Monthly Archives: January 2018

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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