrete application in a state of waged war (even ‘by proxy’) is very complicated.

No matter how well they behave towards the civilian population, the occupying forces remain essentially such and generate more or less spontaneous ‘liberation movements’. Moreover, the process of value substitution that would allow the weakening of adherence to principles intrinsically instead of those of the victor takes a very long time and has unpredictable outcomes. It is no coincidence that after a military invasion or civil war, the new government is often made by local components that are actually under the influence (if not direct control) of the real winner.

The theme is certainly not new: think of the Spartan xenelasias and, with a bold comparison, of the role of rituals in Confucian doctrine as a tool of social control: preventing the entry of ‘new’ (but in reality only ‘different’) ideas immunises against the virus of doubt that weakens trust in the sovereign.

However, the weaponisation of culture is particularly relevant today because of how the second cold ‘non-war’ is fought and the role of information technology.

Excluding direct armed confrontation, which – at least for the moment – each of the actors does not intend to promote, the areas of conflict that are immediately perceived are economic, technological and, lastly, as explained by, legal. The strategic use of culture (understood in the anthropological sense) and its integration into the weaponisation of the social sciences and anthropology, in particular, remains in the background.

As demonstrated by the incredible comeback of Japan, which from being an enemy power described by US President Harry Truman as a ‘nation of terribly uncivilised and cruel warfare’ has won the hearts and minds of Western countries, the dissemination of the culture of one country in another is fundamental to building a bridge between the two. However, what crosses it is a horse of different colour: books can pass over a bridge, but so can cannons.

It is no coincidence that, rightly or wrongly, former President Donald Trump also decided to ban the Confucius Institutes from the United States, accused of espionage and spreading propaganda and evil influence.

In the economic and technological soft war, China competes on equal terms with the West, but in the one fought on the level of culture, China is still far behind its historical adversary. Unlike Japan (which is not on anti-Western positions and, therefore, does not constitute even a potential threat), China has not been able to root its cultural models abroad. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect that as long as Beijing remains essentially an ‘alien’ in the collective imagination of the Western Countries, it will be difficult to expect that the citizens will see China as a presence, if not friendly, at least,  non-threatening.

However, the role that China’s technological supremacy in consumer electronics could play in such a scenario should be considered. The spread of Chinese smartphones, tablets, computers, drones, voice assistants, social networking and content sharing platforms is slowly but steadily leading to the de facto acceptance of Beijing’s presence in our daily lives. It is a long and far from a linear process, but it is a process that has begun and is in no hurry to be completed.

It is a question of role and perception of time, profoundly different in the West and China. On the one hand, there is a short-term horizon, and on the other, a long-term perspective allows, thanks to many small steps, very long distances to be covered without others noticing.

Thus, while the West’s might combats the Chinese offensive’s Yang side, the Yin side proceeds undisturbed. Per the law of Tao, the latter will evolve into its opposite. Moreover, by the time we realise this, it may be too late.

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