Attainder?

John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) was an English theologian and religious dissenter. He is often seen as a distant fore-runner of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. He was a distant forerunner because the Latin Christian Church rejected his criticism of the institution and his doctrinal arguments. Well after his death, the Council of Constance (1415) declared him to have been a heretic. Subsequently,in 1428, a pope ordered both his books and his earthly remains to be burned. Yet his ideas continued to be passed along in the secrecy required of censorship and universal official denigration. They helped prepare the coming of the English Reformation.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Wycliffe_bones_Foxe.jpg

It is vastly unfair to the good John Wycliffe to compare him to Donald Trump. But is it unfair to the clergymen eager to dig up Wycliffe’s grave and make a cage of his bones to compare them to the Democrats? (My apologies also to Warren Zevon.) Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the editorial board of the New York Times all seem eager to put Trump on trial before the Senate so that he can be convicted on pretty much a party-line vote where–this time–the Democrats have the votes. To what end? Apparently, Pelosi et al hope to have him barred from ever holding elected federal office again.

Why? They seem to believe that he might run for president again in 2024. If Joe Biden turns out to be a one-term president, then there will be a Democratic free-for-all in the primaries. There is no guarantee that a really strong candidate will emerge from that fray or that the party will not rupture into Progressive and Mainstream wings. Trump pulled almost 74 million votes in November 2020. Many Republican voters appear to oppose impeachment, so even the Trump-inspired riot on 6 January 2021 can’t shake their dislike of Democrats. Seen in this light, impeachment appears to be an insurance policy against possible Democratic defeat.

They might bar him from taking office, but can they bar him from seeking office by running in Republican primaries? If he won in the primaries, could he be barred from running for office? If he won in the Electoral College (as in 2016) or even in the popular vote as well, could he really be barred from taking office?

I have the idea that bills of attainder are barred by the Constitution.

My Weekly Reader 16 January 2021.

            Between 1750 and 1914, what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “Dual Revolution”[1] gave the West a sudden and enormous advantage over the rest of the world.  Taking advantage of this shift in the balance of world power, Western countries returned with new energy to the policy of imperialism.  By 1914, the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia had been subdued and Africa partitioned, while the rotting Ottoman and Chinese empires were next on the list.  Political control went hand-in-hand with determined effort at economic and social Westernization.  Christian missions, banks, schools, railroads and steamship lines, army posts and naval bases, mines, tropical medicine institutes, plantations, newspapers, tax collectors, and courts sprang up everywhere.[2] 

            Half a century later, those empires were gone.  How did that happen?  Many factors played a role.  The Second World War left Europe in ruins, while elevating two anti-colonial “Superpowers.”  Relatively few Westerners had gone out to run the empires.  Their sway over non-Western subjects depended heavily upon prestige, the sense that Westerners really were superior.  The Japanese victories over Westerners in British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, and the American Philippines showed that non-Westerners could defeat Westerners.  After the war, European countries were preoccupied with using their limited resources for economic reconstruction and social reform.  Finally, the war had been fought by the Westerners for the cause of individual liberty, human rights, and democracy.  Faced with colonial independence movements after the war, they couldn’t say “For us, but not for you.”  

            Yet the Western collapse tells, at most, half the story.  More important is the rise of support for independence movements.  The colonial people had been no more happy to be subjugated to foreign rule than had African-Americans to be subjugated to slavery.  How to respond to the Western challenge had long divided non-Westerners—from the American Plains to Central Africa to the Ottoman Empire to East Asia.  One answer was to turn Western achievements against Western rule.  This ran from wholesale imitation of the sources of power (Japan) to the exploitation of Western political thought, like the idea of nationalism, against those who claimed to represent it (India).  Then the wars incidentally created a base of nationalists.  They did so by accelerating the creation of a middle class and a cadre of experienced military leaders.  Both groups were strongly nationalist and eager to rise. 

            Finally, there were the committed revolutionaries.[3]  Their numbers continually winnowed by the colonial police, they printed illegal newspapers and handbills, organized demonstrations and strikes, travelled within their homelands and between different empires using false documents, and sometimes led armed uprisings.  These were the men who often would take office at the hand-over of power.  They would try—with uneven success–to build new states. 


[1] In politics this meant the emergence of strong centralized nation-states ever-more based upon the support of the governed.  In economics this meant the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution, which generated immense wealth.  The political revolution began in France, the economic revolution began in England.  With the passage of time, both revolutions spread everywhere, simultaneously creating and destroying. 

[2] For a compelling view of the British Empire at its height, see James (Jan) Morris, Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire (1968). 

[3] Tim Harper, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire (2021).  See the perceptive review by Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 13 January 2021. 

The Asian Century 16.

            At the dawning of the Cold War in Asia, the United States limited its security commitments in the region.  Holding Japan headed the list of American concerns.  The Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) seemed close to defeat by the Communists.  American efforts to reform or reinforce the Kuomintang, or to mediate a peace had foundered.  Nothing more could be done.  Communist victory in 1949 did not trigger an American commitment to stop further dominoes from falling.  The remnants of the Kuomintang were left to fend for themselves; American troops began to withdraw from Korea; and the Americans made clear to the French that their war in Indochina was a lost cause.[1]  Then the Korean War began (1950); Communist China intervened against the Americans; the Americans committed themselves to South Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina; and the two countries were at daggers drawn for twenty years. 

            All this suddenly changed in the 1970s.  Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger began an “opening” to China, while post-Mao China launched a sweeping transformation of its economy and society.  That transformation accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The United States and China appeared to develop a community of interest that would shape the future world.[2]  One of the sticking-points that had to be finessed was the fate of Taiwan.[3]  China has held to a “one China” policy that amounts to a determination to regain all the parts of traditional China that have been lost.  Chiefly this has meant Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  The United States has accepted this policy as a long-term goal while insisting that it not take place by force.  Without adequate military force to face-down the United States, China had to play the long game.  Meanwhile, protected by the United States, South Korea and Taiwan flourished. 

            It seems to some observers that we are at the beginning of a new phase.  China’s rapid economic development has permitted the once-weak country to begin projecting its power and claims.  China has engaged in a massive military build-up, expressed in a sustained campaign to gain control of the South China Sea.  It has begun reeling-in lost territories.  Macao and Hong Kong have been the first to fall.  Now Taiwan has become the focus of attention.  The loss of Taiwan would harm American national interests.  Partly the reasons are economic; partly they are diplomatic and military; taken altogether they are strategic.  Which system will dominate Asia?  Will it be the American system of democratization and an open market economy?  Will it be the Chinese system of autocratic government and a state-controlled economy? 

            Grand gestures without solid backing likely will lead to humiliating climb-downs in Asia.  “Solid backing” means military spending and alliance-revival through sustained diplomacy.  It alos means looking to the economic and technological foundations of national strength.  This grave challenge comes at a difficult time for Americans.  Donald Trump’s “America First” policies expressed, rather than caused, a pre-occupation with domestic social and economic concerns.  Seeing beyond the here-and-now will take strong leadership.  


[1] Brian Crozier, The Man Who Lost China: The First Full Biography of Chiang Kai-shek (1976); Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Patterns in the Dust: Chinese-American Relations and the Recognition Controversy, 1949-1950 (1983); Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu (1989).

[2] The omnipresent British smarty-pants Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica.”  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimerica 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Beijing Won’t Bow to Bluster,” WSJ, 12 January 2021. 

China Data.

            During the late 1980s, Judy Shelton, a researcher at the Hoover Institution, began an examination of the public documents on the Soviet Union’s budget.[1]  Communism’s centrally-planned economy had spent decades setting unreachable production targets and then hiding the failure to achieve those targets.  The huge Soviet arms build-up after the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Americans in the Cuban Missile Crisis had long term effects.  The military (the “metal-eaters” as they were called) creamed off resources that could have been devoted to either civilian consumption or investment in production.  Economic stagnation went hand in hand with mounting popular discontent behind a veneer of great military power.  Shelton concluded that massive inflationary forces were being held back by controls, but eventually the dam would burst.  In the meantime, she argued, Mikhail Gorbachev sought to stave off the disaster by obtaining Western credits and technology.[2]  As Shelton predicted, collapse followed. 

            Twenty years on another financial crisis arose in Greece.[3]  Following a historical pattern, Greece had borrowed a lot of money from foreign lenders, spent the money on a higher standard of living in the short-term without investing in higher productivity in the long-term, cooked the books to cover what they were doing for as long as possible, and then loudly bemoaned their unjust fate when the sheriff finally showed up. 

            The common thread here is that reality and perception differed widely.  Both the Soviet Union and Greece worked hard to project an image that concealed grave problems.  Only a handful of budget experts could—with much labor—discern the truth.  The reason these historical cases matter is because not everyone today is happy with the state of data from China.   

            In the eyes of one analyst,[4] it is necessary to do a lot of digging to figure out what is going on.  On the one hand, Chinese government officials and managers are under continual pressure to meet certain quantitative standards.  In this situation, “real” growth (adjusted for inflation) is more important to managers than is actual new output.  So they may tend to overstate “real” growth.  Calculating inflation is a coarse art in China when compared to Western industrial countries.  This facilitates overstating “real” growth.  In addition, the government suppresses existing, reliable data reports when they diverge too much from the government’s line.  In 2016, the government halted publication of lending to public versus private borrowers; in 2018, it halted publication of purchasing managers indexes in Guangdong province. 

            On the other hand, this manipulation of data can makes things really difficult for people who are just trying to do productive things.  Obviously, it hinders the work of foreign observers who are trying to understand and anticipate the performance of the world’s second largest economy.  However, it can have the same effect on Chinese managers struggling to run their firms.  If uncertainty about economic performance piles up year after year, there’s going to be a reckoning.  Also, this isn’t public finance, but it may be true there as well. 


[1] On Shelton, now a controversial figure and notable spoil-sport, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Shelton   

[2] Judy Shelton, The Coming Soviet Crash: Gorbachev’s Desperate Pursuit of Credit in Western Financial Markets (1989). 

[3] Carmen M. Reinhart and Christoph Trebesch, The Pitfalls of External Dependence: Greece, 1829-2015 (2015), Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ReinhartTextFall15BPEA.pdf 

[4] Nathaniel Taplin, “China’s Growth Data Dazes and Confuses,” WSJ, 5 January 2021. 

My Weekly Reader 7 January 2021.

            The Enlightenment had a good year in 1776.  The year witnessed the publication of “The Declaration of Independence,” Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  Smith attacked the prevailing “mercantilist” economic policies of the time, arguing that tariffs serve only politically-connected special interests at the expense of the larger community. 

            Broadly, for much of their history, Americans rejected free-trade as the best engine of prosperity.[1]  While James Madison advocated a ‘very free system of commerce” in the early days of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton preferred a mercantilist/protectionist line.  Tariff policy veered toward the Hamiltonian line once industrialization began, to the great distress of Southern cotton exporters.  After the Civil War, high tariffs became an article of faith among Republicans.  It is by no means clear that tariffs actually contributed much to American economic development in the “Gilded Age.”  Abundant natural resources combined with a scarcity of labor that put a premium on technological innovation probably did much more than tariffs.  Still, they didn’t hurt.  High tariffs as a protection against “unfair” foreign competition became a totem.[2] 

            Making a totem out of high tariffs came back to bite Republicans when passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) coincided with the plunge into the Great Depression.  Even though the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy during the 1920s played a far larger role, the high tariffs and falling trade explanation was ready to hand.[3] 

After the Great Depression drove many countries toward high tariff walls and autarky, after the Second World War wrecked most world economies, Republicans and Democrats converged on a new orthodoxy of free trade.  The United States played the leading role in designing the new world order of the Bretton Woods System.[4]  Americans continued this drive through the 1990s, with successive “rounds” of multilateral tariff reductions and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

Some of the economic and social dislocations of recent decades loosened the post-war consensus.  Republicans still clung to free trade as tightly as they once clung to high tariffs, while Democrats lost the enthusiasm for free trade that inspired them from Franklin D. Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy.  More recently, populist uprisings in both parties have disrupted the march toward a still more integrated world economy.  Senator Bernie Sanders attacked free trade in general and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.  Rival Hillary Clinton soon moved from being a leading proponent of the TPP to having her doubts to opposing it.  Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination in part by dint of his scalding criticism of NAFTA and Chinese trade practices. 

Will policy now snap back to normal under Joe Biden or are we at the dawn of a new era of managed trade?  The ability to formulate policies that help those displaced may hold the key.         


[1] Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (2017).  Reviewed by George Melloan, WSJ, 29 November 2017. 

[2] Tax cuts as the solution to every problem has become a similar totem for Republicans since the Reagan presidency. 

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

[4] The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Marshall Plan and support for European integration all were vital early contributions. 

American Divisions.

            In 2008, before the financial crisis and the subsequent “Great Recession,” the average real GDP of Democratic ($35.7 billion) and Republican ($33.3 billion) Congressional districts stood pretty close together.  Now, almost two thirds (63.6 percent) of the country’s GDP is produced in Congressional districts that vote Democratic; a little over one-third (36.4 percent) of the country’s GDP is produced in Congressional districts that vote Republican.  The average real GDP of Democratic Congressional districts has risen to $49.0 billion, while Republican districts have actually fallen slightly to $32.6 billion.[1]  That is, Democratic districts enjoy an average GDP that is fifty percent higher than Republican districts.  This is reflected in median household income.  In 2008, the median household income in Republican and Democratic Congressional districts was $53,000.  By 2017, the median household income in Republican districts had declined to $51,500, while in Democratic districts it had risen to $62,000. 

            Whether one looks at finance and insurance[2] or at the professions[3] or at the digital industries, Democratic districts represent about two-thirds (64.3-71.1 percent) of jobs.  Whether one looks at basic manufacturing or primary products, Republican districts represent more than half (56.4-60.5 percent) of the jobs. 

            Other measures mirror this economic divide.  In 2008, the median percent of adults with a BA or higher stood at 25 percent in Republican districts and 27 percent in Democratic districts.  By 2017, the medians had moved farther apart to 27 percent in Republican districts compared to 35 percent in Democratic districts.  In terms of location, in 2008 the median population density in Republican districts was 350 people per square mile, while the median population density in Democratic districts was 850 people per square mile.  By 2018, the rates stood at 200 people per square mile in Republican districts and 2,500 people per square mile in Democratic districts. 

            In the presidential election campaign of 2020, Joe Biden pulled in $486 million in campaign donations from ZIP codes where the median income was at least $100,000, while Donald Trump raised $167 million.[4]  Indeed, from households earning $75,000 a year to $150,000 a year, Biden out-raised Trump by $600 million to $300 million.  In contrast, Trump outraised Biden in ZIP codes below the 2019 national median income by $53.4 million.[5]  Among those earning up to $75,000 a year, Trump out-raised Biden by about $400 million to about $340 million.  

In ZIP codes where at least 65 percent of people had a BA or higher, Biden out-raised Trump $478 million to $104 million.  From among the ZIP codes were 40 percent or fewer of people had BA degrees, Trump out-raised Biden by about $400 million to about $350 million. 

            It looks like the Democrats are becoming the party of rich, educated people telling poor people what they need, while the Republicans are becoming the party of faux common men giving poor people what they want.  “Good and hard,” to quote Menken. 


[1] Aaron Zitner and Dante Chini, “America’s Political Polarization Is Almost Complete,” WSJ, 20 September 2020. 

[2] Basically moving around big pools of other people’s money. 

[3] Medicine, law, higher education, and scientific research. 

[4] Shane Goldmacher, Ella Koeze, and Rachel Shorey, “Map of Donors Reveals a Split On Class Lines,” NYT, 26 October 2020. 

[5] In 2019, median household income was $68,703.    

Advice from a Guy Who Knows a Lot.

            Seen in a somewhat historical longer perspective than one gets in the daily media, Donald Trump’s four years as president aren’t quite the anomaly that they seem.  In terms of foreign policy, the Trump administration identified the key problems, but came up with some wrong solutions.[1]   The duty of the Biden administration will be to recognize where their predecessors saw the target, then figure out better ways of hitting it.  Robert M. Gates stands above the partisan fray, possesses deep knowledge of American foreign relations and of the instruments of those relation, and has exhibited a sense of patriotic duty that should command respect.[2]  While he has discreetly avoided making a direct statement on the Trump administration, he has some good advice for the Biden administration.[3] 

            First, Trump was right: the “friends and allies” don’t pull their weight.  The Trump solution was to deride them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on burden-sharing.  It also needs to pressure Germany over its own deal with Russia over energy supplies.  It also needs to pressure Turkey over its purchase of a Russian air-defense system and its meddling in Libya.  The United States needs to nudge NATO countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland back toward democratic norms.

            Second, Trump was right: many international organizations are messed up.  The Nineteenth Century British radical John Bright described the Empire as “a gigantic system of out-relief for the aristocracy.”  The same judgement applies to international organizations and the European and Europeanized elites of the former colonial countries who staff those organizations.  The Trump solution was to denounce them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on reform.  The Biden administration also needs to make a serious effort to keep China from gaining a leadership role in all these organizations, because they will just manipulate these organizations to advance China’s national interests. 

            Third, Trump was right: the existing instruments of American diplomacy and “soft power” don’t work well in the new international environment.  The Trump solution was to ignore those instruments, leaving hundreds of patronage positions empty and relying on personal loyalists to deal with foreign leaders or by seeking direct personal contact.  The State Department has been in decline as the leader of American foreign policy since the Kennedy Administration.  The Defense Department, the intelligence community, and—off and on—the National Security Council have all shouldered it aside.  The US lacks the economic resources to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  America’s “strategic communications” are pathetic.  Just adding one more spending category to the wish-list of money to be raised by making the One Percent pay their “fair share” won’t be enough.  In every case, government partnerships with the private sector offers a better approach. 

            What if we have entered a post-Cold War era in which American leadership isn’t wanted? 


[1] Even that isn’t all that anomalous.  The George W. Bush Administration identified the correct problem in Muslim countries.  They are victims of long-term developments, rather than of brief experiences of Western imperialism.  The Bush Administration then came up with a disastrously wrong solution: knock over Saddam Hussein, declare democracy, put up some big box stores, and leave. 

[2] On Gates, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gates 

[3] Robert M. Gates, “How to Meet Our Global Commitments,” NYT, 21 December 2000. 

Looking Forward in December 2020 3.

            In the aftermath of the “chaos and nastiness of the Trump era” which left many Americans “exhausted,” the New York Times proposes a “three-pronged approach” to closing America’s deep divisions.[1]     

            First, cool down the culture wars.[2]  Partly, this means that Joe Biden should behave in a dignified, adult manner.  Biden has published his tax returns, and should not post his Tweets (if he even knows what those are).  Partly it means sealing off key institutions of power—the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, and the military—from “partisan meddling,” while accepting both the Inspectors-General and Congressional oversight as legitimate.  Partly it means the judgement of what fights to pick and which to avoid.  Americans can sort out for themselves what kneeling during the national anthem or “thin blue line” flags mean without the president sharing his own thoughts.[3]  None of the issues are subject to easy or swift resolution in a deeply divided country. 

            Biden’s personal qualities include his ability to connect with the common man and his religious faith.  He’s well-suited by temperament and experience to not speak to or about the 71 million Trump voters with “condemnation or condescension.”  He will have to do the same with the progressive wing of his own party in the likely event that he faces a divided government.    

            Second, push policies that help all Americans.[4]  If this effort begins with infrastructure, it will be infrastructure broadly conceived.  Not just roads, bridges, and air and sea ports, but also the “digital infrastructure,” responding to climate change, and enhancing America’s international competitiveness.[5]  Biden is pitching these as job-creation projects at a time of still-high unemployment created by the corona virus.  In addition to infrastructure, there is scope for patching some of the potholes in the health-care system: money for community health centers and prevention of surprise medical bills. 

            Elsewhere, the “common ground” is spottier.  Many Democrat and Republican lawmakers agree on attacking the big technology companies.  Anti-trust law suits have emerged from Republicans and Democrats alike.  Some forms of additional spending on poor Americans also enjoy a certain amount of bipartisan support: child tax credits, child and dependent-care tax credits, and increasing opportunities for 401(k) retirement plans.  Most Americans appear to favor cutting the “Dreamers” some slack, even if they disagree on immigration in general. 

            Third, restore the “guardrails” of American democracy.[6]  On the one hand, investigate what happened during the Trump administration.  There is the issue of proven criminality.[7]  There are the two in-process investigations of possible tax fraud by New York State.  Then there is the issue of crimes that may have been committed,[8] but we won’t know until there is an investigation.  There is the question of whether Trump’s business interests affect government policies?  There are multiple scandals involving Cabinet officers and appointed officials.  The danger here is that any investigations will be or appear to be politicized at a time when Biden has made “healing” a priority. 

On the other hand, figure out how to prevent it from happening again.  Trump has never released his tax returns, so it is impossible to tell if there are conflicts of interest.  Congress should pass a law requiring any president to release his/her/there previous ten years of tax returns.  Trump has abused his powers of office by pressuring the Department of Justice to investigate opponents or go easy on friends and he has pardoned convicted supporters.  Congress should pass the Democrat’s “Protect Our Democracy Act” to ban self-pardons, allow Congress to enforce subpoenas without going through the courts, impose more transparency on the Justice Department, and better shield the Inspectors General and whistle-blowers.  At the least, President Biden should appoint a 9/11-type commission to write the history of abuses on Trump’s watch, then propose solutions for the future.[9] 

In the end, though, the presence of Joe Biden in the White House as the result of a free and fair election offers the best attainable guarantee of a return to normal times. 


[1] “The Decency Agenda,” NYT, 6 December 2020.  One might wonder if an institution that can characterize the Trump administration as a “major national disaster or failure of government” is seriously interested in reconciliation with the74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. 

[2] On one level, “culture wars” means things like L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, abortion, guns, and religious freedom.  On another level it means toning-down the Executive Branch as a subject and instrument of partisan strife. 

[3] This particular exclusion suggests that nationalism/patriotism, and the role of police in society is another touchy “cultural” issue. 

[4] “Build on Common Ground,” NYT, 13 December 2020. 

[5] Key areas include biotechnology and artificial intelligence. 

[6] “Accountability After Trump,” NYT, 20 December 2020. 

[7] Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were convicted of crimes pre-dating their association with Trump, plus lying to federal agents pursuing the Russia investigation.  Michael Flynn and George Papadopolous were convicted of lying to federal agents pursuing the Russia investigation.  Trump’s friend Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress about aspects of the Russia investigation.  Michael Cohen was convicted of paying hush-money to Stormy Daniels before Trump’s election.  Steve Bannon has been indicted for alleged crimes allegedly committed after he left the administration. 

[8] Basically related to the Russia investigation, but possibly also involving campaign finance laws.  . 

[9] I would be eager to serve on the staff of such a commission.  Jus’ sayin’. 

Looking Forward in December 2020 2.

            President Joe Biden will face three chief problem areas in foreign policy.[1]    

            First and foremost, there is the problem of Asia.  “China is sort of the radioactive core of America’s foreign policy issues.”[2]  The phrase “U.S.-Chinese relations” offers an umbrella for two main issues.  The first is economic, covering trade and technology.  The second is China’s current and projected outward reach, meaning—for the moment– Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.  Donald Trump replaced the long-term American policy of co-operation with one of confrontation.  The central pillars of this approach have been tariffs, harassing the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and talking about building up the over-stretched U.S. Navy.  The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uighurs, Hong Kong, and internal critics of its response to the Corona virus show the direction Zi Jinping intends to take on internal affairs.  Will the same be true in foreign policy?  To what extent will President Joe Biden change course from the Trump administration?

            There is no good solution in sight to the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea.  Plastering the little country with economic sanctions didn’t work.  Trump’s initiative to open direct contact with North Korea didn’t work.  Somehow (or from someone) North Korea acquired ICBM rocket engines and the ability to stop the US from messing up its missile test launches.  Biden has roundly denounced Trump’s appeasement of North Korea, but hasn’t suggested any alternative beyond rhetorical initiatives.  If the Obama administration wouldn’t bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program, would a Biden administration bomb North Korea? 

The second is the Middle East.  For a long time, America’s Middle East policy sought to limit Soviet influence in the area and to gain security for Israel through a resolution of the Palestinian problem.  Events have by-passed by far this policy.  The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the scale of that danger.  However, the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war[3] took its place. 

The Obama administration negotiated an agreement to limit Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for a time, but left other aspects of Iran’s assertive behavior for some future day.  President Trump abandoned that agreement and restored unilateral, but painful for Iran, sanctions.  President-elect Biden has said that he will reverse course by rejoining the agreement, but he also has said that Iran must commit to additional negotiations.  “Iran is desperate for a deal.”[4]  How desperate? 

Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran strengthened both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by the more accommodationist policy of the Obama administration.  An Israel-Sunni Arab coalition is well under construction, with knock-on damage to the long-term Two States solution to the Palestinian problem.  Will the Biden administration reverse course on the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam?  Will it restore support for a Two State solution?  How will it deal with the Crown Prince (and likely future king) of Saudi Arabia?[5] 

            The third is relations with America’s European allies.  In 1949, the United States created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deter the existential threat from a Soviet attack on Western Europe.  Forty years later the Soviet Union disintegrated.  NATO faced a new existential threat: what was its purpose?  No one has come up with a good answer. 

Trump openly and repeatedly disparaged our Continental European allies, while hoping for better relations with post-Soviet Russia.  Will the Biden administration find common interests with Russia in areas like arms control, even if it means throwing overboard the kleptocracy in Ukraine?  Will the Biden administration bear with the continual post-Trump whining from E.U. leaders to “prove you love me”? 

Seeing Britain’s departure from the European Union (E.U.) through the same optic of “tribalism” and “nationalism” as they saw Donald Trump, both former President Obama and presidential candidate Biden opposed “Brexit.”[6]  Trump thought that he saw a kindred spirit in British prime minister Boris Johnson.  Now Trump will be replaced by Biden, but both Johnson and “Brexit” are still there.  Will the Biden administration really want to make things difficult for America’s most reliable ally now that “Brexit” is a done deal?    

Joe Biden seems adept at dealing with realities as they exist.  It is at least possible that there will be an uncomfortable degree of continuity between the foreign policies of the Trump and Biden administrations. 


[1] Rick Gladstone, “Biden to face a Long List of Foreign Challenges, With the Chinese at the Top,” NYT, 9 November 2020. 

[2] Orville Schell.  On Schell, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orville_Schell 

[3] Essentially this pitted Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon against Sunnis everywhere else, with Saudi Arabia taking a leading role. 

[4] Cliff Kupchan.  On Kupchan, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Kupchan    

[5] The man appears to be a very able psychopath. 

[6] “Brexit” seems to me to be an understandable bad idea with much deeper historical roots than is often recognized. 

Looking Forward in December 2020 1.

            The recession of 2020 and beyond did not spring from “normal” causes.[1]  It sprang from the Covid-19 pandemic.  That pandemic continues to ravage the world, so a full recovery cannot begin.    Only widespread vaccination will allow the American economy to recover.  Estimates for that seem to run into mid-Summer 2021.[2]  An optimist might guess-timate that the economy will have fully recovered by the end of 2021. 

            The federal policy response to the Covid-triggered economic crisis[3] has been far more robust than the response to the 2009 financial crisis that led to the “Great Recession.”  Including the bill just signed—finally–by President Trump, the government spent more as a share of GDP over two years than the previous administration spent over five.  This may have contributed to avoiding the steep plunge in spending by states that helped deepen the crisis of a decade ago.  All this means that the economy did not sink into as deep peril as was the case ten years ago. 

Then, there are reasons to hope that the economy can make a sustained recovery.  The Federal Reserve Bank has promised to not raise interest rates until annual inflation hits two percent and all the Covid-caused unemployment has been absorbed.  This recession may not have done as much long-term damage as normal recessions.  Bankruptcies haven’t shot up the way one would expect, although they may still rise.  If many businesses are “only mostly dead,”[4] many could spring back.  If they do, then they will bring back employees while reviving pre-recession relationships with suppliers and customers.  A long drawn-out recovery is not fated. 

With a third of a million Americans dead from Covid-19 so far, it may seem petty to turn to the political effects.  Yet both parties are struggling to define their course in an environment without the disruptive factors of Donald Trump and Covid-19.  The outcome of these struggles will influence the direction of American society in the immediate future.  Would a rapid recovery dampen enthusiasm for any sweeping changes in economic organization or the role of government?  Would business people claim that they had “Built Back” during the recovery largely on their own?  Would it be difficult to blame anyone, other than the virus, for the recession?  Would Republicans want to fend off all calls for assistance to the “front-line” and “essential” workers once the crisis has passed, even if they try to restrict the scope of such definitions that President Biden would propose?  It is shaping up to look like at least two more years of tweaks to legislation.  Most of the action will come in nibbling rule-writing rather than in big new laws. 


[1] Greg Ip, “2021 Could Be (a Lot) Better Than You Think,” WSJ, 24 December 2020.  On Ip, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Ip 

[2] See, for example, the chart on the front page of the WSJ, 12-13 December 2020.  However, that leaves aside places in the world where vaccination will take place later.  Will Egypt ever get around to vaccinating any but the elite? 

[3] This is different from the federal response to the health emergency itself.  Operation “Warp Speed” appears to have done an astonishing job of creating and now distributing the vaccines that offer the only real long-term solution.  No one would—or should—forgive President Trump for his relentless down-playing of the immediate dangers or his undermining of scientific opinion on short-term safety measures.  He had the chance to be seen as a great president  He muffed it 

[4] See the classic exposition of the distinction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbE8E1ez97M