Vietnam War Debate: Quagmires and Stalemate Machines

The ghosts of the Vietnam War no doubt hovered over a recently assembled conclave of President Donald Trump’s advisers as they deliberated over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

In the Vietnam era, as today, the United States found itself engulfed in a seemingly never-ending war with mounting costs, unclear goals and few signs of success. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, successive presidents faced much the same options: Withdraw, decisively escalate or do just enough to avoid losing. Like his predecessors in both wars, Trump chose the middle path – incremental escalation with no clear exit plan. Although Trump called it a “plan for victory,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson candidly admitted that the additional American troops will likely do little more than “stabilize the situation.”

How can we to explain the seeming preference of U.S. presidents for muddling through – whether in Afghanistan or, 50 years ago, in Vietnam? This has been a central question in a course on the Vietnam War that I have offered for the past 30 years. In it, we look for answers in a fascinating debate among former officials that emerged in the late stages of the war.

Down a slippery slope

Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger offered one point of view in his 1967 book “The Bitter Harvest.” A onetime adviser to John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger compared Vietnam to a quagmire: The first step into a quagmire inexorably draws one down a slippery slope. Schlesinger argued that officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations stumbled blindly into Vietnam without understanding where the U.S. commitment would lead. Escalation proceeded through a series of small steps, none of which seemed terribly consequential. Each succeeding step was taken in the optimistic belief that a little more effort – a bit more aid, a few more troops, a slight intensification of the bombing – would turn things around by signaling American resolve to stay the course. Faced with this prospect, the reasoning went, the North Vietnamese communists would sue for peace on American terms.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1951. Wikipedia

These flawed expectations, Schlesinger argued, arose from a decision-making system characterized by “ignorance, misjudgment and muddle.” A dysfunctional bureaucracy fed presidents misleading and overly rosy intelligence. The Vietnam War debacle, in other words, arose from inadvertence and folly.

Just don’t lose

In separate pieces, this interpretation of what went wrong was challenged by Daniel Ellsberg and Leslie Gelb. Both Gelb and Ellsberg had formerly served as Defense Department officials during the 1960s, and both helped to compile the famous “Pentagon Papers.”

Gelb and Ellsberg reached similar conclusions about the sources of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Ellsberg argued that policymakers during the Kennedy and early Johnson administrations followed two rules:

  1. Do not lose South Vietnam to communism, and
  2. Do not involve the U.S. in a large-scale ground war in Asia.

Each rule drew upon recent precedent. The “loss” of China to communism in 1949 led to charges that Democrats were “soft on communism” and a wave of McCarthyite hysteria at home. On the other hand, the public would also not tolerate another ground war similar to the unpopular Korean engagement.

Dan Ellsberg in 1971. AP

The perceived domestic political costs of either extreme – withdrawal or unrestrained escalation – steered Kennedy and Johnson toward the middle. As long as feasible, each president did enough to avoid losing South Vietnam but shunned the direct commitment of U.S. troops that military advisers insisted would be necessary to bring victory.

By 1965, the deteriorating political and military situation in South Vietnam cut this middle ground from beneath Johnson’s feet. The minimum necessary to stave off defeat now required the commitment of American combat troops. Even once this line had been crossed, however, troops were introduced in a gradual manner and Johnson balked at imposing higher taxes to pay for the war.

As Kennedy and Johnson anticipated, public support for the war waned as U.S. casualties mounted. Richard Nixon responded to these domestic pressures by undertaking “Vietnamization,” which gradually reduced American troop levels even while prolonging U.S. efforts to stave off a communist victory.

Ellsberg refers to this as a “stalemate machine.” Policymakers acted in a calculated manner to avoid losing for as long as possible, but understood that their policies could not bring victory. Stalemate was a conscious choice rather than a product of overoptimism or miscalculation.

Leslie Gelb at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 1971. AP Photo/Jim Palmer

While echoing Ellsberg’s account of the domestic constraints on U.S. policy, Gelb added two sets of international constraints. Withdrawal was ruled out because policymakers believed in the domino theory, which predicted that the loss of South Vietnam would set off a cascade of communist victories throughout Southeast Asia. They also feared that the U.S. would lose credibility with its allies if we failed to put up a fight in South Vietnam. For these reasons, as well as fears of a right-wing backlash, Kennedy and Johnson were unwilling to walk away from Vietnam.

Yet Kennedy and Johnson also feared the international risks of major escalation, Gelb argued. An invasion of North Vietnam raised the possibility that either China or the Soviet Union would intervene more directly or retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the world. In an age of nuclear weapons, the U.S. preferred to keep the Vietnam conflict limited and to minimize the risks of superpower war.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Gelb and Ellsberg rejected Schlesinger’s argument that policymakers were overly optimistic and lacking in foresight. Rather, they saw policymakers as generally pessimistic, recognizing that the next step along the ladder of escalation would not be sufficient and that future steps would be necessary just to maintain a stalemate. With victory viewed as infeasible, presidents chose stalemate as the least bad among a set of terrible options. Presidents had no clear exit strategy, other than the hope that the enemy would weary of the conflict or that the problem could be passed along to the next president.

Instead of blaming bureaucratic bumbling, Gelb argues that “the system worked.” The bureaucrats did exactly what top policymakers asked them to do: Avoid losing Vietnam for more than a decade. The problem lay rather in the underlying assumption – never questioned – that Vietnam was a vital interest of the United States.

Who was right?

I’d contend that Gelb and Ellsberg make a more convincing case than Schlesinger. Muddling through offered presidents a politically safer short-run alternative to withdrawal or major escalation.

A similar dynamic appears at work in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, where Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have each accepted stalemate over the riskier options of retreat or decisive escalation. Against an entrenched Taliban insurgency, U.S. policy has been driven by the need to stave off the collapse of weak local partners rather than the pursuit or expectation of military victory. Even President Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan provided fewer than half the troops requested by the military. On the other hand, Obama later retreated from his own stated deadline for total withdrawal, opting to leave 11,000 troops in place. Now Trump has also reneged from previous pledges to disengage from Afghanistan, instead sending additional troops.

It may be that the logic of the stalemate machine is built into the very concept of limited war. Or that it is a predictable consequence of how presidents manage the constraints posed by American politics. In any case, the histories of U.S. military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan should serve as warnings to future presidents who might be tempted to again jump onto the treadmill of perpetual war.

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Trump’s Campaign against the Liberal International Order

President Donald Trump’s last minute declaration that “I believe in NATO” will do little to reassure a world that for eighteen months has watched in bewilderment as he has trashed the alliances and multilateral institutions the United States itself did the most to create. Trump’s refusal to sign the joint communiqué from the recent G-7 meeting despite the efforts of America’s chief allies to accommodate Trump’s blustering demands offers a recent example. Others include his misleading complaints about burden-sharing at the recent NATO summit, his false claim that Germany is “captive to Russia” and his baffling attack on British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Trump’s ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the simultaneous trade wars he has initiated against all of America’s major trade partners threaten to tear apart the international trade order. He has withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has proposed drastic cuts in U.S. funding to the United Nations and withdrew the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council. As international opinion turns against Trump’s unilateralist behavior, America First has quickly morphed into America Alone.

Of course, Trump is not the first American president to balk at multilateral commitments, or bicker with U.S. allies or offer support for autocrats. But no previous president has mounted such an across-the-board assault on the basic principles and institutions of the post-World War II liberal international order.

Trump’s illiberalism goes beyond an amoral transactionalism. The quarrels with America’s allies over trade and defense burden-sharing are not really about bargaining for a better deal. Rather, Trump uses deal-making as a cover for weakening democratic socially progressive, culturally tolerant and internationally open governments, parties and movements across the Western world while simultaneously strengthening authoritarian, nationalist and protectionist governments, parties and movements around the globe.

Trump has gone out of his way to embrace authoritarian leaders abroad who tear down democratic institutions and violate human rights. Most famously, this includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump congratulated for the latter’s victory in a fixed election despite the pleas of his own advisers who wrote in Trump’s briefing book: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Trump’s bizarrely obsequious behavior toward Putin at their recent summit meeting in Helsinki offers another example.

Trump praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the latter’s notorious use of extrajudicial killings in that nation’s drug war. He congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the passage of a possibly rigged referendum that moved Turkey further down the road to outright authoritarian rule. Trump also welcomed Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, a step President Barack Obama had been unwilling to take in the wake of el-Sisi’s bloody crackdown on political opponents.

Trump serves as a lodestar for protectionist, nationalist and anti-liberal political parties and movements across Europe. Trump praised the British vote to leave the E.U. and campaigned alongside British anti-E.U. politician Nigel Farage. His administration has sought stronger ties with the extreme nationalist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has a history of anti-Semitic speech and who has cracked down on the media and civil society.

Trump’s newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, stated in an interview with Breitbart that he wants “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold…” Grenell singled out far-right Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as “a rockstar. I am a big fan.”

More stunning have been Trump’s constant stream of quarrels with America’s closest allies. At a rally in North Dakota on June 27, 2018, Trump complained that: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.” Having previously referred to NATO as “obsolete,” Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to study how much money could be saved by removing U.S. troops from Germany.

On trade, Trump has imposed unilateral tariffs on goods from all of America’s major trading partners. Trump ordered staffers to prepare draft legislation that would provide the president with the power to ignore the principles of non-discrimination that lie at the heart of WTO trade rules. He has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada meet poison pill demands.

Trump rejects the liberal idea that markets should determine flows of commerce among nations. Instead, Trump seeks to use the size of the American market as leverage to impose one-sided deals on smaller trade partners. In Trump’s view: “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

How far can Trump take this radical reorientation of American foreign policy? One possible check might be push-back from within the Republican party. Yet Trump appears to have pulled the rank-and-file of the party along with him, making it difficult for Republican office-holders to buck Trump even on issues where there are clear differences, such as trade. The weak, non-binding resolutions passed by the Senate in recent days declaring support for NATO and asserting a Congressional role in trade policy are hardly sufficient to give Trump pause.

If, indeed, the Republican Party unifies around a highly nationalist, illiberal foreign policy and Trump retains power for a full eight years, then the ruptures to a liberal and multilateral international order may prove beyond repair and America’s image as a rogue state will be difficult to reverse.

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Is Trump’s Unilateralist Foreign Policy an Aberration? Not Really – but His Illiberalism Is

 

Much of the world watches in bewilderment as American President Donald Trump trashes the alliances and multilateral institutions that the United States itself did the most to create. Trump’s refusal to sign the joint communiqué from the recent G-7 despite the efforts of America’s chief allies to accommodate Trump’s blustering demands offers a recent example. Another is provided by Trump’s misleading complaints about burden-sharing among NATO member states.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the simultaneous trade wars he has initiated against all of America’s major trade partners threaten to tear apart the seven decade-old international trade order. He recently pulled the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal over the objections of Western allies who are also parties to the agreement. The U.S. is in the process of exiting the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has proposed drastic cuts in U.S. funding to the United Nations and has withdrawn the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council. As international opinion turns against Trump’s unilateralist behavior, America First has quickly morphed into America Alone.

An Aberration or a Swing of the Pendulum?

But is Trump’s unilateralism a genuine aberration, or does it fall within the range of oscillation that has characterized American foreign policy over recent decades? The answer is a bit of both. On the one hand, America’s historical relationship with multilateralism has been ambivalent at best and outright hostile at worst. America’s closest allies, for whom multilateralism is a matter of both principle and pragmatism, have often struggled to persuade a reluctant America to remain engaged with the multilateral order. In this respect, many of Trump’s unilateralist moves are hardly unprecedented.

And yet Trump’s foreign policy nevertheless represents a radical departure in three crucial respects. First, no president during the post-World War II era has so openly questioned the value of the security alliances that have provided the foundation for American power and international peace in Europe and Asia.

Second, no previous president has shown such solicitude toward illiberal autocrats – even those leading countries traditionally considered adversaries of the United States – while going out of his way to poison relations with democratically elected leaders in friendly countries.

Third, no recent president has unilaterally initiated simultaneous trade wars with each of America’s main commercial partners.

With respect to international laws and institutions, Trump’s foreign policy represents an extreme version of a longstanding pattern of U.S. resistance to multilateral constraints. Where Trump breaks new ground is in rejecting the liberal character of the existing order – meaning the system’s core embrace of democracy and individual human rights and its economic orientation toward market-driven outcomes. Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy is not only unilateralist, it is also illiberal.

America’s Historical Ambivalence Toward Multilateralism

After the bloody folly of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proposed a new liberal world order built around international law and multilateral institutions designed to insure against another global cataclysm. The League of Nations served as the key element of Wilson’s global blueprint for peace. Yet, presaging later patterns, an American-inspired institution was embraced abroad but rejected by the U.S. itself as the Senate failed to ratify Wilson’s cherished treaty. Without American leadership, this first attempt at creating a liberal multilateral order floundered, setting the stage for the rise of protectionism, fascism and renewed warfare.

The golden age of American multilateralism followed World War II. Chastened by America’s earlier failure to offer leadership in a chaotic postwar world, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman placed international institution-building at the center of their strategy for crafting a stable global order. The United Nations, a successor to the failed League, was joined by an alphabet-soup of new multilateral organizations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade. Later came the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and many other organizations led or inspired by the United States.

The U.S. provided political leadership, money, troops, market-access and expertise in support of this new international institutional order. Even during this period, however, the U.S. commitment to multilateralism was conditional.

The new international institutions created under American guidance after World War II embodied rules that bound the behavior of American allies and, in some cases, its rivals far more than the U.S. itself. American leaders insisted upon veto powers, weighted voting schemes, opt-out provisions, treaty reservations and other institutional design features that, in practice, allowed the U.S. a freedom of action denied to other states. In other cases, such as the Vietnam War or withdrawal from the gold standard in the early seventies, the U.S. simply bypassed multilateral forums or even violated international law with fewer consequences than lesser powers.

Among Western countries, the post-World War II international order was based upon a fundamental bargain: the United States would provide leadership and resources to create and support new multilateral institutions while its allies would defer to American leadership and tolerate the special prerogatives of power claimed by the United States.

The Cold War provided the glue that held this bargain together. The United States and its allies both feared the Soviet Union and its potential to disrupt international order. The U.S. needed allies in order to contain Soviet power. Multilateral institutions attracted allies by providing public goods that benefitted all participants. On the other hand, America’s allies needed U.S. protection. They had little choice, as a result, but to defer to American leadership, even when this meant granting the U.S. a privileged position within an ostensibly ruled-based order.

The end of the Cold War gave both sides reason to revisit the terms of the bargain. The U.S. became less willing to carry burdens of leadership or to tolerate free-riding by allied countries. America’s allies, in turn, saw less reason to grant the U.S. special prerogatives or to exempt America from the rules that constrained other states.

In a series of clashes during the nineties, the U.S. sought to push allies to carry greater burdens and the allies rejected American insistence on a privileged position with respect to the raft of new treaties and organizations that emerged during that decade. Without the binding effects of a common great power enemy, the postwar multilateral bargain came under intense strain.

The U.S. failed to ratify international treaties and agreements dealing with nuclear testing, landmines, climate change, the law of the seas, biological weapons, an international criminal court, the trade in small arms and many others. By the new millennium, U.S. was party to only 12 of the 27 international treaties that the Secretary-General identified as most central to the mission of the United Nations.

The most significant evidence of America’s growing unilateralism was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 without the approval of the United Nations Security Council and despite the opposition of several NATO allies. But European worries over America’s waning commitment to international cooperation began during Bill Clinton’s presidency and extended into Barack Obama’s Administration.

Domestic politics also influence America’s multilateral engagements. The Cold War strengthened the ability of presidents to override the usual domestic constraints and to fashion a long-term strategic approach to foreign policy that included a conditional commitment to multilateralism. An existential sense of external threat compelled deference to presidential leadership at home and overcame the usual fractious politics and checks and balances that so enfeebled American international leadership previous to World War II.

After the Cold War, presidents faced a more constraining domestic environment on foreign policy – one that empowered domestic actors who rejected multilateralism for either self-interested or ideological reasons. Fossil fuel companies opposed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the National Rifle Association lobbied against the Arms Trade Treaty, chemical firms fought against inspection provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention, and the military establishment opposed the constraints posed by the Mine Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

In a recent example, the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly attempted to block a resolution that endorsed breast-feeding due to objections from American companies that sell infant formula. Ecuador withdrew the original resolution after the Trump Administration threatened trade sanctions and the withdrawal of military aid. In the end, the resolution was revived and passed under Russian sponsorship.

Most importantly, the Republican Party, once home to major internationalist figures such as Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush; Secretary of State James Baker and Senator Richard Lugar, turned solidly against any multilateral commitments that purportedly encumbered American sovereignty, even if other countries reciprocated by constraining their behavior as well.

Attacks on the United Nations and other international bodies led by Republican figures such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms became a common feature of American political discourse. Since treaty ratification requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate, Republicans have been in a position to block almost all major multilateral treaties sought or concluded by American presidents over the past three decades. In a particularly absurd example, thirty eight Republicans managed to block U.S. ratification of a U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled that was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While Democrats have not displayed the knee-jerk anti-multilateralism of most Republicans, neither have they been willing to expend serious political capital to defend multilateralism as a general principle of U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama sent few treaties to the Senate for consideration. Instead he sought international agreements that did not require Congressional approval. The administration referred to the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, as a “political commitment” that was not legally binding and therefore did not require Senate approval. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris climate agreement does not set binding emissions reduction targets, but instead allows each state to submit a plan that includes self-determined targets. Similarly, the Nuclear Security Summits held every two years between 2010 and 2016 produced no treaty or binding agreement. Instead participating countries made voluntary commitments to safeguard nuclear materials and technologies within their own borders.

Obama’s ad hoc, non-binding approach to international cooperation served to bypass U.S. domestic constraints in the short run, but, as we have witnessed, such commitments are easily reversed when a more unilateralist president, such as Donald Trump, takes office.

Not Only Unilateralist, But Also Illiberal

In the century since Woodrow Wilson proposed a rules-based international order, the U.S. attitude toward multilateralism has swung between conditional engagement and outright unilateralism. Trump’s distaste for the commitments and constraints that accompany U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions is extreme, but not unprecedented.

What is new, however, is Trump’s marriage of unilateralism and illiberalism. President George W. Bush, for instance, embraced unilateralism, but unlike Trump he employed the traditional rhetoric of American exceptionalism – America as a beacon for liberty and individual rights. In fact, Bush put American power in the service of an aggressive liberal agenda of promoting democracy and market capitalism abroad.

Trump, by contrast, has gone out of his way to embrace authoritarian leaders abroad who have been associated with serious human rights violations. Most famously, this includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump congratulated for the latter’s victory in a fixed election despite the pleas of his own advisers who wrote in Trump’s briefing book: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

But Trump has also praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the latter’s notorious use of extrajudicial killings in that nation’s drug war. And Trump called Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on the passage of a possibly rigged referendum that moved Turkey further down the road to outright authoritarian rule. Trump also welcomed Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, a step President Barack Obama had been unwilling to take in the wake of el-Sisi’s bloody crackdown on political opponents.

Previous American presidents have, of course, often supported authoritarian regimes where strategic interests were viewed at stake. But this was typically balanced with quiet pressure on human rights issues and support for fledging democracies when they arose. Yet even rhetorical support for liberal ideals is absent from Trump’s public pronouncements.

More stunning have been Trump’s constant stream of quarrels with America’s closest allies over defense burden-sharing, immigration, climate change, trade and relations with Russia. At a rally in North Dakota on June 27, 2018, Trump complained that: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.” Having previously referred to NATO as “obsolete,” Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to study how much money could be saved by removing U.S. troops from Germany.

On trade, Trump has simultaneously imposed unilateral tariffs on goods from all of America’s major trading partners. Trump ordered staffers to prepare draft legislation that would provide the president with the power to ignore the principles of non-discrimination that lie at the heart of WTO trade rules. He has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada meet poison pill demands.

Trump’s trade policies are based upon the outdated and intellectually discredited doctrine of mercantilism, which holds that countries that run trade surpluses are winners and those that run deficits are losers in some sort of global casino. Trump rejects the liberal idea that markets should determine flows of commerce among nations. Rather, he argues for managed trade: governments should strike deals that lead to desired outcomes. Trade is treated as a series of bilateral contests in which Trump seeks to leverage the size of the American market to impose one-sided deals on smaller trade partners. In Trump’s view: “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

America as a Rogue State?

The world has, during the post-Cold War era, learned to deal with an America that swings between unilateralism and a reluctant multilateralism. But it now confronts a declining, but still powerful, hegemon that threatens to turn its back on key elements of the seven decade old liberal order: international law and human rights, core alliances among Western democracies and a market-friendly and rule-based international trade order. To be sure, the U.S. commitments to liberal principles have bent in the past, but Trump has brought the U.S. to the precipice of an outright break.

Most eerily, Trump and those close to him have at times served as a lodestar for anti-globalist, protectionist, nationalist and anti-liberal political parties and movements not only in the U.S. but across Europe and elsewhere. Former Trump campaign manager and strategic adviser Steven Bannon openly attacked the European Union and embraced far-right movements in Europe. Trump himself praised the Brexit vote and campaigned alongside British anti-EU politician Nigel Farage and his administration has sought stronger ties with the extreme nationalist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has a history of anti-Semitic speech and who has cracked down on the media and civil society.

Trump’s newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, stated in an interview with Breitbart that he wants “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold…” Grenell singled out far-right Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as “a rockstar. I am a big fan.”

In short, Trump has in his first eighteen months in office already moved U.S. foreign policy in both unilateralist and illiberal directions. While the unilateralism has precedent, the wholesale attacks on liberal norms, principles and alliances are a radical departure.

Trump’s illiberalism goes beyond an amoral transactionalism. The quarrels with America’s allies over trade and defense burden-sharing are less about bargaining for a better deal than using deal-making as a cover for weakening socially progressive, culturally tolerant, and internationally open governments, parties and movements across the Western world while simultaneously strengthening authoritarian, nationalist and protectionist governments, parties and movements across the globe.

How far can even a president go in such a reorientation of the foreign policy of a great power? Two factors seem important. First is whether Trump can engineer lasting changes in the Republican Party on issues such as trade, immigration and alliance relationships. So far, Trump appears to have pulled the rank-and-file of the party along with him, making it difficult for Republican office-holders to buck Trump even on issues where there are clear differences, such as trade.

Second, much may depend upon whether Trump wins reelection. The strains in U.S. relations with its allies and with international institutions are so great that an extension of such tensions into a second Trump term without a change in course might compel other countries to reorient their foreign policies in adaptation to new realities that include the U.S. as a rogue state.

If, indeed, the Republican Party unifies around a highly nationalist, illiberal foreign policy and Trump retains power for a full eight years, then the ruptures to a liberal and multilateral international order may be beyond repair.

 

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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.

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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 theconversation.com on October 19, 2017.

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