Book Review: Palace, Political Party and Power


August 30, 2016

Book Review: Palace, Political Party and Power

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian,: A Story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship.

Singapore: NUS Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 472; map, tables, figures, photographs, list of abbreviations and acronyms, glossary, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Greg Lopez.

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On 6 February 2009, approximately 3,000 Malays protested in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, demanding that the Perak ruler, Sultan Azlan Shah, dismiss the state’s legislative assembly to pave the way for new state elections. Earlier, Malaysia’s then Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak had extra-constitutionally toppled the popularly elected Pakatan Rakyat state government with the complicity of Perak’s royals. Never in Malaysian history had there been such a popular uprising against Malay royals as the ensuing protests. This video provides a hint of the likelihood that in a new Malaysia the most significant threat to the Malay rulers’ fetish for power will come not from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) but from ordinary Malays.

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian serves as professor of history and senior fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris. She ranks among the most renowned and respected historians of modern Thailand. The latest of her many books, Palace, Political Party and Power: A story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship, sees her turn her attention to the history of modern Malaysia to provide a cogent analysis of the relationship between UMNO and the Malay rulers in their common quest for power. The book’s timing is opportune, as it comes at a moment at which each of these institutions, UMNO and Malay kingship, confronts a decline in its legitimacy within a seriously divided Malay community. Palace, Political Party and Power represents a valuable addition to the literature not only on the relationship between the Malay rulers and UMNO, but also on that between the Malay rulers and UMNO on the one hand and their “subjects” – the Malays of Peninsular Malaysia – on the other. Even more significantly, it treats an important and neglected dimension of Malaysian politics – the impact of the Malay rulers on the country’s affairs.

Palace, Political Party and Power traces the socio-political development of the institution of Malay rulership, from the beginning of colonial times, when the Malay rulers lost power but not prestige; through the Japanese Occupation, when they lost both; to the restoration of the rulers’ prestige – thanks to the new Malay elites – at independence; and in the ebbs and flows since. In narrating this story, the book achieves three principal ends. First, it reaffirms conventional analysis holding that the British residential system in colonial Malaya had great significance in modernising the institution of Malay rulership towards the constitutional monarchy of today’s Malaysia. Second, it argues persuasively that it was the Japanese Occupation of Malaya that provided the platform for new Malay elites – whose members would become the leading lights of UMNO – to take the leadership of the Malay masses away from the Malay rulers but in the process also to restore the prestige of those rulers. Third, and most important, almost seventy percent of Palace, Political Party and Power focuses on the complex relationship – one of competition for and cooperation in power – between the country’s two leading Malay institutions, UMNO and the rulers.

Pian’s central argument is that the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Japanese policies towards the Malay rulers, the new Malay elites, and the Malay community had, more than any other factor, the effect of stripping the Malay royal institution of its “aura”, “mystique”, “grandeur” and “authority.” In consequence, Malay rulership no longer commanded the fear or undisputed reverence of members of the post-1945 Malay elite. Malaya’s Japanese occupiers, through their treatment of the Malay rulers, revealed those rulers’ impotence, their inability to defend themselves, and also their lack of the capacity to defend the interests of their subjects – the rakyat. This reality made clear to the burgeoning new Malay elite, which the Japanese also developed, that the existence of Malay royal institutions depended very much on the good will of those in power. It provided that new elite with a valuable lesson for dealing with difficult members of the royalty during the post-1945 period.

Furthermore, the book argues, Japan’s policy of inculcating Malay society with a certain variant of Japanese values through education had the unintended effect of strengthening the Malays as one community, sharing one language and one religion. Many Malay youths were sent to schools – ordinary schools, teacher training schools, and leadership schools (kurenjo). In the leadership schools, Malay students were taught by means of an exhausting daily routine to appreciate and to live by Nippon seishin, or the Japanese spirit. This exposure to Japanese values had the profound effect of changing some Malays’ outlook on life, and above all of exorcising the narrow socio-political parochialism that had previously divided the Malays into subjects of different rulers owing allegiance to different sultanates. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya also toughened members of the new Malay elite, as both the British and the Malay rulers would learn so dramatically after Imperial Japan’s defeat.

 Pian develops her arguments over nine chapters, in essence covering two periods: that before the establishment of UMNO in 1946 and that after the party’s establishment. The first chapter provides a brief introduction to the concept of monarchy and locates the Malay rulers within the history and among the fortunes of monarchs in post-colonial developing nations. While many monarchs lost their titles, the monarchs of the newly minted Federated States of Malaya gained a new title in 1957. With the addition of the elected Supreme Head of State or Yang DiPertuan Agung to the nine existing rulers of Malay states, Malaya became the country with the greatest number of constitutional rulers in the world, ten in all. The second and the third chapters of the book discuss the abject state of the Malay rulers as of the middle of the last century. They narrate the story of the social-political decline that the rulers suffered first under British colonial rule and then under the Japanese Occupation. Chapters Four through Eight discuss the tug of war between the Malay rulers and UMNO to define the de facto and de jure roles of constitutional monarchs in independent Malaya/Malaysia, and Chapter Nine concludes the book.

In its research, Palace, Political Party and Power is all that one would expect from Pian. She has scoured archives and other holdings at the Public Record Office and the library of School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the Rhodes House library at Oxford, and the National Library of Singapore and the library of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), as well as archival holdings in Malaysia itself. She demonstrates real courage in writing about Malay monarchy and UMNO in a true academic fashion; she proves herself objective in the context of a public university in Malaysia. Unlike the general brood of academicians that fill Malaysia’s public university system, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian is no UMNO or royalist sycophant.

Palace, Political Party and Power suggests that, if the contest between UMNO and the Malay rulers were a boxing match, then UMNO would be leading after four rounds but facing uncertainty in the remaining rounds and the serious possibility of losing the bout. For UMNO’s legitimacy as the protector of the Malays is declining faster than that of the Malay rulers. We may divide the contest between UMNO and the Malay rulers up to now into four clear chronological rounds. Round One, circa 1946, centred on the issue of Malayan Union. It was a draw, as the Malay rulers, UMNO and Malay subjects rallied together in the common cause of protecting the rights of the rulers. Round Two, roughly 1948 – 1951, was focused on the powers of the new Malay elite, represented by UMNO. Throttling the ascendancy of UMNO, the monarchs clearly won that round. Round Three was the 1951 – 1955 Merdeka negotiations, and it went to UMNO. And Round Four brought UMNO victory in 1983/84 and 1993/94. It left UMNO the supreme power in the land. This bout’s fifth round is currently being fought. There is no clear winner yet, but the Malay rulers have come back very strong.

In discussing the factors that explain the success of the constitutional relationship between the Malay rulers and the executive leadership of the country, Palace, Political Party and Power suggests three: the strong political power of the chief executive, the personal prestige of the chief executive vis-├а-vis the rulers, and personal attributes of the men who have occupied these positions. Adding to these three factors was of course the legitimacy of the Malay rulers and UMNO’s leaders, respectively, in the eyes of the rakyat.

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His Majesty The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia

At a theoretical level, this book frames the analyses of the relationship between the Malay rulers and UMNO as a contest between two ideas of constitutional monarchy. These two ideas are best captured in quotations from Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sultan Azlan Shah that appear in Palace, Political Party and Power:

The Constitution implies without room for contradiction that though the Sultans are sovereign heads of states, they have no power to rule. The power lies in the hands of the people who through their representatives run the government of the nation and the states…

Tunku Abdul Rahman, page 408

What the Agung can do and what he cannot do is clearly defined by the Constitution. One fact is certain, the royal prerogative is exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as representing the electorate, hence the people have a lot to say…It can be assumed that while the Rulers enjoy their rights and privileges, they must live within these rights…The Menteri Besar and the State Executive Councillors are supposed to be the ‘watchdogs’…Their duties are to see the Rulers do not commit excess…

Tunku Abdul Rahman, page 330

A King is a King, whether he is an absolute or constitutional monarch. The only difference between the two is that whereas one has unlimited powers, the other’s powers are defined by the Constitution. But it is a mistake to think that the role of the King, likethat of a President, is confined to what is laid down by the Constitution. His role far exceeds those constitutional provisions.

Sultan Azlan Shah, page 330

Another example of the way in which Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian frames her analysis is the comparison of Westminster-style constitutional monarchy, which emphasis the non-political nature of the monarchy, with the “Southeast Asian” model of constitutional monarchy, best represented by the current Thai king. The Southeast Asian model follows in form the Westminster-type model, whereby the monarch delegates all powers to the people’s representatives. However, in practise, the modern Southeast Asian monarch reserves the ultimate extra-constitutional power to interpret, intervene, reject or direct a course of action in affairs of state.

This line of analysis is, however, very narrow in its usefulness. It misses the central feature of Malaysia’s system of government. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy only in name. The wording of the country’s constitution has been amended more than 650 times; 42 amendment bills have been passed. In fact, Malaysia is a dysfunctional democracy, in which the ruling UMNO enjoys disproportionate power relative to all other institutions. In the political science literature, Malaysia is conceptualised not as a democracy but as a semi-democracy, neither democratic nor authoritarian, a syncretistic, repressive-responsive and electoral one-party state. In this context, the relationship between UMNO and the Malay rulers takes on a different meaning. It is not a contest over interpretation of the constitution so much as one over UMNO’s ability to hold hegemonic power. Furthermore, a Westminster model works best in a non-feudal society, whereas Malaysian society remains feudal. These realities notwithstanding, it would nevertheless be interesting to know if Malay rulers like Sultan Azlan Shah indeed see themselves operating according to Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian’s Southeast Asian model of kingship.

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To frame the relationship between UMNO and the rulers in terms of a quest for power turns the focus to legitimacy: first, the legitimacy of the actions of UMNO and the Malay rulers in the eyes of the rakyat and, second, UMNO’s legitimation of its actions through the use and abuse of the Malay rulers as the party made itself Malaysia’s most powerful institution. In this context, Palace, Political Party and Power overlooks an important event in Malaysian history, one that solidified UMNO’s position as the pinnacle organisation in Malaysian society. This event was the 1988 sacking of Malaysia’s Lord President, Tun Salleh Abbas; the subsequent emasculation of the country’s judiciary; and the complicity in these events of the then Agung, Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Shah of Johor. A more recent example of the power of UMNO, one not treated in detail in the book but described in the opening paragraph of this review, was its toppling of a popularly elected state government with the support of the Malay ruler. The book also neglects numerous cases of UMNO’s use of the Malay rulers to curtail the civil liberties of Malaysians.

An analytical framework centered on UMNO’s quest for ultimate power makes possible also a coherent explanation for the increasingly common appeal of various political organisations and civil society movements to the Malay rulers – namely the Yang Di-Pertuan Agung – in such causes as free and fair elections, protection of the rights of Malaysian Indians or of Malay language rights, and others. These appeals have come despite the Malaysian monarchy’s limited de jure and de facto powers and its blemished track record. The reason for them is that, when virtually all other institutions in Malaysia are either weak or UMNO proxies or both, only the Malay rulers, with their interest in protecting and furthering their own interests, offer a glimmer of hope against the excess of Malaysia’s true monarchs – the UMNOputras.

Palace, Political Party and Power notes that, by the end of 2008, the Malay rulers’ stature was definitely on the rise. That would seem to remain the case as long as UMNO’s political leadership continued to be ineffective. The events of 6 February 2009 showed, however, just how vulnerable the Malay rulers are. Sultan Azlan Shah and the Perak regent Raja Nazrin (now Sultan) heralded in this book as examples of a new breed of monarchs who are competent and have the interest of the rakyat at heart, are now treated as outcasts by a significant number of people in their own state of Perak and by Malaysians in general. The Malay rulers’ long-term challenge is not besting UMNO but rather winning the hearts of Malays, Malays who are increasingly shedding their feudalistic mindset.

Greg Lopez is New Mandala’s Malaysia editor, and a PhD scholar at the Crawford School of Economics and Government of the Australian National University.

References

Martin Jalleh, 2011. “Of Raja Nazrin, Real Stories & Regal Rhetoric,” Malaysia Today, 27 July (http://malaysia-today.net/mtcolumns/guest-columnists/42378-of-raja-nazrin-real-stories-a-regal-rhetoric , accessed 27 July 2011).

Zainon Ahmand and Liew-Ann Phang, “The all powerful executive”, The Sun, 8 April (http://www.perdana.org.my/emagazine/2011/04/the-sun-the-all-powerful-executive/, accessed 1 August 2011).

In Books on Donald Trump, Consistent Portraits of a High-Decibel Narcissist


August 27, 2017

by Michiko Kakutani

http://www.nytimes.com

Image result for  dystopian Donald Trump

Over the last year, we’ve been plunged into the alternate reality of Trumpland, as though we were caught in the maze of his old board game, “Trump: The Game,” with no exit in sight. It’s a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world where greed is good, insults are the lingua franca, and winning is everything (or, in tangled Trumpian syntax, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!”).

To read a stack of new and reissued books about Mr. Trump, as well as a bunch of his own works, is to be plunged into a kind of Bizarro World version of Dante’s “Inferno,” where arrogance, acquisitiveness and the sowing of discord are not sins, but attributes of leadership; a place where lies, contradictions and outrageous remarks spring up in such thickets that the sort of moral exhaustion associated with bad soap operas quickly threatens to ensue.

That the subject of these books is not a fictional character but the Republican nominee for president can only remind the reader of Philip Roth’s observation, made more than 50 years ago, that American reality is so stupefying, “so weird and astonishing,” that it poses an embarrassment to the novelist’s “meager imagination.”

Books about Mr. Trump tend to fall into two categories. There are funny ones that focus on Trump the Celebrity of the 1980s and ’90s — a cartoony avatar of greed and wretched excess and what Garry Trudeau (“Yuge! 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump”) calls “big, honking hubris.” And there are serious biographies that try to shed light on Mr. Trump’s life and complex, highly opaque business dealings as a real estate magnate, which are vital to understanding the judgment, decision-making abilities and financial entanglements he would bring to the Oval Office.

Because of Mr. Trump’s lack of transparency surrounding his business interests (he has even declined to disclose his tax returns) and because of his loose handling of facts and love of hyperbole, serious books are obligated to spend a lot of time sifting through business and court documents. (USA Today recently reported that there are “about 3,500 legal actions involving Trump, including 1,900 where he or his companies were a plaintiff and about 1,300 in which he was the defendant.”) And they must also fact-check his assertions (PolitiFact rates 35 percent of his statements False, and 18 percent “Pants on Fire” Lies).

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Perhaps because they were written rapidly as Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy gained traction, the latest of these books rarely step back to analyze in detail the larger implications and repercussions of the Trump phenomenon. Nor do they really map the landscape in which he has risen to popularity and is himself reshaping through his carelessness with facts, polarizing remarks and disregard for political rules.

For that matter, these books shed little new light on controversial stands taken by Mr. Trump which, many legal scholars and historians note, threaten constitutional guarantees and American democratic traditions. Those include his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and the “extreme vetting” of immigrants; his talk of revising libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations over critical coverage; an ethnic-tinged attack on a federal judge that raises questions about his commitment to an independent judiciary; and his incendiary use of nativist and bigoted language that is fueling racial tensions and helping to mainstream far-right views on race.

Some of these books touch fleetingly on Mr. Trump’s use of inflammatory language and emotional appeal to feelings of fear and anger, but they do not delve deeply into the consequences of his nativist rhetoric or his contempt for the rules of civil discourse. They do, however, provide some sense of history, reminding us that while Mr. Trump’s craving for attention and use of controversy as an instrument of publicity have remained the same over the years, the surreal switch of venues — from the New York tabloid universe and the world of reality TV to the real-life arena of national and global politics — has turned formerly “small-potatoes stakes,” as one writer put it, into something profoundly more troubling. From WrestleMania-like insults aimed at fellow celebrities, Mr. Trump now denigrates whole racial and religious groups and questions the legitimacy of the electoral system.

A “semi-harmless buffoon” in Manhattan in the waning decades of the 20th century — as the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, terms the businessman in a foreword to Mark Singer’s book “Trump and Me” — has metamorphosed into a political candidate whom 50 senior Republican national security officials recently said “would be the most reckless president in American history,” putting “at risk our country’s national security and well being.”

Two new books provide useful, vigorously reported overviews of Mr. Trump’s life and career. “Trump Revealed,” by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, draws heavily on work by reporters of The Post and more than 20 hours of interviews with the candidate. Much of its material will be familiar to readers — thanks to newspaper articles and Michael D’Antonio’s 2015 biography (“Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success”) — but “Trump Revealed” deftly charts his single-minded building of his gaudy brand and his often masterful manipulation of the media.

It provides a succinct account of Mr. Trump’s childhood, when he says he punched a teacher, giving him a black eye. It also recounts his apprenticeship to a demanding father, who told him he needed to become a “killer” in anything he did, and how he learned the art of the counterattack from Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s former right-hand man, whom Mr. Trump hired to countersue the federal government after the Justice Department brought a case against the Trump family firm in 1973 for violating the Fair Housing Act.

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Donald is not Ronald Reagan

“The Making of Donald Trump” by David Cay Johnston — a former reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about Mr. Trump — zeros in on Mr. Trump’s business practices, arguing that while he presents himself as “a modern Midas,” much “of what he touches” has often turned “to dross.” Mr. Johnston, who has followed the real estate impresario for nearly three decades, offers a searing indictment of his business practices and creative accounting. He examines Mr. Trump’s taste for debt, what associates have described as his startling capacity for recklessness, multiple corporate bankruptcies, dealings with reputed mobsters and accusations of fraud.

The portrait of Mr. Trump that emerges from these books, old or new, serious or satirical, is remarkably consistent: a high-decibel narcissist, almost comically self-obsessed; a “hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit,” as Mr. Singer wrote in The New Yorker in 1997.

Mr. Singer also describes Mr. Trump as an “insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as ‘human garbage,’” “a fellow both slippery and naïve, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.”

At the same time, Mr. Singer and other writers discern an emptiness underneath the gold-plated armor. In “Trump and Me,” Mr. Singer describes his subject as a man “who had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” Mr. Kranish and Mr. Fisher likewise suggest that Mr. Trump “had walled off” any pain he experienced growing up and “hid it behind a never-ending show about himself.” When they ask him about friends, they write, he gives them — off the record — the names of three men “he had had business dealings with two or more decades before, men he had only rarely seen in recent years.”

Mr. Trump likes to boast about going it alone — an impulse that helps explain the rapid turnover among advisers in his campaign, and that has raised serious concerns among national security experts and foreign policy observers, who note that his extreme self-reliance and certainty (“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain”) come coupled with a startling ignorance about global affairs and an impatience with policy and details.

Passages in his books help illuminate Mr. Trump’s admiration for the strongman style of autocratic leaders like Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, and his own astonishing “I alone can fix it” moment during his Republican convention speech. In his 2004 book, “Think Like a Billionaire,” Mr. Trump wrote: “You must plan and execute your plan alone.”

He also advised: “Have a short attention span,” adding “quite often, I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll know what they’re going to say before they say it. After the first three words are out of their mouth, I can tell what the next 40 are going to be, so I try to pick up the pace and move it along. You can get more done faster that way.”

In many respects, Mr. Trump’s own quotes and writings provide the most vivid and alarming picture of his values, modus operandi and relentlessly dark outlook focused on revenge. “Be paranoid,” he advises in one book. And in another: “When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.”

The grim, dystopian view of America, articulated in Mr. Trump’s Republican convention speech, is previewed in his 2015 book, “Crippled America” (republished with the cheerier title of “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America”), in which he contends that “everyone is eating” America’s lunch. And a similarly nihilistic vision surfaces in other remarks he’s made over the years: “I always get even”; “For the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect”; and: “The world is a horrible place. Lions kill for food, but people kill for sport.”

Once upon a time, such remarks made Mr. Trump perfect fodder for comedians. Though some writers noted that he was already a caricature of a caricature — difficult to parody or satirize — Mr. Trudeau recalled that he provided cartoonists with “an embarrassment of follies.” And the businessman, who seems to live by the conviction that any publicity is good publicity, apparently embraced this celebrity, writing: “My cartoon is real. I am the creator of my own comic book.”

In a 1990 cartoon, Doonesbury characters argued over what they disliked more about Mr. Trump: “the boasting, the piggish consumption” or “the hideous décor of his casinos.” Sadly, the stakes today are infinitely so much huger.

A version of this article appears in print on August 26, 2016, on page C19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Tower of Trump Books, at High Volume 

Keynes: The Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky


August 22, 2016

Keynes: The Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky

by Economics Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman :The Finest of his Generation

The great economist’s theories have never been more relevant – and his biographer remains their most compelling advocate, says Paul Krugman

At research seminars, people don’t take Keynesian theorising seriously anymore; the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another.” So declared Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, writing in 1980. At the time, Lucas was arguably the world’s most influential macro-economist; the influence of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose theory of recessions dominated economic policy for a generation after the Second World War, seemed to be virtually at an end.

But Keynes, it turns out, is having the last giggle. Lucas’s “rational expectations” theory of booms and slumps has shown itself to be completely useless in the current world crisis. Not only does it offer no guide for action, but it more or less asserts that market economies cannot possibly experience the kind of problems they are, in fact, experiencing. Keynesian economics, on the other hand, which was created precisely to make sense of times like these, looks better than ever.

The Future of Europe


August 21, 2016

SLIPPERY SLOPE
Europe’s Troubled Future
By Giles Merritt
270 pp. Oxford University Press. $29.95.

WELCOME TO THE POISONED CHALICE
The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe
By James K. Galbraith
213 pp. Yale University Press. $26.

Americans tend to struggle to grasp the ways of the European Union, which admittedly are complex and often arcane. It’s unhelpful that much of the writing on the continent’s seminal postwar project lapses into the same euro-jargon that the union’s technocrats and think tanks employ. Many Europeans can’t make sense of it either, which is one explanation for the triumphant Brexit vote and the historically low trust in the E.U. that Europeans everywhere express today. The community is indisputably mired in its most acute crisis since its founding in the 1950s.

Yet contemporary Europe is incomprehensible without it, so thoroughly does the E.U.’s existence suffuse the everyday lives of its 508 million citizens, the governance of the 28 member states and a $15 trillion economy. This is why the short­ish, lucid books of the Brussels-based journal editor Giles Merritt and the American economist James K. Galbraith deserve particular attention. In accessible prose flush with strong argument, they diagnose the E.U.’s problems — and offer prescriptions on how to deal with them. Though the community is currently preoccupied with Britain’s vote to leave, the influx of migrants, an economy still reeling from the financial crisis, the ascent of far-right parties and a declining global market share, both authors believe deeply in the E.U.

In order to get at the community’s core deficiencies, Merritt first punctures some of the myths that unfairly damage its credibility. A favorite of euro-skeptics is that the E.U. is a gigantic, autonomous “superstate” that runs Europe from Brussels. In fact, the E.U.’s largest body and its executive arm, the European Commission, has a staff of just 23,000, smaller than many national government ministries.

Moreover, most E.U. legislation is not in the form of written law, but rather “directives” to the states, whose legislatures then turn them into law. The heavy lifting is done by the member states. As for autonomy, it is the states that drive the E.U., whether through their national ministers in the Council of Ministers, one of the E.U.’s legislative bodies, or the commission, where state appointees deal with everything from agriculture to consumer protection. The governments call the shots, and it is therefore at their feet that Merritt lays most of the blame for the E.U.’s malaise.

In the same vein, the E.U. has come under fire for its policies guaranteeing workers’ freedom of movement within the union. In the Brexit campaign, anti-E.U. voices charged that its provisions enabled Central Europeans to swamp Britain. In fact, demographic analyses show that northern Europe needs many kinds of workers now and will increasingly require more in decades to come. Although European politicians know this too, many can’t sell this argument to their electorates, just one example of the dichotomy that pits the interests of elected national officials against those of the greater good, embodied in the E.U.

Merritt, despite his substantial respect for the E.U., argues that bold, sweeping reforms are imperative to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Global warming, terrorism, globalized markets, mass migration, militarized geopolitics and the digital revolution all require supranational attention. On their own, he argues, the individual nation states of Europe, Britain included, are doomed to irrelevance.

Yet there’s much more consensus on the union’s shortcomings than on how to address them. The so-called democratic deficit, for instance, refers to the lack of transparency and accountability in the E.U.’s decision-making process. The council, the “true legislative body,” meets behind closed doors. The European Parliament’s elected M.P.s exercise some power, yet no one is held responsible for failure. And then there are the unelected civil servants. No democratic state worth its salt would permit such basic transgressions of democratic procedure. But the E.U., Merritt charges, gets away with it.

Furthermore, the E.U.’s rigidity undermines its ability to promote innovation. Europe lags woefully behind the United States and China in turning digital technology into commercial success. Meager investment in R&D has hurt Europe’s productivity and thus global competitiveness, causing Europe’s share of the international market to stagnate while its rivals post gains. In more ways than one, Merritt argues convincingly, the E.U. is stuck in the 20th century.

Until the Brexit vote, the single greatest blow to the E.U. had been the post-2008 tribulations of the euro, called the euro crisis, which manifested itself as a devastating debt problem that upended the economies of southern Europe and Ireland. The threat of insolvency forced the wealthier northern Europeans, above all Germany, to bail out the troubled nations at high cost, both financially and in terms of good will.

James K. Galbraith, the son of the great Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith, had, as an adviser to the left-wing Syriza government in Greece, a front-row seat at pivotal moments in the showdown between the E.U. (and the International Monetary Fund, too) and Greece, the hardest hit of the debtor nations. The E.U. erred egregiously, he writes, in making draconian austerity policies the price of Greece’s rescue while letting the continent’s banks off scot free. The wrongness of this prescription, he says, is borne out today, five years later, with Greece prostrate under the burden of the E.U.’s highest external debt (in relation to its economy’s size), the highest unemployment (29 percent) and grim social and psychological fallout. Deep budget cuts and higher taxes have cost Greece a quarter of its pre-crisis wealth, rendering a recovery impossible, according to Galbraith, perhaps forever. Greece’s withdrawal from the euro zone, he suggests, would have been preferable.

 Galbraith understands the eurocrisis largely as a byproduct of the global banking and financial disaster triggered in the United States in 2007, which the ­center-right governments in Germany and France exploited to crush the left-wing government in Greece and its allies elsewhere in southern Europe. Leftist governments, Galbraith says, won’t get relief from the punishment of austerity, slashed wages, reduced pensions and the fire sale of state assets until their politics return to the center. Until then, they will suffer and the wealth disparity between northern and southern Europe will widen.

Greece, Galbraith writes, could become something like “a Caribbean dependency of the United States. Its professional population will continue to leave, and its working classes will also either emigrate or sink into destitution. Or perhaps they will fight.”

Fighting, however, didn’t get Syriza or Galbraith’s friend, the controversial ­January-to-June-2015 Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, very far. Even a national referendum rejecting the terms of a bailout didn’t manage to dilute the poison the Greeks had to swallow. The way out, argues Galbraith, ever the Keynesian, is a multi-pronged approach that includes a spending program like the postwar Marshall Plan.

For his part, Merritt presents the recipes of several research institutions, all of which call for rejuvenating the E.U.’s structures to make them more democratic, flexible and efficient. He, like Galbraith and other E.U. advocates, insists that deeper political and economic integration is the answer. Yet, he concedes, because Europe’s political spectrum is fractured as never before, with national interests regularly trumping common cause, the lesser evil at the moment may be smaller, tactical interventions to complete the single market, invest in research, modernize infrastructure and strengthen foreign policy mechanisms.

Doing nothing at all is the worst option, the authors agree, a conclusion dramatically reinforced by the Brexit vote. That would condemn the E.U. to muddle from crisis to crisis until finally one of those crises takes it down once and for all.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer. His “Berlin Calling: Anarchy, Punk Rock, Techno, and the Birth of the New Berlin” will come out next year.

A version of this review appears in print on August 21, 2016, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Europe Is Falling . . . .

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of an Icon.


August 19, 2016

Reading about the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy, the reader can’t help but be reminded of the striking parallels between the late 1960s and today — polarized politics, racial tensions and growing social anxiety and tumult. It’s also impossible not to think about the vast gulf between the idealistic hopes Kennedy inspired among his young followers, and the fear and cynicism that have marked this year’s presidential campaign.

No one has captured Kennedy’s 1968 race with as much visceral immediacy as Thurston Clarke did in “The Last Campaign” (2008), but Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography, “Bobby Kennedy,” does a compelling job of showing how a tough-guy counsel to the red-baiting, demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s became, in the next decade, “a liberal icon” beloved for his dedication to the poor and disenfranchised.

In light of the abundance of works on Kennedy (including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s massive “Robert Kennedy and His Times” and Evan Thomas’s “Robert Kennedy: His Life”), there’s not a lot substantially new in this volume, but Mr. Tye — the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Satchel Paige — has a keen gift for narrative storytelling and an ability to depict his subject with almost novelistic emotional detail.

Instead of echoing the young Kennedy’s own proclivity for seeing things in absolutist Manichaean terms, Mr. Tye does not rely on the reductive “good Bobby” and “bad Bobby” dichotomies that the scholar Ronald Steel employed in his judgmental 1999 book, “In Love With Night.” Instead, the fair-minded Mr. Tye thoughtfully maps the many contradictions in his subject’s life, and his gradual evolution over the years, as he began to clarify his own beliefs (as opposed to those handed down by his father and older brother), shedding his “Cold Warrior” reflexes and growing increasingly concerned about the poverty and injustice that plagued his country.

The assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, is frequently cited as the watershed moment in Robert’s life — the grief cracked open his “hard-as-nails shell” and sent him into a profound depression from which he would emerge transformed: more fatalistic, more empathetic, more inclined to display in public the tenderness his family and friends knew at home. He immersed himself in reading (Camus and Aeschylus and Shakespeare) and contemplated going away to study for a year, and there was a gradual softening of his hard edges and righteousness.

Mr. Tye gives us a visceral sense of the heartbreak Robert suffered in losing the brother he had ardently served for so many years as confidant, consigliere and enforcer. But he also situates that loss within the larger arc of his subject’s life. The Robert who emerges from this book is both a dreamer and a realist, “an idealist without illusions” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words — the most passionate of the Kennedy brothers and, as one journalist observed, a man “constantly at war with himself.”

Robert “embraced contradiction in ways that neither Jack nor Teddy wanted to or could,” Mr. Tye writes. “His realism butted up against his romanticism even as the existentialist in him looked for ways to coexist with the politician. He was half ice, half fire.”

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was sent to jail in Georgia in 1960 over a traffic misdemeanor, Robert and John helped win his release — not out of a simple sense of justice, Mr. Tye says, but out of a complicated calculus of politics and conscience. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Mr. Tye adds, Robert was both hawk and dove, and he worried about the human cost of the botched Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, “even as he plotted new ones.”

The missile crisis, with its harrowing possibility of nuclear catastrophe, Mr. Tye argues, helped Robert understand that “a leader could be tough without being bellicose,” and it helped him find his own voice on foreign affairs and step out of “his brother’s long shadow.” Though it would take time for him to speak out against the Vietnam War, when he did so in 1967 it was with passion and a recognition of its futility and the suffering of the Vietnamese. He was able, Mr. Tye writes, to give voice to the outrage of the war’s opponents while bringing leverage to their cause in Washington with his Cold War “anti-Communist credentials.”

In these pages, Mr. Tye conscientiously strips away the accretions of myth that have come to surround Robert F. Kennedy, while at the same time creating a sympathetic portrait of this complex, searching man — a genuine pilgrim and a hard-nosed politician, a fierce romantic dedicated to “the art of the possible.”

Bobby Kennedy’s Grave at Arlington National Cemetery

“The Bobby Kennedy of 1968,” Mr. Tye writes, “was a builder of bridges — between islands of blacks, browns and blue-collar whites; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in and the New Politics he heralded. At age 42 he was on the way to becoming the tough liberal — or perhaps tender conservative — who might have stitched back together a divided land and whose vision seems at least as resonant in today’s polarized America.”

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

A version of this review appears in print on August 16, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Pragmatist Converting to Idealism. Today’s Paper

 

Will the Chinese Be Supreme?


August 16, 2016

Will the Chinese Be Supreme?

 by Ian Johnson
Titles:
China under Mao
Cambodia and China–Partners for Peace and Development
During the turbulent Maoist era from the 1950s to 1970s, China clashed militarily with some of its most important neighbors—India, Vietnam, the Soviet Union—and embarked on disastrous interventions in Indonesia and Africa. But by the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping had put China on a development-first policy, advising the country to “hide its capacities and bide its time.” This wasn’t exactly reassuring—implying that at some point China would reveal its true intentions—but from the 1980s through the mid-2000s China had relatively few confrontations, despite its rising economic, political, and military power.

Suddenly, it seems this modesty has evaporated. China’s territorial claims to islands and waters in East Asia are long-standing but they have turned insistent, bellicose, and even provocative, causing a sharp rift between China and many of its neighbors. Most recently, the Philippines and Japan announced that they would become “strategic partners” in settling their maritime disputes with China—anathema to Beijing, which prefers to see these disputes handled separately. Regardless of the merits of China’s claims and actions, from a realpolitik standpoint these disputes and new alliances bespeak major policy blunders in China’s past.

The most serious conflict involves Japan. While China’s actions in Southeast Asia cause many angry statements, most countries there lack the capacity to prevent Chinese ships from patrolling waters they claim as their own. But in Japan, China faces one of the world’s most capable maritime powers. Unlike the Philippines, which hasn’t been able to stop Chinese ships from encroaching on its territorial waters and even dropping markers onto disputed reefs, Japan has actively defended claims to several disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese, and Tiaoyutai by nearby Taiwan (which also claims them, largely based on the same historical arguments used by China).

While other disputes have ended after a few days or weeks, this one has continued now for months. In February (2013), Japan claimed that a Chinese frigate had locked weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter. Almost every few days, Japanese media report on Chinese ships—especially China Marine Surveillance survey ships—sailing without permission inside Japan’s territorial waters around the islands. (At least twenty-eight such violations have been reported since the issue heated up last autumn.) Last year, these tensions helped prepare the way for the election of a nationalistic Japanese prime minister.

It would be easy to blame China’s current leaders for all these problems, but their origins predate the People’s Republic of China and unite many ethnic Chinese from around the world. Although historical records are sketchy, many Chinese are convinced that old maps and mentions of the islands in imperial records imply historical Chinese control. In 1895, China and Japan fought a war and Japan annexed the islands, having declared them uninhabited and belonging to no one. Part of the Ryukyu chain, the islands were administered by the United States after World War II. In 1972, Washington returned the Ryukyus to Tokyo, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

It was this act that angered many Chinese people, who thought Washington should have returned the islands to a Chinese government. Taiwanese Chinese were especially angry; back then the island saw itself as China’s legal government in exile, and the islands lie quite close by. Also possibly a factor was a 1969 UN survey that suggested vast petroleum reserves under the islands. In the 1970s, Taiwanese civilians made several forays to the islands. Later, Hong Kong residents with no ties to Beijing followed suit.

The most recent wave of activism began in 2006, when private citizens in Hong Kong grew impatient and sent ships to the islands. Over the past year or two, however, the Chinese government seems to have more actively joined in the competition to control the islands, sending government-controlled fishing boats into the islands’ waters. They have now been joined by the survey ships and, outside the territorial waters, the Chinese navy. Many commentators in the Chinese blogosphere note that China’s economy has now surpassed that of Japan and that Japan needs China’s market more than China needs Japan’s products or technology. Whether this sense of superiority has a part in the recent maneuvers is unclear; but the two countries are somewhat suddenly locked in their most sustained and bitter dispute since the war, one that doesn’t have an easy way out for either side.

How all this has come to pass is drawn out in several important new books. They come at the Chinese puzzle from very different perspectives and at times are in sharp disagreement. But at heart they share a common idea: China is burdened with historical baggage that makes its rise less linear than many imagine. By extension the authors imply that the current troubles aren’t inevitable and may be more manageable than some would believe.

Many writers have made the case that China’s rise is imminent and unstoppable. The most famous is probably the columnist Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World (2009), which has spawned a mini-industry of writing by those who agree or disagree with his op-ed-style take on China’s industrialization and its consequences. The most recent to join the debate is Arvind Subramanian of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. In Subramanian’s book Eclipse, China is all but unstoppable—even if its growth slows from the 10 percent it has averaged over the past three decades to, say, a more reasonable 6 percent.

Subramanian argues persuasively that China will eclipse the United States even if Washington pulls off an increasingly improbable 1990s-style turnaround—balancing the budget and getting growth back on track. Thus the common view in Washington is wrong—the game isn’t America’s to lose; barring some sort of catastrophic meltdown, China will win. Within the foreseeable future it will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy and, if Washington continues the economic policies that the fiscally conservative author considers suicidal, China will be in a position to dominate it politically as well. The best Washington can do is prepare for relative decline.

This economic point serves a broader foreign-policy argument. To make this, he begins and ends the book with a startling analogy to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Britain had previously won control of the canal at the apogee of its power when it was able to force a debtor state—Egypt—to hand over control. But not too many decades later, in the mid-twentieth century, Britain lost control when it became a debtor country and the rising power, the United States, told it to pull out its troops or face bankruptcy.

Could China do the same? Right now that might seem far-fetched, but Subramanian points out that the United States regularly uses its economic muscle to achieve foreign policy goals. Since World War II, he says, the United States has accounted for 70 percent of economic sanctions imposed around the world; it’s not unimaginable for China to do the same within a few decades. And if the United States remains in huge debt to China, what can Americans do? Could the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute be determined this way? Or China’s claims over Taiwan?

Fortunately, we have some non-economists in the room who make more soothing cases based on the rules of other games. Subramanian argues essentially that economic growth will lead to political dominance. The others concede China’s economic advances but say that supremacy is less likely. They do this from two radically different viewpoints.

The most entertaining and provocative is Edward Luttwak’s The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, a bold book that flatly predicts that China won’t successfully rise as a superpower, indeed that it cannot in its current incarnation. This isn’t due to growth rates or debt ratios—Luttwak concedes the force of both with a wave of the hand—but because of what he sees as the iron law of strategy, which he says “applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age.”

Luttwak says observers like Subramanian look at China’s economic growth and the rate of military spending and, even allowing for recessions or depressions, project into the future the day that China rules the waves. “Yet that must be the least likely of outcomes, because it would collide with the very logic of strategy in a world of diverse states, each jealous of its autonomy.”

Luttwak argues that China’s growth will cause countries to band together and stymie its rise. Just as nineteenth-century Germany’s economic and military growth caused one-time enemies like France and England to ally with each other (and England to swallow its disgust over tsarist Russia’s primitive repression of human rights and make friends with it), China’s beeline to the top is already causing a reaction, as we see with Japan and the Philippines, not to mention the new welcome being shown to the United States in the region.

Why doesn’t China change course? Here is one of Luttwak’s most interesting ideas, which he calls “great-state autism”—the failure of powers to break free of ways of acting and behaving. Just as Wilhelminian Germany should surely have seen that building a blue-water navy would cause Britain to form alliances against it, so too should China understand that demanding control over islands far from its shores but close to its neighbors’ would cause a backlash. (Here one thinks not so much of the Senkaku/Diaoyus but of the shoals, reefs, and islets in the South China Sea.) Even the battle for the Senkaku/Diaoyus seems to have no satisfactory endgame for China except a permanent state of tension with its most important neighbor.

China’s blindered approach to international affairs leads Luttwak to a humorous discussion of many Chinese people’s conviction that they are heirs to a tactically clever and sophisticated civilization. The Chinese, Luttwak notes, often assume that foreigners are stupid or naive—certainly not up to the wiles of the people who begat The Art of War. In 2011, Luttwak writes, Wang Qishan, a Chinese official who is a head of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the United States (and currently a member of the powerful seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo), said of Americans and Chinese: “It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization…[whereas] the American people, they’re very simple.”

And yet Luttwak points out that these assumptions haven’t served China well historically or today. Two of China’s last three dynasties were controlled by tiny nomadic groups who outmaneuvered the Chinese, while today the country’s tactics have left it surrounded by suspicious and increasingly hostile countries; indeed, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that China has no real allies. The reason is that Chinese thinking about diplomacy originated in an era when relations were between Chinese states—the Qin, Chu, Lu, Qi, and the others that populated Sun Tzu’s classic work. Almost all were essentially Chinese, facilitating practices like espionage, subversion, and quickly changing sides to cut a quick deal. “Chinese foreign policy evidently presumes that foreign states can be just as practical and opportunistic in their dealings with China.”

Johnson-MAP-040413.jpg

And yet this repeatedly fails, as Luttwak demonstrates, because other countries emphasize other practices. In 2007, for example, India was to send 107 young elite civil servants to China as part of a goodwill tour. But China refused to grant a visa to one, saying that because he was from a part of India claimed by China, he didn’t need a visa. Luttwak sees this as part of China’s strategy of manufacturing crises in hopes of obtaining a favorable solution.

Likewise in 2010, China responded to the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had violated Japanese territorial waters by issuing inflammatory statements, arresting Japanese businessmen, and effectively suspending rare earth shipments to Japan. Then it did an about-face and sought to make a deal with Japan. But the Japanese were shocked and frightened by China’s actions and this led directly to the 2012 crisis, with an emboldened nationalist governor of Tokyo threatening to buy the lands claimed by China and assert Japanese sovereignty, which forced the national government to step in to buy the land. This purchase was then the basis for Beijing permitting yet more protests against Japan last autumn that lasted the requisite week before being shut down.

This sounds like bad leadership but Luttwak says that even Bismarck couldn’t fix China’s problem. All rising powers cause a reaction, he says, and rarely gain hegemony unless they create or take advantage of a historic turning point, such as a war. The United States used Japan’s defeat and the decline of Britain and France after World War II to move decisively into the Pacific. Even so, the United States didn’t enter the region making loud demands for territory but as a donor of economic aid. This helped soften America’s rise in the Pacific, even though it was still accompanied by much bitterness—consider how it lost its air and sea bases in the Philippines. By contrast, China is already seen as a predator and has achieved almost nothing.

If accurate, Luttwak’s theory means Americans don’t have to worry too much. China will essentially self-destruct, at least diplomatically. And the list of problems facing China make it seem that this could well be happening right now.

Odd Arne Westad isn’t quite as sure. The Norwegian historian at the London School of Economics believes that China’s history is a burden but it also shows an underestimated ability to adapt and change. A Sinologist who has written widely and lucidly on the cold war, Westad’s Restless Empire is a rich history of the past 250 years of Chinese foreign policy. Like Luttwak, Westad has a revisionist streak in him but this leads him to more optimistic conclusions.

Westad shows how the current crises are in part due to idealism—a belief that the international system has some sort of justice that China can appeal to. In China’s mind, it was humiliated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some of its territory, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, was stolen. It doesn’t demand that all this land be returned—no one in Beijing wants control of Mongolia, now an independent country that used to be part of the empire—but it has linked some of its maritime claims to this narrative of humiliation and justice. This isn’t the view of a rogue power but one that has a self-interested and one-sided view of justice and history, which is probably how most countries view the world and their past.

Westad is also convinced that the Chinese have been very willing to adapt. One popular view of China is that it didn’t embrace change fast enough, but Westad shows that this really isn’t true. It raced to build railroads, shipyards, and factories in the nineteenth century—as early as in his native Norway, he writes—and the Qing dynasty might have succeeded if it hadn’t been afflicted by a particularly bad run of luck: famines and uprisings, not to mention being invaded and carved up by foreign powers. He also makes a good case for the adaptive abilities of Chiang Kai-shek’s much-maligned Republic of China. Were it not for Japan’s invasion in 1937, the republic probably would have survived.1

“Chinese who embraced the new—when given a chance to do so—always far outnumbered those who did not,” Westad writes, making another important point: the current era of “opening up” isn’t new but the norm. Instead, it was Mao’s thirty years of being cut off that were the anomaly. The reason for this interlude, he says, was World War II. It fatally weakened the republican government—and here he gives a good corrective to the view that the Nationalists didn’t fight, showing how Chiang threw his best troops into battle while the Communists killed more Chinese during the war with their purges and backstabbing than they did Japanese. In addition, foreign powers failed to support China during the war, with the United States giving just 1 percent of its aid to China until 1945. This made people willing to hear Mao’s message that it didn’t need the outside world, leading to the tragedy of his rule. Had history played out otherwise, Mao would have remained a guerrilla and China’s modernization would have continued after the war.

Likewise, Westad gives an important corrective to the facile view that Mao’s destruction opened the way for its capitalistic revival:

China in the 1970s could have gone in many different directions—from genocidal terrorism of the Cambodian kind to democratic development such as on Taiwan. The potential for market developments was there, not because of the destructiveness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but despite it, since China had experimented with integrated markets for a long time before the Communists attempted to destroy them.

Like Luttwak, Westad paints a bleak picture of the Communists’ foreign policy. In the 1960s, China had gained some prestige in the developing world for having shunned the United States and, eventually, also spurning the Soviet Union. But it lost this goodwill through Mao’s erratic policies. By blocking aid for Vietnam during its struggle with the United States, Mao ruined the once-close ties between the two and set up China’s humiliatingly inept invasion of Vietnam in 1979. China also had won points for aiding African countries but then frittered this away by supporting Maoist insurgencies, for example in Ghana. One wonders if China’s current forays into Africa aren’t similarly narcissistic; many Africans are amazed at China’s economic successes and investment muscle, but also realize that China operates without even the minimal altruism offered by Western countries.

Relations with the United States likewise haven’t gone how Chinese leaders envisioned. Mao was so out of touch that he believed that Nixon faced an imminent revolution at home and thus had come from a position of weakness to meet the Great Helmsman—after all, in the Chinese Weltbild, what leader comes to the Chinese capital unless to pay tribute? Later, Deng allied China with the United States against the Soviet Union but was essentially just helping the stronger superpower defeat the weaker one, helping set up the past quarter-century of US global hegemony. It’s hard to know what China should have done differently, but Westad is right to poke fun at Westerners’ infatuation with Chinese leaders’ foreign policy savvy.

The Chinese leaders’ gnomic statements on international strategy were taken as ultimate examples of the realist wisdom of an ancient civilization, instead of the ignorance about the world that they really represented.

 

And yet for all its missteps, China remains the biggest challenge facing not only its neighbors but the United States as well. One of the deans of US–China studies, David Shambaugh, writes of this in the introductory essay to Tangled Titans, an edited volume he put together to try to explain how relations between the two countries had become so bad. “Mutual distrust is pervasive in both governments, and one now finds few bureaucratic actors in either government with a strong mission to cooperate.”2Shambaugh’s book doesn’t answer exactly how things got this bad but he makes an implicit case that both countries are suffering from Luttwak’s “great-power autism”—set in their ways and unable to change the dynamics.

The dilemma facing American policy makers is well summarized in the forthcoming book by Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although his interest is the Muslim world and not so much the territories of East Asia, Nasr describes China and its foreign interventions as at the center of US concerns even in those parts of the world.3 China’s thirst for oil and willingness to pay big for exploration rights is one reason; so is its desire to bring that oil home, either through shipping routes—which necessitate its naval buildup—or pipelines that run through the fragile states of Central Asia.

How optimistic should one be about a changed China being less of a strategic threat? Toward the end of his book, Westad basically assumes that China will rise. As China emerges as “the master player of international capitalism, it is also obvious that the rules of the game are being remade in China,” he writes: a statement that seems to reflect the post-crash period when the West seemed doomed and China’s rise assured. He also writes somewhat implausibly that the Communist Party has “taken over many of the management methods of foreign enterprises”—perhaps, but surely only the worst. Still, his optimism is supported by China’s ability to adapt over the past centuries. Luttwak doesn’t rule out China’s ability to change but puts it another way: only by changing in a way that it has so far resisted, can China rise:

Only a fully democratic China could advance unimpeded to global hegemony, but then the governments of a full democratic China would undoubtedly seek to pursue quite other aims.

_________________

  1. 1

    One annoying exception to Westad’s exemplary fairness toward the republican era is his decision to use the mainland pinyin form of rendering Chinese characters for places and groups in Taiwan. Thus the island’s capital is written in the non-standard form “Taibei” instead of “Taipei” and the “Kuomintang” is written “Guomindang” and abbreviated as GMDinstead of KMT. Self-determination should apply to spelling too, and outsiders should not choose sides by imposing Communist orthography. 

  2. 2

    Tangled Titans: The United States and China, edited by David Shambaugh (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), p. 5. 

  3. 3

    Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (to be published by Doubleday this month).