With Astonishing Suddenness.

            Walter Russell Mead is a political scientist who writes for the Wall Street Journal; not a journalist whose idea of the “long-term” is the next presidential election.  Mead’s chief academic interest lies in international relations and American foreign policy.[1]  Like the historian Paul Kennedy,[2] Mead emphasizes the underlying bases of national power as well as the will and wisdom involved in using that power.  For him, economic dynamism, innovation, world trade in a globalized economy, and strong multi-faceted alliances all form the building blocks of strength. 

For some time, he has been critical of the direction of China’s policies foreign and domestic, and of America’s China policy.  In February 2020, Mead wrote a column very much in this vein for the Wall Street Journal.  An editor titled it “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”  The government of China denounced the title as racist and demanded an apology.  Various American academics attacked the article as insensitive and reinforcing stereotypes.[3]  The Wall Street Journal refused to apologize.[4]  In March 2020, China expelled three WSJ journalists.  Rupert Murdoch, the feisty owner of the Journal (and many other things) has had the paper beating the tar out of the Chinese government ever since. 

            Mead doesn’t respond well to authoritarian-figures.  He penetrates to the heart of China’s current problem.  At least since the beginning of this century, China has used a part of its great economic power to develop great military power.  The instinct of Xi Jinping (and perhaps the whole leadership group) has been to use China’s strength to threaten its neighbors, rather than to use its power to entice.   Having re-taken Hong Kong and stifled freedom there, Xi now is fixed on Taiwan.  China is the largest single market for Taiwan’s exports.[5]  Various impediments to trade now can be expected as China seeks to make the Taiwanese and its allies recognize their dependence.  The naval exercises, air force flights into Taiwanese airspace, and the missiles were hardly necessary as a riposte to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit.  It just shows how Xi instinctively responds to a challenge. 

Mead is equally critical of democratic leaders who fail to sustain the foundations of their own nations.  Thus, he lashes “the strategic passivity and incompetence that blinded a generation of American political leaders to the growing threat of great-power war in the western Pacific.”[6]  In particular, “the U.S. and its allies allowed their overwhelming military superiority in the region to fade slowly away.”  (There’s a little “if they had only listened to me” in this.)    

One pressing question is whether American leaders can focus the American people on the dangers at hand in time.  Our domestic problems and divisions are so dauting.  Or, even more grimly, is there still time, at least before we have to re-run the Cuban Missiles Crisis? 

[1] See: Walter Russell Mead – Wikipedia 

[2] See: Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) and Preparing for the 21st Century (1993). 

[3] The phrase “Sick Man of…” originated with the Russian tsar Nicholas I in 1852.  He labeled the Ottoman Empire “the sick man of Europe” because it was disintegrating through remarkably bad government and economic stagnation.”  The term came into widespread use.  In 1863 the phrase “sick man of Asia” got applied to the equally rotten Qing dynasty.  The term never had the connotation of deriding the people who lived in these failing states.  Xi Jinping probably knew exactly what Mead meant; his American critics probably didn’t because they were in fields like ethnic studies rather than history. 

[4] “Refused to apologize” as in Barry Lyndon – The Duel – YouTube Start at 1:17 if you want to cut to the chase. 

[5] Some 42 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to the mainland, another 15 percent to the United States. 

[6] Walter Russell Mead, “A Costly Passivity Toward China,” WSJ, 9 August 2022. 


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