Unreliable narrators are a staple of literature. Consider the delusional, self-serving narrator of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or the way Humbert Humbert used his cultured references and gorgeous prose to dress up his crimes in Nabokov’s Lolita.
Now along comes John Bolton and his account of time served in the Trump administration as national security advisor.
Bolton’s latest book has been attacked as fiction by the president, members of his administration, and even members of the administrations of other countries (like South Korea). Bolton is a thoroughly unpleasant hatchet man who has opposed arms control treaties, diplomacy in most forms, and international institutions of all varieties. He is reliably paleoconservative. But does that make him a reliable narrator of his own story as well?
The picture Bolton paints of the Trump administration is a familiar one. We’ve been treated to a succession of tell-all accounts of the horror that has been Donald Trump’s tenure as president: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s A Very Stable Genius, even A Warning by Anonymous. Each one has added a little more paint to the Hieronymus Bosch picture of the presidency: monsters, unspeakable acts, darkness, and chaos.
Other than a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with atrocity, why is yet another account necessary, and from such a potentially unreliable narrator as John Bolton to boot?
The critics of Bolton’s trustworthiness have a point. But Bolton’s unreliability resides not so much in his ideology as his opportunism.
As a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy,” he’ll do whatever it takes to attain power. He has a terminal case of Washingtonitis: he thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and he reeks of entitlement. He entered the Trump administration not as a true believer in Trump, only a true believer in himself. His book not surprisingly portrays John Bolton as the only person in the Trump administration with any sense at all.
It’s easy enough to dismiss Bolton’s so-called revelations.
Here’s why you shouldn’t.
Taking China Off the Table
Foreign policy will not likely be the tipping point for the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s base generally doesn’t care what happens beyond America’s borders (except to keep it beyond America’s borders). And the anti-Trump camp just wants to get rid of the president, regardless of what he has done in the international arena.
Still, Trump is running on his foreign policy record. For instance, he has been busy trying to portray his opponent, Joe Biden, as somehow pro-China. “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly,” Trump tweeted back in April. “They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”
Then came the ad campaign that portrayed “Beijing Biden” as “China’s puppet” who favors engagement with Beijing without caveats and Biden’s son as the beneficiary of sweetheart deals with the Chinese. The Trump ads slam China for its handling of the coronavirus and suggest that Biden would have fumbled the U.S. response out of deference to Beijing (uh, sound familiar?).
The inconvenient truth, however, is that Trump, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “has been China’s stooge, a sycophantic flatterer and enabler of President Xi Jinping.”
In fact, Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump, not so much because of this sycophancy, but because Trump has been busy upending U.S. alliances that have constrained Chinese geopolitical influence. The trade disputes are an irritant, but China can’t expect Joe Biden to be any easier to deal with on that score. Four more years of Trump, on the other hand, would mean four more years of the ebbing of U.S. engagement in world affairs.
As Trump and Biden escalate their China-bashing, along comes Bolton. No friend of Beijing, the national security advisor is appalled at Trump’s exchanges with Xi Jinping. In one such conversation, Trump effectively signs up the Chinese leader as an in-kind contributor to his reelection campaign. Bolton had to excise Trump’s actual words from his book, but Vanity Fair has filled in the blanks:
According to an unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair by a source, Trump’s ask is even more crudely shocking when you read Trump’s specific language. “Make sure I win,” Trump allegedly told Xi during a dinner at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan last summer. “I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms.… Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.
Trump was, of course, impeached for attempting the same strategy with Ukraine.
The other shocking revelation from Bolton’s book is Trump’s response to China’s construction of “re-education” camps for the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. It’s not simply that Trump ignored China’s action, as he contends, to ensure that trade negotiations moved forward. According to Bolton, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
An American president encouraged another country to engage in a massive human rights violation?
True, American presidents have given the green light to such things in the past: Sukarno’s slaughter of suspected Communists in Indonesia in 1965, Pinochet’s coup and subsequent crackdown on Allende supporters in Chile in 1973, the Salvadoran government’s widespread human rights violations in the 1980s. Horrifying as these atrocities were, American conservatives could rationalize U.S. support for these dictatorships because they were U.S. allies.
But China? That’s going to be a difficult sell for an electorate that’s already been primed, by the Trump administration itself, to demonize Beijing.
So, in effect, the Bolton book has removed China from the 2020 election campaign. Trump will think twice about accusing Biden of cozy ties with Beijing when the Democrats can literally throw the book (Bolton’s, that is) at the president.
Impeachment: Not Dead Yet
Trump loves to play the role of a cornered badger that emerges triumphant in the end. Impeachment would have given an ordinary politician pause. Trump simply held up the Senate’s failure to convict as exoneration, despite all the damning evidence produced by the whistleblower and the subsequent Mueller investigation.
The Democrats wanted Bolton to testify during the hearings. He refused to do so voluntarily. Later, he said that he would testify before the Senate if it issued a subpoena. The Republicans, with the exception of Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), voted against calling additional witnesses.
Bolton argues in his book that the Democrats made a mess of the impeachment inquiry. Yet, he could have corroborated the charge of collusion with Ukraine and provided evidence of impeachable offenses in other realms of foreign policy. He didn’t do so.
Now, of course, some Republicans are saying that it would have been better for Bolton to have testified before Congress rather than save his revelations for now. “One of the things about making allegations in a book for $29.95 — certainly it’s going to be a best-seller I’m sure — the problem is that when you’re selling it in a book, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be cross-examined,” Tim Scott (R-SC) recently said.
If Scott and one other Republican had simply voted for additional witnesses, they could have made that happen. And they could have saved themselves the cost of buying Bolton’s book.
In the end, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the final votes on impeachment. Except for Romney, the Republicans were unwilling to break with the president.
Bolton’s book, however, is disinterring all the issues surrounding impeachment and in a light unfavorable to the president. Bolton confirms the infamous quid pro quo — military assistance in exchange for an investigation into the Ukraine dealings of Biden’s son — that Trump discussed in a phone call with the Ukrainian president and that was flagged by a whistleblower. “Nor, at the time, did I think Trump’s comments in the call reflected any major change in direction; the linkage of the military assistance with the Giuliani fantasies was already baked in. The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall,” Bolton writes.
Before you shell out $29.95 for the book (actually $32.50 list price), you might wait to see if Congress drags Bolton back to tell his story. This week, Adam Schiff (D-CA) hinted that he might depose the former national security advisor before the House Intelligence Committee.
Who knows? Trump might have to reckon with a second impeachment hearing as he heads into November.
The Benefits of Being Bolton
Bolton predictably criticizes Trump for not being sufficiently hawkish. The president wanted to withdraw troops from the Middle East. He wanted to make nice with North Korea. He had the gall to prioritize trade with China.
From a progressive point of view, that makes Bolton an unreliable narrator. Maybe he was tweaking the facts to make himself look stalwart and wise at the expense of a slow-witted, insufficiently martial president.
But here’s the thing: Bolton hasn’t written anything in his book that contradicts other accounts of the presidency. There was plenty of evidence of the quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump did not hide his admiration for Xi Jinping. The president is obsessed with getting re-elected, not because he particularly likes his job but because he must prove that he is a winner.
What makes Bolton’s observations most valuable is not their novelty or their acuity but his credentials as a hawk’s hawk. His book isn’t going to make any Democrats or independents or moderate Republicans change their minds about Trump. But it will introduce some doubts into hardcore conservative supporters. They might not publicly renounce the president. Like Bolton himself, they might not even pull the lever for the Democratic candidate.
But they might decide, because of Bolton, to stay home on November 3, just like so many Republicans decided not to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa this last weekend.
And that, ultimately, is what really puts the fear of Bolton into the Trump reelection campaign.
The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.
For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.
China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.
In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.
Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.
Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent. Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.
Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.
Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.
None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.
The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.
And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.
The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.
The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a
full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.
Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.
The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.
True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.
But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).
The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”
Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.
As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.
Afghanistan has long been touted as the “graveyard of empires.” The British and the Soviets certainly discovered that lesson to their great regret. Perhaps future historians will judge the failure of the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan over a two-decade period as a critical factor in the loss of American hegemony as well. If so, these historians will no doubt chuckle at the irony of Mr. Make America Great Again throwing the last shovelful of dirt on the grave.
After all, the Trump administration is working hard to negotiate a deal to end America’s longest military engagement. If the two sides can agree, Washington will withdraw nearly half of the contingent of 14,000 U.S. troops as long as the Taliban renounces al-Qaeda and similar groups, adheres to a ceasefire, and sits down with the Afghan government to discuss power-sharing.
So what if Trump wants a troop drawdown only so that he can tell voters that he is ending America’s “forever wars” before the 2020 election? Ending a war is ending a war.
As with the North Korea negotiations, however, U.S. critics are worried that Trump will make one-sided concessions in his eagerness to achieve the semblance of a foreign-policy win. In their worst-case scenario, the Taliban will use any ceasefire to press its advantages – on the ground and then politically – to overrun the country and reestablish their medieval rule.
Those concerns are premature, to say the least. The current deal doesn’t look anything like the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, when helicopters evacuated U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong prepared to take over. If the preliminary details hold true, the United States would still keep 8,000-9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is more or less the number of soldiers deployed there when Trump took office. So, “withdrawal” is something of a misnomer. Also, the U.S. military would likely continue to operate out of several bases, including Bagram, Kandahar, and several in and around Kabul, in order to preserve U.S. air power.
The United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan. Indeed, a recent UN report indicates that these aerial attacks are largely responsible for the significant uptick in civilian casualties so far this year. The Trump administration no doubt wants to preserve its capacity to conduct such strikes so that, if the president changes his mind about seeking an end to the war, it can turn around and pound the Taliban from the air just like it did to the Islamic State.
Remember: Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional ordnance – in Afghanistan back in 2017. The president has a fondness for “fire and fury.” Trump said this week: “We could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted. But I’m not looking to kill 10 million people.” He didn’t specify how many people he might be willing to kill in order to “win” in Afghanistan.
If Trump does follow through on his determination to at least reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, he would be attempting to put out one fire even as he stokes several more. In fact, the president is pushing ahead with provocative moves on both the nuclear weapons and trade fronts that may have implications far greater than any deal currently on the table with the Taliban.
The China Quagmire
In a column this week in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman compares the Trump administration’s trade conflicts to a classic quagmire, no different from the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan.
Trump’s trade war is looking more and more like a classic policy quagmire. It’s not working — that is, it isn’t at all delivering the results Trump wants. But he’s even less willing than the average politician to admit to a mistake, so he keeps doing even more of what’s not working. And if you extrapolate based on that insight, the implications for the U.S. and world economies are starting to get pretty scary.
This week, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States worth approximately $300 billion. It also declared China to be a currency manipulator. The announcements led to a significant drop in the stock market, as investors worry that a trade war between Washington and Beijing could precipitate a global economic downturn.
Although investors were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s move, they shouldn’t have been. The president has been threatening to impose these additional tariffs for some months. And late in July, the administration upped the pressure on the World Trade Organization to remove China’s “developing nation” status. Meanwhile, as I explained in a cover story for The Nation a couple months back, the consensus of opinion among China experts in the United States now favors a more aggressive response to Beijing, which provides Trump with elite cover for his moves.
While Wall Street worries, Main Street braces for the impact of the new policies. U.S. farmers will suffer in particular, and none more so than the soybean growers who have relied on Chinese purchases for over $11 billion in revenues annually. Last year, Chinese soybean purchases dropped by an astonishing 75 percent. The Trump administration has promised billions of dollars more in bailouts to keep American farmers afloat (more to the point: to secure the farm vote for the 2020 elections). But temporary government subsidies are not going to cut it if the trade war becomes semi-permanent as China switches to other suppliers for its agricultural and manufacturing needs.
It’s not just farmers and manufacturers who pay. Ordinary consumers will have to pony up more at the checkout counter. This is, in effect, a hidden tax on Americans that they’ll invariably blame on China and other countries rather than on the Trump administration.
China is not the Taliban. It won’t be cowed by Trump’s rhetoric or his aggressive trade moves. Beijing allowed its currency to plummet in order to make its exports more competitive, which will squeeze U.S. products out of foreign markets. It’s digging in for the long haul, and it has the resources to do so. The Chinese government has many more levers at its disposal to adjust monetary and fiscal policy to weather this storm. And unlike Trump, Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be voted out of office.
As Krugman explains, the tariffs are not even accomplishing Trump’s goals. The trade deficit is growing larger, and U.S. exports are actually shrinking. Tariffs are probably the worst possible tactic for boosting U.S. trade and addressing ongoing disagreements with Beijing. Not only are they ineffective in the short term, they have the potential to drag the global economy into a depression much deeper than the financial crisis of 2008.
More Nuclear Escalation?
The Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. It pushed through the New START treaty with Russia in 2010 (though, to get the treaty through the Senate, the administration had to commit to an expensive and entirely unnecessary modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal). And Obama was the first president to embrace the goal of complete nuclear disarmament (as opposed to mere arms control).
Trump, by contrast, seems to have fallen in love with nuclear weapons. He has pushed for an increasein the nuclear weapons budget that will mean an additional $100 billion over the next 10 years over and above what the Obama administration had planned. He plans to test some new nuclear-capable missiles, including a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile.
But the most dangerous development is the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, which the administration finalized last week. I described this projected development a couple months ago, but I probably underestimated the potential negative consequences.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that his country is prepared to go head-to-head with the United States in a new nuclear arms race. Now that the INF restrictions have disappeared, Putin has pledged to build short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles to match anything Trump develops.
At the same time, the U.S. insistence on missile defense has pushed Russia and China in particular to develop measures to bypass this so-called shield in order to preserve their deterrent capabilities. As Alex Wellerstein writes in Quartz:
The US military is well-aware of these foreign developments and is somewhat giddy at the prospect of funding its own projects to “keep up” with them, even though they’re the cause for race in the first place. But it’s not just about legit defense: The tit-for-tat nature of this kind of technological development means new toys, more tax-payer money, and—importantly—more prestige.
As part of this escalation, the Trump administration is committed to developing more “usable” nuclear weapons – which of course increases the risk of a conventional conflict turning into a devastating nuclear exchange.
Addicted to War
The Trump administration favors a war of all against all. That’s obvious from its response to the mass shootings in the United States. Rather than support gun control measures, the administration has backed the NRA line: more guns for teachers in schools, more guns for the average person to take out the “bad guys” on the street, more military-grade firepower for local police.
Similarly, the Trump administration has come out shooting in trade relations, most disastrously with China but also with allies like Canada and Mexico. And it has reopened an arms race around nuclear weapons that should have been shut down once and for all at the end of the Cold War. These policies threaten to drag the United States and the world backward: to the heyday of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the first case and to the days of tariff escalation of the 1920s in the second. If only one of these happens, it will be a disaster. If both happen, it will be a catastrophe.
Ending the war in Afghanistan is indeed a noble goal. But even if does happen, it would qualify as only a minor accomplishment in comparison to the escalating trade war and the new nuclear arms race. It would be like putting out a little brushfire in your backyard when a massive forest fire approaches from the other direction. And given the terms of the latest deal on the table, the brushfire will continue to burn, though perhaps at a less dangerous level.
Meanwhile, even if you can’t actually see the forest fire approaching, you can at least smell the smoke and hear the distant crackle of flames. It’s an entirely avoidable conflagration. The president who claims to be saving the United States is out there patrolling the firebreak, but with lighter fluid in hand.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 7, 2019
If you’re a supporter of Donald Trump — or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Matteo Salvini in Italy — you probably think that democracy has never been in better health.
Recent elections in these countries didn’t just serve to rotate the elite from the conventional parties. Voters went to the polls and elected outsiders who promised to transform their political systems. That demonstrates that the system, that democracy itself, is not rigged in favor of the “deep state” or the Bilderberg global elite — or the plain vanilla leaders of the center left and center right.
Moreover, from the perspective of this populist voter, these outsiders have continued to play by the democratic rules. They are pushing for specific pieces of legislation. They are making all manner of political and judicial appointments. They are trying to nudge the economy one way or another. They are standing up to outside forces who threaten to undermine sovereignty, the bedrock of any democratic system.
Sure, these outsiders might make intemperate statements. They might lie. They might indulge in a bit of demagoguery. But politicians have always sinned in this way. Democracy carries on regardless.
You don’t have to be a supporter of right-wing populists to believe that democracy is in fine fettle. The European Union just held elections to the European Parliament. The turnout was over 50 percent, the highest in two decades.
True, right-wing populists increased their share from one-fifth to one-fourth of the chamber, with Marine Le Pen’s party coming out on top in France, Salvini’s Liga taking first place in Italy, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party winning in the UK. But on the other side of the spectrum, the Greens came in second in Germany and expanded their stake of the European parliament from 7 to 9 percent. And for the first time, two pan-European parties ran candidates. The multi-issue progressive Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25) received more than 1.4 million votes (but failed to win any seats).
Or maybe you’re an activist fighting for democracy in an authoritarian state. In some countries, you have reason to celebrate. You just succeeded in forcing out the long-serving leader of long-suffering Sudan. You just booted the old, sick, corrupt head of Algeria. You’ve seen some important steps forward in terms of greater political pluralism in Ethiopia, in Malaysia, in Mexico.
You can cherry-pick such examples and perspectives to build a case that the world is continuing to march, albeit two steps forward and one step back, towards a more democratic future.
But you’d be wrong. Democracy faces a global crisis. And this crisis couldn’t be coming at a worse time.
Democracy’s Fourth Wave
In 1991, political scientist Samuel Huntington published his much-cited book, The Third Wave. After a first wave of democratization in the nineteenth century and a second wave after World War II, Huntington argued, a third wave began to sweep through the world with the overthrow of dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and leading all the way up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
It was at this time, too, that Francis Fukuyama and others were talking about the inevitable spread of democracy — hand in hand with the market — to every corner of the globe. Democratic politics appeared to be an indispensable element of modernity. As countries hit a certain economic, social, and technological threshold, a more educated and economically successful population demands greater political participation as a matter of course.
Of course, democracy doesn’t just arrive like a prize when a country achieves a certain level of GDP. Movements of civil society, often assisted by reformers in government, push for free and fair elections, greater government transparency, equal rights for minorities, and so on.
Sometimes, too, outside actors play a role — providing trainings or financing for those movements of civil society. Sometimes democratic nations sanction undemocratic governments for their violations of human rights. Sometimes more aggressive actors, like U.S. neoconservatives in the 2000s, push for military intervention in support of a regime change (ostensibly to democracy), as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
However, the modernization thesis generates too many exceptions to remain credible. Both China and Saudi Arabia function at a high economic level without democracy. Russia and Turkey, both modern countries, have backslid into illiberal states. Of the countries that experienced Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, only Tunisia has managed to maintain a democracy — as civil war overtook Libya, a military coup displaced a democratically elected government in Egypt, Bashar al-Assad beat back various challenges in Syria, and the Gulf States repressed one mass demonstration after another.
More recently, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the military in Sudan is using violence to resist the demands of democracy activists to turn over government to civilian hands. In Algeria, the military hasn’t resorted to violence, but it also hasn’t stepped out of the way.
Move back a few steps to get the bigger picture and the retreat of democracy looks like a global rout. Here, for instance, is Nic Cheeseman’s and Jeffrey Smith’s take on Africa in Foreign Affairs:
In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has clamped down on the opposition and censored the media. His Zambian counterpart, President Edgar Lungu, recently arrested the main opposition leader on trumped-up charges of treason and is seeking to extend his stay in power to a third term. This reflects a broader trend. According to Freedom House, a think tank, just 11 percent of the continent is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years.
Cambodia’s government transformed from an autocratic regime where there was still some (minimal) space for opposition parties into a fully one-party regime. Thailand’s junta continued to repress the population, attempting to control the run-up to elections still planned in February 2019. The Myanmar government continued to stonewall a real investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, despite significant international pressure to allow an investigation. And even in Indonesia, one of the freest states in the region, the Jokowi government has given off worrying signs of increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Brazil is not the only Latin American country with troubled politics. Democracy has collapsed in Nicaragua and Venezuela and is in serious trouble in countries such as Bolivia and Honduras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, just as in Brazil, criminal organizations rule the poorer parts of many cities, weakening democracy and undermining the rule of law.
Waves, of course, go both ways. And the fourth democratic tide definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.
The 2019 Freedom House report, entitled “Democracy in Retreat,” chronicles 13 years of decline. The V-Dem Institute in Sweden, in its 2019 report on the state of global democracy, identifies a “third wave of autocratization” affecting 24 countries (including the United States). The Economist Intelligence Unit is somewhat more optimistic, arguing that “the retreat of global democracy ended in 2018.”
But all the threats itemized in the Unit’s actual report are a reminder that this optimism stems from the fact that the terrible state of democracy didn’t get demonstrably worse last year. And, the report concludes, the decline must just have paused last year before continuing on its dismal trajectory.
Democracy’s Dial-Up Dilemma
I’ve written extensively about how Donald Trump has undermined U.S. democracy with his rhetoric, his appointments, his attacks on the press, his executive actions, his self-serving financial decisions, and so on. I’ve connected the attacks on democracy in the United States to trends toward autocracy in East-Central Europe from the 1990s onward. I’ve compared Trump’s politics to the majoritarian aspirations of Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Maybe it’s a positive sign that an outsider won the 2016 elections (putting aside Russian interference for the moment). If Donald Trump can do it, so perhaps can Bernie Sanders or the Green Party. Another politics is indeed possible. But everything else about Trump is profoundly anti-democratic.
Worse, he’s part of a more general trend.
Democracy’s troubles do not simply result from generals seizing power (as in Thailand or Egypt), undemocratic rulers consolidating power (like Xi Jinping in China), or illiberal leaders weakening the institutions of democratic governance (like Victor Orban in Hungary, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines).
In other words, democracy’s discontents are not solely external to democracy itself. There’s a deeper vein of popular dissatisfaction. According to Pew research from 2018, a majority of people (out of 27 at least formally democratic countries polled) are dissatisfied with democracy. And for good reason. They are disgusted with the corruption of elected leaders. They are unhappy with economic policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They are fed up with politicians for not responding with sufficient urgency to global problems like climate change or refugees.
Here’s an equally disturbing possibility. Even in the so-called advanced democracies, the political software has become outdated, full of bugs, susceptible to hacking. Put simply, democracy requires a thorough update to deal with the tasks at hand.
So, for instance, democratic institutions have failed to get a handle on the flow of capital, licit and illicit, that forms the circulatory system of the global economy. The corruption outlined in the Panama Papers, the Russian laundromat, and the Odebrecht scandal, among others, reveal just how weak the checks and balances of democracy have been. Watchdog institutions — media, inter-governmental authorities — have been playing catch up as the financial world devises new instruments to “create” wealth and criminals come up with new scams to steal wealth.
The Internet and social media have been hailed as great opportunities for democracy. States can use electronic referenda to encourage greater civic participation. Democracy activists can use Twitter to organize protests at the drop of a hashtag. But the speed of new technologies also establishes certain expectations in the electorate. Citizens expect lightning fast responses from their email, texts, web searches, and streaming services. But government seems stuck in the dial-up age. It takes forever to get legislation passed. The lines at social service centers are long and frustrating.
In some cases, the slowness of government response is more than just irritating.
The last IPCC report suggests that the world has only a dozen years to deal with climate change before it’s too late. All of the patient diplomacy of states leading up to the Paris climate deal, which itself was an insufficient response to the crisis, was then undone by the results of… American democracy.
It’s no surprise, then, that voters have gravitated toward right-wing politicians who promise fast results and easy solutions, however illusory those might be. In other words, these leaders have the opposite appeal of democracy, which is so often slow and messy. Right-wing populists are disruptive technologies that destroy existing structures. That’s why I’ve called populist leaders “disruptors in chief.”
There are no instruction manuals on how to fix hardware and software simultaneously, on how to address climate change at the same time as fixing the political systems that have hitherto failed to tackle the problem. But democracy definitely needs a reboot. Right-wing populists have offered their illiberal fix. Despite the hype, those “solutions” aren’t working, not on climate change, not on refugees, not on trade, not on international disputes with Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela.
So, now it’s time for the rest of us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 12, 2019
In the Americas, the Trump tsunami has swept across both continents and the “pink tide” of progressivism has all but disappeared from the southern half of the hemisphere. In Europe, with the recent exception of Spain, the left has been banished to the political margins. In Africa and Asia, socialism has devolved into nationalism, authoritarianism, or just plain corruption. And forget about the Middle East.
In this planet-wide rising tide of right-wing populism, the liberal left commands only a few disconnected islands — Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Uruguay. In so many other places, increasingly illiberal leaders are in charge. Add up the numbers and significantly more than half the world’s population currently lives under some form of right-wing populist or authoritarian rule, courtesy of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China, among others.
Optimists cling to the pendulum theory of politics: conservatives are now basking in the limelight, but the day will come when the right inevitably falls on its face and the left swings back into action; witness the results of the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States.
In addition, pragmatists point out that many of these latter-day autocrats, for all their anti-democratic tendencies, came to power through elections. Yes, they have since sought to change constitutions, pack courts, muzzle the media, and crack down on civil society, but they remain constrained by the guardrails of the more-or-less liberal political systems they still run. In the end, so goes such thinking, democracy will prevail. Look at how, over time, some right-wing populists have been dislodged at the polls (Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia), brought down by corruption scandals (Alberto Fujimori in Peru), or forced to resign in disgrace (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy).
Optimists and pragmatists alike ultimately have faith that democracies are self-regulating organisms, not unlike the Earth’s ecosystem. The planet has managed to survive countless asteroid strikes, solar flares, and extreme weather conditions. Democracy, too, will outlast Hurricane Donald and all the other examples of extreme political weather, thanks, sooner or later, to woke voters and resilient mechanisms of checks and balances.
Unfortunately, given the malign impact humans are having on the planet, this analogy is far less reassuring than it once might have been. Only the willfully ignorant expect that some natural oscillation in global temperature or the Earth’s own adjustments to its climate feedback loops will arrive in time to save us. Humankind has clearly thrown a spanner into the works and now faces a distinctly difficult, if not disastrous, future. Similarly, across the globe, the electoral pendulum appears to be stuck on the side of reaction and the new generation of right-wing populists could well be on the verge of changing the political playing field, just as humans are in the process of irrevocably transforming the planet.
Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Trump, and their ilk should indeed be understood as the political equivalent of global warming. Instead of deadly carbon, they spew hateful invective and show a remarkable determination to destroy a far-from-perfect status quo. Moreover, they are the product not of farting livestock or extraterrestrial events but of the self-interested acts of blinkered humans. In an increasingly restrictive political space, liberals and progressives are looking ever more like so many polar bears on ever fewer ice floes, with diminishing room for maneuver.
Don’t bet on politics as usual to lower the temperature and put a stop to this moment’s tidal surge of ugly intolerance. Because the nature of the game has changed, those who oppose the global New Right must engage in a strategic rethink — or we’ll all drown in the rising waters.
The Game Changers
Today’s autocrats are, at first glance, a diverse band of brothers.
In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the Catholic Church for defending the sanctity of human life and challenging his campaign of extrajudicial murder. In Nicaragua, one-time revolutionary Daniel Ortega has courted the Catholic Church as a pillar of his undemocratic rule. Vladimir Putin presents himself and his country as saviors of Christianity, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to promote his own brand of political Islam, Narendra Modi has ridden to power thanks to Hindu nationalism, and Xi Jinping eschews religion altogether. Some right-wing nationalists like Bolsonaro have ambitious plans to privatize state assets, while others, like those in Italy’s current leadership, want to nationalize major properties. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is concerned about climate change, but most right-wing populists like Donald Trump insist that the threat doesn’t exist and want to extract ever more fossil fuels.
Don’t be fooled, though. While these leaders may not rhyme, they all dance to the same rhythm.
These illiberal politicians have uniformly come to power by attacking globalization. They have criticized the neo-liberal transformations of the recent past that enriched the few at the expense of the many, while challenging the major political parties of the center left and center right that implemented the economic reforms that unleashed such forces. They have taken aim at the corruption that has metastasized in political systems already ill equipped to handle a massive uptick in cross-border financial transactions. When politically useful, they have demonized immigrants and refugees who are one side effect of, as well as victims of, that very burgeoning globalization movement. They have championed national sovereignty against the interventions of multilateral organizations, while blasting multicultural values and the human-rights groups that promote them. And they have taken advantage of social media like Facebook and Twitter that promote a version of participatory totalitarianism in which individuals can freely relinquish their privacy and abandon conventional news media for daily dispatches from their favorite celebrity autocrat.
The Trumps of this world have cannily identified a fundamental shift in the political playing field, rushing into the gap created by the declining popularity of liberal values. Viktor Orban set an early example of such opportunism when, in the 1990s, he jettisoned his liberal past and opted instead for the right side of the Hungarian political spectrum. In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the left and right had alternated in power as voters became disgusted with whatever party controlled the levers of state. By successfully linking all the ills facing the country to liberals and their follies, however, Orban became the one to preside over a genuine transformation of the political landscape. The premier liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, effectively disappeared when he became prime minister in 2010 — and formally dissolved three years later. Almost a decade after he first took office, the only serious opposition to Orban is to his right.
The last time globalization transformed the world so thoroughly, in the early twentieth century, the ensuing backlash led to liberalism’s first catastrophic fail. In those years, liberals consistently failed to understand that the ground had shifted under them. In Russia, Bolsheviks took power from the weak crew of potential democratic reformers that had overthrown the tsar, inspiring a handful of movements in Europe that attempted something similar. In Germany, illiberal politicians took aim at the cosmopolitan values of the Weimar Republic. In Italy and Spain, leaders adopted virulent nationalism, challenging incipient global institutions like the League of Nations. In the wake of the Great Depression, Japanese ultra-militarists easily dispatched the weak Taisho democracy. Meanwhile, in the United States, right-wing demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin built large followings by railing on the radio against communists, Wall Street, and “the international money-changers in the temple,” though they failed to take power in the era of a charismatic liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Where liberalism survived, it did so largely by absorbing some of the strategies of the illiberal communists and fascists, namely relying on the state to keep the economy afloat, as Roosevelt did with his New Deal policies. This lesson carried over into the post-World War II-era in which American liberals continued to embrace New Deal principles that would culminate in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and European liberals embraced the compromises that would eventually produce the European Union. At the global level, nations of various ideological dispositions came together to create a set of institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — meant to ensure some degree of permanent stability. Economic globalization resumed, but this time in a regulatory environment that, initially, seemed to spread the benefits more equally.
That all changed in the 1970s when, in one country after another, a new generation of liberals and conservatives began to dismantle those very regulations in hopes that an unfettered market would jump-start growth globally. However, only after China embraced capitalism and the Soviet Union collapsed did economic globalization take a quantum leap to true globalization. With it the world returned to Gilded Age levels of concentrated wealth and inequality. No surprise, then, that the instability and intolerance of that long-gone era has returned as well.
Leaders like Putin, Erdogan, and Trump aren’t just politically savvy, nor have they simply been lucky or unusually ruthless. Instead, they sensed the changing mood of a moment and were able to capitalize on a profound discontent with the status quo that liberals had built, a discontent that won’t disappear simply because right-wing populists are exposed as frauds, incompetents, or cheats. Worse, crafty operators with even more ambitious agendas stand ready to destroy the liberal status quo once and for all.
The Bannon Archipelago
A Nationalist International should be a contradiction in terms, but that hasn’t stopped Steve Bannon from trying to create one. The erstwhile publisher and moviemaker, darling of the alt-right, and one-time Trump whisperer is on an extended world tour aimed at building a loose network of right-wing populists that he calls the Movement. It’s centered in — of all places — Brussels, the home of the European Union.
Bannon hopes to take advantage of post-Brexit Euroskepticism to roll his Trojan horse of a movement into the very heart of the enemy’s camp. With the encouragement of various right-wing oligarchs like financier John Thornton, he’s already met with neo-fascists associated with groups like the Belgian Vlaams Belong, France’s National Rally (the rebranded National Front), and Sweden’s Democratic Party, as well as more conventional right-wing populists in Italy and Hungary. He’s out to take the EU from the social democrats and pallid conservatives, the Vatican from the too-permissive Pope Francis, and the West from the clutches of immigrants and multiculturalists.
Elections for the European Parliament at the end of May should prove a testing ground for Bannon’s Movement. Right now, if the polling is accurate and the Euroskeptic, populist, and far-right parties combine their efforts, they could, staggeringly enough, become the largest coalition in that body. True, some prominent right-wing parties, like Poland’s Law and Justice, remain unseduced by Bannon. But it’s a mistake to underestimate him, just as it was a mistake to dismiss Trump in 2016. Success can be very persuasive, as The Donald proved in his takeover of a Republican Party whose leaders initially and almost universally despised him.
But Europe is only part of Bannon’s plan. For someone who has vented so much spleen at “globalists” like financier and philanthropist George Soros, Bannon is quite the internationalist. In Latin America, he’s already appointed Jair Bolsonaro’s youngest son as his regional representative to help build on the right’s electoral successes in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay. Bannon has also partnered with a Chinese billionaire to create a Rule of Law Fund that’s meant to be the point of a spear aimed at the regime in Beijing.
In search of a stable of princes, that would-be Machiavelli has also visited Japan at the invitation of the fanatical Happiness Realization Party, a political cult that embraces Japanese militarism. Israel, too, is to be part of Bannon’s alt-right archipelago because the self-professed “Christian Zionist” sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a key link in a future anti-Islamic front. Also figuring prominently in his thinking is Russia, a vast, mostly white country led by a critic of Western liberalism and “radical Islam,” though Bannon acknowledges that the Mueller report has temporarily set back his efforts.
Bannon didn’t create the new right-wing populist wave, but he’s been clever enough to grab a surfboard, dive into the waters, and try to guide the swell further to the right. Toward that end, he’s creating what he calls a “war room.” He says:
“It’s what we did for Trump in the U.S.: writing op-eds, booking people on media, surrogate media — all that. The last part of it is to do with grassroots social media and getting organized physically and getting out the vote.”
This isn’t, however, just a global version of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” an opportunistic attempt to solidify a political realignment. Bannon and his ilk have a much more ambitious project in mind. Having dismissed the current resident of the Vatican as far too liberal, Bannon has put himself forward as the pope of a new movement to fight the barbarians (as he defines them).
A lifelong Catholic and former military man, he harkens back to a much earlier papal tradition, that of Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade to retake Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century. Bannon wants to recreate a pre-EU, whiter, more martial and nationalistic Europe. Like the popes and princes of the eleventh century, the right-wing populists in Europe have already been conjuring up external enemies to unify the like-minded. Islam remains a suitable adversary, whether in the form of ordinary immigrants or extraordinary terrorists. But there’s China, too, which poses the greatest challenge to the West since the Middle Kingdom last ruled the world of commerce, innovation, and culture so many centuries ago. Finally, there’s the enemy within: the globalists who have no patience for nationalism, the secularists who want to hold religion at arm’s length, and the multiculturalists who campaign against white privilege.
This crusade of Bannon’s and the far right is a last-ditch effort to maintain the United States and a large swath of Eurasia as bastions of white Christendom. For decades, those who held such views populated the extremes where they belonged. However, the economic failures of globalization, a huge uptick in refugee flows, and a general decline in faith in democratic institutions have proved fertile ground for such a new crusade to take shape.
Movement vs. Movement
In the United States, organizations like Indivisible, a progressive group created by former congressional staffers in the wake of the 2016 elections that now has 5,000 local chapters, are not waiting for the political pendulum to swing by itself. They’re already working hard to push politics back to the left — and their organizing produced results in the 2018 midterm elections when the Democratic Party retook the House of Representatives.
The 2020 presidential election, however, is a different matter. Trump now has the incumbent’s advantage and, for the time being, the tailwind of a strong economy. In fact, some economic forecasters predict a landslide for him as long as the economy doesn’t tank. The president’s team has also made sure that areas of the country where his base is strong are experiencing greater job growth than in Democratic Party strongholds.
In addition, Trump and his minions are hard at work eroding the foundations of a democratic society — demonizing the media, working to suppress voter turnout, chipping away at the barriers between church and state, and packing the courts with ideologues who support their agenda. The vast majority of the groups mobilizing to defeat Trump in 2020 are working with traditional tools to effect political change. Having learned from past masters of populism like Orban and Erdogan, Team Trump is instead busy changing the playing field.
That’s what makes the current political moment different. The pendulum theory of political change only applies if the major electoral actors play by the same rules. The right-wing populists have, however, been busy transforming the rules of the game so that they can stay in power as long as possible, while using the levers of the state to enrich themselves and their cronies. Putin has ruled Russia for two decades. Erdogan has held onto power for 16 years. Orban is closing in on a decade in office. Even in an undemocratic country like China, Xi Jinping has altered the collective rules of succession to ensure that he will remain leader for life.
One possible response to right-wing populism would, of course, be to ramp up left-wing populism. This was a winning strategy in 2015 for the Greek political party Syriza, which has been in charge of that country for four years now. It also worked for Evo Morales, who has captained Bolivia for more than a dozen years. And, of course, Bernie Sanders came close to being the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 2016 election while promoting his version of left-wing populism, which capitalizes on an essential political reality: passion often moves people more effectively than policy.
But it’s hard to see left-wing populism as a long-term answer to the New Right. It either fails electorally, as Jean-Luc Melenchon, the standard bearer for the movement France Unbowed, discovered in that country’s last presidential election; or it faces the kind of “economic realities” that forced Syriza to accommodate the austerity demands of European bureaucrats and banks; or, as Morales has demonstrated in Bolivia, it ends up presiding over the same erosion of democratic practices as its right-wing counterparts.
Yes, the nuts-and-bolts organizing of groups like Indivisible is indispensable. Yes, the passion of left-wing populists is essential. But such politicking and the mirror-image populism that sometimes goes with it are mere life preservers. They may keep us afloat, but they won’t rescue us. The New Right requires a far more original kind of response.
After all, the forces that gave rise to this tidal wave of right-wing populism remain in place: widening economic inequality, surging migrant flows, ballooning corruption scandals. Parties of the center remain discredited, and liberals have not come up with convincing alternatives to the policies and institutions of globalization they created. Trying to nudge the political pendulum out of the emergency zone is a necessary but ultimately insufficient approach. It’s the equivalent of expecting that a conventional fix like a gasoline tax will stop climate change. Environmentalists understand that unprecedented change requires an unprecedented response. To deal with the threat of political climate change, a similarly international, broad-based, and fundamentally new approach is called for.
So don’t wait for the pendulum to swing. Don’t put your faith in the guardrails. It’s not time for a manifesto or a 10-point plan. It’s time for a movement to counteract Bannon’s Movement, a global coalition that joins people and politicians in a united, international effort to respond to the true global problems — climate change, endless war, and economic inequality — that threaten to overwhelm us all. Absent such a movement, the rising tide of populism will sink all boats, life preservers and all.
If you ignore the headlines, you’d think the United States and China were the best of partners. Americans continue to rely on Chinese-made products in their homes, at their offices, and in their pockets. If you live near a university, you can still bump into one of the 340,000 Chinese studying in the US. You can still take a Beijing-sponsored Chinese-language class at any of the 104 Confucius Institutes in 46 states.
Even if you’re not among the 114,000 Americans who work in the 2,400 Chinese-owned companies in this country, your livelihood still depends on China. As America’s largest trading partner and the largest foreign holder of US debt, China keeps the American economy afloat. Economically, the two nations are joined at the hip.
But in virtually every other way, China and the United States are drifting apart, and this growing rift could have catastrophic consequences.
“We are at war with China on at least two fronts: technology and trade,” says Michael Klare, a military analyst and defense correspondent for The Nation. “This is not peacetime in the way we once understood it. So the questions are when, and how, and if this war will enter new realms.”
Washington and Beijing are currently battling over who will build the world’s next generation of digital infrastructure, with the United States trying to freeze out Chinese telecom giants like Huawei. The United States is afraid that if allies use Chinese technology, it could pose a security risk. Meanwhile, a trade war of escalating tariffs between the world’s two largest economies threatens to send global markets into a tailspin.
And in a significant departure from its predecessor’s version, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy portrays China as a “revisionist” power that wants to “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.” This document “suggests that wherever China is active, the United States should push back,” explains Melanie Hart, a China expert at the Center for American Progress. “Wherever China is developing cooperation with other nations, that adds up to a threat to the United States. The National Security Strategy paints that in dire terms.”
Similarly, the foreign-policy elite in the United States has shifted away from compromise. Whereas a lively debate among China watchers once pitted those who favor engagement against those who champion containment—the “panda huggers” versus the “dragon slayers”—the consensus has now moved in a more combative direction.
This change in elite consensus, which extends to Congress as well, has been extraordinary in its pace and impact. Although it precedes the divisive efforts of the current administration, the more uncompromising stance on China of the expert class has ensured that Trump’s China initiatives have not generated the kind of pushback associated with the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal or his cozier relationship with Saudi Arabia.
As in the early stages of a divorce discussion, the two sides are trading accusations across every facet of the relationship: trade, security, human rights, technology. Both sides also recognize how costly this conflict could be. So, for the time being, they have settled into a tense cohabitation punctuated by raised voices and intemperate threats.
Divorce is not inevitable. But with China expected to overtake the United States in total economic output in the next decade—and with bilateral competition sharpening over markets, resources, and geopolitical advantage—Beijing and Washington may yet succumb to irreconcilable differences.
Even if the conflict doesn’t devolve into a shooting war, a sharp downturn in US-China relations could mean a global economic crisis, the unraveling of the multilateral order, the failure of the last best effort to stop climate change—or a perfect storm of all three. The two largest economies in the world, with by far the two largest carbon footprints, have different views on how the world should be structured. If they can’t reach agreement on trade, the environment, and the global rules of the road, the divorce will tear apart what remains of the international community.
The Trump Effect
The initial warming in US-China relations had a very public starting point: the visit by a team of American ping-pong players to China in April 1971, followed by President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip the following February. For the next several decades, the United States applied two principles to its relations with Beijing. The US government, the business community, and the NGO sector made various pacific overtures to China. At the same time, the Pentagon consistently attempted to contain China’s reach and influence.
The decline of this “congagement” approach is more difficult to pinpoint. The Obama administration certainly attempted to tweak the model with its “Pacific pivot,” an effort to refocus the Pentagon away from the Middle East to East Asia. However, the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS largely prevented this military reorientation. The economic component of the pivot gained greater traction: Obama brokered a free-trade agreement for the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that pointedly excluded China.
After Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 election, he adopted a far more aggressive approach toward China, beginning with his staff. Former top adviser Steve Bannon urged preparations for a coming war between the United States and an “expansionist” China in the South China Sea. “The kinds of people that have taken senior positions on trade and national security are China hawks more eager to confront China,” says Dennis Wilder, who served as the National Security Council’s director for China from 2004 to 2005.
On trade, Trump complained about an undervalued yuan, barriers to entry into Chinese markets, and the theft of intellectual-property rights. But on the third day of his presidency, Trump withdrew from the TPP. Whatever the pluses and minuses of this agreement, US withdrawal provided China an opportunity to further deepen its economic ties in the region.
More often than not, Trump’s obsession with destroying agreements brokered by the Obama administration has brought Washington into conflict with Beijing—over the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, or on climate change. Nonetheless, Trump’s actions on China have elicited a surprising amount of praise from people who don’t ordinarily have anything nice to say about the president. As Thea Lee, the president of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, acknowledges, “The one thing that the tariff actions have shown: Leverage works. They’ve gotten the attention of the Chinese government.” (Though it should be acknowledged that Lee’s recommendations for how to use that leverage—to advocate for stronger labor rights in China to build a middle class—are not exactly the Trump administration’s priorities.)
“Trump is a madman, but I want to give him and his administration their due,” admits Orville Schell, a journalist who has covered China for decades and now directs the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. “We can’t keep playing on an unlevel playing field and take promises that are never delivered on. It’s really China’s turn to respond, and it’s long overdue.”
Trump is presiding over Washington’s most assertive challenge to China in decades, and it’s a bipartisan confrontation. But what the United States says and does is only part of the story.
The Xi Effect
Until relatively recently, China was outwardly content with being a junior partner—or, occasionally, a junior adversary—of the United States. In the 2000s, Chinese officials spoke of the country’s “peaceful rise,” as if it were interested only in getting along by going along.
That has changed with Xi Jinping. The first Chinese president born after the 1949 revolution, Xi has steered the country in a different direction since he took over in 2012. After using an anti-corruption campaign to eliminate his rivals, Xi embarked on a set of reforms that consolidated his power, modernized the military, and reemphasized state control of the economy. In so doing, he has remade the very concept of leadership—his own in China, and his country’s in the world.
“In terms of the direction that Xi has taken the Chinese government, it is a change—and a pretty dramatic one—from the Deng Xiaoping reform and opening-up policies,” Wilder observes. “And not just reform and opening up, but also keeping the low profile of Deng’s two successors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Xi is a different kind of leader: He is more autocratic, and he believes in the reassertion of the [Communist] Party into all aspects of Chinese society and life.”
The most striking departure from that previous “low-profile approach” has been China’s greater assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing has declared ownership over just about everything that lies beyond the territorial waters of the surrounding countries. This is no minor waterway: One-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea.
Under Xi, China has begun to build artificial islands there, essentially creating 3,000 new acres of Chinese territory to cement its claims. Other countries have pushed back, particularly the Philippines, which brought suit against China in an international maritime court. In 2016, the UN-created court ruled against China, a decision that Beijing roundly criticized as “destined to come to naught.”
“More than anything, what shifted, at least in terms of expert opinion, was China’s build-out of artificial islands in the South China Sea and the flouting of the permanent court of arbitration about that,” observes Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
Then too, at the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017, Xi “took a highly nationalist approach, essentially defining Western influences as the enemy,” says J. Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China. Xi instructed the party “to look into and provide guidance on everything—politics, economics, math, philosophy, think tanks. All of these and more have to have Chinese characteristics.”
Actually, Xi may be even more ambitious: If successful, his efforts would ensure that the whole of the Asia Pacific region has Chinese characteristics. His Belt and Road Initiative is a grand infrastructure program that aspires to reconnect China with the Middle East and Europe via a new Silk Road, along with a maritime program that builds up the capacities of Beijing’s littoral neighbors. The project involves some 70 countries and as much as $1 trillion in funding (though it may not reach that figure for another few years). Xi has also created economic structures, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to finance regional growth. These structures could one day serve as the center of an alternative global economy. After all, Chinese development loans already rival those of the World Bank.
At the same time, China’s economic miracle, which has pulled an unprecedented number of people out of poverty, is slowing. The country’s economic growth has dropped to a low of between 6 and 6.6 percent this year—and it could fall even further. “There’s a huge private and public debt of around $34 trillion,” points out sociologist Walden Bello, a human-rights activist and former member of the Philippine Congress. Among other things, the Belt and Road Initiative is a huge gamble aimed at priming the region’s economic pump and reinflating Chinese growth.
Xi’s greater assertiveness—his “China dream” of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—has generated a reciprocal response from a number of other countries, but particularly the United States, with Trump’s own dream of a national resurgence. In what is perhaps the best-case scenario, two increasingly nationalistic superpowers with immense militaries and overextended economies might be content to maintain their own spheres of influence. But China wants to expand its sphere, and the United States is reluctant to give up either its Pacific presence or its global ambitions.
There is another source of conflict. The United States doesn’t just want to box in China; it also wants to change China from within.
During the “congagement” years, a basic assumption lurked behind many US analyses of Chinese behavior: By introducing market capitalism and gradually liberalizing its politics and culture, China would become more Western. During the debate over China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, then-President Bill Clinton argued that the agreement “will move China in the right direction. It will advance the goals America has worked for in China for the past three decades…. By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom.”
As Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Ely Ratner, a former State Department official, put it in an influential essay in Foreign Affairs last year: “The assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” When China proved to be not quite so pliable, American observers started to question the virtues of engagement.
CHINA’S SOUTH CHINA SEA CLAIMS
The Chinese, too, held certain basic assumptions about the stability and coherence of US policy, and Trump’s erratic conduct has thrown them for a loop. But even before Trump or Xi, the global financial crisis of 2008 was a wake-up call. “They were true believers that we were the masters of the financial universe,” Roy says. “They were disillusioned by the international financial crisis.”
As Jian Yong, director of the Center for Economic Security Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, wrote at the time: “The worsening US subprime crisis puts China’s enormous US dollar assets and its opening financial market at tremendous risk. It also makes more Chinese people think about ways to prevent financial crises from spreading across the world amid globalization.”
For the Chinese economy to continue growing, in other words, Beijing could no longer safely assume a well-functioning global system. It could no longer sit comfortably in the passenger seat and expect a smooth ride. With its Belt and Road Initiative, its alternative financing structures, its environmental initiatives, and its efforts to become a global leader in technology, China has seized the wheel. More to the point, Beijing is using its newfound power to change the rules of the road.
This emerging Chinese economic alternative, with its emphasis on the role of the state, “is positive as a sort of counterweight to the neoliberal institutions, with all their conditionalities about how countries should develop along Western market lines,” Bello says. “However, these institutions and Chinese lending have also had drawbacks of their own.”
One of those drawbacks are the high rates on some of China’s loans, as Sri Lanka recently discovered. At the end of 2017, unable to repay its various debts, the Sri Lankan government gave Beijing a 99-year lease to the Hambantota port, which was built with Chinese financing. It’s a commercial port, but it could be used for military purposes with Sri Lanka’s consent.
China: Meaner and Greener?
In the security realm, China increased its military spending by double digits for many years, though it has fallen to 7.5 percent for 2019. “Clearly, the Chinese leadership intends for China to be a great power, to command respect, to bury the century of humiliation that they’re still quite sensitive to,” says historian Andrew Bacevich. “But does it follow that they want to take over the world and create a global empire?”
Lyle Goldstein, who teaches at the US Naval War College, challenges the notion of “Chinese aggression.” He says that China might push around smaller countries, but it has generally showed considerable restraint. “If there’s one thing that China has done that’s so horrible over the last 10 years, that has shocked people in the national-security realm, it would be its behavior in the South China Sea,” Goldstein says. “I don’t think it’s so threatening to the United States. I don’t think it’s that threatening to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. What does it show? Chinese engineering prowess. A concern about their sea lanes. They haven’t killed anyone, resorting for the most part to deploying coast-guard cutters with water cannons. That’s a decent record of moderation for a great power.”
The one area where China has unquestionably become a leader is on the environment, especially given the steps backward that the Trump administration has taken. “China is becoming much more of a truly global player,” Turner says. “Ten or 15 years ago, at a lot of these environmental conferences, they just said no. At the fisheries conference, they said, ‘No, we need to fish.’ What China wants to do these days is set the norms.”
US vs. China GDP
Barbara Finamore, Asia senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledges that China still has a ways to go to wean itself off dirty energy and “green” its overseas development projects. But China has largely kept to the clean-energy path, she argues, “because it’s in its own self-interest to do so. The reason for its transformation from a climate foot-dragger to an advocate of global climate governance is because it sees action on clean energy and the environment as fundamental to succeeding economically and putting its economy on a sustainable path moving forward.”
Unwilling to wait for the “invisible hand” of the market to allocate resources to clean energy, the Chinese government has, for instance, invested huge sums in solar- and wind-power production. As a result, Chinese companies have cornered the global market on solar-cell production, and China has more wind-power capacity than anywhere else in the world.
In other realms of global governance, China’s impatience with the rules of the liberal world order has less salutary implications. “If you look deeply at Xi’s calls for China to lead reform of the global system, what they are saying is terrifying,” argues Hart of the Center for American Progress. “They want to make the world system more authoritarian so that China can integrate without facing political concerns.”
Hart points to China’s preference for states to define Internet freedom within their own borders. Similarly, Beijing wants to define what human rights mean inside China and rewrite rather than accede to global laws and regulations. Beijing is largely deaf to the global outcry over the situation in Xinjiang, where authorities have placed as many as 1.5 million Muslim Uighurs in “reeducation camps” and expanded an intrusive household-surveillance system. “Tibet has served as a brutal testing ground for social control for decades,” says Marin Ping, co-founder of Re:Public, a progressive foreign-policy collective, “and the concentration camps in Xinjiang may constitute the single greatest crime against humanity currently being orchestrated and executed by state actors.”
China is not alone in its insistence on a rather 19th-century understanding of sovereignty, especially in terms of human rights. Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Vladimir Putin in Russia are all dismissive of the international community’s “interference.” “China is beginning to feel and act in a way that reflects a sense that things are blowing its way when it comes to this area of human rights,” Bello concludes.
How Should Washington Respond?
The United States is no longer the world’s sole superpower. The anxiety that accompanies Americans’ realization of the relative decline of US global influence has produced a number of symptoms: the election of Trump, a preoccupation with borders and immigration, bipartisan support in Congress for greater military spending—and a fixation on China’s growing power.
“As liberal-minded Americans despair at what is happening to their own country and its political system, China’s rise under Xi’s authoritarian grip induces a fear and anxiety that is as much about the United States as it is about China,” John Delury, a historian of modern China at Yonsei University, points out by e-mail.
Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, warns against inflating these fears and imposing self-defeating restrictions on Chinese people and businesses coming to the United States. “It could lead to an anti-Chinese version of the Red Scare,” she notes.
Meanwhile, the United States has launched a potentially budget-busting effort to maintain military supremacy over China (and everyone else on the planet). The Trump administration wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget to $750 billion a year, with much of that focused on China: the nearly 5 percent increase in the Navy’s budget, the modernization of the US nuclear force, the resurrection of fighter-jet production. As acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan reminded Pentagon staffers on his first day on the job: “China, China, China.”
That way lies insolvency, Klare argues: “Overmatching ISIS will never bankrupt us. Overmatching Russia and China will.”
Given this new reality, there are two kinds of options for a progressive rethinking of US-China relations. The minimum approach, which acknowledges that the US government and the foreign-policy community have become leery of large-scale engagement, offers only case-by-case cooperation. “Our policy should be cooperative partnership that engages China on every level as we seek to work with China to solve problems,” argues the US Naval War College’s Goldstein. “They are a status-quo power that we can work with on various fronts: North Korea, Myanmar, pandemics, Belt and Road, climate change.”
That engagement can even extend to difficult issues like human rights. “You do stand on your principles on questions of human rights, but you realize your limitations, since it’s not possible for outside states to engineer the situation inside China,” says Rajan Menon, who teaches at the City University of New York. “It’s a delicate balance between standing up for what progressives believe in, but also guarding against those issues being used for confrontation against China.”
This minimum approach falls somewhere between the “congagement” strategy of the past and the creation of distinct spheres of influence. It’s neither a divorce nor a renewal of the wedding vows; it’s more like the Chinese adage of “same bed, different dreams.” There’s room for cooperation, but also for considerable conflict.
The maximum approach, meanwhile, would be a heavier lift. It requires the United States and China to discuss the underlying tension in their relationship over two different views of global governance. A similar debate took place in 1945 between the capitalist and communist worlds, and it produced the compromises of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, the discussion would cover the balance of state and market in economic development, the tension between national sovereignty and universal human rights, and the restructuring of international institutions to better reflect the new balance of global power. The People’s Republic of China, which didn’t exist in 1945 but has now graduated to superpower status, expects to play the same role in reshaping the international system that the United States did after World War II.
Instead of engaging China in a conversation about such a transformation—or even just cooperating with it on an ad-hoc basis, as the Obama administration did—the Trump administration is simultaneously challenging Beijing and shrugging off the burdens of global leadership. Such a mixed message is straining the marriage of convenience between Washington and Beijing that has dominated the world order since the end of the Cold War.
Since it touches on the global economy, the environment, military conflict, and the latest technologies, the US-China relationship should be at the front and center of public debate. Yet no one in Washington or among the 2020 presidential candidates is discussing new ways to engage with China. The stakes, however, couldn’t be higher: If this marriage dissolves, we can say goodbye to a world order that has come to depend on a measure of US-Chinese amity.
The second meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is scheduled for next month. The most likely location will be Vietnam. The agenda is much the same as before: how to get North Korea to denuclearize and the United States to dismantle its sanctions regime. The question remains: which side will make the first substantial move?
The summit comes at a particular difficult time for Trump. The partial shutdown of the federal government is nearing the end of its third week, and most Americans blame the president. Pentagon chief James Mattis resigned over Trump’s insistence on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a policy that other administration officials have attempted to reverse. The president faces fresh criticism of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the House of Representatives, now in the hands of the opposition Democratic Party, is getting ready to launch a slew of investigations into Trump’s affairs and policies.
Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has been busy consolidating his position. He visited China for the fourth time this month and began making arrangements for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first visit to North Korea this spring. Relations with the South are proceeding more-or-less smoothly, with the groundbreaking ceremony for a new inter-Korean railroad taking place late last year.
In his annual New Year’s speech, Kim confidently spoke of his country’s ability to defend against any military attacks but spent the bulk of his speech identifying the economic advances the country has made and the challenges that remain. He did not project the image of a man in a corner. Rather, he appeared to be a man with options. He could keep his nukes or dismantle them. He could negotiate with the United State or not. He could fall back on China’s support if necessary.
A politically weak Trump and more confident Kim could be the best possible combination for a successful summit. Trump is desperate to demonstrate that he can successfully negotiate with someone, anyone. He is acutely aware of the criticism, particularly at home, generated by the first summit in Singapore. He wants to silence his critics with a grand foreign policy gesture.
Kim, meanwhile, has the backing of Beijing and the prospects of moving forward quickly on the economic front with South Korea. He may well be in the mood to compromise.
Trump has already been hit with preemptive criticism for his plan to meet Kim again in a second summit. “Trump has a history of making one-sided foreign policy moves without getting anything in return,” USA Today’s editorial board, for instance, complained. “What would Trump give Kim to preserve the appearance of diplomatic progress? Kim’s long-sought dream of a formal end to the Korean War, granting him legitimacy as leader of the north? Withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea?”
In The Washington Post, meanwhile, former Pentagon official Van Jackson argues that diplomacy has so far made no headway in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He worries about four possible negative outcomes from a second summit. There might be no diplomatic progress. North Korea could be stalling as a tactic to advance its missile program, Trump might suffer a global embarrassment if the summit flops. Or Kim might maneuver Trump into making a unilateral concession like withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea.
It’s easy to criticize diplomacy. When it does succeed, it’s only after months or years of minimal if any progress.
It’s also easy to criticize summits. They are often just for show.
Finally, it’s very easy to criticize Donald Trump. He shows little knowledge of or interest in foreign affairs. He believes that he alone can solve complex problems. And he is, above all, capricious in his behavior. He will change his positions from one hour to the next.
So, in the lead-up to the second Kim-Trump summit, expect even more negative press and critical commentary. It’s not just pundits. The Democratic Party savaged Trump after the Singapore summit. It’s a good bet that the opposition, now that it’s in charge of the House, will be tempted to use a meeting between the president and yet another autocrat to score some political points.
Here’s why I’m not so pessimistic about a second summit.
First of all, it would keep Trump engaged on the issue of Korea and focused on negotiations rather than war. As long as the U.S. president believes that he has a good friend in Pyongyang, he’s not as likely to make rash threats against North Korea or act on them.
Also, even though negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program have not advanced, they are still in play. The situation right now is better than the “strategic patience” that the Obama administration adopted for most of its two terms – which amounted to ignoring North Korea and hoping that it would unilaterally change its policies. A summit may only sustain the illusion that negotiations are creeping forward. But even such an illusion is beneficial in light of the alternatives: a hostile standoff or an actual war.
A summit provides cover for inter-Korean rapprochement to continue. That’s why South Korean President Moon Jae-in is enthusiastic about such spectacles. When Trump shakes Kim’s hand, it sends a strong message that it’s perfectly okay for Seoul and Pyongyang to work together as well.
Finally, a summit offers an occasion for Trump to do something radically different. Most American pundits fear that the president will do something rash, as he has done by announcing a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria. I, for one, would welcome something similarly rash from Trump on Korea.
So far, U.S.-North Korean negotiations have stalled because North Korea has a single bargaining chip that it is reluctant to give up and the United States refuses to embrace the approach of step-by-step concessions. Somebody has to break this deadlock. As the much stronger party in the negotiations, the United States should be the one to shift its position and offer the first concession.
In other words, I support a second summit for the very same reason that the prospective meeting worries so many U.S. pundits. I welcome the possibility that Donald Trump will do something rash.
Donald Trump is a president who makes a great many stupid, aggressive, and destabilizing policy moves at home and abroad. Let’s hope that next month he does something rash for peace instead.
Donald Trump has a plan to solve America’s drug crisis: kill the drug dealers.
“We have pushers and drugs dealers, they are killing hundreds and hundreds of people,” Trump said at a recent White House summit on opioid abuse. “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”
Trump claims he got the idea for killing drug dealers from his pal, Chinese president for life, Xi Jinping. That’s a first: an American president openly borrowing a criminal justice program from an autocrat (and a Communist one, to boot). To be fair, Trump clearly also had in mind the experience of a democratic country. In the last two years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has encouraged a spree of extrajudicial police executions aimed at the drug trade that, according to Human Rights Watch, has left more than 12,000 Filipinos dead. Although the International Criminal Court has launched an inquiry into Duterte’s “crimes against humanity,” Trump has praised him for doing an “incredible job” with his anti-drug program.
The president’s embrace of the death penalty for drug dealers is but one example of his across-the-board scorn for human rights as he buddies up with the world’s most notorious autocrats and directs the Pentagon to ensure that ongoing human rights catastrophes around the world grow even worse. Meanwhile, he’s proposed slashing State Department programs promoting democracy and human rights, while trying to roll back movements for rights and freedoms in the United States.
Think of him as a driver who’s been licensed to operate the world’s largest vehicle despite his utter contempt for the rules of the road. Not surprisingly, the traffic forecast is bleak: with hardliner Mike Pompeo about to take over as secretary of state, his department will prove even less of a speed bump in the president’s dangerous game of chicken with the global community.
Two Cheers for Hypocrisy
U.S. foreign policy used to be reliably two-faced. Washington would regularly call out its adversaries on human rights abuses while largely ignoring the egregious violations of its closest friends. During the Cold War, for instance, the U.S. routinely lambasted the Soviet Union for its appalling record on human rights but handed out free passes to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, and others of their ilk.
Sure, the State Department has been issuing an exhaustive annual report on human rights violators that, for half a century, provided grim details on repressive governments like those of the Saudis and Egyptians. But that didn’t stop successive administrations from supplying those same autocracies with virtually all the weapons and military aid they claimed they needed, even as Washington maintained an arms embargo on China instituted after Beijing cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. And when the United States does lift such embargoes, as with Vietnam in 2016, it has everything to do with geopolitics (containing China) and nothing to do with human rights.
Consider these telling changes in the Trumpian era. When the State Department released last year’s human rights report, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t even bother to hold the traditional press conference or present the findings himself, though he was in Washington at the time. This year’s report, unreleased and overdue, will reportedly give shorter shrift to women’s rights and discrimination of various kinds, prompting an outcry from more than 170 human-rights organizations. “This sends a clear signal that women’s reproductive rights are not a priority for this administration, and that it’s not even a rights violation we must or should report on,” an unnamed State Department official typically told Politico.
The writing has been on the wall in big block letters from the earliest moments of the Trump era. In May 2017, in his first town hall meeting with State Department staff, Tillerson warned that human rights should not become an obstacle in the U.S. pursuit of national interests, a shot across the department’s bow that contributed to a wave of subsequent resignations. Similarly, the administration’s first National Security Strategy barely mentioned human rights.
The diminished impact of the State Department reflects the diminished state of the department itself. Expect Pompeo to be even more aggressive than Tillerson at de-staffing it through unfilled ambassadorial positions (including South Korea and the European Union), the purging of staff for political reasons, cash buyouts for early retirements, and major reductions at embassies like the new one in Cuba. Among the many top positions that remain unfilled, there aren’t even nominees for undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights or assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor (or, for that matter, special envoy on North Korean human rights). The Trump team proposed slashing the State Department budget by 25% from $53 billion to $39 billion. Congress, however, rebelled and reduced the shrinkage to just 6% in the final budget bill signed by the president last week. As part of these ostensible austerity measures, Trump wanted to effectively eliminate the bulk of “democracy promotion” by gutting the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its associated institutions.
Critics of the NED — and there are many of them with telling points to make — will rejoice. But let’s not kid ourselves: the alternative world Trump is creating will be even grimmer.
Bullets, Not Ballots
Trump’s assault on diplomacy does not represent any across-the-board reduction in America’s engagement with the world. After all, Pentagon spending is slated to rise by $80 billion a year or nearly twice the (reduced) budget of the shrunken State Department. And keep in mind that the Pentagon is actively involved in human rights abuses globally.
It is, for instance, giving Saudi Arabia billions of dollars in weapons (including cluster bombs) to bomb Yemen back to the Stone Age, while air-refueling American-produced F-16s that the Saudis are deploying and providing further logistical support for this devastating air war. The result has been a catastrophe, including more than 5,000 dead civilians, a devastating famine, and a health crisis that, in 2017, already led to more than 2,000 casualties from a cholera epidemic and 50,000 children dead from malnutrition and other diseases.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State and he’s been as good as his word. The Trump administration upped the number of aerial attacks against that group without regard for civilian casualties in 2017. Up to 20,000 bombs were, for instance, dropped on ISIS’s “capital,” the Syrian city of Raqqa. In one particularly gruesome case, the U.N. has accused the U.S.-led coalition of violating international law by bombing a school building near that city in March 2017, killing 150 people among the displaced families sheltered there. Such acts have only been compounded by the Trump administration’s indifference to war crimes committed by the Syrian government and its Russian ally.
In Afghanistan, Trump has similarly given the U.S. military free rein to attack the Taliban. From August to the end of last year, Washington conducted almost as many air strikes there as it had in 2015 and 2016 combined. Who then could be surprised that Afghanistan experienced more civilian deaths in 2017 than during any other comparable period in the 16-year war?
Occasionally, the White House still talks about defending human rights, as in an executive order issued as 2017 ended that targeted “serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.” That order, however, focused on only 13 individuals, including the former president of Gambia, an arms dealer in the Balkans, a Guatemalan politician, and the son of Russia’s prosecutor general.
In Trump’s universe, in other words, human rights abuses are committed only by a handful of “bad hombres.” The world’s greatest human rights abusers aren’t on that list — because many of them are among the president’s BFFs.
President Trump has made a point of establishing close working relationships with some of the worst autocrats on the planet. His first official trip overseas in May 2017 was typical. It wasn’t the usual inaugural jaunt to Canada, Mexico, or Europe. Instead, he made a beeline for Saudi Arabia, a country that lacks democracy, subordinates women, has never allowed freedom of speech or assembly, and imposes severe restrictions on its Shiite minority. Just Trump’s kind of place! He gave a speech in Riyadh condemning terrorism without once mentioning Saudi contributions to Sunni extremism around the world and capped things off by promising $110 billion in weaponry for the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has been a friend of the United States since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Trump, however, wants to bind Washington and Riyadh even more closely in an anti-Iranian front (an impulse the appointment of Mike Pompeo, a well-known Iranophobe, can only strengthen). And the Saudi royals were just one entry on a crowded Trumpian list of despots that includes Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (“I’ve always had a good instinct about Putin.”) Also on the list is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Trump praised (“We have a great friendship”) even as the Turkish leader was throwing journalists in prison and conducting a military campaign against the country’s Kurdish minority. As for his chum Xi, Trump recently eulogizedthe Chinese president for making himself ruler for life, wistfully regretting that an unnamed American president couldn’t do the same.
Then there’s Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a violent coup in 2013, killing hundreds, jailing tens of thousands, and torturing his opponents. For Trump, these were merely signs of a stiff spine. “I just want to let everybody know that we are very much behind President Sisi; he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” he said on welcoming the Egyptian leader to the White House in April 2017.
Such “friendships” are actually green lights for bad behavior. Soon after Trump shook the hands of the leaders of various Arab states in Saudi Arabia in May 2017, for instance, Bahrain cracked down on its free press and extrajudicial killings rose dramatically in Egypt. Saudi Arabia launched a blockade against Qatar, in part because of its support for democracy movements during the Arab Spring and the relative freedom of its state-supported media outlet Al-Jazeera. Although Qatar has been a close military ally of Washington — the largest American military base in the region is located there — Trump immediately tweeted his support for the blockade.
Perhaps his closest overseas soul mate, however, has been Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister has taken full advantage of that relationship to ratchet up pressure on the Palestinian community through extrajudicial executions, expanded settlements, police crackdowns, and the ever-punishing blockade of Gaza. In return, Trump has given Netanyahu whatever he wants, including an American embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of that city as Israel’s capital.
Trump has raised the issue of human rights abuses only in the case of four countries: Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. And after spending his first year in office trading insults with Kim Jong-un, he’s recently made a dramatic pivot, offering to sit down and negotiate with the North Korean leader, reducing his “axis of evil” to three.
Except for those outliers, his position has been that sovereign states should be allowed to do whatever they like within their own borders, as he himself moved with visible enthusiasm to suppress human rights at home. Like his friend Viktor Orban in Hungary, Trump took aim at immigrants; like Putin in Russia, he targeted LGBT advances; like Erdogan in Turkey, he accused the mainstream press of being the enemy; and like his alt-right buddies in Europe, he navigated close to neo-Nazis. No wonder Amnesty International has labeled Trump a “threat” to human rights.
Smashing the International Community
The Trump administration has continued to wage America’s ongoing wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. At various moments, the president himself has also threatened to attack both North Korea and Venezuela. And with Pompeo heading for the State Department and the even more Iranophobic and bloodthirsty John Bolton becoming national security advisor, a military conflict with Iran may well be in the offing.
So far, however, the only new “war” President Trump has launched is a metaphoric one against the international community — with all-too-real consequences.
He promptly withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then the Paris climate accord, while regularly threatening to deep-six a multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran signed by the Obama administration — all acts reflecting his disgust for anything that smacks of internationalism (or Obama himself).
His assault on the global human rights order has been even more dramatic. One of his first gestures was to re-impose a “global gag rule” restricting U.S. funding for organizations worldwide that provide family-planning assistance. Over the summer, his administration quietly prepared to close the State Department office that investigates genocide and war crimes. In October, it announced its future withdrawal from the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO (because of alleged anti-Israel bias).
Soon after, the administration pulled out of a global migration pact that Obama had enthusiastically endorsed the year before. A month later, it cut funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees, and is now preparing to reduce cooperation with the International Criminal Court. Its biggest target so far, however, has been the U.N. Human Rights Council. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley presented that council with an ultimatum: “If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the council.” Although the Council has yet to bend to U.S. demands, Trump and company are undoubtedly uninterested in its “reform.” (Washington hasn’t even bothered to replace its special representative on the Council.)
No international initiative has proven too small for his administration to target, even the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global standard implemented by 52 countries whose task is to reduce corruption in the energy and mining sector. As Adam Davidson commented in the New Yorker, “[T]he Trump Administration is actively implementing, in real policy, its avowed distrust — even contempt —for international compacts designed to improve the lives of people around the world. Abandoning EITI is not for show; it is a move toward dismantling the architecture of global governance.”
At a gut level, Donald Trump just hates “globalism,” which represents the antithesis of his America First doctrine. If he gets his way, the United States will not simply withhold its support for global initiatives, it will undermine any kind of global planning or cooperation that has a peaceable bent to it. Just as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher believed only in individuals, not “society,” Trump dismisses the U.N. and believes only in powerful actors. As his then-loyal adjutants, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and former chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in May 2017, “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Thanks to the Trump team, the international community is quickly devolving into World Wrestling Entertainment.
At first, the new president’s global belligerence had a certain unifying effect. Even as the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord, for instance, the last two holdouts (Syria and Nicaragua) signed on and the rest of the world’s nations recommitted themselves to achieving the agreement’s goals without U.S. participation. In the face of a possible U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the other signatories (Europe, Russia, China, and Iran) redoubled their efforts to preserve it.
But bullies have a pernicious influence on social norms, which means that a single powerful rule-breaker can do much to undermine global institutions. As such, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the climate deal has largely deflated that global effort. The Europeans have reluctantly agreed to form a working group with the U.S. on altering the Iran nuclear deal, while the Iranians recently indicated that they might withdraw from it if the Europeans can’t keep Washington on board. Having broken the international rules of the road, Trump is now rewriting them to reflect his extreme version of American exceptionalism.
After the genocidal bloodletting of World War II, the U.N. and its foundational documents on human rights represented a different, more humane trajectory for the world. Donald Trump is attempting to rewind world history to an earlier era of blood and soil, of a nationalism red in tooth and claw, and of unfettered capitalism. He has brokered an informal alliance of autocrats and financiers worldwide against the U.N. and human rights more generally.
In this reincarnated version of an older order, the rich and the strong will prosper — at least for a while. Trump and friends will make out like bandits — at least for a while. And until citizens unite across borders to rescue the human rights order from this onslaught, the weak and the outnumbered will have ever fewer places to turn on an increasingly heartless planet.
As a candidate, Donald Trump rallied voters against a variety of enemies. He vilified Mexicans. He stereotyped Muslims. And he went after the Chinese for “raping” the United States.
President Trump still wants to build that wall along the border with Mexico. He’s still trying to keep out Muslim immigrants.
As for China, all signs have pointed to more conflict.
The trade gap between the United States and China during the first nine months of Trump’s term is even larger than it was before he took office: $273 billion at the end of September in favor of China compared to $257 billion a year ago at the same time.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping finished up a Communist Party congress in October with a nearly four-hour speech that stressed his country’s great power status and his plan to boost military preparedness. Although Beijing has pledged to help reel back North Korea’s nuclear program — and supported sanctions toward that end — Pyongyang has shown no sign of budging from its position. And China recently negotiated a deal with South Korea that scrapped its economic pressure tactics in exchange for Seoul scaling back on its participation in U.S. plans for regional missile defense.
Indeed, on the eve of Trump’s recent 12-day trip to Asia, pundits were predicting a strong anti-China swerve in administration policy.
But touching down in Beijing, Donald Trump was all smiles when he met with Xi Jinping. His arrival was greeted with all the pomp of a visiting king. And the American president reciprocated by speaking of a special economic relationship with China.
Actually Trump went much further. He was positively 18th century in the way he took a knee in Beijing (I’m talking kowtow, not Colin Kaepernick). Writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post:
Trump was bizarrely deferential to President Xi Jinping, with the American president lavishing personal — and unreciprocated — praise upon his counterpart. It was a remarkable approach for a president who has so frequently talked tough on China, as well as a contrast to Trump’s condescending treatment of [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe, the ally whom Trump belittled a number of times during his time in Japan.
Trump’s performance in Beijing went beyond even the man-crush he seems to develop with any autocrat who exercises the free rein of power that the president so desperately craves.
Instead of pretending that China had not gotten the best of the trade deal with the United States, Trump decided to compliment his hosts for outfoxing his predecessors. China, in other words, was not to blame for working hard to make China great again at America’s expense. “I give China great credit,” Trump said. The blame, instead, fell squarely on past presidents.
The implication: Only Trump works on behalf of America’s interests. All other American leaders are dupes — or, worse, traitors.
As Trump toured Asia over the last two weeks, he put on a show of alpha male behavior not seen in an American president since Mr. Bully Pulpit himself, Teddy Roosevelt.
In Japan, for instance, Trump treated the deferential Shinzo Abe as a servant of American power. He made sure to emphasize that Japan would always be number two, a reality that previous American leaders have always taken pains to obscure. Writes David Nakamura in The Washington Post,
“The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant, and you’ve built one of the world’s most powerful economies,” Trump said, before looking up from his prepared remarks. Turning his head to face Abe next to him, Trump ad-libbed: “I don’t know if it’s as good as ours. I think not, okay?” He emphasized the “okay” by drawing it out leadingly as a parent might with a child.
It would have been instructive to put Trump on an Amtrak train and then on the Washington metro before whisking him over to Japan to ride a Shinkansen high-speed train and then the Tokyo metro. Then perhaps he wouldn’t have been so condescending about Japan’s “second-class” economy. (On my trip to Japan last month, I took the Shinkansen between Fukuoka and Kyoto, a 400-mile trip that took a little less than three hours. That’s the equivalent of the distance between DC and Boston, which can take two to three times as long on Amtrak — and the trains run as frequently as the DC metro on the weekend.)
In the Philippines, Trump made no effort to diminish President Rodrigo Duterte. Maybe that’s because Duterte has boasted of the ultimate alpha male activity — personally killing people. Duterte also stands accused of ordering the murder of a journalist (take that, fake news). And the Philippine leader has disparaged former President Obama in even more graphic terms than Trump has himself.
Trump almost seemed a little cowed before Duterte, like a capo before the boss. If Trump raised any human rights concerns about Duterte’s record of extrajudicial killings, as his press spokesperson claimed, he did it so briefly and quietly that it never even registered with the Philippine president.
In Vietnam, because he wanted something, Trump did more wheedling than posturing. As elsewhere, the president tried to get foreign leaders to agree to buy U.S. weapons. But in Hanoi, he revealed his desperation. He told people in the room that he needed quick wins because he would soon be running for office again. Trump didn’t need to say that his standing in the polls is the lowest ever of any president in their first year.
But it was with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Trump really crouched down and waited for his ears to be scratched. Back home, the Russiagate investigations are heating up. Putin, however, denied any interference in the U.S. elections. That was good enough for Trump. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters.
Former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, whom Trump has derided as “political hacks,” both expressed outrage that Trump would take the word of Putin over the analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies.
From Tokyo to Beijing, Trump excelled at punching down and toadying up. He is America’s number one alpha male, beating his chest and roaring — except when he encounters another male more alpha than he is. Welcome to the World Wrestling Federation version of international relations.
The Enemy Within
On this Asian road trip, Trump also revealed his own one-track mind.
On Trump’s watch, multilateralism has died, strangled that first week in office when the new president withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership. Pointedly, on the sidelines of the same APEC meeting that Trump attended, the remaining signatories declared that the agreement will rise from the ashes without U.S. participation. Although his trip was extended so that he could attend the East Asia Summit, Trump decided to bow out early. It was an important symbol that Trump doesn’t play with groups. He’s a one-on-one kind of guy. He just doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle more than that.
China traditionally favored bilateral relations over multilateral ones because it could use its size to advantage in negotiating better deals with smaller Asian countries. But now the United States and China have traded places. Trump is suspicious of any grouping larger than two (a boxing ring can’t accommodate more than that). And China has seized the opportunity to present itself as the country that cares about the world and not just what it can gain in any set of bilateral negotiations.
Trump’s flip-flop on China doesn’t mean that he’s gone soft on America’s adversaries. In his UN speech, Trump singled out four countries for censure — Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. Other countries have also fallen into that category as well. Trump has tried to dictate to Mexico how it should spend its money. He approved of Saudi Arabia’s embargo of Qatar and its war in Yemen. He routinely uses drones to intervene in the affairs of other countries such as Pakistan and Somalia.
But what Trump said to Xi Jinping was quite extraordinary. He recognized that a previously “bad” country was simply acting in its own interests and extracting the best deal it could from the United States. The bottom line: Trump needs China. What he doesn’t need, however, are all his domestic adversaries, beginning with Barack Obama. Trump knows that he can rouse his base more effectively by going after the enemy within than the enemy abroad.
In this way, the president is beginning to shift the narrative. In coming months leading up to the mid-term elections, Trump will sharpen his criticism of liberal judges, an ineffectual Congress, and traitorous members of America’s civil society (ACLU, Sierra Club, etc.).
It’s not that the world is arrayed against Donald Trump. As he has pointed out repeatedly, he gets along with everybody, even Angela Merkel.
No, the problem isn’t them. It’s us — anyone who dares to oppose the president’s brazen attempt to shift all wealth to the wealthy and all power into his own grasping hands. That’s why the Trump administration is conducting its purge of federal institutions. That’s why Trump blasts the media and Hollywood. Even Republicans who dare to resist, including outright conservatives like John McCain and Bob Corker, have been raked over the coals.
An alpha male needs a whole mess of betas to reinforce his status. Now that he’s back from his imaginary victory lap in Asia, Trump is preparing to go after the so-called traitors on the home front. In 1934, Germany endured its Night of Long Knives when the Nazis purged their own ranks along with establishment conservatives and anti-Nazis.
Brace yourself for three more years of long knives.
There’s been precious little good news from Asia these days. Washington and Pyongyang continue to trade threats of war. Right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe won reelection as prime minister in Japan last month. Major storms have hammered several countries in the region, most recently Typhoon Damrey in Vietnam.
And now, in the wake of those typhoons comes a mighty wind from the United States. Donald Trump, in the longest foreign trip of his presidency, is currently visiting South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The silver lining on this Ugly American Tour: Trump probably won’t start a war in a region where he’s currently traveling.
Lost among all this bad news has been some very good news out of Asia. It hasn’t received much media attention here, probably because it only peripherally involves the United States.
Last week, South Korea and China ended a yearlong spat over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). China, believing the system to be designed to eliminate its nuclear deterrent, punished South Korea economically for welcoming THAAD. Now a new government in Seoul, led by liberal president Moon Jae-in, has announced that it would not add to the existing THAAD system or participate in the proposed regional missile defense that Washington wants to set up. That was enough for China to reengage economically.
It’s a delicate balance for South Korea — to maintain its alliance with the United States and yet repair relations with China. The Trump administration is much happier with the passive-aggressive attitude of Tokyo — passively accepting U.S. hegemony while aggressively pursuing an offensive military posture — than with Seoul’s somewhat more independent position. Witness the time Trump lavished on Abe on this current trip including a round of golf. South Korea, meanwhile, had to make due with a brief stopover and a strident lecture by the president before the National Assembly.
Here’s a radical idea for China and South Korea: Forget Donald Trump, forget the United States, and forget the Cold War divide in Northeast Asia.
The two countries ought to build on their newly repaired relationship. They can make like Germany and France after World War II. But instead of a new regional order based on coal and steel, Beijing and Seoul should establish something completely new: an Asian Environmental Community that promotes renewable energy and sustainable growth.
A New Geopolitical Moment
Much has been made of Trump’s reeling in of American influence around the world, at least on the soft-power side of things, and China’s eager efforts to capitalize on the new global opportunities. Perhaps future historians will look back at this moment as the time when China began to replace the United States as the anchor of the international community. Or perhaps they will identify this era as the moment when everything began to unravel, from the EU to the UN.
But let’s imagine a different scenario in which the threat of climate change plays the same integrative function as alien invaders in Hollywood films. The planet is at risk: let’s all fight the common enemy together!
True, the world so far hasn’t gotten the message. This week the latest round of meetings began in Germany to discuss the commitments made in the Paris climate agreement of two years ago. The Trump administration, aside from a few token representatives, has been conspicuously absent. Also absent was any real hope that the agreement would achieve its goal of keeping the rise in global temperature from hitting a 2 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels.
ReportsThe New York Times: “No major industrialized country is currently on track to fulfill its pledge, according to new data from the Climate Action Tracker. Not the European Union. Not Canada. Not Japan.” Even if they do meet their commitments, it still won’t be enough. According to a recent Nature study, even if humans stopped all use of fossil fuels immediately, the planet would still register a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2100.
Not even the announcements that both Syria and Nicaragua will join the Paris agreement, leaving Trump’s America as the only outlier, can alleviate this grim news. The Maldives, Mumbai, and Miami are sinking: It’s time to make plans to move to Mongolia.
Room for Improvement
Enter South Korea and Japan. Here are two economic powerhouses — in the most economically dynamic region of the world — with great PR on climate change.
“Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind,” Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said at the launch of the Paris agreement. “Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change, work for global sustainable development at a high level, and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”
Sounds good. And China has pushed forward with impressive investments into renewable energy — $360 billion by the end of the decade — along with stopping the construction of over 100 new coal-fired power plants. Although China is set to reach peak emissions a decade or more before its 2030 goal, the country remains the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, having surpassed the United States in 2007. In 2015, it released nearly twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as did the United States, and coal still supplies two-thirds of its energy needs. In other words, China has a long way to go before it can claim substantive leadership in stopping global warming.
South Korea has also talked a good game. Former president Lee Myung Bak created the Global Green Growth Initiative, now a multilateral body based in Seoul, to promote sustainability. In 2009, Lee told the UN, “To proactively respond to climate change, Korea adopted ‘Low Carbon Green Growth’ as a guiding vision for our nation and a strategy for further development. We are currently working to enact a
Framework Law on Green Growth and establish a Five-Year Plan for Green Growth. Thereby, we will not only transform our economic and industrial structures, but also change our very lifestyles to become more future-oriented.”
In reality, however, South Korea backtracked from the pledges made during the Lee era. Under his successor Park Geun Hye, now detained on charges of corruption, Korea made a U-turn on greenhouse gas emissions and decided to rely even more heavily on coal for energy generation. As a result of this change of policy, the Institute for Climate Change Action declared South Korea one of four global “climate villains” at the end of 2016.
In other words, both China and South Korea have made impressive commitments to lower the global thermometer even as they continue to be a big part of the problem. But let’s focus on the future. There’s a new government in Seoul. And China has a chance to replace the United States as the global leader on this issue.
So, let’s take it to the next level.
Asian Environmental Community
When France and Germany formed a new partnership in 1950, the architects had much grander ambitions than simply coordinating the production of coal and steel. They wanted to ensure a peaceful Europe.
In his famous declaration that year, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made the case for cooperation with former enemy Germany:
Five years, almost to the day, after the unconditional surrender of Germany, France is accomplishing the first decisive act for European construction and is associating Germany with this. Conditions in Europe are going to be entirely changed because of it. This transformation will facilitate other action which has been impossible until this day.
Europe will be born from this, a Europe which is solidly united and constructed around a strong framework. It will be a Europe where the standard of living will rise by grouping together production and expanding markets, thus encouraging the lowering of prices.
Up to now, East Asia has been divided ideologically, by territorial disputes, and by different economic visions. The Korean peninsula is a potent representation of all these conflicts. With its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, China has offered one way of uniting the region through massive infrastructure development. For many countries in the region, it’s a deal they can’t refuse. The aforementioned GGGI is working to “green” OBOR and even draw China, South Korea, and Japan into trilateral coordination.
There are good arguments for including Japan in a new Asian Environmental Community from the very beginning. Particularly at the municipal level, Japan has made great strides in reducing its carbon footprint. However, there’s considerable resistance in Korea to greater foreign policy coordination with Japan. Japan has outstanding territorial disputes with both China and South Korea. And the Abe administration is focused on breaking out of its constitutional restraints on fielding an offensive military. For all those reasons, it would be best to focus first on achieving consensus between Seoul and Beijing.
So, what would this new Asian Environmental Community do?
Both South Korea and China set rather unambitious targets under the Paris agreement. Their first task would be to establish a more ambitious agenda for cuts in carbon emissions. There’s no reason why both countries can’t follow the example of Uruguay, which has managed to wean itself almost entirely from oil imports over the last two decades. The economic benefitsshould be attractive to both Seoul and Beijing: The cost of electricity has dropped considerably in Uruguay, the sustainable energy sector generates more jobs than the oil sector, and the country now exports its (clean) energy to its neighbors. Both China and South Korea have traditionally relied on imported oil and gas: This kind of import substitution should appeal to both liberals and conservatives.
Next, the two countries could partner on a much more thoroughgoing greening of OBOR, not just incorporating some sustainable elements but ensuring that the new transportation lines, ports, and power plants are carbon neutral. Yes, the massive undertaking has already started, with nearly 1,700 projects over the last three years. But it’s still at the beginning stages, with plenty of future investment to green.
But a new Asian Environmental Community could be more ambitious still.
Just as Robert Schuman imagined that the coal and steel agreement between France and Germany would bring a broken Europe back together, at least the western half of it, the partnership of China and South Korea could offer a way for Asia to sidestep its myriad disagreements and come together around the one thing that all countries can support. As with early European cooperation, the environmental partnership would be mutually beneficial. Coordinated production of renewable energy — solar panels, wind turbines — could take advantage of economies of scale to bring down prices even more. Generation of clean energy for export could help energy-poor countries go beyond their Paris commitments.
And all this cooperation might just spill over into other realms, making resolution of territorial disputes, economic disagreements, and even North Korea’s nuclear program that much more likely. Never has Northeast Asia been more in need of a virtuous circle of engagement.
Asia set the standard for electronics, for Internet connectivity, and for mind-blowingly telescoped economic development. Now it’s time for China and South Korea to establish a new global green benchmark. The world is desperate for mind-blowingly telescoped environmental development. Let Asia lead the way again.