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 

The Asian Century 15.

            Analogies hand us a useful device for understanding the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.[1]  The key thing is to pick the right analogy.[2]  In Summer 2019, Walter Russell Mead offered the early Soviet-American Cold War as a useful analogy for understanding the contemporary relationship between the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).[3]  He emphasizes that the Soviet-American relationship plunged down-hill so fast that it caught the American public flat-footed.  Mead suggests that today China and the United States stand on the edge of a similar precipice.  If we go over the edge, no one can predict the duration or nature or outcome of the struggle. 

            Looking back at the Soviet-American rivalry for lessons, Mead asks about the impact of ideologies, the future “hot spots” of the competition, the impact on American society, the role of and impact on the high cultures (meaning higher education and technology) of the rivals, and how the densely woven relationship between China and America will affect and be affected by such a competition.[4] 

            Just as “the emperor counsels simplicity,” Mead counsels Americans to give much thought to understanding both themselves and China.  First, how do Chinese leaders see China and its place in the world?  Since the death of Mao, China has experienced tremendous economic growth under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.  That economic growth created a large and self-confident middle class.  Some observers, applying the analogy of the European bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th Centuries, believe that this middle class is showing the first signs of restlessness with the Party’s leading strings.[5]  Will Beijing pursue an assertively nationalist foreign policy to squelch dissent?  What might be the outcomes of such a policy?[6]    

            Second, how can Americans forge a consistent and effective China policy when the country is so deeply divided?  Here Mead penetrates much less deeply.  On the one hand, the origin of our discontents has not yet found any satisfying explanation.[7]  On the other hand, he doesn’t broach the subject of whether America even has the resources to rise to the challenge.  So, coming to know ourselves may be a lengthy undertaking.      


[1] See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-analogy/ 

[2] Ernest R. May, “Lessons of the Past”: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (1975). 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Americans Aren’t Ready for Cold War II,” WSJ, 11 June 2019.  It’s an encouraging choice of analogy in the sense that the Cold War never turned into a full-scale direct military conflict. 

[4] At this point, it might be useful to start building a library of Cold War history books.  Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (2000); John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the Cold War (1989); and Geir Lundstad, East, West, North, South: International Relations since 1945 (2017) can all be recommended.   

[5] On the European analogies, see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962); and William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969).  Sure they’re “old” books.  That’s because a couple of really smart guys got there first.  Everybody since has been nibbling around the edges. 

[6] For this analogy, see Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (1973). 

[7] Kevin M. Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (2020) and Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (2012) fall into the Blame Republicans First camp.  Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2013); and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1999) are conservative interpretations of one theme in the conversation.  Reading the Conclusions and Recommendations of The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) would be a good way to begin. 

The White Russians in Shanghai 2.

The French Concession at Shanghai was very modern in terms of its appearances and services, but was home to comparatively few businesses.  Consequently, rents and property values were lower here than in the International Concessions.  Not a few rich Chinese merchants had built opulent homes in the French Concession because of the superior services and policing compared to the rest of Shanghai.[i]  The better-off among the Russians often settled along the plane tree-lined Avenue Joffre in the western part of the concession, which became known as the “Russian concession.”  Here there were many Russian restaurants, cabarets, bakeries, and shops, all with signs in Cyrillic over their doors.[ii] 

Few of the Russian refugees arrived with the resources to start a new life, but many of them managed to thrive over the years.[iii]  The prosperity of the European population, the vitality of commerce in the great trading port, and the absence of the sort of professional restrictions on the immigrants which prevailed in European countries allowed the refugees to make a better living than was commonly the case for the Russian refugees in Europe or America.[iv]  Valentin Fedoulenko, who ran a successful pharmacy in the French Concession, recalled the favorable business conditions that made prosperity possible.  “Credit there was rather easy to obtain from the Chinese firms.  But the condition was that everything must be paid [back] within one year; if you didn’t pay within one year then you never got any more credit.  If you did pay back within one year then you had complete respect and you had all the money you ever needed.”  In addition, “We had almost no taxes to pay and life was truly remarkable for a long time. We did not know such a thing as income tax up to the end, when the merchants had to pay a tiny percentage of their income.”  There was a sham quality to this glitter of success however.  “In Shanghai money was unstable and we were taught not to hoard it but rather to spend it.”  Inflationary conditions bred inflationary behavior.  “All of this trade was based on very easy credit.  As we used to call it in Shanghai, this was business sucked out of one’s own thumb. Many of our merchants who gave the appearance of being very wealthy were in fact quite poor but lived and operated on credit.”[v]  

According to a 1925 census of the foreign settlements in Shanghai, there were only about 4,000 White Russians living within the privileged areas.  From 6,000 to 10,000 more, the much less successful, lived in Chinese Shanghai.[vi]  The prosperity attained by some allowed them to escape the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summers by vacations at one of the northern Chinese ports.  These cities– Peitaiho, near the Gulf of Chili, and Tsingtao and Chefoo, on the Shantung peninsula–became popular summer vacation spots for White Russians in Shanghai with the means to afford it.  The upper crust brought their marriageable daughter there in hopes of finding a match with a British or American naval officer; the Shanghai prostitutes hoped to do a profitable trade with sailors on shore-leave.[vii]  Tsingtao became known as the “Brighton of the Far East” because of its cool climate, a beautiful beach on the Yellow Sea, and the large Strand Hotel.[viii] 

A favorite place for relaxation among Shanghai’s foreign population—including the White Russians–was the Cercle Sportif Français which admitted interesting Chinese and women.  It had a dance floor and an excellent restaurant, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and a roof garden in the form of a pagoda.[ix] 


[i] Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 241. 

[ii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64; Sergeant, Shanghai, p. 36. 

[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64.  

[iv] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 35. 

[v] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 53, 59, 84. 

[vi] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 41. 

[vii] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 36. 

[viii] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 18. 

[ix] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, pp. 72, 160. 



The White Russians in Shanghai.

            In this anomalous city, the White Russians occupied an anomalous position.  They were a vitalizing, but disruptive, element.  The First World War coincided with–if it did not create–a marked change in the social life of foreign residents in the Shanghai settlements.  Before the war the foreigners, the English especially, ordered their lives around afternoon carriage-rides on Bubbling Well Road, massive meals of over-cooked food, evenings of bridge, and social events at the various nationally-based clubs.  There was a golf course and stables and tennis courts for the week-ends.  After the war, movies, cabarets, and a much more frantic night-life seemed to take over.[i]  Many of the Russian émigrés bore with them into exile a very high level of culture and intellectual achievement.  Consequently, they greatly enlivened the colonial cultural backwater of “Western” Shanghai.  Music, theater, and dance all flourished with the coming of the Russians.[ii]  At the same time, White Russians ran many of the nightclubs, cabarets, and restaurants in foreign Shanghai.  As the nightlife grew more extravagant, more settled people tended to blame the White Russians for any trouble that arose.[iii]   

The White Russians were losers in a larger community of winners.  Unlike the other Westerners in Shanghai in the Twenties, the White Russians were not there by positive choice.  They were refugees, with the largest group arriving in 1923 after the evacuation of Vladivostok.  After 1921 they lacked the protection of extraterritoriality enjoyed by the British, French, and Americans, and were subject to the Mixed Court headed by a Chinese magistrate assisted by Western “assessors.[iv]  Some among them were not merely losers, but were also the fallen.  The prevalence of prostitution among White Russian women is probably much over-stated, but in the popular mind “’Russian girl’ came to mean ‘Caucasian harlot’ in the tenderloin lingo of Harbin, Shanghai, and Kobe.”[v]  In addition, there was the problem of alcoholism.  Valentin Fedoulenko recalled that “our one big sorrow was that there were many people who had been used to living in a certain rather prosperous way of life and who had found themselves suddenly in terrible conditions and had begun to drink very heavily.  During the first ten years we had a terrible problem of drunkenness among our Russian colony in Shanghai.  This was our great sorrow.  This period, until they all died of drunkenness, we had a horrible time with them….They would die very frequently right on the streets, dropping themselves completely to the level of the Chinese and worse…..”[vi]  Impoverished, stateless white people presented a problem for the British, French, and Americans who inhabited the “concessions.”  The Western domination of Asian peoples depended a good deal upon their prestige, the sense of superiority over the Chinese that they conveyed.  The other Westerners regarded the Russians as improvident and untrustworthy, fit only to be shunned, pitied, and despised.[vii] One White Russian refugee recalled the state of mind in October 1922, when the last White forces evacuated Vladivostok.  “The atmosphere was such that we were getting ourselves loaded on the ships and God knew where we would end up.  We had no plans, only that we could leave and go any place so as to escape the Bolsheviks.  Outside of that we had no plans.  Whatever would be in the future, anything would be better than to be caught by them.”[viii]


[i] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 6.  

[ii] Harriet Sergeant, Shanghai: Collision Point of Cultures, 1918-1939 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1990), p. 34.  

[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 73. 

[iv] Ibid, pp. 6, 41, 29-30.  The Mixed Court dealt with Chinese charged with crimes or engaged in civil suits, either among themselves or with foreigners, and with foreigners who did not enjoy extraterritorial protection, all within the settlements.  It was headed by a Chinese magistrate, but that magistrate was effectively under the supervision of the Shanghai Municipal Council (a western institution) and westerners sat as “assessors” on all cases. 

[v] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 8.  See Fedoulenko.  Michael Miller has observed of the mind of the French public that, thanks to popular literature during the inter-war period, “Around ‘les femmes russes de Shanghai’ grew up a certain literature–pornographic, cheaply sentimental, and laden with the specter of white decline in the Orient.”  Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 246. 

[vi] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 52-53. 

[vii] Sergeant, Shanghai, pp. 38, 39. 

[viii] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” p. 45. 

The Asian Century 14.

            The way it looks at the moment, the foreseeable future will be dominated by tiny things: deadly viruses and ultra-thin semi-conductors.  Controlling both holds the key to leadership (and possibly survival) in the Twenty-First Century.  Both come from Asia.  Of the two, computer chips may be the more pressing long-term concern.[1] 

            Inevitably, this begins as History.  The West pioneered industrialization, then moved up the ladder from making simple things to making more complicated and higher-value things.  From this they drew immense wealth.  Wealth converts into military power.  From the late Eighteenth Century onward, the West both shot ahead of the rest of the world and began to impose its rule on the rest of the world.[2] 

            Since the Second World War, many countries have wanted to follow the Western path.  For most of the imitators it meant beginning where the West had begun, with simple mass-produced goods that the West no longer cared to produce.  Textiles, then simple electronics, then motorbikes and automobiles.  They were filling global needs without competing head to head with the established economies. 

            Two countries—South Korea and Taiwan—went farther than making textiles, steel, and ships.  Taiwan’s strategy: invest heavily in research and development; build human capital through education and hold that capital in Taiwan; push rapid adaptation to changing markets in the West; encourage new businesses, rather than guard the established giants; and don’t put the hackles up on key Western manufacturers. 

            One of those start-ups was the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).  The Taiwanese government chose Morris Chang, an American-educated Taiwanese, to begin creating a semi-conductor industry.  They didn’t set him to jumping too far by building an industry to use those chips in things like smartphones.  They set him to building the essential component of such devices.  He succeeded, but–true to the Taiwanese form—he didn’t rest on his laurels.  TSMC kept pushing up the ladder to chips until it became the leading producer of high-end semi-conductors.  What it did not do was to branch out into making the devices produced by powerful companies like Apple.  Both American and Chinese device manufacturers came to rely on abundant supplies of TSMC chips. 

            Now TSMC and Taiwan are becoming important “chips” in a different game.  The Trump Administration broke with previous American policy by taking seriously the profound Chinese-American rivalry.  Tariffs formed one part of its campaign, but so did a campaign to block the expansion outside China of the Huawei Company.  The American campaign against Huawei aimed, in part, to block the Chinese company’s access to TSMC chips.  The Trump Administration also encouraged TSMC to build a chip plant in the United States. 

            IF artificial intelligence and high-speed computing are going to be two corner stones of economic power and national prosperity, then high-end chips are an essential interest of both China and the United States.  Will the complicated Sino-American relationship on this issue and on so many others be resolved by diplomacy? 


[1] Ruchir Sharma, “It All Comes Down to Taiwan,” NYT, 15 December 2020. 

[2] David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Innovation and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969). 

Shanghai in the Twenties.

Shanghai was a place to conjure both dreams and nightmares.  The city still incarnated Western power over the rest of the world at the start of the Twentieth Century.  British and French negotiations with the Chinese government in the 1840s had produced the International Settlement and the French Concession in Shanghai.  These tracts were legally privileged and self-governing areas for European residents.  Residents within the Shanghai settlements were exempt from most Chinese taxation.  They were tried by Western courts, rather than by Chinese courts.  Disputes between Chinese and Westerners were tried in a Mixed Court dominated by foreigners in fact if not in name.  The municipal authorities within the Shanghai settlements had legal jurisdiction over all the residents, including the Chinese.  But the settlements also exuded a certain ambiguity and vulnerability that could not escape the Westerners.  They only amounted to a little over twelve square miles.  The exact limits of the Shanghai settlements remained ambiguous since Chinese owned land within the settlements and the foreigners kept trying to extend their authority over additional territory by building roads, water mains, and power lines outside the territory.  Moreover, Chinese made up the vast majority of inhabitants of the settlements.[i] 

Shanghai meant opportunity.  Businessmen came to reap the benefits of abundant cheap labor and raw materials, low taxes, a great port on the South China Sea, and a river into the heart of the much-imagined “China Market.”  Civil engineers came to build bridges, dams, and railroads.  Ship engineers and sea captains came to run the riverboats and steamers carrying the trade.  Bankers, lawyers, doctors, and insurance men—for when the bankers, lawyers, and doctors failed–came to provide their services.  Nor were the opportunities solely material.  Missionaries and teachers came to provide “oil for the lamps of China.”[ii]  The Westerners maintained troops and warships in the Far East to guard their possessions, so there were soldiers and sailors.  People with money need entertainment, so the city drew actors and singers, gamblers and bartenders, whores and pimps. 

Shanghai also meant danger and always had.  In the nineteenth century to be drugged in a waterfront tavern and kidnapped aboard some square-rigged hell-ship bound for the seal fisheries of the Bering Sea was to be “shanghaied.”  Now, a revolution that had been roiling China since 1911 created turmoil.  Shanghai drew adventurers of all sorts, from criminals on the run to “soldiers of fortune” hoping to hire on with a warlord to young men desperate to escape the humdrum life at home.  The police force in the French Concession was in league with the Chinese “Green Gang” to deal in opium in return for the protection of the French territory.  For those with fears of a coming race war between Yellow and White, Shanghai appeared to be a flash-point.  In 1925 the settlements contained about 37,000 foreigners and 1.1 million Chinese.  The total population of Shanghai itself stood at 2.5 million, so the settlements amounted to a great Chinese city under western imperial government.[iii]  The psychological effects could be disturbing.  One Russian refugee remarked that “China is not only an immense territory, it is a human anthill.  Everywhere, in Shanghai, Tientsin, Fuchow, a European feels himself submerged into an enormous swarm of human beings in the midst of which one feels himself defenseless and strange as if he were a creature from another world.”[iv] 

In Shanghai East and West thus rubbed up against each other uncomfortably.  There seems to have been less friction between the Chinese and the residents of the French Concession than between the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxon residents of the International Settlement.  The French assumed that this arose from their own lack of overt racism; the British and the Americans assumed it was because the French were slimy and willing to retreat from any principle in pursuit of gain.  In any event, many rich Chinese maintained a house in the French Concession, either because the services were good and the area quiet, or because they wanted a bolt hole in case of trouble in the Chinese city.  In the French Concession Chinese dressed in Western clothing were allowed to enter the public park, but anyone not dressed as a Westerner was banned.  Conversely, the professors at the Jesuit-run Aurora University on the Avenue Dubail, wore long beards, presumably to associate themselves with the wisdom of the ancients in the minds of their Chinese pupils.[v] 


[i] Albert Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China in the Early Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1976), pp. 3, 5.   The International Settlement occupied 8.35 square miles; French concession, 3.9 square miles. 

[ii] The phrase comes from the title of one of the books about Westerners in China by Alice Tisdale Hobart (1882-1967).  Married to a Standard Oil company executive working in China during the 1920s, Hobart drew on her own experiences in a series of novels and non-fiction works: Pioneering Where the World is Old (1917); By the City of the Long Sand (1926); Within the Walls of Nanking (1928); Pidgin Cargo (1929); and Oil for the Lamps of China (1933).  The latter became a best-seller in 1934 and was made into a popular movie. 

[iii] Nicholas R. Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Middlebury College Press, 1991), p. 40.   There were 29,848 foreigners and 810,378 Chinese in the International Settlement; there were 7,790 foreigners and 289,210 Chinese in the French Concession. 

[iv] George C. Guins, “Interview,” University of California Oral History Archive, 1966, p. 273. 

[v] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, pp. 26-27, 58, 64. 

By the Waters of Babylon 2.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) estimated that 51.5 million Americans suffered from some sort of mental illness ranging from minor to severe.  Of these, NIMH estimated that 13.1 million suffered from a Serious Mental Illness.[1]  About two-thirds received some kind of treatment.  Women were much more likely than men to suffer from SMI, but also much more likely to receive treatment.  Young people (18-25) were much less likely to receive treatment than were older people. 

A couple of recent high-profile cases have brought attention to the interaction of the mentally ill with law enforcement.[2]  Entangled as they are with other social issues, the mental illness issue has faded into the background.  What gets missed is the sheer complexity of the problems and the wide ranges of people who are affected.   

            During 2019, the second chapter in a small tragedy concluded.  In January 2015, Thomas Gilbert, Jr. shot and killed his father, Thomas Gilbert, Sr.[3]  From January 2015 to May 2019, Tom Jr. languished in jail as the court tried to figure out if he was competent to stand trial.  Eventually, the presiding judge found him competent. 

It seems obvious that he was mentally ill.  His mother recounted a promising life gone to ruin from his late teens on.  He “didn’t like to be controlled,” so he defied his father by quitting high school soccer.  He became obsessed about “contamination” by things and then by other people.  His washed his hands obsessively, discarded clothing, furniture, and even college roommates, and stayed away from places like Kennedy airport from fear of contamination.  He did a lot of drugs.  He left Princeton mid-way through his freshman year to surf in South Carolina, but ended up in a hospital in Charleston after going three days without sleeping.[4]  The young man resisted every effort by his parents to get him professional help or even to stay in touch with him.[5]  After he eventually graduated from Princeton, he couldn’t get or keep work. 

However, none of this is enough to establish mental incompetence or to support an insanity defense.  What makes someone “competent” to stand trial?  A “defendant is incompetent [only] if he or she is incapable of rationally communicating with his or her attorney or rationally comprehending the nature of the proceedings against him or her…..The threshold for establishing competency is often identified as notoriously low.”[6]  Moreover, in New York, the burden of proof is on the accused.  The prosecutor here argued that Tom Jr. had long intended to kill his father: he had driven to Ohio to buy the murder weapon seven months before the killing; he had sent his mother out of the apartment on a ruse just before he shot his father.  He killed his father because his father has cut off financial aid. 

Prosecutors also commonly argue that the accused is shamming.  If Tom Jr. was shamming, then he was doing a pretty good job of it in the early stages of his trial.  He repeatedly interrupted his own lawyer and objected to his mother’s testimony about his unraveling sanity. 

The trial dragged on into late June, when the jury found Thomas Gilbert, Jr., guilty of murder.  In September, the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole until he had served 30 years.[7] 

At least in prison he can be denied access to firearms and be forced to take his medications.  His parents had no such power. 


[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#:~:text=Mental%20illnesses%20are%20common%20in%20the%20United%20States.,severity%2C%20ranging%20from%20mild%20to%20moderate%20to%20severe.  Serious Mental Illness (SMI) defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” 

[2] Walter Wallace, Jr. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Walter_Wallace; Daniel Prude. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Daniel_Prude 

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/01/19/by-the-waters-of-babylon/ 

[4] So, maybe he was surfing at Folly Beach.  See: https://www.islasurfschool-charleston.com/journal/2018/6/11/5-things-to-know-about-surfing-in-charleston 

[5] For what it’s worth, see the article on the co-occurrence of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with bipolar disorder (manic-depressive).  https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/bipolar-plus-ocd-which-treat-first  That seems to my un-tutored eye to be what was happening to Thomas Gilbert, Jr. 

[6] See the very useful discussion at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/insanity_defense 

[7] You can follow the story in the articles by Edgar Sandoval and others in the New York Times.  See: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/nyregion/thomas-gilbert-jr-is-fit-for-trial-in-wealthy-fathers-death-psychologist-says.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/nyregion/murder-trial-thomas-gilbert.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/07/nyregion/murder-trial-thomas-gilbert.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/nyregion/murder-trial-thomas-gilbert.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article;  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/28/nyregion/murder-trial-thomas-gilbert-verdict.html?auth=linked-facebook&searchResultPosition=1; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/27/nyregion/thomas-gilbert-murder-sentence.html;

The Crisis of Democracy 1.

            The American Constitution is the product of compromises.  If all states were represented equally, the few big, populous states feared being outvoted by many smaller, less populous states; if states were represented on the basis of population, the many small states feared being outvoted by the big, more populous states.  Some states depended on slave-based agriculture, while many people in the free states disliked either slavery or the slave-owning elite.  As the instrument of the people’s will, many people feared a tyrannical government located far from voters; many others feared “mob rule” (pure democracy).  Most recognized that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to defend national interests or even hold the country together in a world full of wolves.  The Founders sought to reconcile these tensions by enhancing the powers of the national government in certain specific ways, while reserving other powers to the state government; by dividing power between three co-equal branches of government; and by shoring up individual liberties with a Bill of Rights. 

            This system of government served well enough to deal with the crises of the 19th Century: territorial expansion, civil war, and rapid industrialization.  What it lacked in efficiency, it generally made up for by fending-off tyranny. 

            The 20th Century dropped more challenging problems on the door-step of government.  The two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War each required a massive government mobilization.  That mobilization enhanced the prestige of the federal government as a problem-solver.  That mobilization increased the size, powers, and responsibilities of the executive branch.  The tripod created by the Constitution tilted as the Executive branch grew in power while the Legislative and—for a time—the Judicial branches ceded their powers.[1] 

            These changes were justified in various ways.  Obviously, national emergencies demanded a rapid and effective national response.  Then the greater ability of the national government, based on its ability to recruit able servants from business, academia, and the civil service, could be offered.  Finally, it began to be argued that the President alone was elected by all the people to lead the country.  Members of Congress represented only their districts or states, and judges were appointed.  Thus, the president enjoyed a unique mandate to govern.  The other branches should defer to his (and one day her) leadership in whatever grave hour was at hand. 

            In recent decades even a modified version of the original Constitution seems ill-matched to the needs of the hour.  The country is deeply divided over some issues, so the Congress is polarized to the point of incapacity.  The intervention of the courts in issues of national importance sparked an arms race between the parties over which one could pack the courts with sympathetic judges.  A number of times, presidents have won a majority in the Electoral College, while winning a minority of the popular vote.  Increasingly, presidents have relied upon rule-writing, executive orders, and executive agreements in place of legislation passed by Congress and judged constitutional by the courts.  Presidential inaction and action alike arouse bitter commentary in the media.  More seriously, perhaps, voter frustration with a government that cannot act fueled “populism.”  Now a “crisis of democracy” has become a buzz-term.[2] 


[1] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (1973). 

[2] I don’t know.  Maybe none of this is true.  “I just know what I read in the newspapers.”—Will Rogers.    

Climate of Fear XXII.

            The Paris Climate Accords, which the Obama administration helped negotiate in 2016, contained flaws as well as virtues.[1]  The virtues have been sufficiently broadcast, so it is worth looking at two flaws. 

First, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions promised by other countries were purely voluntary.  No one except Morocco and Gambia has met their commitments.  This lack of enthusiasm about compliance with even voluntary targets provides ammunition to critics of the Accords.  If the threat is real, it could be argued, then counties would drive ahead regardless of American participation.  If the threat isn’t real, then is the climate crisis being over-hyped?  Is the United States being beset by a warming planet or by a combination of ivory tower zealots with rival foreign economies seeking a competitive advantage?[2] 

            Second, it is not a treaty.  It is an executive agreement.  Never ratified by the Senate, it never became legally binding on the United States.  Furthermore, it could be—and was—abandoned by the United States as soon as a president hostile to the agreement waved good-bye to the moving van that deposited his stuff in the White House.  In this sense, the Paris Accords resemble the Versailles Treaty ending the First World War with Germany.  Even if the Accords could be converted to a real treaty, it is unlikely that it could get the two-thirds vote needed for ratification.  In short, the Democrats need to win more than a simple majority in the Senate to get a legally-binding treaty in place.  Even passing the legislation to implement a revived executive agreement could be tricky.  This will leave the Biden administration with the same slog through executive orders and rule-writing in which the Obama administration engaged so much energy. 

            One possible lever on the economy for the Biden administration would be to define climate change as not just an “environmental threat” or as a “national security threat,” but also as a “financial stability threat.”  Both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank offer means to impose government policies without new legislation.  Both possess robust regulatory powers that can lever corporate policies and investor behavior in new directions. 

            The Obama-Trump-Biden pattern of rule writing followed by re-writing followed by re-re-writing is dangerous.  It turns what should be a predictable framework for decision-making into a quadrennial football.  On the one hand, the financial services industry is a vital part of America’s domestic economy and of its international trade.  Is it a good idea to build-in systemic uncertainty? 

On the other hand, the whole enterprise of governing through rule-writing and executive orders is deeply undemocratic.  It further exalts the executive branch; it further diminishes the legislative branch; and it further politicizes the judicial branch. 

No matter how much they are loved by their beneficiaries, rapid globalization and the growth of the “administrative state” have not received a unanimous warm welcome.  “Brexit” is best understood as a revolt against the European Union.  Donald Trump’s election is best understood as a revolt against the dominant policy strand of recent decades.  There is no guarantee that the revolt will end if Biden goes back to the same old policies. 


[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Climate Finance May Foul the Economy,” WSJ, 8 December 2020. 

[2] That’s not what I believe (although both things could be true).  It may well make sense in coal country or the oil patch or the “Rust Belt.”