The Asian Century 17b.

Yet, for historians—if not for political scientists or economists—there is reason for cautious optimism.  On the one hand, the historical record suggests that democracies can be slow to mobilize their strength, but better able to mobilize that strength over the long haul.[1]  If one looks at (or, much worse, had to live through) the period from 1930 to 1942, one could easily believe that the liberal system had shot its bolt.  Economic depression, the collapse of new democracies, the appeasement of authoritarian nations, and military defeat slammed confidence in the Western system.  Three years later Berlin and Tokyo stood in smoking ruins. 

Second, “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”[2]  The recent unpleasantness at the end of the Trump presidency led journalists and public intellectuals to invoke the example of the disputed presidential election of 1876.  Squalid though as were those events, they also helped settle a period of deep division within the United States and helped bring on a long period of rising power and prosperity.[3] 

American business may be resistant to government guidance on China policy, but it is resistant to government policy on many things.  Usually, the outcome is satisfactory to most people.  American society is immensely creative and innovative.  The rapid development of two vaccines for Covid 19 demonstrate that old truth.  Conversely, the many problems with distributing the vaccine fall to the responsibility of the state and federal governments.  Hardly cause for business to defer to the state.  During the pandemic, American businesses have moved rapidly ahead with collaboration software (like Zoom), direct delivery bypassing stores, and cloud computing to manage all of it.  Compare this with the PRC’s treatment of Jack Ma, the entrepreneur who created Alibaba and Ant.  He got “disappeared” for a while after he suggested that entrepreneurial innovation outstrips old ideas.  About the subordination of business to the state for example. 

America remains remarkably open to immigration.[4]  Immigration helps off-set the aging of the native-born population, while admitting large numbers of people eager to work and to create their own futures.  In contrast, the PRC oppresses its own people and violates international agreements, like the Anglo-Chinese agreement on Hong Kong, in order to get more people to oppress.  China is not a country of voluntary immigration. 

By any standard, China’s economic progress since the death of Mao has been extraordinary in statistical terms.  However, much of that progress came from moving peasants out of low productivity rural farming and into higher urban productivity manufacturing.  The government has used subsidies, entry into the world market, and massive intellectual property theft to push China so far forward so fast.  There is good reason to wonder if the PRC has reached the limits of what can be obtained by such methods.  Just when they’ve alarmed the US. 


[1] This is a central theme of Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968).  It remains the best single volume history of the Second World War. 

[2] Adam Smith.  I forget where I read it, but it stuck with me. 

[3] Richard White, the author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (2017), would wish to qualify this view if it ever came to his attention. 

[4] In 2017, 2018, and 2019, an average of 1,085,181 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, an average of 1,060,401 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  See: https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/table1 

The Asian Century 17a.

            It is now commonly accepted that the United States (US) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are strategic competitors.[1]  All eyes regard this competition, for they represent two different approaches to government and economic management.[2]  China combines an effective authoritarian government with state-managed semi-capitalism.  The US combines democracy with a regulated free market.  For the duration of the “Fifty Years War”[3] the United States represented the preferred wave of the future for an ever-growing share of the world’s population.  Is the US able to win a new competition or have essential elements of its previous strength dissolved?  Is China better able than were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to win a competition with the US?  It depends where you look. 

Does the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020 offer any insight into the relative positions of the US and the PRC?  The answer must be NO if examined in international perspective.[4]  Democratic Taiwan did better than the PRC; the United Kingdom did even worse than did the US in spite of doing all the things that Democrats criticized the Trump administration for not doing.  The explanation for the diversity of results may have something to do with an Asian culture of compliance with the public interest in comparison with a Western culture of asserting individual rights at the expense of the community. 

It is sad, but true that the Covid pandemic is a transitory event.  It has been deadly and disruptive in its impact, but in a year it will be history.  More fundamental issues should be alarming.  So far, China has won the trade war launched by President Trump.  During 2020 its trade surplus increased, as did the trade deficit of the US.  The Trump administration’s attack on Huawei Technologies led the PRC to pour resources into its semi-conductor industry.  American efforts to get other countries to join in exerting pressure on China signally failed.  European, South American, and Asian countries are so entranced by the promise of the China market that they seek to fill the gaps when other countries try to pressure China.[5]  Nor is American politics oriented toward pursuing a coherent industrial policy during peacetime.  One of Trump’s last acts as President was to see his efforts to encourage an American rival to Huawei come to grief.  Intel announced plans to offshore some of its chip production; while Cisco rejected government entreaties to buy either Nokia or Ericsson.  Here they put the bottom line ahead of national strategy.  One of Biden’s first acts as President was to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Here he put the demands of environmentalists over the interests of America’s Canadian ally (and over those of the American construction workers who had been building the pipeline). 

Finally, Chinese news media are portraying the riot at the Capitol as proof that American democracy is crumbling.  Many, here and abroad, would agree with this grim judgement. 


[1] Greg Ip, “China Played Its Hand Well in 2020.  Will It Keep Winning?” WSJ, 23-24 January 2021. 

[2] I’m not sure how Francis Fukuyama makes sense of this development.  Apparently, Hegelianism only takes you so far.  See Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man Standing (1992).  Still, he’s teaching at Chicago and I’m working at an educational wide spot in the road.  So,…

[3] The struggle from 1940 to 1990 between capitalist liberal democracy and autarkic dictatorships. 

[4] See: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases 

[5] For example, the European Union recently concluded an agreement with China to increase investment.  In doing so, they ignored a suggestion from Jake Sullivan, then President Biden’s national security advisor-designate that they should wait. 

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.

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. 

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’. 

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 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.