Brief Comments on Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury

For students of politics and government, Michael Wolff’s gossipy glimpse inside the early months of Donald Trump’s White House evokes the same reaction I imagine a surgeon must feel as she prepares to operate on a shotgun blast victim – what a mess.

This is not a great book. It consists of a series of loosely organized anecdotes purporting to represent the reactions of Trump’s inner circle to the chaotic events that are familiar to anyone who has tracked the news of the past year. Wolff asks the reader to trust his reporting, even though the sourcing for much of the information is murky (Wolff was apparently given carte blanche to roam the White House, talk with staff and sit in on meetings). There are sometimes perceptive observations – or, more accurately, speculation – about personalities and the social dynamics of the Trump team. But this is not the place to look for deep analysis or penetrating insights into Trump and his presidency.

Mostly, Wolff gives voice to Steven Bannon’s interpretations of the people and politics of Trumpworld. Bannon’s antipathy and disdain for the amateurish antics of Ivanka and Jared Kushner drip from virtually every page. Yet Wolff also suggests the one thing that united the various squabbling factions inside the White House was a shared concern that Donald Trump was not up to the job of president. The infighting among Trump aides is therefore a secondary concern to the incapacities, ignorance, inexperience and intemperance of the president himself.

A bit of a sketchy character himself, one can understand how Wolff was able to insinuate himself into the daily routine of the White House. With his background as an entertainment and media reporter, he no doubt fit in among a White House crowd that views governance almost solely through the prism of media management.

A book must be judged by what the author set out to do. Still, it is worth taking stock of what Wolff’s book leaves out. His account lacks any historical or institutional context. Wolff rarely strays in focus beyond a small cast of characters surrounding Trump himself. One should not expect to find a probing assessment of Trumpism or the nationalist and populist currents that have upended American politics. Nor does Wolff provide any serious comparison between this White House and the operating style of previous presidents.

Rather, Fire and Fury depicts White House politics as petty soap opera, with a childish, ignorant tyrant surrounded by a retinue of self-serving, backstabbing, and inexperienced hangers-on. After setting down the book, one feels the need for a cleansing shower.

Wolff notes that, outside of a few military generals and investment bankers, the Trump White House is astonishingly free of the Establishment characters that typically play key roles in steering new and inexperienced presidents toward mainstream policies and processes. When Jimmy Carter ran for president as a non-establishment, outside-of-the-beltway candidate, his campaign manager Hamilton Jordan opined that: “If, after the election, you find a Cy Vance as Secretary of State and a Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of National Security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.” Once elected, of course, Carter turned to precisely such Establishment figures for guidance. The social networks of power in American life have in the past served to curb wild swings from mainstream orthodoxy.

Trump’s nomination, general election victory and his staffing choices all reflect the weakening of any such coherent Establishment in American politics. The Establishment is nowadays mostly a creature of the fevered imaginations of populists of right and left. Democratizing forces have dispersed power and undercut the deference and legitimacy previously accorded a relatively small cohort of WASPish power-holders who advised presidents of both parties and served (for better or worse) to insure a high degree of continuity in American politics and policy during the post-World War II period. The missing backstory underlying the Trump White House is the crumbling of any semblance of a governing elite (there remain people of power and privilege, yes; but a self conscious and coordinated elite capable of setting the national agenda, no).

Those constraints that continue to hem in an authoritarian, disruptive president such as Donald Trump are less social (like-minded elites) than institutional. Time and again, Trump has come up against constraints posed by the rule of law, the courts, bureaucratic processes, the press, and even, on occasion, the Congress. Precisely because he is not only ignorant of governing institutions but disdainful and distrustful of them (e.g., the “deep state”), Trump lacks the ability to manage institutions or to steer them toward his preferred outcomes (which are themselves unclear outside of a few longstanding viewpoints). He is often, though not always, outmaneuvered by those who have institutional knowledge and position.

The two parts of the story help provide context for understanding the rather alarming portrait of a dysfunctional White House that Wolff provides. The centrist character and overall stability of American democracy for over a half century depended upon the nexus of a narrow but coherent and self-confident elite and the workings of a set of political institutions designed to limit autocratic power. The collapse of the first factor – the disintegration of the Establishment – allowed a figure such as Trump to gain the presidency. But the continued steadiness of American institutions – thus far – have limited the damage that it is in the power of even this most illiberal of presidents from wreaking on the American body politic.



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Review of Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream

Miller, Tom. China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road. London: Zed Books, 2017. 292 pages; ISBN 978-1-78360-924-6 (cloth), 978-1-78360-923-9 (paper). Reviewed by David Skidmore.

Forthcoming: Asian Politics and Policy

China’s Asian Dream, by Tom Miller, provides a snapshot of Beijing’s rapidly evolving strategic relations with the Asian giant’s regional neighbors. Miller, a senior analyst at Gavekal Research and a former journalist, brings his fourteen years of living in China and extensive travel in the surrounding region to bear in analyzing China’s strategy for creating “a modern tribute system, with all roads literally leading to Beijing (18).”

The book begins with an overview of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is designed to knit together transportation and infrastructure networks that stretch from Southeast Asia to Europe. Miller describes BRI not as a unified plan, but a series of loosely-connected projects financed, wholly or in part, by Beijing and often employing the enormous engineering and productive capacities of its state-owned construction firms. Funding for BRI projects is being funneled through both bilateral (e.g., China Development Bank, the China Import-Export Bank) and multilateral (e.g., the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) channels.

The scope and ambition of the BRI signals Xi Jinping’s determination to discard Deng Xiaoping’s advice that China should lie low in world affairs in favor of a “pro-active” foreign policy focused on creating a sense of “common destiny” among China and its neighbors (27). China’s goal, according to Miller, “is to create a web of informal alliances lubricated by Chinese cash. As its neighbors become ever more economically dependent on it, China believes its geopolitical leverage will strengthen” (11).

While this vision provides evidence of China’s growing confidence and power, Miller’s survey of Chinese relations with the its bordering countries also offers insights into the complexities and pitfalls that confront China as it seeks to shape a strategic environment favorable to its own interests and susceptible to its influence.

An overarching challenge for China is the global reach of a declining, but still powerful, United States. Miller points out that while the U.S. provides its Asian partners with security through a vast set of formal and informal alliances, China instead must rely on “economic diplomacy because it lacks political leverage” (240). Precisely because China has risen so rapidly, many neighboring countries are both attracted and repelled by Beijing as they seek to “extract as much economic benefit from China, in terms of trade and investment, without losing political and economic sovereignty” (18).

Miller also argues that China is involved in various conflicts that disrupt the sense of “common destiny” that Chinese leaders aim to cultivate among its neighbors. China is engaged in tense territorial disputes with India, Japan and the various competing claimants to the South China Sea. Many people in Central Asia resent Beijing’s tough treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. In addition, Russia competes with China over political and economic influence in former Soviet republics. With so many neighbors spread across such a vast geographical expanse, it is little wonder that Beijing struggles to harmonize relations along its border.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is meant to smooth over many of these irritants. Yet the BRI carries risks of its own. Many of the countries that would fall under the BRI umbrella are relatively poor and politically unstable. Infrastructure projects are politically sensitive as they almost invariably displace people and generate environmental hazards. In addition, these projects often fail to generate sufficient revenue to pay for themselves, resulting in unsustainable debts for host governments. The debts could be mitigated by sufficient positive externalities, such as growing private sector investment, but benefits are anything but guaranteed. Chinese infrastructure firms themselves are sources of problems. Miller points out that these firms have mixed records in large-scale projects in Africa, where critics have questioned the large-scale importation of Chinese laborers, negative environmental impacts and population displacement. While China’s state-owned behemoths “are happy dealing with local elites and unelected officials” they are “less adept at dealing with civil society” (241).

The high risks that will accompany China’s efforts to radiate power across the Asian continent will force significant changes in Beijing foreign policies. Miller points out that “Beijing’s resolve to defend both its core national interests and the rights of its citizens means that non-interference in foreign affairs is no longer an option” (244). Like previous imperial powers, China risks being drawn into the local political quagmires of its client states.

With respect to America’s response to China’s rise, Miller argues that “the US and its regional allies must accept China’s determination to carve out its own sphere of influence across Asia” and “accommodate it within a remodeled regional security structure” (248). The author, however offers little evidence that either Washington or Beijing possess the wisdom or diplomatic dexterity that will be needed to manage such a transition.

What Miller’s survey of China’s growing strategic imprint upon its own near-abroad lacks in theoretical sophistication or historical depth is balanced by its readability, detailed reporting and perceptive insights. While the shelf life of this sort of book is brief, it nevertheless provides an informative real-time examination of the most important geo-political transformation of the present era.


David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University. He has taught at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, the University of Hong Kong and the University of International Business and Economics (Beijing). He is co-author (with Thomas D. Lairson) of International Political Economy: The Struggle for Power and Wealth in a Globalizing World (Routledge, 2017).


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Understanding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made fighting official corruption a cornerstone of his reign.

Judging by the numbers alone, the campaign has achieved impressive results. Astonishingly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has disciplined well over one million officials since Xi took power in 2012. The anti-corruption campaign has snared hundreds of high-level leaders – including, most recently, former Chongqing Communist Party General Secretary and Politburo member Sun Zhengcai.

Xi’s fight against corruption has made him enormously popular among the Chinese people. As a political scientist and close observer of Chinese politics, however, I would argue that Xi’s enthusiasm to root out corrupt officials isn’t based on his own rectitude. Indeed, Xi’s family has inexplicably managed to accumulate over $1 billion in wealth, according to reports by Bloomberg. Rather, it rests on Xi’s determination to strengthen his personal power and that of the party he leads.

We should pay attention. If Xi succeeds in centralizing his control over the world’s most populous country, the United States will be presented with an increasingly confident and formidable competitor.

Sun Zhengcai was one of the more prominent targets of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Managing corruption

Corruption is built into the structure of China’s governing institutions.Xi’s campaign is more about managing the scope and consequences of corrupt practices than rooting them out altogether.

As China scholar Minxin Pei has documented, corruption in China typically takes the form of organized schemes involving groups of bureaucrats and private business people to plunder state resources.

Corruption fuels job promotions, the awarding of government contracts and the transfer of public assets into private hands at fire sale prices. Corruption in China is rooted in the blurred lines that come with a system combining weak rule of law, considerable autonomy on the part of local officials and an economic model featuring opaque relations between private enterprise and a large state-owned sector.

Xi has approached the problem of corruption much like his predecessors, though with unusual vigor, scale and persistence. Periodically, the CCP leadership has undertaken highly visible campaigns against corruption. During these campaigns, teams of officers from the CCP’s Discipline Inspection Commission sweep the offices of municipal or provincial governments and party units. These efforts have succeeded in preventing corruption from overwhelming the political system and undermining the economy. But the misuse and plunder of state resources nevertheless remains pervasive.

If Xi were serious about rooting out corruption more thoroughly, deep institutional reforms would be required. In countries where corruption has been successfully addressed, these have included strengthened rule of law, greater judicial independence, democratic accountability, institutional transparency and greater space for media and civil society watchdogs.

In China, scholar Pei emphasizes the need for clearer property rights that prevent officials from exploiting public assets for private gain. Such measures would both limit the opportunities for graft and more easily expose that which does take place.

Yet Xi has shown little interest in these kinds of reforms, which would threaten the leading role of the Communist Party. Indeed, his attacks on rights lawyersindependent media and non-governmental organizations– precisely the groups that in other societies hold public officials to account – have pushed in the opposite directions.

Too many pigs at the trough

So if Xi has ruled out the most effective anti-corruption tools, why is he going after corrupt officials at all?

In The Dictator’s Handbook, political scientists Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith theorize that authoritarian leaders cannot rule without the support of other powerful players, such as military generals, business leaders and key intellectuals. Their demands must be met. Such leaders survive, therefore, by channeling rewards to those supporters most essential to the leader’s maintenance of power. Over time, however, the number of individuals attached to the ruling coalition tends to grow, as does the price that each member demands for support. We might call this the “too many pigs at the trough” problem.

This may be sustainable if the economy is rapidly growing, but becomes more problematic once growth slows, as indeed it has in China in recent years. Because the monetary gains extracted by corrupt officials serve as dead weight from an economic perspective, corruption itself can become a source of worsening economic performance. The costs of paying off a bloated coalition of greedy supporters are considerable: a reduced take for the dictator himself, lagging revenue growth and declining popular legitimacy, the latter necessitating increasingly costly repression.

All of this explains why newly installed leaders move quickly to cull the number of pigs at the trough, as Xi has done since taking power in 2012. By retargeting private rewards only to those whose support is truly essential and reducing the size of payoffs to the minimum necessary to avert defection, the leader thereby shores up his power position with a smaller and more manageable ruling coalition.

Of course, culling the herd means more than simply cutting rewards to non-essential coalition members. They must be jailed or otherwise rendered incapable of retaliating. Factions organized around political rivals must be disrupted.

Such is the case with Xi’s recent uses of the anti-corruption campaign to undermine the Communist Youth League associated with Xi’s predecessor, former Chinese President Hu Jintao. Ruthlessness toward those unlucky enough to be targeted also sends a warning to the remaining coalition members.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is reshaping the magnitude and composition of the ruling coalition and the size of the payoffs to remaining members, thereby strengthening his own hold on power. But as long as China’s political order remains dominated by a single party, a system for funneling private rewards to members of the ruling coalition will remain essential to its functioning. Xi’s image as China’s “Mr. Clean” is more mirage than reality.

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How China’s skewed sex ratio is making President Xi’s job a whole lot harder

As odd as it sounds, China’s economic policy is being held hostage by its heavily skewed sex ratio.

China’s excess of young, unmarriageable males poses an acute dilemma for President Xi Jinping and other leaders as they set the country’s path for the next five years during the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which opened on Oct. 18.

After years of heavy spending and investment to boost growth and employment, China is at risk of economic stagnation if it doesn’t restructure the economy. Yet there is peril that doing so will lead to dangerous levels of unrest among the millions of unmarried men — known as “bare branches” — who will be laid off from shuttered unneeded steel, coal and auto factories.

So far Xi has tempered reform and kept the money taps open in order to avoid political instability. As the costs of domestic economic imbalances rise and international pressures to cut excess industrial capacity grow, Xi will have to decide what to do about the bare branches strewn in his way. And that won’t be an easy task.

China’s spending spree

This dilemma has been building for almost a decade, since Chinese leaders responded to the 2008 global financial crisis by channeling massive investments into infrastructure and heavy industry to sustain economic growth and prevent political unrest.

The proportion of China’s economy devoted to investment shot up from roughly a third to close to half — a level unprecedented among modern economies (that compares with only a 20 percent investment rate for the U.S. economy in 2015). Since 2008, for example, China’s crude steel production capacity has more than doubled, reaching close to half of the world total.

This investment has proven remarkably successful, at least in the short term, helping China avoid the economic downturn experienced by Western countries. China’s investment binge also created the world’s largest bullet train network and made it a global leader in solar panel production.

This same binge, however, has also left China with a morning-after hangover that threatens to become a “national financial and economic crisis” unless it implements reforms, according to a group of Oxford-based economists. The report suggests that China focus on fewer but higher-quality infrastructure projects while accelerating a shift in demand from investment to consumption.

Yet China continues to rely heavily upon infrastructure investment to drive growth. Besides steel, the economy also remains plagued by industrial overcapacity in autos, cement, glass, solar cells, aluminum and coal. Recent efforts to close old and inefficient factories have had little effect so far.

This has international consequences as well because all that excess steel, glass and aluminum must go somewhere and often ends up in other countries, hurting domestic markets. Steel exports to the U.S., for example, surged 22 percent from August 2016 to July 2017, prompting retaliatory threats from President Donald Trump.

So why did Chinese policymakers extend the investment spree do long? Why have they been reluctant to close down factories producing excess steel, solar cells or glass or stop funding the development of uninhabited “ghost cities”?

While there are many factors at play, one deserves more attention than it has received: China’s leaders fear the consequences of high unemployment among “bare branches,” a term used in China for young, low-status men who, because they are typically unmarriageable, represent endpoints on the family tree.

Growth of the ‘bare branches’

Bare branches are a result of one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world.

China has 106.3 males for every 100 females, compared with a global ratio of 101.8 to 100. In coming years, the workforce imbalance will only worsen because there are 117 boys under age 15 for every 100 girls. This is a result of extreme gender discrimination favoring males, a tendency exacerbated by China’s one-child policy, which was in force from 1979 to 2015. Typically, unwanted female fetuses, identified through ultrasound, are aborted.

This has resulted in a surplus of young bare-branch males. Bare branches are typically low status, since better-educated and higher-income males have better odds of attracting marriage partners. Lacking either skills or the strong community ties brought on by family life, these young, unmarried men make up a large proportion of the internal migrant population that relocates from rural areas to cities in search of work.

Researchers Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer have established that societies with large and growing numbers of bare branches are at risk of rising crime and civil unrest. This is especially true if inadequate employment opportunities are available for unmarried young men. The skewed sex ratio is accompanied by other worrisome trends, including high income inequality and the rising number of elderly that must be supported by each working-age person. The combination may portend trouble ahead for China.

A growing risk of unrest

It’s this fear of rising unemployment and unrest that has caused China’s hesitation to carry out economic reform.

Some economists believe that China’s official unemployment rate of 4 percent understates the reality, which may be more than double that. The rate of unemployment is politically sensitive since unemployed workers are more likely to engage in civil unrest and other anti-regime activities.

And males are overrepresented in the industries that would be hardest hit by reform like construction and heavy industry. On the other hand, females make up a disproportionate share of workers in the service sector, which must expand in order to sustain economic growth as spending on infrastructure and industry slows.

China’s growth model has actually exacerbated the unemployment problem because infrastructure, construction and heavy industry are relatively capital-intensive, meaning that a given level of investment produces fewer jobs than would be the case were the same investment devoted to service sectors (which are relatively labor-intensive). In other words, a greater emphasis on services would soak up more labor overall and reduce dangerous levels of unemployment.

If China shifts to sector-led growth, the risk of unrest will grow as women find more jobs at the expense of men, especially those bare branches. So even if China manages a “soft landing” that increases employment overall, civil and political unrest could rise as well if the proportion of bare branch males among those who remain unemployed also climbs.

This helps explain why Chinese authorities have directed massive amounts of investment into those male-dominated sectors following the global financial crisis. And why, in recent years, they have been slow to implement economic reforms that they themselves acknowledge are needed for the overall health of the Chinese economy.

From the perspective of Beijing, better some inefficient investments than the political risks of tossing millions of unemployed young males into the streets of urban China.

No good options

In his opening address to the 19th Party Congress, Xi made the usual promises about deepening market reforms, reducing industrial overcapacity and shifting the economy from investment-led to consumption-led growth. Given that these promises are not new, there is room for skepticism about implementation.

But even if reform is successful, it will mean large numbers of unemployed bare branches. That is why economic restructuring must be accompanied by generous unemployment benefits, job retraining programs and support for workers who need to relocate in order to find jobs. The gender composition of the service sector must also change in order to absorb unemployed males.

In short, Xi could forestall reform, thus keeping the bare branches busily employed at the risk of an economic crisis and punitive tarriffs from trading partners like the U.S. Or he could cut investment and close thousands of factories, creating a significant risk of domestic unrest and potentially necessitating some combination of a strengthened social safety net and political repression to contain it.

Whichever path Xi picks, bare branches will be part of the journey.

Originally published at on October 19, 2017.

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China’s Role in Resolving the North Korea Crisis

President Donald Trump sees China as the key to resolving the stand-off with North Korea. He is right, but for the wrong reasons.

China is in a position to offer both sides what they most want – North Korea with strategic reassurance against external attack and the U.S. and its allies with a guarantee of North Korean denuclearization. This scenario would, however, require both China and America to play unfamiliar roles – China as the lead and the U.S. as a supporting actor.

Trump demands that China simply coerce its troublesome ally into giving up the estimated 50-60 nuclear weapons that it possesses along with the means to produce more.

Yet the reality is that China will not squeeze North Korea so hard as to risk regime collapse, which would bring enormous refugee flows into China and possibly the reunification of an American-allied Korea. Neither outcome is acceptable to Beijing.

The Chinese publication Global Times recently hinted at a deeper Chinese role: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime …, China will prevent them from doing so.“

While the statement warns of Chinese neutrality should North Korea strike first, it also offers North Korea a carrot. As relations have worsened between China and North Korea, their 1961 mutual defense treaty has become a dead letter. Although not authoritative, the Global Times editorial may signal that China once again seeks to reassure North Korea that China is committed to North Korea’s defense against external attack.

Why is this important? Since the end of the Korean War, North Korean leaders have lived in mortal fear that enemies – South Korea, the United States and Japan – would seek to overthrow the regime. This fear became more acute after the demise of the Soviet Union, which had offered North Korea arms and protection.

America’s vast military power along with a record of promoting regime change abroad has sharpened North Korea’s insecurities. In January 2002, George W. Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Months later the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Particularly instructive for North Korea was U.S. participation in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi had, in 2003, sought to win favor with the West by voluntarily giving up Libya’s fledging nuclear weapons program. Instead of bringing security, this step left him more vulnerable.

These stark realities have motivated North Korea’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, with brief periods of respite in response to international pressure.

On occasion, the U.S. has recognized that North Korea’s main motivation for possessing nuclear weapons is to deter U.S. efforts to bring down the regime. On August 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated: “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey that to the North Koreans. We are not your enemy.”

But the impact of such reassurances are undercut by contrary statements, such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent declaration: “As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system (i.e., the nuclear weapons program). The North Korean people I’m sure … would love to see him go.” It would be difficult to craft a statement more likely to convince North Korean leaders that a nuclear deterrent is essential to their survival.

This confusion is partly a product of the circumstances that currently hobble American diplomacy: an erratic president, a weak Secretary of State and vacancies in the key positions of Ambassador to South Korea and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. Although a diplomatic neophyte, U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s close ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping could help in cutting through the tangled messaging.

More fundamentally, however, the U.S. has a credible commitment problem: Even if we promise not to attempt to overthrow the North Korean regime, there is little chance that Kim Jong-un, will consider such a commitment sufficiently believable to bring about denuclearization.

This is where China comes in. With a credible security umbrella extended by China, there is at least a chance that North Korea might be willing to relinquish its nuclear capability, especially if combined with other steps, such as a lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty to mark the formal end of the Korean War and a lowering of the U.S. military profile in South Korea.

This is a long shot. North Korea and China would have to overcome a recent history of mutual distrust. China’s security guarantee would have to take concrete form, rather than mere words. Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein has proposed that China station troops on North Korean soil so as to create a tripwire similar to the role that U.S. troops play in South Korea. North Korea could feel confident that the U.S. and South Korea would refrain from attack if doing so meant an expanded war with China.

China would, in addition, oversee the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and serve as guarantor against its resurrection.

China will be reluctant to lash its security to an unpredictable North Korean regime. But if the alternatives are either war or regime collapse across its border, then Beijing may be willing to take risks to avoid such outcomes. Kim Jong-un will certainly bridle at the loss of independence that Chinese oversight would bring and he would have to give up the dream of reunifying Korea under his family’s control. But if Kim wants a deal that guarantees his regime’s survival and a path out of international isolation, then China must play a bigger role.

Such a solution would thrust China into a leadership position in Northeast Asia, diluting, in some degree, American influence. Perhaps neither Chinese nor American leaders are ready for such a transition. Yet it may offer the best chance for peace.

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Making America Irrelevant

Mark 2017 as the year when the American Century ended and the Chinese Century began. On the U.S. side, President Donald Trump has abandoned American leadership on trade (ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership), security (refusing to affirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter that pledges member states to the common defense) and the environment (withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change).

In a barely veiled reference to Trump’s makeover of U.S. foreign policy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared on behalf of Germany and Europe as a whole: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.”

Meanwhile, China recently held an international forum in Beijing to rally support for its Belt and Road Initiative. Under this plan, China will provide financing and expertise to build infrastructure designed to facilitate trade and investment among countries stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe. Some of the financing will be provided through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which expects to reach eighty-five member countries by the end of the year. Among the new members will be Japan, which recently declared an intention to join after initially rejecting membership under American pressure. The Belt and Road Initiative reflects the confidence and ambition of a rising power, in a manner similar to the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

In pointed contrast with the protectionist winds blowing from Washington, D.C., Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a widely noted speech at the World Economic Forum defending economic globalization. China is also, in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pushing to complete negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade accord that will bring many of the same countries into greater dependence upon China.

As the U.S. abdicates its responsibilities on climate change, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang reaffirmed China’s commitment to the Paris Accord while standing alongside Merkel in Berlin. Although China remains the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, it has also led the way in producing affordable solar and wind technologies for the global market and has plans to fully electrify China’s vehicle fleet by 2030. By contrast, the Trump Administration has acted speedily to remove regulations that discourage coal-fired power plants, open more public lands to fossil fuel drilling and ease gas-mileage standards for America’s passenger vehicle fleet.

Trump’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would dramatically cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations. This follows China’s 2015 pledge of $1 billion to a new United Nations “peace and development fund.” China also designated 8,000 troops as a permanent reserve available for U.N. peacekeeping missions and offered $100,000 in support for the African Union to create an emergency peacekeeping force.

In short, as America abandons international institutions and pulls back on the provision of global public goods, China is moving in the opposite direction.

U.S. decline has been accelerated by a series of self-inflicted wounds over the past fifteen years. The unnecessary, costly and failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq diverted resources that could have been spent rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure or improving a mediocre education system. The 2008 economic crisis was a consequence of unwise decisions to weaken regulation of financial institutions. The most recent misfire was the election of a president whose lack of experience, poor judgment and ignorance of government or policy are unprecedented. China, on the other hand, has spent this period stoking rapid economic growth, building some of the most impressive infrastructure in the world and strengthening its military.

It remains to be seen how the Chinese Century will unfold. As a prime beneficiary of the current liberal international order, China will likely seek to preserve a stable, peaceful and economically integrated global system. Compared with the U.S., China will be a more restrained superpower when it comes to military intervention outside of its immediate neighborhood, although China will seek to carve out a regional sphere of influence surrounding its own borders.

China departs from the liberal order in its rejection of any unifying set of norms or principles. The foundational documents and institutions of the U.S.-led order embraced the values of freedom, democracy and human rights. To be sure, the U.S. has partnered with many regimes that regularly violate those values and America’s own record leaves it open to charges of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, America’s inconsistent but nevertheless significant support for liberal values has inspired many people around the world and served as a source of soft power for American leaders.

President Trump has made clear that the days when liberal values played a role in steering American foreign policy are gone. Instead, foreign policy will be seen in transactional terms – what’s in it for us? In this respect, the United States has adopted China’s view of the world in which no values are universal and states should avoid interfering in one another’s internal affairs, even when human rights and fundamental freedoms are at stake.

In abandoning the notion that the existing liberal order is about something more than the sum of individual national interests, Trump is paving the way for the Chinese Century, which will privilege order and economic interest over some higher purpose. In this new world, it is not only American power that becomes less relevant, but also the American idea.

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The Direction of American Diplomacy: Is the Trump Train Headed Off the Rails?

Imagine your reaction upon finding yourself in the backseat of a taxi driven by Travis Bickle. This is how many Americans feel as they consider the next four years under the leadership of President Donald Trump. While some scholars of foreign affairs share this sense of dread, they also, as social scientists, recognize that Trump’s presidency provides an ideal case for testing the proposition that presidents are less taxi drivers (crazed or otherwise) than train conductors who have little choice but to follow wherever the tracks lead. If such a hypothesis bears out, then perhaps we will all arrive at our destination in one piece.

Contrary to popular belief, American presidents have limited ability to shape United States foreign policy according to their own ideas, interests and preferences. Although presidents may appear to be all-powerful, presidential choice is constrained by broader international and domestic factors, including the institutional checks and balances built into America’s constitutional structure. Even a president such as Donald Trump, who delights in his outsider status and promised to disrupt traditional thinking, must eventually conform to conventional practices and ideas in large degree. As a result, continuity across presidencies typically outweighs change.

Many presidents have entered office with strong foreign policy preferences – sometimes ones at odds with conventional wisdom – only to reverse course under the pressures of international or domestic constraints. In October, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson pledged that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Only months later, of course, American combat troops were wading ashore at Danang, Vietnam, as Johnson responded to Cold War logic and the fear of appearing weak at home and abroad. As he watched the Vietnam War destroy the prospects for his beloved Great Society programs, Johnson lamented the limits on presidential power: “I feel like a hitchhiker on a Texas highway in the middle of a hailstorm; I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it go away.”

Similarly, Jimmy Carter came to office determined to escape the “inordinate fear of communism” that had distorted America’s foreign policy priorities only to embrace classic Cold War policies in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, won the presidency on the back of his criticisms of détente and arms control only to later negotiate away America’s intermediate nuclear forces in a deal with the Soviet Union. George W. Bush ran as a harsh critic of “nation-building” abroad only to later enmesh the United States in two of the longest and most difficult national-building exercises in our country’s history.

Examples such as these suggest that a combination of international and domestic constraints combined with unanticipated events drive presidential foreign policy choices in ways that belie notions of unfettered executive power. Presidents who combine lack of experience with unorthodox ideas about diplomacy are especially likely to suffer from rude awakenings that force them to reconsider their initial inclinations.

Donald Trump’s presidency offers an interesting test of this proposition. With respect to foreign policy, Trump is the least experienced president of modern times. Prior to his recent presidential campaign, he had never campaigned for office, never served in government and had limited international experience. He spent his career as a real estate developer, casino operator and entertainer.

Trump does have a worldview – indeed one that he has consistently articulated over several decades – but it lies far outside the mainstream. Trump scolds allies and embraces rivals (Russia). He praises dictators while showing little interest in the spread of democracy. He spurns freer trade and sets religious tests for immigration. Trump denounces recent wars while promising a major military buildup and rattling sabers over disputes with North Korea and Iran.

Trump see the US as a victim in a hostile world –

  • rich and ungrateful allies free-ride on US protection
  • terrorists exploit America’s openness and tolerance to threaten our safety
  • trade partners build up surpluses with the US through cheating and unfair trade practices
  • immigrants enter US illegally and take jobs from Americans
  • America spends vast sums in futile efforts to spread democracy and rebuild failed states abroad while its own infrastructure crumbles and our efforts produce hatred rather than gratitude

These views – encapsulated by the slogan ‘America First” – represent a politics of grievance that perfectly suited the rural and white working class voters who made up the base of Trump’s support. They are shared by a small group of outsiders Trump brought to the White House, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and, initially, Michael Flynn.

Can Trump carry through with such an idiosyncratic set of foreign policy views and preferences? On issues that Trump has long cared deeply about or which are central to his political appeal, the new administration has already broken new ground. Examples include the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Trump’s controversial efforts to stem the flow of refugees and visitors from certain Muslim-dominant countries, his tough approach to undocumented immigrants and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change.

In many areas, however, Trump’s foreign and defense policies are unlikely to veer as far off-course as his rhetoric might suggest. In fact, Trump has already begun to backtrack from some of the more unorthodox and extreme foreign policy positions taken during the campaign and transition period. Contrary to earlier statements, the U.S. will honor alliance commitments, maintain sanctions on Russia, discourage Israel from building further settlements, continue arms sales to Saudi Arabia, renegotiate rather than exit NAFTA and stick to America’s one China policy. Additional adjustments seem likely.

Why do new presidents – Trump included – find it difficult to carry out or sustain major changes in U.S. foreign policy? The easy answer is that perhaps candidates for the presidency are not sincere about the policy promises they make to voters. Once in office, they quickly abandon vote-getting, but unwise or unrealistic policy positions. While this explanation may suffice in some cases, it cannot explain why presidents often depart from foreign policy ideas that are long- and deeply-held.

A more important factor is that presidents face constraints, both domestic and international, that limit their freedom of action once in office. This is the case even though presidents hold greater authority in matters of foreign affairs than the Congress and the judiciary.

Trump can’t manage U.S. relations with the world without a team of experienced advisers and a permanent bureaucracy to implement his policies. Hundreds of influential positions in the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council, the intelligence agencies and other arms of the foreign affairs bureaucracy must be filled. The pool of talent available to staff these positions is limited. Moreover, the number of individuals who share Trump’s own quirky worldview comes down to a handful. While White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon might encourage Trump’s extremist “America First” inclinations, he will receive more measured advise – and pushback – from the likes of James Mattis (Secretary of Defense), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) and Mike Pompeo (Director of Central Intelligence Agency). Trumps’ first choice of National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, reflected the president’s own eccentric views – and promptly flamed out. Trump turned to a more mainstream choice, General H.R. McMaster, to replace Flynn.

While Trump does enjoy the advantage of united government (Republican control both houses of the Congress), there still remain significant checks and balances. The courts have already stymied his temporary ban on refugees and visitors from seven countries and will likely support legal constraints on the president’s abilities to revive torture as an interrogation tool, reopen black site prisons or expand domestic surveillance (all promises made during the campaign). The FBI and the Congress continue investigations into alleged Russian interference in the recent U.S. presidential election, despite Trump’s objections. Top Congressional Republicans, including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), have made clear that they will challenge efforts to weaken U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia or to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia. The Congress has refused to provide funding for a wall along the Mexican border and has pushed back against Trump’s proposals for deep cuts to the non-defense foreign affairs bureaucracy.

Resistance to unorthodox policies also arises within the permanent bureaucracy. Trump’s criticisms of the intelligence agencies have been met with damaging leaks of information harmful to the president or his top aides. The CIA even denied top security clearance to a high-level member of the National Security Council. In response to Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on refugees or citizens from seven Muslim countries entering the United States, 1,000 State Department employees registered their objections through the department’s dissent channel. There have also been reports of bureaucrats slow-walking implementation of certain policies.

Trump also faces the reality that the United States is not the superpower of his imagination. Other states have the power and resources to resist American bullying and to push back. If the United States unilaterally raises tariffs on imported goods from China or Mexico, retaliation against American exports to those countries will be swift. The White House is already besieged by lobbyists representing Midwest farmers, high-tech firms and big-box retailers, who would be hurt in any trade war. Trump’s efforts to force allies to raise defense budgets against domestic opposition will meet with the same dismal results as experienced by past presidents. The days when Washington could dictate to the rest of the world – especially in such a belligerent manner – are long gone.

Despite all of this, Trump foreign policy will not be wholly normal. Trump’s management of the White House has been chaotic. He lacks the discipline to learn about issues in depth or to avoid pursuing trivial quarrels. Trump spends much of each day watching right wing cable news shows and seldom reads the memos that his aides prepare for him. Staff have taken to making sure that his own name appears in each paragraph in order to capture his attention.

Trump does not respect the statutory autonomy of certain agencies nor the powers of other branches of government. He has left hundreds of top-level positions unfilled in the State Department and other international agencies. Policy decisions are made abruptly with little input from available experts or procedural deliberation – such as the missile strike against a Syrian air base, which was decided over dinner with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump and his team will likely learn and adapt over time, foreign policy-making under this president will suffer from an unusually high level of incompetence and mistakes.

Trump has also dug himself into a deep hole by failing to offer transparent explanations for questions related to Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign. Rather than cooperating with the various investigations that are underway, Trump has attempted obstruct them. His campaigns against the media and the intelligence community have awakened dangerous enemies who are now out to bring him down. Trump has no true allies among congressional republicans. Although most Congressional Republicans have avoided direct criticism of Trump, they own him nothing and once they conclude that he is an obstacle to passing their legislative agenda and a threat to their reelection, then support will evaporate overnight. If evidence of real collusion with Russia surfaces, then Trump will not complete his term. Even without evidence sufficient for impeachment, he is already badly weakened and is unlikely to fully recover.

Presidents who are weak at home often look abroad for victories. These may take the form of diplomatic breakthroughs on difficult problems or military action that addresses a threat. The one decision that brought Trump bipartisan praise was his attack on Syria in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. When the question of whether to use force arises in the future, Trump is unlikely to forget that his previous use of force proved politically popular.

Trump will not carry through on many of the radical shifts in American foreign policy that he promised during the presidential campaign. Donald Trump’s presidency will certainly bring much bluster, confusion and unpredictable swings in policy. On the whole, however, the combination of domestic checks and balances and international constraints are likely to force the Trump train back onto the well worn tracks of American diplomacy, despite the inexperience and unsteadiness of the conductor.

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