The Middle Kingdom.

China has emerged from backwardness and isolation with astonishing suddenness.  The death of Mao Zedong, followed by the overthrow of his immediate successors, brought to power Deng Xiaoping.  While opening China to foreign trade, investment, and learning, Deng counseled modesty.  “Hide your brightness, bide your time.”  Now that time has come.  China has begun to exert its power in ways unprecedented in modern times.

The Romans built roads to hold their empire together, then they built a lot of other things to increase its value.  Alarm has begun to spread at a new “One Belt, One Road” enterprise launched by ChiComCo.[1]  The “Belt” is an overland transportation system (roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels) and its attendant support systems (power generation and transmission, a regulated version of the Internet).  The “Road”[2] is the complementary sea-route to Europe, along with all the logistical support (like ports).[3]

Chinese companies can count on the lion’s share of construction contracts.  For example, Chinese construction companies have built “95 deep-water ports, 10 airports, 152 bridges, and 2,080 railroad” segments in countries along the routes of the Belt and Road.  As it is completed, the Belt and Road facilitates Chinese trade.

Recognizing the rising economic power of China, the United States sought to counter this with the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) trade treaty.[4]  However, American politics suddenly shifted against an open world economy.  Not only Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton declared the TPP a bad deal for Americans.  While the leaders of many countries likely to be touched by China’s great plan attended a “Belt and Road” conference in May 2017, the United States sent only a delegate.  Some of the negative commentary about China’s investments abroad is couched in humanitarian, rather than economic or strategic, terms.  China founded its pursuit of prosperity on seizing land for economic development projects and then shoving huge numbers of people off the land.[5]  (One counter to this is that countries like Pakistan or Cambodia act in similar ways—without greatly improving the economic lives of their citizens.)  The Chinese investment may have a long-term effect of putting the critical infrastructure of developing countries under Chinese control.  Hence, many people see the United States as ceding global leadership to China.[6]

It’s difficult to know what to make of this charge.  On the one hand, George W. Bush in his second term and Barack Obama in both his terms sought to limit American engagement abroad in the interest of strengthening a redoubled country at home.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” rhetoric and policies falls in line with these earlier efforts.  Thus the national impulse seems to be running toward dealing with domestic problems.  It is hard to deny that America has pressing domestic problems that will not be easily resolved.

On the other hand, China’s strengths are many and real.  It would be foolish to think that these will not reshape the global order.  So, where is the sweet spot?

[1] “China’s plan to run the world,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 11.

[2] Obviously, the planners hadn’t been reading Cormac McCarthy.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road

[3] For the historical antecedents, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

[4] The treaty was highly favorable to Americans.  It created a free trade zone encompassing 40 percent of the world’s trade, while creating safeguards for American interests through labor and environmental standards.

[5] Along the way, China moved  86 percent of its people out of extreme poverty.  Many of them moved into lives of middle-class abundance—and stress.

[6] American announcement that the country would withdraw from the Paris Climate Control agreement is offered as a further example of American abdication.

Advertisements

Donner, party of ten! No, eight.

Western lands appealed to many Americans during the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Mexican Texas, Mexican California, and Oregon exerted a magnetic attraction on malcontents of the Mississippi Valley watershed during the 1830s and 1840s.[1]  Real estate speculators and promoters have been talking up America’s “wonders” since John Smith touted the 17th Century Chesapeake.  In 1845 one of Smith’s successors described—accurately enough—the charms of California: “a paradise” of “perpetual spring” with fertile lands and a healthy climate.  With visions like that dancing before their eyes, it’s not surprising that some of the migrants skimmed over the bits about what lay between the point of departure (Independence, Missouri) and the destination.  For example, migrants were warned to leave Independence by 1 May at the latest and to get a move on.  While California might be a land of “perpetual spring,” things were rather different in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the snow storms could block the passes.

George and Jacob Donner, and James Reed headed a party of 74 people in 19 wagons.[2]  The Donner Party suffered a minor, but spectacular, disaster.  In mid-April 1846 the pilgrims headed west from Springfield, Illinois; a month later they departed Independence.  Having left late, the party then dawdled along the way, failing to catch up with a larger wagon train.  Starting to feel a certain urgency, they consulted their guidebook.  It mentioned a newly-discovered short-cut.  Great!  Problem solved.  Then they encountered a grizzled old trapper heading east.  He didn’t think much of the supposed short-cut.  What to do?  Ignore his inconvenient opinion.  Great!  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the short-cut took them through the Wasatch Range and over a long stretch of arid salt flats.  Many of the draft animals died there.  Further slowed by these losses, the party reached the Sierra Nevada well behind the recommended dead-line.  Heading into the mountains, they found themselves snowed-in by November 1846.  They could neither go forward nor go back.  They had too little food to last out the winter.  Eventually, in December 1846, they sent out a couple of messengers to try to bring back help.  The pass was snowbound on both ends, so it was February 1847 before help finally reached them.  Only 48 people survived the winter, and nine of them died while being moved west into California.  Many of those who did live had engaged in cannibalism.[3]

Of the 34 who died in the winter camps, 25 were men and 9 were women.  Why was that?  People who study this sort of stuff figure that age, sex, and the size of the family group played the largest role in deciding who survived.  People under the age of 35 had a better chance of surviving than did older people, although most children under 6 died.  Two thirds of men between 20 and 39 died.  Nutritionists tell us that men metabolize protein faster than women, and women do not require as high a caloric intake. Women store more body fat (although you shouldn’t mention this in conversation if you want your genetic line to continue).  This can delay the physical decline caused by starvation and overwork. Men also tend to do more dangerous and physically demanding work.  Men wore down faster than did women.  Then, bachelor males survived at lower rates than did those who were those traveling with family members.  Maybe families were more ready to share neighbors with family than family with neighbors?

[1] Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (1956).  Still a hell of a book.

[2] Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (2017).  Reviewed by David Price, WSJ, 6 June 2017.

[3] Although not in murder.  People who died of natural causes were consumed by the survivors.   For an analogous case, see Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000).

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 23.

In 2015, President Barack Obama negotiated American participation in an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.  The agreement committed the United States to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of the 2005 level by 2025.[1]  This is known as the Paris climate agreement.[2]  Then President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement.  The president’s decision inspired much criticism from home and abroad.[3]  Critics appear to be out of step with ordinary Americans.  Few Americans—of either party apparently—think that the environment is a pressing issue.  Most assign a higher importance to health care, the economy, terrorism, immigration, education, and crime.[4]

Opinion varied on this decision.  On the one hand, if the Paris agreement had been sustained by President Trump, it seems unlikely to have achieved its stated goals.  That goal is to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  One percent of that rise has already occurred.  The Paris agreement would limit further increases by 0.2 degrees.  Worse still, by one report world temperatures will rise by 3.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 3.1 degrees by 2100.  On the other hand, the admittedly flawed agreement set the ball rolling toward greater commitments in the future.  One reality appears to be that developing nations pursuing industrialization as the road to prosperity (China and India for example) will need to burn carbon to reach their goals.  The only way to prevent this would be to develop non-carbon alternatives.

Many people saw the decision to withdraw as an American abdication of leadership.[5]  President Trump, the critics said, has tossed aside the American leadership built up over decades.  Now, however, other leaders—especially Germany or China–would step forward.[6]  Right.

Then the “Trump-loves-dictators” theme reappeared.  The logic here failed.  Saudi Arabia has been a loyal American ally for decades; Israel has ruled over a captive Palestinian population since 1967; a series of American presidents have struck agreements on nuclear arms with the Russkies, Communist and post-Communist, while the Obama administrations sought a “re-set” with Vladimir Putin, and negotiated with Iran; and China has been an American “partner” ever since the chain-smoking dwarf Deng Xiaoping took power.  No American president who negotiated with those countries got called a dictator-lover.  Nor should they have been.

Elsewhere, the “Russia scandal” spun its wheels while awaiting the testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey[7] before the Senate Intelligence Committee.[8]  Then various brown dwarves of American popular culture (Kathy Griffin, Ted Nugent) attracted attention for their tasteless comments on public figures.[9]

Still, if you want to worry about something real, terrorists attacked the Iranian parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini.  ISIS claimed responsibility; Iran blamed the Americans and the Saudis; and the terrorists were Kurds.  Big storm coming.

[1] The agreement took the form of an executive agreement because President Obama recognized that a treaty would not be ratified by the Senate.

[2] “Trump pulls U.S. out of Paris accord,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 4.

[3] One poll found that a mere 28 percent of Americans supported withdrawing from the Paris agreement, while 59 percent opposed it.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 17.  Only 4 percent rank climate in first place on the list of problems.

[5] “Paris: Does Trump’s America still lead the world?” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 6.

[6] “How they see us: Defying the world on climate change,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 15.

[7] Like Michael Flynn, another “good guy” according to all media reports.

[8] “Russiagate: The plot thickens—again,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 16.

[9] “Griffin’s Trump stunt: Has the Left lost it?” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 17.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 22.

It will be difficult for future historians to make sense of the commentary on the second, European, leg of President Trump’s first foreign trip.  The “usual subjects” of Mainstream Media (MSM) decried his hectoring of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to pay more toward the common defense while refusing to make an explicit commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.[1]  Europeans themselves seemed aghast at his sharp tongue (and in the case of the prime minister of Montenegro, his sharp elbows).[2]  German Chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed that “we have to fight for ourselves.”  She called for European nations to “shoulder emotionally charged challenges such as a common defense and security policy.”

There is reason to doubt the value of all this talk.  On the one hand, a clear-eyed assessment of American vital interests would show that non-Russian Europe and “off-shore Asia” (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines) are vital trading partners and allies of the United States.  It doesn’t matter what President Trump says or fails to say.  If Push comes to Shove, the United States will have to defend those areas.  In contrast, neither Russia nor radical Islam poses an existential threat to the United States.[3]  On the other hand, the European Union (EU) lacks the means and probably the will[4] to provide for its own defense against foreign foes.

In May 2017, a second version of the Trump/RyanCare squeaked through the House of Representatives.  Since then Republican Senators have been trying to sort out a better version.  The Congressional Budget Office then issued an evaluation saying that under the House plan 23 million more Americans would be without health insurance and that premiums would rise for those who are old and sick.  The first part of this isn’t troubling: at least two-thirds of the “uninsured” would be people who never wanted the insurance (let alone the premiums) in the first place.  The second part reflects what the plan itself said: older and sicker people consume a lot more health care than do the young and healthy, so they should pay for it.  Republican senators are divided over the plan.  Public opinion leans against the House plan.[5]

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the “Russia scandal” (including how his friend, protégé, and successor at the FBI James Comey came to be fired by President Trump) means that the investigation could run on for quite some time.  People will know nothing definitive until that investigation is completed.  However, it appears than anything illegal (like collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government hackers who revealed all sorts of inconvenient truths about Hillary Clinton) would have to have taken place before the election of President Trump in November 2016.  Wikileaks published the stolen e-mails on 22 July 2016.  The names of Kellyanne Conway (joined Trump campaign on 1 July 2016) and Steve Bannon (joined Trump campaign in August 2016) have not so far appeared among the list of FBI targets.  Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn—who had a history of legal contacts with the Russians–tried to open a back-channel contact with the Russian government in December 2016.  Maybe, just maybe, this dog won’t hunt.

[1] “Trump in Europe: A frayed alliance,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 6.

[2] “How they see us: Europe loses faith in America,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 14.  See also: “Russia: Cheering Trump’s NATO policy,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 15.

[3] Russia possesses nuclear weapons, but is deterred from using them by American nuclear weapons.  Vladimir Putin has had to make do with “little green men” and cyber-attacks.   Radical Islam doesn’t seem able to conquer anywhere vital to the United States.  Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey all have the means to resist radical Islamists.

[4] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/06/17/die-for-danzig-marcel-deat-mourir-pour-danzig-loeuvre-4-may-1939/

[5] “Republican health-care plan struggles in the Senate,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 5.

My Weekly Reader 9 June 2017.

Once upon a time, a professor of American diplomatic history said that there were two kinds of countries—lions and jackals.[1]  The United States is a lion (with tooth problems) and Pakistan is a jackal.  Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has battened on great powers—first Britain and later the United States—by pretending to associate itself with their causes in return for the aid that keeps the failed-from-the-beginning state afloat.  Pakistan also sees India as the chief opponent.  As a result, it sees Afghanistan as a vital interest, whether to give Pakistan “strategic depth” or to prevent the country from being caught between two fires.  In practice, this meant joining the anti-Communist alliance in the Cold War.  Then it meant playing a leading role in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.[2]

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s ruler, Pervez Musharraf, that either his signature or his brains would be on an agreement with the United States to cooperate against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Musharraf agreed.  Then didn’t.  In 2009, Richard Holbrooke struck a deal that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan provided the country returned to civilian rule.  Pakistan didn’t.  In May 2011, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hide-out.[3]  Soon afterward, another American diplomat told the Pakistanis that the SEALs who killed Bin Laden had uncovered a treasure trove of information that—among other things—compromised the government of Pakistan.  Either Pakistan began cooperating with the United States or trouble would follow.  Pakistan agreed to cooperate.  Then didn’t.[4]  Yes, hundreds of greater and lesser members of Al Qaeda fell captive.  However, the attacks continued in Afghanistan.

Countries, like individuals, are prone to blame others for their troubles.[5]  Pakistan’s elites blame India and the United States for Pakistan’s troubles, rather than a historical record of incompetent governance.  Still, there is something to be said for the Pakistani position.  Had the United States guaranteed control of Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Pakistanis might have been willing to act seriously against the Taliban.  The Taliban guarantees Pakistan would remotely control Afghanistan, so Pakistan—through the ISI—arms and aids the Taliban.

Americans seems reluctant to acknowledge that allies may have foreign policy interests of their own.  Similarly, Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that its opponents may have legitimate—to them—foreign policy objectives.  So long as the United States remained the “biggest, baddest” power in the world, it didn’t matter much what foreigners thought.  However, in the last two presidential administrations (Obama, Trump), the United States has engaged in a policy of strategic retreat.  Henceforth, it will matter what foreign powers—like Afghanistan or Israel, or Saudi Arabia—think about American power.

In the Afghan case, however, there is a pattern that has repeated itself from 1979 to the present.  So, American leaders may yet get it right.

[1] W. Stull Holt, in conversation.

[2] Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions (2013); Daniel Markey, No Exist from Pakistan (2013).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKht-_lX-u0

[4] Iran opposes Iraq, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Pakistan opposes India, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Now Donald Trump is president.

[5] Some are more prone to this habit than are others.  British colonial officials, who had wide experience with people subjected to troubles by the British, held Persians (modern-day Iranians) in absolute contempt for this trait.

My Weekly Reader 3 June 2017.

It is characteristic of the long-running funk into which many Western societies have fallen that there have been many “decline of the West” books published in recent decades.  They offer varying analyses shaded by varying clouds of pessimism.  Some focus on economic issues, some on misguided international policies, and some on cultural factors (with rotten schools in the forefront).  Many are inspired by China’s challenge to societies that otherwise could remain complacent.  Some are compelling, many are not.  One recent example come from the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmot.[1]

Thirty years ago Mancur Olson investigated the rapid revival of the devastated German and Japanese economies after the Second World War and the slower growth of the Western victors in that war.[2]  He found the answer in the role of intermediate groups–political as well as economic–in the different societies.  By intermediate groups he meant both labor unions and businessmen’s association, but also intrusive government regulators.  These groups entrenched established organizations at the expense of newcomers.  They entrenched established procedures at the expense of innovation.  Dictatorship, war, defeat, and foreign occupation had destroyed these intermediate groups in Germany and Japan.  This left individual entrepreneurs free to do what they wanted in a dynamic fashion.  (“And all that implies.”—“The Iron Giant.”)  Elsewhere, the intermediate groups survived the war and sometimes even tightened their grip.

It’s possible to find many examples of dysfunction in Western societies.  Take both the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States for example.  Or the low labor participation rate in the United States as men have fled to disability programs as an alternative to lost familiar work.  Or Japan’s descent from Olsonian prime example of success into a barnacle-encrusted sampan.  Or the domination of the American—and perhaps “Western”–political economies by the banks.  In Japan that has meant a “lack of entrepreneurship or corporate investment” needed for growth.  In the United States, it has meant exploiting a public safety-net to cover imprudent risk.  This has resulted in “rising inequality, distortion of public policy, and [the] generation of collective economic pain and anger.”  And now the dreaded “populism.”

Much later on, several different countries sought to scrape these “barnacles” off the hull. Sweden “reduc[ed] taxation and deregulat[ed] all manner of industries” in pursuit of “more freedom of choice and creativity.”  Switzerland adopted an openness to immigration and also deregulated its labor market to get the right mix of workers to the right industries.  Britain’s embrace of the “Thatcher Revolution,” joined with membership in the European Union allowed Britain to reap both a “brain gain” and a “brawn gain.”[3]

What does Emmott offer by way of possible solutions?  Refreshingly, he does not glom every unpleasant surprise into one whole.  Thus, Putin’s Russia and Islamist terrorism pose no existential threats to Western civilization.  They can be mastered with a coherent effort.  Similarly, “Brexit” is a bad idea but not a rejection of Western values or most Western institutions.  In contrast, he over-states the real danger posed by the Donald Trump administration.  Trump speaks neither for mainstream Republicans nor for Democrats, and his administration will not last beyond his first term.  Then it will be back to business as usual.

Emmott has less to say about solving the real danger: Olson’s intermediate groups.  Appeals for “openness” in discussion isn’t likely to suffice.  It may take a real crisis, alas.

[1] Bill Emmott, The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (2017).

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/06/18/the-rise-and-decline-of-nations/

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_Plumber.