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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Vietnam War Debate: Quagmires and Stalemate Machines

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

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

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

Down a slippery slope

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

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1951. Wikipedia

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

Just don’t lose

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

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

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

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

Dan Ellsberg in 1971. AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

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

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

Who was right?

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Trump’s Campaign against the Liberal International Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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


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

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

An Aberration or a Swing of the Pendulum?

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Historical Ambivalence Toward Multilateralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Only Unilateralist, But Also Illiberal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America as a Rogue State?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Brief Comments on Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized