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China can still salvage ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong – here’s how

Authorities in Hong Kong may have hoped to start 2020 by putting a turbulent period of sustained, often violent protests behind them.

Instead hundreds of thousands of protesters ushered in the new year by taking to the streets. Around 400 were arrested as protesters continued their push for political reform on the densely populated island.

The clash between the government and demonstrators is now seven months long and has served to further erode Hong Kongers’ trust in China’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” formula.

Under that principle, the region was granted a degree of autonomy over its own matters in 1997. But a perception that Beijing is increasingly imposing its authority has led not only to a more militant protest movement, but one that is eyeing separation from the mainland.

As a political scientist who has closely followed political developments in Hong Kong over the last decade, I have watched trust in Beijing ebb away during the sustained unrest.

If China wants to correct this course and convince Hong Kongers that their best hope lies in autonomy rather than independence, then I believe it must permit genuine democracy in the region.

Cycle of unrest

The people of Hong Kong have not had much of a say in their own destiny.

Not only did they lack political power as a colony of the British, but they also weren’t consulted in the drafting of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the terms for the 1997 handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless, that agreement offered an implicit bargain to Hong Kongers: They would submit to Beijing’s sovereignty in return for the promise of a “high degree of autonomy” on the basis of “one country, two systems.”

Despite Hong Kong being promised more than a seat on the bus in 1997, Beijing remains behind the wheel. AP Photo/Mike Fiala

Over the past two decades, major outbreaks of unrest in Hong Kong have followed attempts by Beijing to impose unwanted measures that violate this bargain. Large-scale protests beat back Beijing-directed legislative proposals dealing with sedition in 2003, national education in 2012 and extradition last year. The Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 succeeded in stymieing Beijing’s proposed revisions to Hong Kong’s system for selecting its chief executive, but protesters’ demands for universal suffrage and an open nomination process were rejected.

Many Hong Kongers consider this interference a violation of the promised autonomy built into the terms of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. This interference reinforces fears that the city will lose its autonomy entirely after 2047, the end point of commitments made under the Joint Declaration.

With only limited and inadequate democratic mechanisms at their disposal, Hong Kongers have developed a vibrant and increasingly militant protest culture as a primary means for exercising political influence.

Autonomy or independence?

Efforts to steer Hong Kong toward greater integration with the mainland have backfired, undermining trust in Beijing’s promise of a “high degree of autonomy.”

The result is an ongoing cycle of radicalization. The focal point for many protesters has moved away from any one particular issue to focus on the fundamental status of Hong Kong’s relationship to China.

Growing numbers of people are questioning why they should keep their side of the bargain – accepting Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. According to a recent Reuters poll, 17% of Hong Kongers express outright support for independence from China, while another 20% express dissatisfaction with the “one country, two systems” model. Moreover, 59% of respondents said they supported the recent protests and over one-third had themselves attended a protest.

According to a separate survey, support for eventual independence among young people approaches 40%. Many young people have also come to reject any “Chinese” identity in favor of a “Hong Kong” identity.

The depth of discontent among Hong Kongers was reflected in the District Council elections held on Nov. 24. These low-level posts have traditionally been dominated by pro-Beijing political parties. The recent elections, however, brought a record turnout with pro-democratic parties winning close to 90% of contested positions.

Beijing’s miscalculation

To blunt the growth of separatist sentiment in Hong Kong, Beijing must tackle what social scientists call a “commitment problem.” In any negotiation, each side will cooperate only if they believe that the other side is both willing and able to carry out any commitments made as part of the bargain. If either side believes the other side’s commitments lack credibility, then cooperation fails.

What China needs to do now is show that it is committed to respecting the autonomy promises embodied in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

I believe the best way to do that is for Beijing to stop manipulating governance of the city. As long as selection of the chief executive and a majority of the Legislative Council lies in Beijing’s hands, it will be difficult for the mainland to resist meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and for Hong Kongers to feel that autonomy offers them any real say over their fate.

In other words, Beijing could undercut calls for independence and interrupt the cycle of mass protests by offering Hong Kongers the ability to select their leaders through free and fair elections.

Beijing badly miscalculated in 2014 when it proposed electoral reforms that fell far short of the demands of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic camp, a coalition of parties that advocate universal suffrage. As a consequence, older, mainstream leaders lost control of the protest movement to younger, more militant activists. By 2019, young radicals resorted to violent street actions coupled with harsh anti-Beijing rhetoric. Yet a move toward democracy could still calm the waters provided the process allowed for genuine and effective local participation.

This proposal may be far-fetched. Indeed, some accounts suggest that leaders in Beijing are laying plans to move in the opposite direction by taking more direct control over Hong Kong’s political and legal institutions. Moreover, Beijing worries that full democracy in Hong Kong might lead to demands for the same elsewhere in China.

If a democratic solution to China’s Hong Kong problem appears unattractive to Beijing, the alternatives may be worse. The current cycle of provocation, protest, radicalization and rising separatism can lead to only one eventual result: a violent crackdown that would damage China’s reputation and leave it in costly occupation of a sullen and defiant population for a generation or more.

Originally published in The Conversation, January 6, 2020.

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Does BRI Provide a Pathway toward Replicating China’s Development Successes?

China’s top leadership have recently begun to tout China’s own development success as an example for others to replicate. Former Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs has claimed that “the success of the ‘Chinese model’ … offers other developing countries an option different from the ‘American model’ for economic development.” In his address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping argued that China’s successful development experience was “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is commonly viewed as the primary vehicle for promoting a China model of development. Encompassing 123 countries, the BRI commits China to provide $1 trillion in financing over the next decade for hundreds of infrastructure projects – roads, railways, ports, pipelines, electrical grids and energy plants – designed to connect both land and maritime networks stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe.

But will it work? Can other developing countries emulate China’s own economic success by riding the BRI train?

Probably not. This is because the development path promoted through the BRI is fundamentally different from China’s own experience. And where there is overlap, the BRI emulates the most problematic aspects of Chinese political economy by externalizing opaque, crony-like relations among policy banks, large state-owned construction firms and local politicians. The following comparisons underline these conclusions.

While the BRI promotes an infrastructure-first model, China’s heaviest period of infrastructure investment followed rather than preceded its most rapid era of growth.

BRI boosters view scarce infrastructure as a key bottleneck that holds back rapid development. China is offered as an example of how an infrastructure-first approach can release the genies of economic growth. In fact, however, China’s heaviest period of infrastructure spending followed, rather than preceded, rapid growth and was only possible due to earlier development successes.

To be sure, China has massively invested in network of roads, rails, airports, seaports, electrical grids, dams and pipelines. Yet state-controlled infrastructure has been less central to China’s development than the private sector, which, economist Nicholas Lardy describes as playing “a dominant role in China’s economic transformation.” As Yasheng Huang has documented, rural entrepreneurship fueled economic growth during the 1980s, well before later waves of infrastructure spending began to swell. If there was a China model during the first decades of reform, it lay in a localized, constantly evolving and experimental process that Yuen Yuen Ang has labeled “directed improvisation.”

The heaviest infrastructure spending in China has come over the past decade, during a period of declining economic growth. Beginning with the global financial crisis of 2008, Chinese leaders have relied upon construction as a prop for employment. But this overinvestment has led to diminishing returns – the incremental capital-output ratio fell by half in the decade after 2007 – as infrastructure approaches a point of saturation. Indeed, a major motivation for the BRI is to put China’s construction assets to work abroad as the need for new projects recedes at home.

A study conducted by Oxford economists recently concluded that China “is headed for an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis” as a result of wasteful and inefficient infrastructure spending. They also warned: “China is not a model to follow for other economies – emerging or developed – as regards infrastructure investing, but a model to avoid.”

In sum, the narrative that state-led infrastructure provided the special sauce of Chinese growth – and one that can be exported abroad – is flawed.

In contrast with the BRI model, Chinese growth was fueled be internal savings rather than external borrowing.

China’s extraordinarily high savings rate, accounting for close to half of GDP in recent years, has financed high levels of investment in industry and infrastructure. In contrast, infrastructure investment under BRI is explicitly linked to high levels of external borrowing. As in Latin America and Africa during the eighties and nineties, the current buildup of international debt by many developing countries may prove unsustainable.

In 2017, Bloomberg reported that of 68 countries listed as BRI partners, the sovereign debt of 27 were rated as junk or below while another 14 were not rated by the top three international rating firms or had withdrawn requests for ratings. The Center for Global Development has identified eight countries whose high level of debt distress is directly tied to Chinese lending. And two dozen countries owe China an amount exceeding 10% of their GDP.

BRI loans from the China Development Bank or the China Export-Import Bank typically carry tougher terms than those from the World Bank or other international financial institutions. Interest rates are higher and payback periods are shorter. Contracts are withheld from public view. Loans are typically tied to no-bid contracts with Chinese SEOs, which rely principally upon Chinese inputs and workers. Borrowers are required to pledge existing assets as collateral and to place significant sums in escrow accounts located within China.  Disputes must be taken to Chinese arbitration courts that apply Chinese law.

Since 2000, Chinese banks have restructured or written off 140 loans to developing countries. As the grace periods on many of the large loans of recent years expire, the need for debt restructuring will likely grow. Some recipient governments, including those in Tanzania, Malaysia, Nepal and Pakistan, have pushed back against the tough terms demanded by China by canceling or renegotiating contracts. Recipient governments have also become bolder in demanding concessions as they realize that China has, few means to compel payments from reluctant borrowers.

In short, debt-fueled development is not only risky, but also the opposite of China’s own path.

The political conditions that support infrastructure development in China do not exist in many BRI countries.

Dams, ports, highways and the like run up debt, displace people, damage the natural environment and invite corruption. For these reasons, infrastructure projects often produce popular resistance despite potential economic payoffs down the road.

An authoritarian, single-party state has certain advantages in managing such resistance. Lee Chih-horng, a research fellow at the Longus Institute in Singapore, observes that Chinese officials “can easily stifle public debate and concerns about infrastructure projects.” Legal challenges are limited by the Communist Party’s ultimate control over the court system. The state owns major media outlets and both traditional and new media are subject to various forms of censorship. Non-governmental organizations are limited in size and scope, heavily regulated and incapable of directly challenging state priorities. Grassroots protests mounted by those negatively impacted by infrastructure development are managed through a combination of repression and cooptation.

Political conditions are very different in many of the countries hosting BRI projects. Few developing country governments possess such extensive capacities to control the political risks of infrastructure development. As a result, many BRI projects have become embroiled in controversy, resistance and delay.

Popular protest has hindered BRI some projects, as in Indonesia and Myanmar and Bangladesh, perhaps due in part to the fact that, as journalist Tom Miller notes, “Chinese firms … are happy working with local elites and unelected officials, but much less adept at dealing with civil society.” In other cases, such as Kenya, courts have suspended projects for inadequate social and environmental assessment. In Pakistan, the $54 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been threatened by Baluchi separatists, who have blown up gas pipelines, assaulted Chinese engineers and attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi. The Pakistan army has deployed 10,000 troops to protect CPEC projects.

Given this track record, it is perhaps not surprising that one survey of Chinese firms found that the number one concern about investing abroad – cited by 71% of respondents – was political risk. Yin Yili, Vice President of China Communication Construction Company, has remarked that Chinese firms  “lack the ability to discern where to invest or effectively manage overseas risks.” An American Enterprise Institute study of unsuccessful overseas Chinese investment projects found that one quarter failed due to political factors. The state-owned China Export & Credit Insurance Corporation that covers government seizures, nationalization, political violence and other risks has paid out $1.73 billion on claims related to BRI investments and exports since 2013.

As projects struggle in areas of strategic interest, China will be tempted to intervene in order to safeguard its investments, its people and its political influence. The People’s Liberation Army has been instructed to develop options for protecting “overseas interests.” In some cases, China may seek to shore up repressive regimes or bypass democratic institutions in order to avert lost investments and influence. In general, China’s oft-touted foreign policy principle of non-interference in the political affairs of other countries has become increasingly untenable.

Rather than boosting developmental states, the BRI is strengthening rentier states.

Like its East Asian neighbors, China pursued rapid, export-led growth built around increasingly diverse and sophisticated manufacturing sectors grounded in close public-private partnerships led by a  “developmental state.” In China’s case, state industrial policies and the persistence of a highly concentrated state-owned sector, combined with a competitive private sector, significant foreign-owned enterprises and growth-oriented local governments.

The design of the BRI, by contrast, supports a very different model: the rentier state. Rentier state elites profit by using state resources to siphon riches from narrow flows of commodity exports. Rentier states are typically authoritarian or semi-authoritarian, rife with corruption and spend little on the supply of public goods.

A recent study released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that two thirds of developing countries remain heavily dependent upon commodity exports, including agricultural goods, energy and minerals. Rather than helping these countries to escape the economic and political burdens of dependence upon extractive industries, the BRI is serving to more deeply entrench rentier states that enrich elites via profits from commodity exports while providing few incentives for economic innovation or diversification.

Despite widespread expectations that the BRI would allow China to export labor-intensive light manufacturing to recipient countries as wages rise in China itself, this effect has mostly been limited to a few Southeast Asian countries. In Africa, by contrast, one study finds that: “few African countries have been able to benefit from large-scale Chinese investment outside the resource sector.”

This rentier state model is unlikely to yield the rapid, diversified growth that China’s developmental state achieved.

Where the BRI Model Does Replicate Aspects of Chinese Political Economy

The BRI has served as a transmission belt for the export of a particular and relatively recently consolidated fragment of China’s political economy. According to Andrew Batson, China research director for Gavekal: “The Belt and Road is really the expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy to the rest of the world. That is the nexus between state-owned contractors and state-owned banks, which formed in the domestic infrastructure building spree construction that began after the 2008 global financial crisis …..”

According to Batson, the local governments that borrowed heavily for internal Chinese infrastructure development are mirrored within the BRI by developing country recipients, which play a similar role. China’s large policy banks, such as the China Export-Import Bank and the China Development Bank, are under enormous pressure to maintain growth at home by juicing credit and to recycle China’s dollar surplus by lending abroad. Meanwhile, China’s enormous state-owned enterprises need a constant stream of infrastructure orders both at home and abroad in order to avoid mass layoffs.

Lee Jones and Zizheng Zou have argued that the BRI is less a grand strategic gambit than a response to SEO pressures as they attempt to overcome overcapacity, resource constraints and declining profits at home. As a result, central authorities struggle to exert control over banks, SEOs and local governments or to lessen the gap between broad policy pronouncements and on-the-ground realities.

The result is that the unbalanced and excessively infrastructure-heavy patterns of investment that have distorted China’s own economy over the past decade are being promoted abroad through the BRI. That is not exporting success, but replicating risk.


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A Review of Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, 2019

Reviewed by David Skidmore, Professor of Political Science, Drake University, USA.

Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order. London: Hurst. 228 pages. Hardcover, $24.14. ISBN 978-1-78738-002-8 (cloth).  Maçães, Bruno. 2019.

Bruno Maçães’ Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order offers a 30,000 foot view of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with particular focus on the ways that the BRI illuminates China’s broader grand strategy. While this approach provides interesting insights into Chinese thinking about that country’s rise and its relationship with the existing international order, it underestimates the messy, improvisational and at times incoherent nature of a project as vast and complex as the BRI.

A former Portuguese diplomat, Maçães is a hedge fund adviser and non-resident fellow with the Hudson Institute. His first book, titled The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order (2018) examined the growing integration of Europe and Asia, based upon his extensive travels across the regions.

The current book begins with an overview of the origins, purpose and scope of the Belt and Road Initiative. Maçães describes the BRI as China’s “plan to build a new world order replacing the US-led international system (5).” Much of the book elucidates the grand strategic purposes of the BRI through the prisms of philosophy, geoeconomics and geopolitics.

Maçães views China’s current foreign policy as rooted in its imperial past. China seeks to restore a modernized version of the imperial tributary system. This is captured by the Chinese principle of Tianxia (27) – All-Under-Heaven – which places China as the center of “a complex network of ties between countries” (192) built upon deep interdependence, mutual obligation and “shared destiny (26).”

This China-centered order, while hierarchical, would emphasize “win-win” cooperation. State-to-state relations would be ordered, not by formal rules and institutions, but by the willingness of dependent states to adapt themselves to the informal influence and beneficent leadership radiating from Beijing. Like China’s past imperial order, the BRI “is deliberately intended to be informal, unstructured and opaque (35).”

According to Maçães, this underlying philosophical orientation to global order is incompatible with existing Western conceptions. Having successfully resisted Western efforts to assimilate China to liberal democratic norms, China is now confidently “waging an ideological war” on the world stage (180). The BRI is thus much more than a global infrastructure project. It serves as a concrete manifestation of China’s broader philosophical challenge to the Western-designed international system.

While Chinese leaders have clearly begun to infuse concepts from China’s philosophical and historical experience into the rhetorical landscape surrounding the BRI, it remains unclear the extent to which these ideas actually drive strategic thought or policy decisions. Nor is Chinese thinking about international affairs free of contradiction. For instance, while Maçães contends that a foreign policy built upon Tianxia rejects Western respect for “the autonomy of individual units” (i.e., states) (27), Chinese leaders are among the most vocal defenders of the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs.

Moreover, the philosophical divide Maçães describes is too sharply drawn. Western theories of international relations include ideas, such as interdependence, spheres of influence and soft power, that overlap with the Chinese concepts discussed by Maçães. The recognition that great powers seek to encourage lesser powers to emulate their own political, economic and cultural models is not uniquely Chinese.

Although the BRI is structured as an informal hub-and-spokes system, China remains an active participant in many formal, legalistic, multilateral institutions. Indeed, two new international financial institutions initiated by China – the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – borrow heavily from the structures, standards and policies of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. All in all, Maçães’ notion that the BRI represents the leading edge of a Chinese campaign of ideological warfare to undermine and replace the existing international order is overblown.

A second major theme of the book focuses on the geoeconomics of the BRI. Maçães argues that the BRI provides a solution to the “middle-income trap” facing China. As wages rise within China, labor-intensive industries are moving to lower-income countries. Yet China still lacks the technological prowess or productivity levels needed to compete directly with rich countries in higher-value added industries (75-76).

The solutions are two-fold: massively invest in upgrading China’s skilled workforce and technological capacities while simultaneously “organizing and leading an increasing share of global supply chains, reserving for itself the most valuable segments of production and creating strong links of collaboration and infrastructure with other countries, whose main role in the system will be to occupy lower value segments (30).”

Maçães argues that this strategy is based upon the growing reality that “the units facing each other in the global market are no longer nations but value chains (80).” He cites a Chinese official’s remark that BRI serves as the first example of a “transnational” industrial policy (81). Chinese investment restructures other economies to complement the needs of China’s own economy.

This argument captures an important component of the rationale for the BRI. Yet Maçães downplays much evidence that China lacks the centralized, purposeful and strategic control that would be necessary to realize such feats of planning and coordination.

As Lee Jones and Jinghan Zeng (2019), have documented, the BRI is much more bottom-up than centrally directed. The impetus for the BRI came not from top officials in Beijing but from a coalition of large state-owned enterprises (SEOs) and provincial officials. For Chinese SEOs, the BRI, as well as the “going out” strategy that preceded it by more than a decade, promised solutions to problems in the home market, such as overcapacity, shortages of raw materials and declining profits as a result of rising wages.

Six years after BRI was unveiled, there remains no single bureaucratic actor with authority over the project as a whole. Rather, BRI provides what Jones and Zeng call a “policy envelope” (749-50) into which all sorts of actors insert their favored projects for funding and official blessing. On the ground, the result has been chaotic, with stories of corruption, unsustainable debt, shoddy construction, non-transparent and one-sided contracts sullying the initially positive images associated with the BRI.

As for the geopolitics of the BRI, Maçães argues that China seeks to place itself at the center of an integrated “Eurasia (45).” This evokes the ideas of Halford Mackinder (1904), father of modern geopolitics, whose writings, while not cited in the present volume, featured prominently in Maçães earlier book. Mackinder referred to Eurasia as the “world island,” control of which was essential to global dominance. Maçães views China as the latest contender for supremacy in Eurasia, with the BRI extending tentacles of influence across both Mackinder’s Heartland (the “Belt” extending through Central Asia and Eastern Europe) and the Rimlands (the maritime “Road” tracing the coastal edges of Eurasia). The main obstacles to this ambition, according to Maçães, are the off-shore and Rimland powers of the United States, Japan and India, with the latter serving a critical swing role as its refusal to join the BRI greatly complicates the underling strategic and geographic coherence of the project.

Yet unlike previous aspirants for control over the world island, China has thus far shown neither the appetite nor the ability to deploy military power for such a purpose. Even gaining naval and air supremacy in the waters off its own shoreline remains a challenge for Beijing. And without hard power to buttress the relationships of political and economic dependence created through the BRI, any Chinese ambition to gain dominance in Eurasia will remain unfulfilled. Indeed, the BRI is less about fantasies of geopolitical primacy than an attempt to ensure against China’s isolation in a world still largely structured by America and its allies.

Maçães concludes by outlining four future scenarios representing varying degrees of convergence and divergence in relations between China and the West (185-86). His own perspective tilts in the direction of growing divergence and conflict. While such an outcome is certainly possible, it is not one hard-baked into the Belt and Road Initiative itself. Although Maçães’ analysis of the BRI’s place in Chinese grand strategy is more restrained than the overwrought warnings issued from many pundits and politicians of late, he nonetheless exaggerates both the incompatibilities between the BRI and the present international order and the strategic and material capacities of Beijing to threaten the system.


Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, New York: Knopf, 2017.

Lee Jones and Jinghan Zeng, “Understanding China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: Beyond ‘Grand Strategy’ to a State Transformation Analysis,” Third World Quarterly, 2019.

Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.

Halford John Mackinder, “The Geographic Pivot of History,” The Geographic Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 1904, 421-437.






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The Democrat’s Agonizing Choice

It is possible that whichever candidate the Democrats nominate to run against Donald Trump will win. Perhaps Trump’s apparent ceiling in public approval of around 45% is also the upper limit of his share of the vote in the next election. The fact that Trump’s approval rating has been the least variable of any sitting president may suggest that how Americans respond to Trump’s strong and unusual personal characteristics will decide the next election. If so, then he will surely lose not only the popular vote but also the electoral college.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that Trump could win no matter which Democrat opposes him. In normal circumstances, an incumbent president would be almost impossible to beat given the favorable economic indicators now in evidence. True, many economists expect a slowdown ahead, but it may arrive too late to impact the general election of November, 2020. Indeed, the June employment data were unexpectedly positive, there are few signs of inflation growth and the Fed is sending signals of a possible rate cut, which might extend the current record growth stretch that is nearing a decade in length.

Under either of the above scenarios, it matters not who the Democrats nominate but instead whether votes focus more on Trump’s personality and character (since a majority disapproves, Trump loses) or upon the state of the economy (absent a serious downturn, Trump wins).

If you believe that either of these sets of factors will prove decisive, then you should vote to nominate the Democratic presidential candidate who most closely matches your own preferences, whether these center upon policies, character, experience, etc. There is no need to worry about which Democrat has the best chance to beat Trump since factors outside the control of the Democrats or their candidates will decide the outcome in any case.

At present, however, polls and other data forecast a close election, suggesting that neither judgments about the president’s personal traits nor economic fundamentals will necessarily prove decisive.

This allows for a third possibility. The election could turn on which Democrat is nominated. If this were the case, then primary/caucus voters have to consider electability. Personal preference may be trumped (so to speak) by strategic considerations. Some voters may bypass their preferred candidate in favor of someone they believe has a better chance of victory in January.

But how to figure who is more electable? There are two theories.

The conventional wisdom is summed up by the median voter theorem, which says that the candidate who most closely matches the preferences of the median voter – i.e., the voter precisely in the middle of the relevant ideological spectrum – will win. According to this theory, the Democrats should nominate a candidate most likely to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans – the swing voters who typically decide elections. Such a nominee would necessarily be more moderate (i.e., less liberal or progressive) than the majority of Democrats.

But why would Democrats nominate someone further to the right than their own position, especially if more liberal candidates are available? This could happen if the liberal vote is divided among a larger number of candidates while the moderate voters within the party gravitate to one candidate. It could also happen if Democratic voters expect a close general election and believe that a moderate candidate has a better chance of victory in the fall – i.e., if they vote strategically rather than according to ideological preference.

Recent evidence does not offer much support for the idea that the Democratic Party would have a better chance of winning by nominating someone more moderate than the party’s own center of gravity in hopes of attracting independents and some Republicans. After all, the party has nominated a long list of centrist candidates who lost – e.g., Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and Hillary Clinton. In fairness, however, Bill Clinton won by tacking to the center (but with help from Ross Perot in 1992) while Gore and Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, despite losing the electoral college.

Some advocates of the centrist strategy argue that Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss was due to poor campaign strategy rather than the ideological position of the candidate. A shift of 70,000 votes across three upper Midwest states that typically vote Democratic would have changed the outcome. Unfortunately, Clinton took victories in these states for granted and failed to devote the time or money needed to successfully defend this Democratic “blue wall.”

According to this analysis, the lesson is not to shift leftward in 2020, but instead to focus on regaining the support of the white working class voters of the Rust Belt that were lost in 2020 due to Clinton’s inattention combined with targeted appeals by Trump.

The alternative approach is to consider 2020 a base election. Rather than seeking to attract independents and moderate Republicans by tacking right, the path to victory lies in driving up enthusiasm and turnout among those groups that make up the core of Democratic Party support. This worked in 2008 when the party nominated Barack Obama, who positioned himself to the left of Clinton in the primaries (although he governed from the center in office) and who managed to increase turnout among core Democratic constituencies in the general election.

Advocates of this approach point out that there are relatively few genuine swing voters in the center. Rather, the political climate is increasingly polarized. Under these conditions, the key is to get your own people to the polls. That requires a nominee who represents the party’s own center of gravity, even if he or she is to the left of the country as a whole.

Of course, the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has moved significantly to the left in recent years. A nominee that far left could drive up turnout on the Republican side – Republicans lukewarm about Trump who would stay home if the Democrats put up a centrist candidate might feel obliged to cast a vote for Trump in order to prevent a more liberal/progressive Democrat from reaching office.

The real wild card for the Democrats are young people. Young Democrats are far more liberal than their elders. But they do not traditionally vote in large numbers. By nominating a very liberal candidate, the Democratic Party would be betting that young people would be enthused enough to vote in November. In fact, victory would probably require it. The youth vote did expand in the 2018, helping Democrats take the House. Yet it still remained low compared with older Americans.

The choice is agonizing because Democrats badly want to beat Trump. Yet young Democrats, especially, also see a historic opportunity to change the Democratic Party into one that is more inclusive, less deferential to corporate interests and less driven by caution and fear. These tensions show up in racial, regional and inter-generational divides within the party.

Another important factor has to do with down-ballot races for the Congress and state legislatures. Many of the Democrats who flipped red seats blue in 2018 ran as moderates. If the Democrats run too far to the left at the presidential level in 2020, then some of these gains could be placed at risk.

Yet progressives point to a number of high profile races in 2018 where Democrats in traditionally red or purple states either won or lost by unusually small margins by adopting a populist message that not only energized the Democratic base but also attracted traditional non-voters whose views do not fit easily within the traditional left-right spectrum. Moreover, even moderate Democrats embraced more liberal positions than in past electoral cycles. The 2018 results are thus open to interpretation.

If Trump’s approval ratings are a good predictor of the next presidential election, then any Democratic candidate is likely to win. If voters based their choice upon so-called economic fundamentals, then Trump is likely to win (unless the economy tanks between now and then).

But if 2020 turns out to be a close election – like 2016 – it could matter greatly who the Democrats nominate and what ideological and strategic choices they make. Do we need a candidate who can attract centrist voters and win back the industrial midwest? Or do we need a candidate who can bring out the base by representing the liberal values of core Democratic constituencies and young people?

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Hong Kong Erupts

The past few weeks have witnessed massive and historic protests in Hong Kong. One demonstration brought an estimated 2 million people (out of a population of 7 million) into the streets. Most recently, a small group of protesters escalated matters by occupying and defacing the Legislative Council Building, a move that will surely bring further confrontations with police and threatens to dissipate the broad-based support for the original protests.

In the face of massive resistance, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been compelled to “suspend” a proposed extradition law that would have opened the way for China to gain access to criminal defendants for trial in mainland courts for certain types of crimes. Lam also promised to pay more heed to public sentiment and consult more broadly in the future. But Lam’s failure to fully withdraw the extradition bill and her unwillingness so far to heed demands that she resign from office have ensured continued unrest.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement failed in its efforts to force Beijing to allow the fully democratic election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Subsequently, several leaders of the 2014 protests were jailed and several young militants elected to the Legislative Council were removed over their failure to properly repeat the oath of office. These and other recent setbacks for Hong Kong’s democracy movement failed to stimulate large protests or force a change in course on the part of Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved leaders.

Why has the current case proved so different? Although the 2014 protests brought tens of thousands of dedicated demonstrators into the streets and managed to cut off a key transportation artery for close to three months, the movement was unable to draw the broad-based popular support that the anti-extradition protests have marshaled. This is partly because many Hong Kongers saw Beijing’s proposed election reform  of 2014 as a step forward (it would have allowed the Chief Executive to be selected through popular vote as opposed to chosen by a 1200 person Elective Committee largely controlled by mainland authorities; however, the nomination process itself would still be managed by the Election Committee, ensuring, in practice, that representatives from the pan-Democratic camp would never be allowed to run for Chief Executive) while the critics failed to coalesce around a clear alternative.

Moreover, the confusing strategy pursued by the pro-democracy camp ensured that the old election procedures remained in place, even though they were less democratic than the alternative advanced by Beijing.

The Umbrella Movement included some voices that called not just for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but also for independence from China. Many Hong Kongers reject independence, either because they share a sense of political identification with China or because they fear provoking Beijing into a crackdown against all dissent in Hong Kong.

In sum, the issues and strategic questions raised by the Umbrella Movement limited the breadth of support that it could muster. The fact that Hong Kong authorities avoided tough tactics and simply allowed the protests to collapse from sheer exhaustion also played a role in the movement’s failure.

Yet the failure of the Umbrella Movement is actually an aberration in the record of popular protest in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers took to the streets in massive numbers in 2003 to oppose a proposed “anti-subversion” law that would have curtailed political rights and free expression. In 2011, a student group called Scholarism gained popular support for its objections to a proposal originating in Beijing for the infusion of pro-Communist “moral and national education” into Hong Kong schools. As with the extradition bill, the Hong Kong government was forced to shelve both measures. These examples show that popular pressure can work in Hong Kong.

Whereas Beijing’s election proposal of 2014 was seen by some as a step in the right direction, the extradition bill was viewed with alarm because it potentially subjected Hong Kong citizens (as well as visitors) to a mainland legal system that most view as arbitrary and unfair.

Crucially, big business interests in Hong Kong – ordinarily eager to align with Beijing’s preferences – opposed the extradition bill out of fear that they would be caught up in the mainland’s anti-corruption campaign. Many Hong Kong business leaders are vulnerable due to histories of bribe-paying or engagement in illicit activities, such as the use of prostitutes. Although Lam narrowed the scope of the bill, this failed to curb concerns from the business community.

The extradition controversy also led to calls by some American elected officials and pundits for the withdrawal of Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States if the bill went through. The prospect that extradition issue might hand the Trump Administration another club with which to threaten Beijing in the ongoing trade war increased pressure on Lam to back down.

Lam’s apparent failure to anticipate popular revulsion at the extradition proposal underscores the appalling political record of the Chief Executives installed by Beijing since the 1997 handover. The first CE, Tung Chee-hwa, was forced to resign after he mismanaged the 2003 anti-sedition law controversy and lost the confidence of Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005. Donald Tsang, CE from 2007-2012, was plagued by scandals and convicted on corruption charges after leaving office (although the conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal). CE Leung Chun-ying left office after a single term with abysmal public approval ratings.

Like her predecessors, Carrie Lam has proven unable to manage the unique challenges facing any Hong Kong Chief Executive. The CE in Hong Kong lacks the legitimacy that a popular electoral mandate would provide. With backgrounds in public administration or business, the occupants to date have lacked practical political experience. They are ultimately answerable to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, yet must also appear responsive to popular sentiment and to the local business and professional constituencies that dominate the Legislative Council and the Hong Kong economy. The CE must try to lead a city that falls under China’s sovereign rule and is utterly dependent upon the mainland but that also possesses a wavering autonomy subject to constant contestation.

The “one country, two systems” formula has proven unsuccessful at ensuring political stability and stable governance in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s youth are pessimistic about the future and are increasingly attracted to militancy in their periodic confrontations with Beijing and its local partners. The Hong Kong people’s spirited defense of the rule of law and the civil liberties that they have largely enjoyed to date is admirable. Whether it will be enough to ensure Hong Kong’s distinctive place within China’s orbit remains unclear.


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Exaggerating the Present Danger – Then and Now

A marker of mature statecraft is the ability to assess international challenges and devise appropriate responses with prudence, dispassion and proportionality. Despite decades of global leadership, however, American diplomacy remains given to bouts of adolescent hysteria. These fevered crusades have produced some of the costliest mistakes in American foreign policy, such as the vast overkill of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup and the disastrous wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

This reflex has more to do with domestic politics than the realities of international competition. As political scientist Theodore Lowi observed, U.S. leaders routinely exaggerate foreign threats and oversell proposed solutions as means to free themselves from the shackles of democratic government.

The Trump Administration’s alarmist rhetoric about China offers a case in point. The 2018 National Defense Strategy asserts that Chinese leaders seek the “displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence.” Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have each issued panicky public assessments of the China threat designed to prepare the American public for the demands of renewed great power confrontation.

Echoing Lowi, Aaron Friedberg, former national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, recently advised that if the Trump Administration is serious about mobilizing domestic support for a Cold War with China, then it must “cast the challenge … in ideological terms” since “what has moved and motivated the American people is a recognition that the principles on which their system is founded are under threat.”

Threat Inflation and the Truman Doctrine

President Harry Truman established the model for such “sky is falling” rhetoric when, on March 12 1947, he sounded the opening bell of the emerging Cold War in a speech to a joint session of Congress. As he wrestled with the speech, Truman worried over how to rally the public behind a grand struggle against the Soviet Union. After all, Americans yearned for a respite from international conflict and a return to the isolationism of the pre-war years. Truman consulted with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who offered a clear answer – Truman must “scare the hell out of the country” by underlining the communist threat to American values.

Following Vandenberg’s advice, the Truman Doctrine offered a sweeping vision of America’s new world role: “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

It worked. Congress not only approved aid packages to Greece and Turkey, but also the far more ambitious Marshall Plan, pitched as a Cold War necessity.

Committees on the (Ever) Present Danger

Yet the task of whipping up public support for a confrontational foreign policy has never fallen solely to the White House. A bipartisan foreign policy establishment – what President Dwight Eisenhower once referred to as the “military-industrial complex” – has mobilized at critical moments to rally support for higher military spending. These groups often work in coordination with like-minded presidents, but have also at times challenged the foreign policies of presidents perceived as overly dovish.

The most storied among these has been the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). Established in December 1950, the original CPD consisted of a group of high-level national security professionals who sought congressional support for the recommendations of NSC-68, a strategic planning document that called for a tripling of U.S. defense spending. Following a campaign of editorials, lectures, Congressional testimony and expert reports by CPD members, Congress responded with major increases in defense spending.

Whereas the first CPD’s aims were in sync with those of the Truman Administration, a second CPD launched in 1976 arose in opposition to the perceived dovishness of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The revived CPD sought to undercut détente with the Soviet Union and reverse the military drawdown that followed the Vietnam War. The group cultivated press contacts, sent members on speaking tours and prepared a series of statements on defense, arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations.

The first such statement declared: “The principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup.”

The committee enjoyed a coup soon after its founding.  CPD members asserted that the National Intelligence Estimates prepared annually by the CIA understated the Soviet danger.  Stung by these criticisms, outgoing President Ford took the extraordinary step of appointing a “Team B” of conservative defense experts from outside government to prepare a report paralleling the CIA’s normal efforts.  Dominated by CPD members, “Team B” produced an assessment of Soviet capabilities and intentions considerably more pessimistic than that prepared by the CIA’s regular “Team A”. CIA Director George Bush subsequently ordered “Team A” to “substantially revise its draft” to produce “an estimate that in all its essential points agreed with Team B’s position.” This episode paved the way for a series of alarmist intelligence reports that overstated the Soviet threat, according to a 1983 CIA reappraisal.

Similarly, Carter sought to co-opt hawkish critics by inviting CPD members to participate in a global strategic review labeled PRM 10. Carter also summoned top CPD members to the White House where he pleaded with them to tone down their attacks on his administration’s arms control efforts.  In return, Carter promised the group private access to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.

Yet conservative criticisms persisted as the CPD warned: “Pursuing a policy built on illusion, we have been adrift and uncertain while the Soviet Union expanded its power and empire.”

A bruising battle over the SALT II Treaty ensued. CPD members testified against SALT II before Senate committees and participated in 479 television and radio programs, press conferences, public debates, briefings of influential citizens, and speeches.  The committee distributed 200,000 pamphlets. As hopes for ratification dimmed, Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.  According to former Secretary of States Cyrus Vance: “There is no doubt that the Committee on the Present Danger had a great deal to do with undermining SALT.”

A third iteration of the CPD emerged in 2004 with the mission of rallying the American people against “radical Islamists” who “threaten the safety of the American people and millions of others who prize liberty.” Many of the group’s more than 100 members, were closely aligned with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which played a major role in building the case for the war in Iraq.

Seeking a New Cold War

The most recent iteration of this group – now called the Committee on the Present Danger: China (CPDC) – was unveiled at a press event in Washington, D.D. on April 9, 2019, featuring remarks by Senator Ted Cruz, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon. The CPDC seeks to build political support for assertive policies toward China and a sustained military buildup following a period of flat defense budgets between 2011 and 2017.

The CPDC claims that Chinese leaders seek to “weaken and ultimately defeat America” and “subvert Western democracies” in order to clear China’s path to “global hegemony.” After “decades of American miscalculation, inaction and appeasement,” the group calls on the United States to meet this challenge by “mobiliz[ing] all instruments of national power.” To those who might seek accommodation with Chinese leaders, the CPDC warns that there exists “no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.”

The Danger of Overselling Threats

Notwithstanding the difficult challenges China’s rise presents, the anti-China campaign emanating from the White House and the CPDP remains vastly exaggerated even set alongside previous bouts of fear-mongering. The military and ideological threats posed by China today pale in comparison with those presented by the former Soviet Union, while China is far more deeply integrated into the global economy and international institutions than the USSR ever was. Far from seeking to export revolution or overturn the existing international order, China seeks reform of and greater status and influence within that order. China’s rise in power has been inflated while its internal and external challenges are too little appreciated. Meanwhile, America’s own continuing strengths are too often underestimated. Finally, in contrast with the Cold War, America’s allies are unlikely to follow the U.S. down the path of an unrestrained effort to weaken and contain China.

In political terms, however, such efforts to once again “scare hell out of the country” make perfect sense. Hawkish advocates of increased military spending win domestic support by amplifying public perceptions of external threat.

Yet these periodic scare campaigns pose real dangers. Most obviously, they unnecessarily exacerbate international conflict. The rhetoric of threat inflation, even when intended for a domestic audience, can raise fears on the part of rival states. Moreover, rhetoric that demonizes another great power shifts the terms of rivalry from concrete conflicts of interest over which compromise may be possible toward ideological contests that are far less amenable to resolution.

Once the public is fully mobilized, moreover, it can be difficult to dial down the fear once a president finds it expedient to do so. Having defined the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil, Truman suffered accusations of treason once he pragmatically concluded that the U.S. could not stop communist victory in the Chinese civil war. Likewise, the CPD’s heated rhetoric set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy to gain political influence by mounting a Red Scare that eventually targeted even the Eisenhower Administration.

At present, there is little indication that the American public is ready to sign up for a Manichean struggle with China. Yet, as the history of the CPD suggests, alarmism often works. The recent chill in U.S.-China relations could thus give way to a deep freeze that works to the detriment of the peoples of both countries.

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Why China’s Reputation for Long-Range Planning is Exaggerated

As Americans confront a long-term contest for global influence against a rising China, one common source of worry is China’s supposed superior capacity for long-range planning over that of our own national leadership. According to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, China’s authoritarian leaders are masters of long-range strategic planning informed by timeless principles derived from China’s rich history and culture. China expert Michael Pillsbury – reportedly an influential outside adviser to President Donald Trump – goes so far as to claim that China’s leadership follows a secret century-long plan for achieving global dominance by 2049.

The vision of American politicians, meanwhile, extends no further than the next election while corporate leaders are at the mercy of investor responses to quarterly stockholder reports. America’s twenty-four hour news cycle forces leaders into reactive mode and provides little incentive for long-term thinking.

Yet this contrast is wildly off-base. China’s reputation for wise long-range planning is vastly overrated. Over and over, the Chinese Communist Party has prioritized near-term economic growth and political stability even when doing so produced predictably negative long-term consequences. Three examples serve to illustrate this point.

Population Policy

China’s one child policy, adopted in 1979, produced a three-decade demographic sweet-spot. The growing workforce of the 1980s and 1990s supported unusually small cohorts of young and old. In other words, China enjoyed an age dependency ratio highly favorable for economic growth.

Yet even without considering the doubtful ethics of such a draconian policy, Beijing’s approach to managing overpopulation set China on the path toward an approaching demographic time bomb. The youth cohorts entering the workforce are too small to replace the much larger cohorts now reaching retirement age. As a result, China’s workforce has entered a period of steep decline. Fewer workers will be called upon to support a growing number of elderly Chinese. The average age of the workforce will also rise rapidly and indeed will exceed that of the United States by mid-century.

In a society with strong cultural biases favoring males, the one child policy also prompted parents to employ illegal sex-selective abortion to rid themselves of female fetuses. As a result, China has a highly skewed sex ratio of males to females. Tens of millions of low-status males face bleak marriage prospects, rendering them ripe for involvement in escalating social unrest.

Having rigidly stuck with its questionable one-child policy for far too long, Beijing’s recent loosening will do little to alter the demographic challenges ahead.

Environmental Policy

Likewise, the Chinese leadership’s long-pursued policy of sacrificing the environmental quality of the nation’s water, air and land in favor of rapid economic growth similarly illustrates Beijing’s preference given to short-term over long-term considerations in planning. For decades, China’s conscious choice to ignore negative environmental externalities artificially boosted growth figures while hiding the clean-up costs and long-term health impacts that must now be borne.

As growing popular anger over air and water pollution became a source of political risk to the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing launched an increasingly aggressive anti-pollution campaign over the past decade. Yet restructuring the economy out of dirty industries and cleaning up the sky-high levels of accumulated pollution from past decades is expensive. Anti-pollution spending during the current five-year economic plan amounts to $1 trillion. The stark choices China now faces could have been softened through a more prudent approach to balancing growth with the environment in the past.

Economic Policy

Finally, a massive stimulus program in 2008 as a response to the global financial crisis allowed China to avoid a serious economic downturn at the time, but also set China on a path wherein the economy became dependent upon continual credit expansion. Overall public and private debt in China rose from 162% of GDP in 2008 to 266% of GDP in 2017 – the highest of any major economy in the world. As a result, massive bailouts will be required to manage the unsustainable debt levels of state-owned enterprises. In an effort to boost employment, China has vastly overinvested in both infrastructure and heavy industries such as steel and autos, with the result that many factories operate at a fraction of their capacity. Indeed, the amount of investment needed to produce an additional unit of GDP growth has doubled since the early 2000s.

Is Authoritarianism Superior at Planning?

There are other examples. The overly rapid expansion of higher education has compromised quality and produced large numbers of graduates working at low-level jobs for which they are overqualified. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has reversed the relative liberalization that occurred under his predecessors, with the result that the cost of internal security is rising while the flow of information necessary for social and economic innovation is declining.

China’s past successes, impressive as they undoubtedly are, may not be a good indicator of what is to come. Many of the plans that stimulated growth and secured political stability during recent decades focused on short- and medium-term results while ignoring long-term costs that are now becoming apparent.

The belief that Chinese leaders have greater freedom to think and plan long-term than their American counterparts is rooted in the view that democracy is more a hindrance than an asset. Yet while American politicians worry about reelection, they seldom doubt that the public considers the basic institutions of democracy legitimate. Not so for Communist Party leaders, which is why they respond so vigorously to any hint of unrest and why they place priority on short-term growth even when such policies produce long-run pain.

Moreover, democracy and markets both provide feedback mechanisms that signal when governments or firms are on the wrong path, allowing corrective action to take place. Once a CCP policy becomes entrenched – such as the one-child policy, or environmentally destructive economic practices, or overinvestment in infrastructure and excessive reliance upon debt – feedback signals are too muted and mechanisms of accountability too weak to ensure a change in course. These shortcomings partly explain why so few of the economic reforms approved at the 18th Communist Party Congress of 2012 have actually been implemented thus far.

None of this is to deny that long-range planning faces a different and also powerful set of obstacles in the United States. Even so, however, we should not be misled by the erroneous notion that China possesses some unique successful capacity for vision and long-range planning. Rather than look with longing upon China’s authoritarian model, we should seek ways to enhance the capacity for strategic, long-term thinking within the context of our own democratic institutions.

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When Presidents Defend the Indefensible: Comparing George H.W. Bush’s Handling of U.S. China Policy after the Tiananmen Crackdown with Trump’s Saudi Challenge Today

The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush threw into stark relief the contrasts between the internationalist foreign policy of the elder Bush and the “America First” approach of current President Donald Trump. Yet most observers have overlooked important parallels between the foreign policy preferences of these two Republican presidents.

Consider the dovetailing of Bush’s death with the explosive debate between President Trump and Congressional leaders over U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Following reports about Saudi involvement in the grisly murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, as well as the increasingly dire humanitarian disaster in Yemen, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution rebuking Saudi leaders over the killing of Khashoggi and withdrawing U.S. military assistance for Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. The resolution marked a rare Congressional invocation of the 1973 War Powers Act, through which the Congress, following the Vietnam debacle, sought to reestablish control over the commitment of military forces abroad. While the House leadership declined to bring the resolution to a vote, Congressional efforts to place constraints on U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia are expected to resume with the seating of the new Congress.

For his part, President Trump rushed to defend Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom many suspect of ordering the Khashoggi murder, and to preserve strong ties with America’s long-time Persian Gulf ally. This clash between the president and the Congress over U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia calls to mind George H.W. Bush’s battles with the Congress over U.S. China policy in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, a case about which I have written. Both presidents placed strategic and economic interests over human rights concerns in dealing with authoritarian governments under fire for brutal methods. Facing Congressional revolt against such coldly calculating realism, both Bush and Trump sought to beat back challenges to executive branch prerogatives in the management of U.S. foreign policy.

But while Bush and Trump shared a common desire to overlook human rights where close ties with embattled authoritarian regimes served perceived American interests, they differed in their approach to fending off Congressional challenges. Trump has parroted Saudi Arabia’s every-changing and unconvincing explanations for Khashoggi’s death while citing lucrative arms sales as a reason to avoid a rupture in relations with the Kingdom.

Bush’s realist rationale for seeking to preserve U.S. ties with China was not dissimilar to that of Trump today, but Bush sought to avoid a straight-up clash with idealist defenders of human rights. Instead, he attempted, with considerable success, to control the framing of the Tiananmen issue in ways that blunted Congressional interference and limited the negative impact on U.S.-China relations. In contrast, Trump’s less politically adroit handling of Congressional anger over the Khashoggi incident leaves the future of U.S. ties with the Saudi royal family in question.

Revisiting the Tiananmen Crackdown

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese leadership violently crushed a months-long pro-democracy demonstration led by students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Thousands of people lost their lives in Beijing and other urban areas and many more were arrested or fled into exile.

While the media and Congressional leaders of both parties condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre and immediately called for punitive measures aimed at Beijing, Bush and his aides adopted a very different tone. Secretary of State James Baker suggested: “it would appear that there maybe was some violence on both sides” and cautioned against interfering with the domestic affairs of other countries. Bush himself rejected sanctions or the recall of the U.S. Ambassador to China, instead counseling Americans: “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States.”

Bush’s reaction stemmed from his realist approach to international affairs – acquired at the feet of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – which prized order over justice and feared the international consequences of a China’s potential descent into domestic instability.

Congressional critics, by contrast, emphasized the need for American to stand up for human rights, lambasting Bush for coddling what Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi called the “butchers of Beijing.” A strong shift in public opinion against China, especially among Chinese-Americans, no doubt also encouraged Congressional pushback against Bush’s conciliatory policy toward China.

As the debate unfolded, Bush faced three main Congressional challenges to his control over U.S. China policy. Critics in the Congress sought to 1. impose punitive sanctions on China, 2. extend the visas of Chinese students (many of whom had supported the Tiananmen demonstrations) currently studying in the U.S. and 3. withhold Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status for Chinese exports to the U.S. Bush was forced to compromise on the first two challenges, but won an outright victory in the contest over China’s MFN status.

Bush quickly concluded that he would lose a debate that turned squarely upon a clash between his own realist perspective and the idealist, human rights views of many opponents. Passions were too high for realism to gain traction under such circumstances. Instead, Bush reframed each of the three above choices in ways that preserved his own flexibility and blunted the negative impacts on U.S.-China relations.


In the sanctions case, Bush accepted his opponents’ objective of democratizing China, but argued that engagement rather than sanctions offered the best route to that end: “As people have commercial incentives, whether it’s in China or in other totalitarian countries, the move to democracy becomes inexorable.” This appeal robbed Bush’s critics of a clear target and stole some of their moral thunder by transforming the debate into one over means, not ends.

When it became clear that the Congress would, nevertheless, pass a strong sanctions bill with a veto-proof majority, Bush abandoned efforts to thwart the move, instead pushing Congress to include provisions allowing the president flexibility in implementing sanctions. This shifted the argument into one about the proper role of the executive and the legislature in managing U.S. foreign policy. Bush made the case that Congressional action is a blunt tool that can hamstring the presidents’ ability to respond to changing circumstances.

Congress typically defers to such reasoning by inserting waiver provisions in sanctions legislation. The House bill indeed granted the president the prerogative to waive sanctions if he determined it in “the national security interest” of the U.S. to do so. The Senate bill, by contrast, substituted the term “national interest” for “national security interest.”

Bush preferred the looser Senate language since, as one State Department official proclaimed, the “national interest” loophole was so gaping that “you can defi­nitely drive a Boeing 757 through” Indeed, after the conference committee passed final legislation with the Senate language, Bush proceeded to use the “national interest” waiver provision to allow the sale of Boeing aircraft, along with much else, to China. Within a year of the Tiananmen crackdown, Bush had gutted the practical impact of sanctions through such means.

The Pelosi Bill

The Pelosi Bill offered extended visas for the 40,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. This was a popular move since many of the students had spoken out in favor of the Tiananmen demonstrations and feared punishment should they be forced to return home. Bush had no desire to expose the Chinese students to harm, but he did worry about the reaction of Chinese leaders to the humiliation they would associate with enactment of such legislation. Indeed, China threatened to cut off all student exchanges if the Pelosi Bill became law.

The Chinese also indicated that they would find an executive order offering equivalent protection to the students less objectionable than a law. An executive order, after all, could be easily reversed by the president while a law could not. Bush in fact offered to issue an executive order if the Pelosi Bill were rejected by the Congress.

Instead, the first version of the bill passed unanimously in the House and suffered only a single nay vote in the Senate. The chances that Bush would prevail appeared dismal. In early December 1989, however, the White House revealed that Deputy Secretary of State Larence Eagleberger and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft were then meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing. While in Beijing, Scowcroft assured Chinese leaders that he and his entourage had “come as friends” and added that “we extend our hand in friendship and hope that you will do the same.” A week later, CNN reported that Scowcroft and Eagleberger had travelled secretly to China the previous July, at a time when the Bush Administration had proclaimed a ban on high-level contacts with Chinese officials.

These revelations brought swift condemnations from Democratic Congressional leaders. Sensing an opening, Bush mounted an extensive lobbying effort aimed at Senate Republicans centered on the message that the Democrats had now turned the Pelosi Bill into a partisan issue and were trying to weaken Republicans heading into the mid-term elections by handing Bush a humiliating loss.

This gambit paid off. In the end, thirty seven Republican Senators reversed course by voting to uphold Bush’s veto of the Pelosi Bill. Shifting the frame from one focused on the humanitarian needs of the Chinese students to one that highlighted the partisan stakes at issue allowed Bush to limit the damage to U.S.-China ties and avoid conceding executive prerogatives to the Congress.

Most Favored Nation (MFN) Status

The third, and the most important in terms of its potential political and economic impact, debate concerned Congressional efforts to withdraw Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status from China. Without MFN, U.S. tariffs on goods imported from China would rise to prohibitive levels, thus undermining one of the emerging pillars of U.S.-China cooperation.

The debate focused less on whether to renew MFN than the question of whether MFN should be conditioned upon various Chinese steps to improve human rights. In 1991 and 1992, both the House and the Senate passed – with large majorities – bills that would have withdrawn MFN status unless strict conditions were met. In both years, Bush’s veto of these anti-MFN bills was narrowly upheld in the Senate.

Bush’s lobbying strategy, while it failed to change the minds of roughly 85% of the members of Congress, succeeded in assembling a blocking minority in the Senate by emphasizing the economic costs of severing U.S.-China trade ties. Bush worked closely with private sector lobbyists, including those representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Association of Manufacturers. The White House and business lobbyists reminded Senators that the withdrawal of MFN status would likely prompt Chinese retaliation against U.S. exports of wheat, soybeans and aircraft to China. These appeals held special force with Senators from states that depended upon exports to China.

In 1991, for instance, Bush gained the support of seven Democratic Senators from farm states that exported heavily to China. Two Republican Senators from Oregon, a state that depended upon timber exports to China, also voted to uphold Bush’s veto. Although majorities in both chambers supported strict MFN conditions, Bush’s focus on commercial interests and the White House’s coordination with business groups made a crucial difference at the margin. While giving some ground in the debates over sanctions and the Pelosi Bill, Bush’s MFN victories preserved an economic relationship that blossomed in later years to become critical to both countries. Bush’s efforts also sent a clear signal to Beijing that human rights abuses and authoritarianism would not serve as insuperable obstacles to China’s growing integration into the U.S.-led international order.

Defending the Indefensible

Like Bush before him, Trump seeks to ward off Congressional measures that would strain U.S.-Saudi ties and cut off U.S. support for Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Also like Bush, Trump is in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible. In both cases, Bush and Trump were concerned not only to preserve relations with autocratic states guilty of human rights abuses, they also sought to defend unimpeded presidential control over U.S. foreign policy from Congressional interference.

Without considering the merits of his position, it is evident that Bush’s deft political maneuvering blunted Congressional demands by shifting the debate’s frame away from the ideological ground that favored his opponents to institutional, partisan and commercial frames that played to his own advantage. Whether the (putative) author of The Art of the Deal is capable of such tactical adroitness remains to be seen.

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Text of public talk delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000

David Skidmore
Drake University

As we honor MLK, we also remember the names of the many courageous individuals who fought alongside him to expand the scope of freedom and opportunity in this country – Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Roger Wilkins and so many others that we could never hope to name them all here today. In fact, millions of Americans marched, sang, signed petitions and sometimes braved jail to challenge racial exclusion and oppression in this country. The crusade for civil rights was not about politics as usual, but was instead a vast, bottom up movement for social change.

With the Iowa caucuses almost upon us, we are in a season of conventional politics. But today I want to talk with you about movement politics and its potential to alter the terms of debate not just here in the US, but at the global level. Conventional politics revolves around politicians, political parties, political action committees, lobbying groups. Its highest expression is the vote and many have sacrificed and even died to expand access to the ballot box. Conventional politics is honorable and necessary. It is how we pick our leaders and choose between policy A and policy B.

But moments of profound and positive social change in this country have arisen not from conventional politics, but from movement politics – the unconventional churning of popular passion and creativity around basic demands for justice, freedom and democracy. The labor movement. The women’s movement. The peace movement. The environmental movement. The civil rights movement. These social movements shared certain traits in common. All were decentralized and non-hierarchical in structure. All based their strength upon grassroots support. All of these movements began outside of the boundaries of conventional politics. They depended upon dramatic applications of direct action – the labor strike, the hunger strike, the boycott, mass marches and civil disobedience. They all sought not just to tinker with existing policies, but to shift the moral center of gravity in the society at large. And all were controversial and even vilified in their day.

And yet in each case, movement politics changed the nature of conventional politics as ideas that were once considered radical and unthinkable came to be embraced within the system. The labor movement resulted in the 8 hour day, the minimum wage and the Wagner Act of the 1930s, which confirmed the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. The Vietnam-era peace movement led to the War Powers Act and the end of US involvement in a futile and bloody conflict. The environmental movement led to the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the women’s movement has led to the change of thousands of laws that have enhanced the rights and opportunities of women. Movement politics matters. Movement politics works.

As the title of my talk suggests, I want to argue that we have entered an era in which movement politics has shifted from the national to the global level. We have all heard the pundits talk about “globalization” and its significance for our daily lives. Our economy is more and more dependent upon those of other countries. Multinational corporations weave together operations that span the globe. Money and capital cross national boundaries in vast sums. The internet connects people from around the world. Vast media networks transmit cultural images far beyond their places of origin. Immigration results in massive movements of people from one place to another. We increasingly confront problems such as global warming or the spread of AIDS that cannot be resolved on a national level alone.

For better or worse, globalization is a fact of life. But a crucial question remains to be decided: What kind of globalization? In simplified terms, we face a choice between corporate globalism and grassroots globalism. Corporate globalism is a top down, elite controlled process driven by the search for profit. Grassroots globalism is a bottom up, democratic process driven by human needs and the quest for solidarity among peoples of different cultures and nationalities. The choice between these competing visions will determine the kind of world we bequeath to our children.

Corporate globalism is not evil. Nor is the desire for profit. Large corporations provide many of the products and services that enrich our lives daily. But the corporate vision is too narrow and too exclusionary. The profit motive does not respect the human need for community. It does not provide for those who fall behind in a hyper-competitive marketplace. It does not acknowledge the limits to growth or the need for environmental sustainability. It does not comprehend the value of cultural diversity. The corporate vision of globalization is dangerously myopic.

It is as a response to the limitations of corporate globalism that we are now witnessing the globalization of movement politics. The spread and deepening of transnational social movements has been quietly progressing for many years now. For the media, however, the battle in Seattle during the recent meeting of the World Trade Organization was the coming out party for this new kind of politics. Seattle became the focal point for a wide variety of groups that are demanding a more democratic and humane vision of globalization.

The rules of the existing world economic order focus predominantly upon corporate rights. Barriers to trade have been lowered. Multinational corporations have gained equal treatment under national laws. Intellectual property has been protected. But the emphasis is one sided. Grassroots global movements are now demanding that trade agreements establish minimum labor standards, that governments and corporations take steps to ensure that economic growth is environmentally sustainable, that poor countries be relieved of the crushing international debt burdens that create so much human misery.

But grassroots globalism extends beyond the international economy. Transnational social movements are addressing global issues such as peace, human rights, poverty, gender equality and the protection of indigenous cultures. These movements tie together activists from countries around the world. The internet serves as the primary medium of communication. And a commitment to democratic values serves as the core procedural norm.

Grassroots Globalism has already achieved important victories. The International Treaty to Ban Landmines was the product of over 1400 non-governmental organizations working to pressure governments to take action to rid the world of the estimated 100 million deadly mines that now plague countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. The global warming agreement would not have come about without the persistence of hundreds of environmental groups from around the world. The human rights movement can take a large share of credit for the new International Criminal Court that will someday bring to justice those guilty of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Americans play a major role in each of these networks. It is therefore ironic that the US government has yet to sign either the landmine or the ICC agreements and has signed but not ratified the global warming treaty. The US is also one of only a few countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. As the world blazes new trails of cooperation, the US has fallen behind.

Governments are not the only targets of grassroots globalism. Transnational social movements have often campaigned to change corporate practices directly. An example concerns the issue of old growth forests, which play a critical role in maintaining global biological diversity. The Rainforest Action Network has demanded that the major home improvement retail stores make a commitment to phase out the marketing of products made with old growth wood. For several years now, RAN has organized protests and boycotts aimed at Home Depot and similar stores.

Last spring, a group of students from Drake, ISU and Grinnell held a protest at Home Depot as part of this campaign. By the fall of last year, Home Depot had capitulated, promising to phase out old growth wood. Lowes followed suit. The campaign then shifted to Menards. A group of students in my Grassroots Globalism class took part in another protest at Menards last Fall. This time the students engaged in civil disobedience, locking themselves down in the parking lot. 16 students were arrested by Des Moines police. One of those students was named Priscilla Wyman. When a reporter from the Des Moines Register asked Priscilla why she choose arrest in order to make her point, Priscilla pulled from her pocket a piece of paper that she carries with her. It contained a quote from Martin Luther King taken from his letter from the Birmingham jail:

You may well ask: Why direct action?…Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Movement politics is alive and well. And it remains as essential today as during King’s day. Today’s activists are working on a broader scale than ever before. The entire globe is their canvass. But they stand on the shoulders of those who came before and showed the way.




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Review of Betty Glad, An Amateur in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors and the Making of American Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press, 2009

David Skidmore
Drake University

Betty Glad’s examination of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy record focuses on the president’s relationship with his principal advisors. Her thesis is relatively straightforward: Carter sought to pursue an idealistic foreign policy which produced some real successes, but which also suffered from complications resulting from Carter’s own inexperience and his inability to reconcile his own moralism with the realities of power politics. Over time, Carter abandoned essential elements of his initially liberal approach to foreign policy in favor of an increasingly hard line Cold War approach. This turn was crucially influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who pushed aside Cyrus Vance and Carter’s other top foreign policy advisors through a combination of Machiavellian bureaucratic maneuvering and his own personal relationship with Carter. The end result was a disappointing and contradictory foreign policy record that departed in dramatic ways from the tone and substance of Carter’s early promises.

This is not an original interpretation. The factors that Glad emphasizes – Carter’s moralism, his inexperience and his inability to manage conflicts among his foreign policy advisors – have been conventional wisdom at least since the publication of Gaddis Smith’s Morality, Reason and Power. Other works that take a similar interpretation include Donald Spencer, The Carter Implosion: Jimmy Carter and the Amateur Style of Diplomacy; Richard Thorton, The Carter Years: Toward a New Global Order and Scott Kaufman, Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration.

Glad’s interpretation is as vulnerable to critique as the conventional wisdom it so closely mirrors. By focusing so narrowly on Carter’s personal characteristics and his relationships with key advisors, Glad misses the larger contexts, both international and domestic, in which decisions were made during the Carter years. And these contexts were arguably far more determining of Carter’s successes, failures and changes in direction than the twists and turns of the inner workings of the White House.

Carter’s moralism and inexperience in foreign affairs, for instance, are both vastly overemphasized by Glad and many other commentators. The priority goals that Carter and his team set for themselves in foreign affairs – strategic arms control with the Soviet Union, normalization of relations with China, the pursuit of Middle East peace, the conclusion of a canal treaty with Panama, the restoration of America’s image abroad and at home in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, the continuation of progress toward reduced barriers to trade in the global economy and gaining greater freedom from dependence on foreign oil – were inherited from previous administrations and represented objectives widely shared among moderate to liberal factions of the foreign policy elite. The connecting thread among these goals was the need to adjust to tightening international constraints on U.S. power and influence flowing from the rise of the Soviet Union to strategic parity, the growth of international economic challenges from Western Europe and Japan, the rise of Third World nationalism, the growing power of OPEC and the damage to U.S. prestige caused by failure in Vietnam.

Carter major achievements in office – SALT II (the terms of which were observed by both powers despite lack of ratification), the Panana Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe, the recognition of China, the promotion of energy security (greater conservation, fuel switching to coal and natural gas in power plants, development of Alaskan oil fields, the filling of the strategic oil reserve, etc.), and the conclusion of the Tokyo Round of GATT negotiations – each served to relieve some of the international pressures and constraints that threatened U.S. interests during the seventies. These policies represented pragmatic responses to ongoing problems and should not be interpreted as expressions of Carter’s supposed moralism or a resurrected Wilsonian impulse. There is a coherence to Carter’s initial policy agenda that is often missed or misunderstood.

Indeed, Carter’s human rights rhetoric represented both a shrewd tactic for gaining office in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and a means for restoring America’s claim to the moral high ground (soft power) at a time when U.S. prestige had sunk to a low point in world opinion. In actual practice, Carter applied human rights criteria selectively and strategically in U.S. relations with other states. All in all, the view that Carter’s policies were uniquely a product of inexperience, idealism and naiveté is greatly exaggerated.

So to is Glad’s emphasis on Brzezinski’s manipulative control over Carter as an explanation for the administration’s rightward turn. Far more important were domestic constraints posed by a conservative drift in Congress (even within Carter’s own party) and the public; a shift impelled by the rise of a constellation of Cold War and neoconservative pressure groups who mounted an unprecedented campaign against Détente and other liberal policies. In her introduction, Glad unwisely dismisses this right-wing campaign as a constant undercurrent in American politics that previous presidents had managed to overcome. Likewise, one finds no serious attention to domestic constraints in her narrative of Carter’s foreign policy-making record. What she overlooks, however, is that while previous presidents faced pressures from domestic hawks with regard to particular policies or decisions, Carter confronted across the board attacks on virtually his entire foreign policy agenda.

Carter’s rightward drift can be charted by way of his repeated attempts to appease conservative critics on appointments (e.g., Ted Sorenson), weapons systems (e.g., Trident, MX), defense spending, responses to Soviet involvement in Third World trouble spots, the Soviet brigade in Cuba debacle, Carter’s attacks on the Soviet’s human rights record, the administration’s tilt toward China and, finally, Carter’s almost hysterical response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Brzezinski’s rise in influence was a product of Carter’s attempts to accommodate the right, rather than a cause of the president’s increasingly hawkish tendencies. As he sought to win over Cold Warriors in the Senate and gain respite from attacks by groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter naturally turned to the advisor who had the most credibility with such groups and even established Brzezinski as his back-channel conduit to conservative critics.

Contrary to Glad’s account, in other words, Carter’s initial policies had little to do with his personal moralism, but instead represented a pragmatic effort to adjust America’s global position in response to an age of tightened constraints abroad. In this respect, there was much continuity between Carter’s policies and his predecessors. Carter’s inexperience no doubt led to missteps and complications – such as his initial “deep cuts” arms control proposal to the Soviet Union – but a president capable of concluding SALT II, the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the Tokyo Round of trade negotiations, the recognition of China and the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe can hardly be labeled an “amateur” when it comes to foreign policy (which is why the title is both misleading and unfair). And any account of U.S. foreign policy in the Carter years that downplays the domestic constraints that the president faced is inadequate.

In sum, Glad’s narrow focus on Carter’s personal qualities and his advisory system produces a flawed account of patterns of success and failure in his foreign policies and of the rightward drift of those policies over time. By ignoring the broader international and domestic contexts with which Carter grappled, Glad fails to grasp the underlying strategic rationale for Carter’s initial policy approach (one focused on adjusting U.S. policy to an age of growing international constraints) as well as the domestic factors that undermined this approach. In these ways, she repeats errors that are pervasive in much of the existing literature on Carter’s foreign policies.



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