Thomas A. Breslin. Beyond Pain: The Role of Pleasure and Culture in the Making of Foreign Affairs. Praeger Studies on Ethnic and National Identities in Politics. Westport and London: Praeger, 2001. x + 203 pp. ISBN 978-0-275-97431-2; ISBN 978-0-275-97430-5.
Reviewed by Eileen Scully (Social Sciences Division, Bennington College)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2003)
Wine, Women, and Bribes--Not Bombs
Wine, Women, and Bribes--Not Bombs
Certainly a timely book, this is an historical inquiry into "the uses various cultures have made of pleasure in international relations," with "pleasure" defined to include both culturally specific values and universal human desires. Thomas Breslin, Vice President for Research and associate professor of International Relations at Florida International University, argues that "policies of pain," e.g. military attacks, trade restrictions, and rhetorical demonization, "have invariably crippled aggressor nations, immiserating all and sundry," while "the use of [sexual, psychological, celebratory, and gustatory] pleasure has almost never led to the downfall of a nation and the ruination of all its people" (pp. ix-x).
Breslin, speaking as an historian, a past anti-war activist, and, more recently, an arms-limitations advocate, hopes to counterbalance fellow scholars' tendency to focus on wars and conflicts, "rather than the periods in between them when diplomats are working to prevent wars." He has this message for readers (and leaders): "Were pleasure in its culturally relevant setting acknowledged adequately as an effective diplomatic tool and often a cheap and safe one at that, then pain, which is ever more costly and deadly, might lose both its primacy and whatever shreds of legitimacy it may still have in this nuclear age" (p. ix). The work, a series of case studies, is based predominantly on a wide reading of relevant secondary sources, ranging in type from a 1985 article in FIU Hospitality Review comparing French and Chinese cuisines, to a 1982 American Civil Liberties Union report on the Reagan administration's perceived assault on the Bill of Rights. Trained as a specialist in the history of Sino-American relations, Breslin's most extensive case study in the cost-benefit ratio of pain-pleasure diplomacy is China. Chapter 1, "The Five Baits," runs from the ancient Han period up through the advent of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1600s; chapter 9, "Sweet and Sour: China Deals with the Modern West," continues the case study, taking us up through the 1990s. From the start, military adventurism and aggression competed for primacy against a diplomacy of accommodation and indulgence; the latter "utilized pleasure in various forms as basic as sex or gold and as refined as the pleasures of the banquet hall to defend and even expand the Han living area" (p. 1). "Sex, for example, was a powerful tool for the Chinese ruler," as, according to one nineteenth-century Western observer of China, foreign visitors were presented with "trained dancing girls and female musicians to entertain and engage in sexual relations"; indeed, such women "often changed hands, being sold and resold, or offered as presents" (p. 2).
The template for the pleasure principle in diplomacy was the Han "heqin policy," developed circa 198-138 B.C.E., after repeated disastrous battles with the neighboring Xiongnu. The strategist behind the "heqin policy" understood how the "five baits" could corrupt and sedate horse-riding, nomadic warriors: "elaborate clothes and carriages to corrupt their eyes; fine food to corrupt their mouths; music and effeminate women to corrupt their ears; lofty buildings, granaries, and slaves to corrupt their stomachs (i.e., slow them down); and royal banquets to corrupt their minds" (p. 6). A powerful, costly military backed up this policy, but also made Han rulers vulnerable to manipulation and betrayal. To reduce reliance on the military underpinnings of the "five baits," Han diplomat Zhang Qian turned to a divide-and-conquer policy to neutralize the Xiongnu, resulting in internal divisions among the nomads into northern and southern branches (p. 7). Breslin concedes that the cost-benefit ratio of "pleasurably pacifying" was complicated. A "demonstration of the emperor's command of the finest things under heaven" required a government-elite monopoly over the dazzling array of sumptuous food, seductive women, and high material culture (p. 16). This, in turn, required the dominant group to exploit the peasantry, send off some of their own women as brides and concubines, round up all of those "trained dancing girls and female musicians" from non-Han groups, and restrict direct trade between border-area inhabitants and neighboring peoples (pp. 4-5). Exploitation often brought revolts, with large casualties and harsh aftermaths. Policing a state monopoly on trade often provoked wars by frustrated outsiders, which in turn entailed conscripting peasants to arms, draining granaries to feed troops, and diverting farmland to breed military horses. Removing land from cultivation then cut grain supplies, forcing rulers to reduce troop levels (so as to lower demand for grain), to shrink elite consumption, "or to starve the peasantry until they revolted, became sick and died" (p. 5). As well, the recipients of Chinese largess often "grew soft and fond enough of luxury to oppress their subjects and stir up discontent" (p. 15), on occasion letting their sharpened appetites take them into cross-border raids or military campaigns.
Through the rise and fall of dynasties, Breslin identifies the recurring pattern: aggressive expansion, a longer wall, and militarism led to over-extension, wars, and collapse; "pleasurably pacifying" neighbors and foes squeezed peasants, but was ultimately less costly to them and to the dynasty than military conscription and land diversion (p. 13). The People's Republic of China and Taiwan have both carried on the tradition of "cultural diplomacy toward nations," combining trade opportunities, cultural extravaganzas, and "[e]xquisite hospitality" (p. 168). A strong military (or a military alliance with a more powerful nation) buttresses this pleasure-diplomacy. Still, the lesson derived from Chinese experience with outsiders, far and near, is this: "All in all, openness, fair dealing, generosity, and friendliness with foreign nations and individuals have amply rewarded China for more than two and a half millennia, while belligerence, tightfistedness, sharp dealing, and anti-foreignism have invariably led to disaster and decline" (p. 175). Readers will find interesting and even more immediately relevant Breslin's case study of the United States. Chapter 8, "Whiskey versus Rum: The Roots of America's Bicultural Foreign Policy," seems to be a preview of the author's current work in progress "on the ethnicity of American presidents as a major factor in American foreign policy." Departing from familiar vantage points on the subject (such as realist, New Left, Wilsonian), Breslin re-tells the narrative of U.S. expansion and diplomacy as a continuing clash "between Anglican system builders and militant Celtic anti-establishments types" (p. 141). The "whiskey versus rum" dichotomy originated with the nation itself, according to Breslin. Anglo-American types sought "to control the frontiers through grand development schemes featuring well-ordered relations with aboriginals whom they systematically plied with modest amounts of New England rum and other gifts" (p. 137). In contrast, those who had come from "Britain's Celtic fringe," bringing their whiskey distilling know-how with them, "resisted Anglo-American rule and used their cheaper whiskey to get Indian lands" through duplicity and coercion (p. 137).
Across time, Anglo-Americanist policy makers (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, William Seward, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower) employed "a mixture of pain and pleasure" to control others, order reality, and uphold national interests (p. 133). This approach has been manifest in aid programs, cultural and educational exchanges, tourism and trade incentives, and international exhibitions. No mere idealists, adherents saw the connection between U.S. prosperity and positive diplomacy, but also incorporated a strong defense into the mix. In contrast, Celtic frontier types (e.g., James Polk, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan) almost reflexively cut cultural budgets, bombastically touted American superiority, fueled military buildups, and pursued aggressive expansion. Elsewhere, Breslin has lamented the precedence of this latter orientation, evident since the Jimmy Carter administration in the late 1970s through the Clinton era into the new century. Americans have been "abandoning the use of money and other approaches for a much more militarized approach.... There's a bias against diplomacy. We are now going back to a new wave of enthusiasm for increasingly sophisticated weaponry and military command systems and the fixation on these means blinds us to simpler, less expensive and more ingratiating methods that are time tested over the centuries."
Anglo-American types grew in sophistication and humanity, as they responded to social and political democratization, and to changing national interests. Payoffs, State Department-paid prostitutes, and heavy handed, trade-promoting internal improvements were supplanted by missionaries, overseas investors, public school teachers, doctors, international exhibitions, the Council on Foreign Relations, the United Nations, Fulbright fellowships, tourism, and peace-keepers and supplemented by NATO, arms treaties, and periodic troop deployments. To the extent seductive women, payoffs, and classified "lubrication efforts" have still found a place in U.S. diplomacy, revelations of this type of pleasuring are turned into "scandals" and "corruption" by the political party system, media, and public opinion. According to philosophers and political scientists, democracy curbs war-mongering demagogues, yet the two-party system also turns pleasure-based international initiatives into a debate on taxes and domestic spending priorities.
In contrast to those of an Anglo-American orientation, "Celtic fringe" types learned little, it seems. In the (Celtic) tradition of James Polk and Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman abandoned Anglo-American Franklin Roosevelt's hopes for post-war internationalism, built upon cooperation, negotiation, and accommodation. A "pugnacious, confident" president, this "Celtic-American from the Midwest" pushed the country "toward a permanent war economy," utterly indifferent to the nuances of "pleasuring" enemies and rivals (pp. 148, 150). What positive initiatives in cultural exchange and economic assistance remained, says Breslin, were owed to the efforts of leftover Roosevelt-era Anglo-American types in the State Department, Congress, and elsewhere in Washington. Based on a limited, selective reference to material in the Cold War International History Project collection, Breslin asserts that Truman "rejected conciliatory gestures by the Soviet Union," including their non-occupation of South Korea, and their non-interference with sole U.S. occupation of Japan. Moreover, he refused to accept reciprocal Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Only "[h]omesick soldiers," and "the anti-militarism of the war-weary American people as a whole," kept Truman from turning the end of one war into the onset of another (p. 149). In this tendentious interpretation of Truman and the origins of the Cold War, as in other sections of the book, it is difficult to disentangle Breslin's historical research from his political outlook, and his philosophical-religious premises.
Hearing U.S. history related as an object lesson in the efficacy and ultimate economy of pleasure-based diplomacy can be jarring for American readers, even sophisticated historians who are self-consciously disdainful of American exceptionalism and well steeped in "history from the bottom up." Not many textbook chapters on the American Revolutionary War, for example, explain how "[t]he amatory successes of ... seductive womenfolk helped to drive the English out of southern coastal cities into the open, where they were vulnerable to military defeat" (p. 134). Similarly, at a time when diplomatic historians are becoming more careful about referring to countries--even great countries--as "she," it would be difficult to find another recent analysis of late nineteenth-century Anglo-American conflicts over Canadian fisheries that focuses on a love match between British representative Joseph Chamberlain and the daughter of President Grover Cleveland's Secretary of War. Breslin laments that this love match, notwithstanding "Cupid's darts, failed to smooth out the dispute between America and its northern neighbor" (p. 143). He also quotes agreeably from an earlier historian's observation regarding this love match that, "[o]nce more ... the ancient mystery of the way of a maid with a man was enacted on the diplomatic stage" (p. 144).
The author makes a good case that, by and large, historical examples show the efficacy and ultimate economy of a "culturally appropriate" pleasure-based diplomacy. Various area specialists will no doubt contest the details of Breslin's far-ranging historical interpretation of how societies and peoples across time and space have employed both pain and pleasure in their external relations. However, there are several broad assertions and assumptions in the book likely to irk postmodern sensibilities across specialties and disciplines. The cost-benefit analysis of "pleasuring" as preferable, and indeed more efficient and economical than pain-inflicting foreign policies, turns upon Breslin's belief in "the fundamental natural law that the human species must preserve itself" (pp. ix-x). Who could disagree? Yet, for Breslin, collective self-preservation is not simply one "fundamental natural law" among many competing moral imperatives; it is instead the prime directive of human society, trumping all other considerations.
We see the implications and complications of this logic in Breslin's critical references to the work of two other scholars, Dru C. Gladney and Gabriel Kolko. In one of the endnotes to a discussion concerning Han Chinese rulers' use of the aforementioned "trained dancing girls and female musicians to entertain and engage in sexual relations," Breslin complains about "[t]he all-too-common blind spot of social scientists toward pleasuring," and their "lamentable inability to see erotic pleasuring as a strategy for dealing with others" (p. 176, n. 3). He admits some groups under siege who have relied upon sex-as-diplomacy (e.g., native Hawaiians and some Amerindians) incurred pandemic and fatal consequences. These, however, represent the exceptions acknowledged in Breslin's earlier quote that "the use of pleasure has almost never led to the downfall of a nation and the ruination of all its people" (p. ix, emphasis added).
Exceptions aside, Breslin suggests, the utility of "pleasurably pacifying" policies has been obscured by post-modern, implicitly moralizing arguments asserting that hegemonic core groups historically built their self-definition and supposed superiority upon the representation of minority groups as primitive, exotic, and erotic. As opposed to Dru Gladney's "false conclusion that the eroticism of the minorities is a mental construct of the core Han cultural group," Breslin suggests that non-Han minorities deployed sexuality--primitive, exotic, and erotic--as a survival strategy, to avoid paying the even higher price of brutalization and extinction. At the same time, the Han core group co-opted that sexuality into its "five baits" approach by way of avoiding constant war, which would have cost peasants and minorities even more than did playing their part in pacification. Thus, Breslin's account does, in fact, validate Gladney's point that eroticized, exoticized minorities served as "symbolic capital" in Chinese state-building and external relations. However, each scholar seems to use a different slide ruler to measure the ultimate morality of the process.
Breslin's moral calculus asserting self-preservation of the species as the highest human value also prompts his critique of Gabriel Kolko's "acidly" expressed characterization of post-war occupied Berlin (p. 147). In The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945, Kolko describes a dismal scene: "What the Russians took the Americans bought, until the spoils of war became a common enterprise ... as the Germans sold what little merchandise and honor their men and women had left. Not for the first time or last time, Americans discovered that the misery of others could afford them the pleasures and luxuries of a society built upon chocolate and cigarettes if only one were willing to deprive the Germans of what small virtue they retained." According to Kolko, black marketeering and advantageous currency transactions meant that "United States troops in the Berlin area shipped out a sum six to seven times their total pay over the same period. The ultimate German overdraft in this form cost the United States Treasury $271 million before the military stopped it" (p. 147).
For Breslin, a longer historical perspective and a different slide ruler create a contrasting picture. "It would be more accurate to observe that in the Berlin area the Germans bought peace from the American soldiers at a price six to seven times higher than the American government paid its soldiers to kill Germans. Since the U.S. Treasury bore the cost of this overdraft, the Germans made a good bargain.... 'Honor,' if worth anything at all, ought never be equated solely with stoic resignation to brutality or annihilation. Moreover, the natural, moral imperative for each member of the human species is to keep the species alive, not to manifest 'honor'" (p. 147). Similarly, the "pleasure and companionship traded by Italian women and girls for food" when American troops moved into Italy, undermined U.S. military strength through sexual infection, and generally "softened the Americans," so that "Italy's subsequent political capitulation brought relatively lenient terms" (p. 146).
American-occupied Japan was one notable case where the "pleasure exacted proved to be far less efficacious than pleasure transacted" (p. 148). "Having built their empire on the bones of foreigners and their own young men, Japanese authorities sought to sweeten the surrender and muffle the American invasion by sacrificing Japanese women" (p. 148). Drawing on their earlier conscription of "comfort women" for "the sexually frustrated and harshly disciplined imperial Japanese military forces," Japanese officials had police set up a brothel-bar complex for U.S. troops, mobilizing some 5,000 Japanese women for sexual duties. However, says Breslin, this boomeranged when "the Americans proved even more rapacious than anticipated and forced themselves on still other Japanese women" (p. 148), leading to high rates of rape, robbery, and murder.
Leaving aside the problematic distinction between "rape," "companionship," and "prostitution" in an inherently coercive setting, one wonders why Breslin, in regards to occupied Tokyo, is as "acidly" moralizing as is Kolko on occupied Berlin. Perhaps, for Breslin, there is a moral difference between a situation when placation, ingratiation, and proffered sexuality ostensibly came from individuals who chose to yield and sacrifice "honor" and "virtue," and the situation in Tokyo, when such sacrifices were by official command. As in other examples throughout the book, the absolute imperative of species self-preservation is not quite the polar star of navigators.
. Breslin, quoted on: <http://www.fiu.edu/orgs/alumni/newsletter/2002/feb/breslinbook.htm> (12 December 2002). See also Breslin's very informative 1978 interview about his Vietnam-era experiences at the University of Virginia, at: <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG01/angelo/breslin.html> (28 December 2002).
. Thomas A. Breslin, China, American Catholicism, and the Missionary (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980); and Daniel M. Crane and Thomas A. Breslin, An Ordinary Relationship: American Opposition to Republican Revolution in China (Miami: University Press of Florida, 1986).
. Information from: <http://www.fiu.edu/~intlrel/inrfaculty/breslin.html> (25 December 2002).
. Breslin, quoted on: <http://www.fiu.edu/orgs/alumni/newsletter/2002/feb/breslinbook.htm> (12 December 2002).
. Breslin, 176, n. 3, citing Dru C. Gladney, "Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities," Journal of Asian Studies 53.1 (February 1994), pp. 92-123. Article available at: <http://www2.hawaii.edu/~dru/> (1 January 2003).
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Eileen Scully. Review of Breslin, Thomas A., Beyond Pain: The Role of Pleasure and Culture in the Making of Foreign Affairs.
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