China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man


October 17, 2017

THE ECONOMIST

China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man

Xi Jinping has more clout than Donald Trump. The world should be wary

Do not expect Mr Xi to change China, or the world, for the better

Print edition | Leaders

Oct 14th 2017

One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

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Two Giants of Asia–Xi and Modi–Friends or Foes

AMERICAN Presidents have a habit of describing their Chinese counterparts in terms of awe. A fawning Richard Nixon said to Mao Zedong that the chairman’s writings had “changed the world”. To Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping was a string of flattering adjectives: “smart, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly”. Bill Clinton described China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, as a “visionary” and “a man of extraordinary intellect”. Donald Trump is no less wowed. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is “probably the most powerful” China has had in a century.

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Mr Trump may be right. And were it not political suicide for an American president to say so, he might plausibly have added: “Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader.” To be sure, China’s economy is still second in size to America’s and its army, though rapidly gaining muscle, pales in comparison. But economic heft and military hardware are not everything. The leader of the free world has a narrow, transactional approach to foreigners and seems unable to enact his agenda at home. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but its leader is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence.

The President of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad. His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao. And whereas Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Mr Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth. His clout will soon be on full display. On October 18th China’s ruling Communist Party will convene a five-yearly congress in Beijing (see Briefing). It will be the first one presided over by Mr Xi. Its 2,300 delegates will sing his praises to the skies. More sceptical observers might ask whether Mr Xi will use his extraordinary power for good or ill.

World, take note

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On his numerous foreign tours, Mr Xi presents himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused and troubled world. Mr Trump’s failings have made this much easier. At Davos in January Mr Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalisation, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved. At least, they thought, one great power was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Mr Trump (then President-Elect) would not.

Mr Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up. His “Belt and Road Initiative” may be puzzlingly named, but its message is clear—hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help vast swathes of the world to prosper. That is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the post-war days of the Marshall Plan in western Europe (which was considerably smaller).

Mr Xi is also projecting what for China is unprecedented military power abroad. This year he opened the country’s first foreign military base, in Djibouti. He has sent the Chinese navy on manoeuvres ever farther afield, including in July on NATO’s doorstep in the Baltic Sea alongside Russia’s fleet. China says it would never invade other countries to impose its will (apart from Taiwan, which it does not consider a country). Its base-building efforts are to support peacekeeping, anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, it says. As for the artificial islands with military-grade runways it is building in the South China Sea, these are purely defensive.

Unlike Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, Mr Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to subvert democracy and destabilise the West. Still, he is too tolerant of troublemaking by his nuke-brandishing ally, North Korea (see Schumpeter). And some of China’s military behaviour alarms its neighbours, not only in South-East Asia but also in India and Japan.

At home, Mr Xi’s instincts are at least as illiberal as those of his Russian counterpart. He believes that even a little political permissiveness could prove not only his own undoing, but that of his regime. The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences. He mistrusts not only the enemies his purges have created but also China’s fast-growing, smartphone-wielding middle class, and the shoots of civil society that were sprouting when he took over. He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, and to keep the commanding heights of the economy firmly under the party’s thumb. All this will make China less rich than it should be, and a more stifling place to live. Human-rights abuses have grown worse under Mr Xi, with barely a murmur of complaint from other world leaders.

Liberals once mourned the “ten lost years” of reform under Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Those ten years have become 15, and may exceed 20. Some optimists argue that we have not yet seen the real Mr Xi—that the congress will help him consolidate his power, and after that he will begin social and economic reforms in earnest, building on his relative success in curbing corruption. If he is a closet pluralist, however, he disguises it well. And alarmingly for those who believe that all leaders have a sell-by date, Mr Xi is thought to be reluctant to step down in 2022, when precedent suggests he should.

Reasons to be fearful

Mr Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4bn Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favourite terms, the “new normal” of Chinese politics. But it is not normal; it is dangerous. No one should have that much power. One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The world’s most powerful man”

The White House Enigma


October 10, 2017

The White House Enigma

https://www.washingtonpost.com

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The White House Enigma

After nearly nine months of the Trump administration, many of America’s closest allies have concluded that a hoped-for “learning curve” they thought would make President Trump a reliable partner is not going to happen.<

“The idea that he would inform himself, and things would change, that is no longer operative,” said a top diplomat here.

Instead, they see an administration in which lines of authority and decision-making are unclear, where tweets become policy and hard-won international accords on trade and climate are discarded. The result has been a special kind of challenge for those whose jobs are to advocate for their countries and explain the president and his unconventional ways at home.

Senior diplomats and officials from nearly a dozen countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia expressed a remarkable coincidence of views in interviews over the past several weeks. Asked to describe their thoughts about and relations with the President and his team as the end of Trump’s first year approaches, many described a whirlwind journey beginning with tentative optimism, followed by alarm and finally reaching acceptance that the situation is unlikely to improve.

“We have to adjust to this,” said a second diplomat from a different continent.

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Senator Bob Corker (R.Tennessee)  with Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) weighed in on the tumult within President Trump’s administration on Oct. 4, and said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “ends up not being supported in a way that I would hope a Secretary of State would be supported.”

 

Their concerns echo those expressed increasingly in public by Republican lawmakers such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker ­(R-Tenn.), who has spoken of administration “chaos” and on Sunday described the White House under Trump as an “adult day care center” where the president’s behavior must be managed.

Frustrations and fears, building for months, have grown especially intense in the past few weeks following Trump’s bellicose taunting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his apparent decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the international nuclear deal.

Although foreign diplomats are restrained by the nature of their jobs from speaking out about the policies and politics of their host governments, it is not unusual for them to trade tips and gossip in the early days of a new administration when information is in short supply and it is unclear which top officials have the most sway with the leader of the free world. But their perplexing dealings with the Trump administration have become an obsession of late for ambassadors.

“It’s always an undercurrent when we get together,” a third senior diplomat said. “We’re always asking each other, ‘Who do you deal with inside the administration?’ ‘How do you handle difficult situations?’

“When somebody actually sees Trump, people immediately flock around: ‘What did you see?’ ‘What did he say?’ ‘Was Ivanka there?’ . . . ‘What kind of look was on Kelly’s face?’ ” he said, referring to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. It is, he said, a kind of Kremlinology.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Some diplomats choose to focus on the positive. Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik, whose country’s fears of a resurgent Russia on its eastern border are practically existential, praised Vice President Pence’s summer stop in his country. It helped reassure NATO allies after Trump, on an earlier trip to Brussels, failed to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to alliance mutual defense.

“That was a highly appreciated visit,” Lepik said. “The administration was engaged, and we were in constant contact.”

Others, some of whom had difficulty with the Obama administration, have found a new closeness with the United States. Saudi Arabia, after enduring President Barack Obama’s human rights criticism and policy objections, is now a favored Trump nation.

Newly arrived Hungarian Ambassador Laszlo Szabo, whose government hews to the nationalistic right, said bilateral trade “is improving nicely and constantly.” His prime minister, Viktor Orban, was the first European leader during last year’s U.S. campaign to say a Trump presidency would be better for Europe — a view widely derided by his European partners.

Afghanistan’s Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, whose government was alarmed by the Obama administration’s unfulfilled plans to withdraw the vast majority of U.S. troops from the country, said he and his government had regular high-level access to senior Trump administration officials this summer as the debate over the war heated up. “I was at the White House on a daily basis,” he said.

The access did not always bring clarity, especially when it came to figuring out how competing fiefdoms operated inside the West Wing. In August, Afghanistan paid $120,000 for a three-month contract with the Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm with close ties to the White House, to gain “a better understanding of how the inside of the Trump administration works,” Mohib said.

The majority of those interviewed were far more critical and said they would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity.

Several spoke of the difficulty of determining where power lies within the administration and how decisions are made. “We are still not sure how the equilibrium in this administration is playing out in terms of who is responsible for what,” a senior European said. “Is it the White House? The State Department? Is Defense calling the shots? . . . I’m being clinically analytical, not chiding. This is the situation. We are guessing, sometimes.”

Things have gotten “a bit better” since Kelly’s arrival over the summer, a Latin American said. “At least with process, if not policy. It’s clear [Kelly] has influence. But Jared? McMaster? We don’t know if they’re in or out,” he said, referring to Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser.

Some try to posture in a way they think will appeal to Trump and those around him. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a progressive pragmatist who visited Trump in the White House in June, “tried to sync with him, but it didn’t work,” said Joon Hyung Kim, a professor of international studies at Handong University.

“Moon is really a detail person, and he tried to explain things in detail” regarding defense and economic issues,” Kim said. “I don’t think Trump really liked that.”

“We want to trust Mattis and others,” he said, referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, generally considered a moderate buffer for Trump, “but we’re not really sure if they’re 100 percent bulletproof.”

Many of those interviewed said they are often told by administration officials to ignore Trump’s tweets or undiplomatic remarks. They recognize it is a risky game.

“In the business sector, you can be very forceful in negotiations,” said a diplomat whose government has been on the receiving end of Trump’s tweets. “You call each other names all day, then you sit down and have a martini. In foreign policy, there are consequences to the name-calling. Damage is done.”

Some foreign diplomats have tried to work around the White House by forging closer relationships with the battered and shrinking Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishment in Congress. Another strategy, particularly on issues related to climate change and trade, has been to work directly with governors, avoiding Washington entirely, several foreign diplomats said.

Others said their leaders, in meetings with Trump, have had to decide whether to take on what one called the president’s “one-sentence, very blunt affirmations.” Asked to give an example, this official recalled a discussion of the Iran nuclear deal in which Trump asserted, as he has before, “Iran is allowed to build a bomb” as soon as the agreement expires.

European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal have given up on trying to change his mind, or to argue that the accord’s sunset provision does not give Tehran a pass to restart its nuclear program. Instead, they have directed their attention to persuading Congress not to legislate new sanctions on Iran.

A diplomat whose country has close and cordial relations and no obvious problems with the administration said his government is nonetheless exploring more extensive trade and diplomatic ties with Asia.

“At the beginning,” he said, Trump was “a fascination.” As the months have passed, he said, “all this perplexing noise from Washington, it becomes background noise. And the United States is a bit less important than before.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

Follow @karendeyoung1

Greg Jaffe is a reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009. Previously, he covered the White House and the military for The Post.

DOJ 1MDB probe independent of Najib-Trump meet


September 12, 2017

DOJ 1MDB probe independent of Najib-Trump meet, says The White House

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation into the 1MDB scandal is independent of the upcoming discussions between US President Donald Trump and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, the White House said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the discussions will instead focus on a wide variety of regional and security issues.

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“[They will be] talking about ways that they can strengthen counterterrorism cooperation, certainly the halt of ISIS, addressing North Korea and their continued actions, and making sure that we promote maritime security in the South China Sea.

“We’re not going to comment on an ongoing investigation being led by DOJ, and that investigation is apolitical and certainly independent of anything taking place tomorrow (which is today),” she said at a press briefing yesterday.

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No Gua Tolong Lu, Lu Tolong Gua agenda at Trump-Najib Meet at the White House on September 12 Meeting–The Good News

 

Sanders was asked whether Trump would address the DOJ investigation or avoid the issue, and what is expected of the meeting between Najib and Trump, which is scheduled to take place later today.

The DOJ is currently investigating the alleged misappropriation of US$4.5 billion from 1MDB on grounds that some of the funds had been routed through the US financial system.

 

It has filed multiple civil forfeiture suits since last year to seize the alleged proceeds of the misappropriation (totalling US$1.7 billion) and also revealed in a court filing last month that a criminal investigation has been underway for some time.

Its civil forfeiture filings had linked a certain “Malaysian Official 1” (MO1) in the scandal, saying that some of the funds had been routed through his bank account, and had been used to purchase diamonds for his wife.

MO1 is alleged to be referring to Najib, but he has denied allegations of misappropriating public funds for personal gain.

New World Order is leaving the US behind


August 13, 2017

New World Order is leaving the US behind

James Gibney, Bloomberg View

  • Pointing the way: German Chancellor Angela Merkel

 

Of all the global consequences of US President Donald Trump’s first half-year, surely one of the most surprising is the rise in multilateral diplomacy.

After all, this is the guy who came into office pledging to put America First. He downgraded the security guarantees of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to a definite maybe — and only if its members ponied up more defence dollars.

The Iran nuclear pact was “the worst deal ever”, and the Paris accord on climate change wasn’t much better. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was dead on arrival. Japan and South Korea’s freeriding days were over. The North American Free Trade Agreement was toast. The US would ignore the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

And from its proposed cuts in foreign aid and United Nations peacekeeping to the empty offices and embassies of the State Department, the Trump administration has made clear how little it thinks of soft power and diplomacy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the disintegration of the international liberal order. It’s started to reconstitute itself — only not with the US at its centre. Unfortunately, that has less to do with a realisation among our allies and partners that the burden must be more equitably shared than with the increasing recognition that Trump is not, as some US diplomats liked to say about Third World dictators during the Cold War, “someone we can do business with”.

That sentiment found its most trenchant expression in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration, following Trump’s May trip to Europe, that the continent “must really take our fate into our own hands”. The net result of the Trump administration’s antipathy to free trade and co-operation on climate change and refugee resettlement was a united front against the US at both the Group of Seven and Group of 20 meetings.

Jilted by the US, the other 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are moving ahead on their own. Canada and Mexico are working together more closely than ever to save NAFTA. Asian nations are hedging their bets between the US and China. Trump’s tough talk on Mexico has prompted it to reach out to its hemispheric rival Brazil on defence co-operation.

Serious differences among allies are nothing new. During the Ronald Reagan administration, for instance, hardline US attitudes towards a planned gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to Europe caused a transatlantic breach that strained even the “special relationship” with the UK. And the call for fairer burden-sharing by American treaty allies — the “free riders” — is also as old as the alliances themselves, even if Trump turned the volume up to 11.

Yet as destabilising as Trump’s transactional mindset — we’ll protect you if you pay us — has been, his temperament has been even more destructive. In Latin America, his brash bullying plays to the worst caricature of Yankee behaviour. No wonder the foreign ministers of 12 nations in the Americas who pledged this week in Peru not to recognise Venezuela’s new constituent assembly — a remarkable regional diplomatic achievement — chose to keep the US mostly out of it.

Then there is Trump’s uncoordinated impulsiveness. His “fire and fury” outburst towards North Korea upended earlier efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to reassure South Korea and Japan that the US was not about to put them in danger.

Tillerson has seen Trump repeatedly sandbag his efforts to broker a rapprochement among the US’s fractious Gulf allies. And transcripts of Trump’s phone conversations with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto suggest that both men could be forgiven for thinking they were dealing with Homer Simpson, not the Leader of the Free World.

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Every hegemon has a sell-by date, and the US is no exception. Even during the halcyon days of the 1990s — remember when the US was being called a “hyperpower”? — President Bill Clinton’s administration was focused on creating institutions and a rules-based international order that it hoped would constrain China’s economic and strategic rise and extend the half-life of US supremacy. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t work out so well.

In that and other respects, the willingness of other democracies to step up on the world’s non-zero-sum challenges is welcome. Moreover, whether in matters of security or trade, Trump’s strong preference for bilateral deals that allow the US to make the most of its leverage could yield clear benefits.

If he and Chinese President Xi Jinping achieve a compact that balances their respective interests, so much the better. That approach could apply to US relations with Japan, the UK, and other US allies and partners. Strong bilateral agreements, after all, can provide a basis for stronger multilateral ones in years to come.

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Obama understood the importance of Asia and Xi’s China

But even bilateral agreements require a degree of discipline and co-ordination that Trump has yet to display. For now, Trump’s reflexive trashing of President Barack Obama’s policy choices without offering any coherent alternatives has left the US on awkward ground. It’s one thing for other countries to fill a diplomatic vacuum created by a gradual US withdrawal; it’s another for them to do so in the wake of a scorched-earth retreat. If and when the US recovers its strategic senses, it might find itself reduced to occupying a much less attractive seat at the multilateral table.

•James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and president Bill Clinton

Not just Economics, but also Humanomics


July 30, 2017

Not just Economics, but also Humanomics

by Gary Saul Morson*

*Gary Saul Morson, a professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University, is co-author of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

and Morton Schapiro*

*Morton Schapiro, a professor of economics and President of Northwestern University, is co-author of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

http://www.project_syndicate.org

In a 2006 survey, American university professors were asked whether it was better to possess knowledge from numerous fields of study, or from just one. Among professors of psychology, 79% were enthusiastic about interdisciplinary learning, as were 73% of sociologists and 68% of historians. The least enthusiastic? Economists: only 42% surveyed said they agreed with the need to understand the world through a cross-disciplinary lens. As one observer put it bluntly: “Economists literally think they have nothing to learn from anyone else.”

In fact, economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus. Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

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Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

People are not organisms that are first made and then dipped in some culture, like Achilles in the river Styx. They are cultural beings from the outset. But, because culture cannot be rendered in mathematical terms, economists typically embrace the idea of a pre-cultural humanness.

To understand people as cultural beings, one must tell stories about them. Human lives do not unfold in a predictable fashion the way Mars orbits the sun. Contingency, idiosyncrasy, and unforeseeable choices play an irreducible role. Life displays what might be called “narrativeness,” implying the need for explanation in terms of stories. And the best appreciation of this is to be found in novels, which may be considered not just a literary form, but also a distinct way of understanding the social world. Although the events that novels describe are fictional, the shape, sequence, and ramifications of those events is often the most accurate account we have of how lives unfold.

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Economics inevitably involves ethical questions that are not reducible to Economics itself

Finally, economics inevitably involves ethical questions that are not reducible to economics itself – or, for that matter, to any other social science. Economists often smuggle ethical concerns into their models with concepts like “fair” market price. But there are many ways to make these issues overt and open them to argument.

There is no better source of ethical insight than the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James, and the other great realists. Their works distill the complexity of ethical questions that are too important to be safely entrusted to an overarching theory – questions that call for empathy and good judgment, which are developed through experience and cannot be formalized. To be sure, some theories of ethics may recommend empathy, but reading literature and identifying with characters involves extensive practice in placing oneself in others’ shoes. If one has not identified with Anna Karenina, one has not really read Anna Karenina.

When you read a great novel and identify with its characters, you spend countless hours engaging with them – feeling from within what it is like to be someone else. You see the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding, or other features that define and differentiate human experience. By living a character’s life vicariously, you not only feel what she feels, but also reflect on those feelings, consider the character of the actions to which they lead, and, with practice, acquire the wisdom to appreciate real people in all their complexity.

The point is not to abandon the great achievements of economics, but to create what we call a “humanomics,” which allows each discipline to keep its own distinctive qualities. Rather than fuse economics and the humanities, humanomics creates a dialogue between them.

Such a conversation would actually bring economics back to its illustrious roots in the thought of Adam Smith, who, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, explicitly denied that human behavior could be adequately described in terms of people’s “rational choice” to maximize their individual utility. After all, people often behave foolishly. More important for Smith, their care for others is an “original passion” that is not reducible to selfish concerns.

Smith’s writings on economic and ethics share a deep sense of the limits of reason. Central planning is bound to fail, but so are algebraic models of behavior. One needs a subtle appreciation of particulars, the sort of sensitivity that was dramatized, a half-century after Smith’s moral treatise, by Jane Austen and her successors. A great psychologist, Smith knew that we need both cents and sensibility.

Econometric methods and mathematical models teach us much, but only so much. When it comes to human lives, characterized as they are by contingency and narrativeness, stories are an indispensable way of knowing. That is why the quantitative rigor, policy focus, and logic of economics must be supplemented with the empathy, judgment, and wisdom that defines the humanities at their best. Economists must speak to other disciplines – and let them speak back.

The Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy


July 27, 2017

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The Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy

by Stephen Sestanovich*

*Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.

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https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/05/the-brilliant-incoherence-of-trumps-foreign-policy/521430/

The United States periodically debates whether to do more or less abroad. Trump won by promising both. But he can’t possibly deliver.

 

Every 20 years or so—the regularity is a little astonishing—Americans hold a serious debate about their place in the world. What, they ask, is going wrong? And how can it be fixed? The discussion, moreover, almost always starts the same way. Having extricated itself with some success from a costly war, the United States then embraces a scaled-down foreign policy, the better to avoid overcommitment. But when unexpected challenges arise, people start asking whether the new, more limited strategy is robust enough. Politicians and policy makers, scholars and experts, journalists and pundits, the public at large, even representatives of other governments (both friendly and less friendly) all take part in the back-and-forth. They want to know whether America, despite its decision to do less, should go back to doing more—and whether it can.

The reasons for doubt are remarkably similar from one period of discussion to the next. Some argue that the U.S. economy is no longer big enough to sustain a global role of the old kind, or that domestic problems should take priority. Others ask whether the public is ready for new exertions. The foreign-policy establishment may seem too divided, and a viable consensus too hard to reestablish. Many insist that big international problems no longer lend themselves to Washington’s solutions, least of all to military ones. American “leadership,” it is said, won’t work so well in our brave new world.

With minor variations, this is the foreign-policy debate that the country conducted in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. And it’s the same one that we have been having for the past few years. The rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia jolted the discussion back to life in 2014. Presidential debates in 2015 and 2016 added issues (from Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to his Asian trade pact) and sharpened the controversy.

Those of us in the foreign-policy business are always glad to have our concerns get this kind of prominence. Down the decades, these debates have tended to produce a consensus in favor of renewed American activism. Yet each version unfolds in its own way. The global turmoil of 2016 meant that nobody could be completely sure how this one was going to turn out.

We still don’t know. The advent of Donald Trump—his candidacy, his election, and the start of his presidency—has given our once-every-two-decades conversation extra drama and significance. Some commentators claim that Trump wants to cast aside the entire post–Cold War order. To others, he is repudiating everything that America has tried to achieve since 1945. Still others say he represents a break with all we have stood for since 1776 (or maybe even since 1630, when John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony “a city upon a hill”).

That we talk this way is but one measure of the shock Trump’s victory has administered. The new president is raising questions about the foreign policy of the United States—about its external purposes, its internal cohesion, and its chances of success—that may not be fully answered for years. Yet to understand a moment as strange as this, we need to untangle what has happened. In this cycle, America has actually had two rounds of debate about its global role. The first one was driven by the 2016 campaign, and Trump won it. The second round has gone differently. Since taking office, the new president has made one wrong move after another. Though it’s too soon to say that he has lost this round, he is certainly losing control of it. In each case, we need to understand the dynamics of the discussion better than we do.

Like its predecessors, the 2016 debate began with a negative premise: America wasn’t doing well enough in the world. In the ’50s, and again in the ’70s, the worry was that the United States had ceded the strategic initiative to the Soviet Union. By the mid-’90s, the U.S.S.R. was no more, but Americans came to feel that they needed a better way of coping with the conflicts of the post–Cold War world. Existing policy did not seem good enough.

Last year was no different. Of the 20-odd Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, none fully embraced the Obama administration’s version of retrenchment. As always, the critiques varied. Some urged doing more; others, less. Among the Republicans, the more-to-less spectrum ran from Marco Rubio to Rand Paul (with upwards of a dozen contenders in between). Among the Democrats, it went from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders (with others in between whom no one can remember). Candidates of both parties seemed more open than they had been in years to the idea of rethinking what America stands for—and should be trying to do.

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Trump dominated by proposing a more hopped-up foreign-policy activism—and a fuller kind of disengagement.

Eager as they always are in election years to shape the candidates’ views, scholars, experts, and former officials produced a flood of books and articles. Their common theme: the growing obstacles America faced in getting its way abroad. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other post-9/11 military campaigns had shown the costs and risks of overreliance on force as an instrument of foreign policy. The greater assertiveness of competitors like Russia and China, the slowing of the global economy, the seeming intractability of problems like terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change—these realities made U.S. goals still harder to achieve.

But a shared diagnosis hardly meant shared prescriptions. While experts lined up along the same more-to-less spectrum as the candidates, predicting who stood where was not as easy as you might think. Among analysts within the academy, a do-less faction was strong, as always. Veterans of previous Republican administrations stressed that their do-more views did not mean support for “boots on the ground.” Within the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, eight years of Barack Obama had opened up divisions over trade, the use of force, and human rights. Some who had worked for Obama argued that his downsizing strategy had gotten most things right; others argued that he had let U.S. influence shrink. For them, a world of fraying order made a large American role more necessary than ever.

And the public? Polls suggested that it, too, was open to new approaches—but unsure how to choose among them. In May 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of voters wanted the next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. In the same poll, Pew found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored policies that would keep the United States “the only military superpower.” Not for the first time, it seemed that Americans wanted to have it all.

And the public? Polls suggested that it, too, was open to new approaches—but unsure how to choose among them. In May 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of voters wanted the next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. In the same poll, Pew found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored policies that would keep the United States “the only military superpower.” Not for the first time, it seemed that Americans wanted to have it all.

So how did candidate Donald Trump fit into—even hijack—this right-on-schedule foreign-policy debate? His anti-immigrant talk, angry denunciation of free-trade agreements, and embrace of the pre–World War II slogan “America First” led many to treat him as the campaign’s extreme outlier—an old-fashioned isolationist. But this was never the right label. It failed to capture the novel mix of positions Trump had settled on—and it grossly underestimated his ability to dominate the discussion.

Trump rode to victory as the candidate who promised to do both more and less than Obama. He offered the voters a resolute call to arms and relief from the burdens of global leadership. The problem with American foreign policy, he suggested, was not a simple case of too-costly over-commitment. It was the result of something more ominous: the ill will of friends and foes, and the moral culpability of our own leaders. Sinister forces—especially religious ideologues—threatened our safety. Intellectual confusion—the dreaded “political correctness”—made it hard to name our enemy. Allies and trading partners cheated us at every turn. Waves of foreigners were taking our jobs. Futile wars had left the military “depleted.” In its weakened state, the United States no longer commanded respect.

It’s hard to think of an American political figure who has ever put forward such a dark view of the world—or such a despairing picture of policy paralysis. To fix matters, Trump did not offer a conventional “Come Home, America”–style program of isolationism. Instead, he promised kick-ass confrontation. We had been “losing” for too long. The right response, the way to start and keep “winning,” was not to get out of the game but to play it better—smarter, harder, tougher. Trump was the candidate who, claiming to know more about ISIS than the generals, would “bomb the shit” out of it. (With no inhibitions, either: What, he reportedly asked expert briefers, was wrong with using nuclear weapons against terrorists?) He had more experience negotiating business deals than the trade lawyers did, and knew how to cultivate the kind of personal relationships with the world’s high rollers that professional diplomats could only dream of.

Trump sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion.

Trump dominated the election-year debate by proposing a more hopped-up version of foreign-policy activism than the usual advocates of activism, and a fuller kind of disengagement than those who wanted to scale down. The combination—radicalism at both ends of the spectrum—seemed the essence of his appeal. Sure, other do-more candidates wanted to increase spending on defense, but they cluttered their message with commitments to help others—friends, allies, and those who “shared our values.” And do-less candidates wanted to pull out of trade agreements, but not to cut foreign aid. For Trump, American policy was supposed to serve only American interests.

Best of all, Trump suggested, his entire approach would be free. The famous boast that Mexico would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall echoed many of his other pronouncements. Seizing Iraq’s oil—the “spoils” of war, in his term—would help defeat terrorism. Allies would finally be made to “pay their bills.” The Pentagon budget increases that Trump promised would be funded, he claimed, by “ending the theft of American jobs.” Yes, we could be “great again”—and on the cheap.

Such a blend of much more and much less could easily have seemed incoherent, or crazy. But the two halves of Trump’s formula worked together better than critics appreciated. He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will. Trump embraced Bernie Sanders’s economics without George McGovern’s geopolitics. Of self-identified conservative Republicans, 70 percent told Pew last year that they wanted the U.S. to retain its global military dominance. “Make America Great Again” was a slogan aimed right at them.

Trump’s more-and-less strategy also helped him with those who wanted a bristly, muscular America but did not want endless military involvements. Rejecting “nation building” abroad so as to focus on the home front was Trump’s way of assuring voters that he knew how to avoid imperial overstretch. He offered supporters the glow of a Ronald Reagan experience—without the George W. Bush tab.

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton. She offered up her own version of a mix-and-match foreign policy. To neutralize Sanders’s challenge from the left, Clinton backed away from her previous endorsement of the Obama administration’s East Asian trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To attract Republicans and independents who felt Obama had been too passive internationally, she promised “safe zones” in Syria that would protect civilians and adversaries of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like nafta and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

Clinton was doubtless trying to dispel suspicion that she was the continuity candidate in the race—that she wouldn’t change Obama’s foreign policy all that much. But in competing for voters who hated the status quo, she had little chance against Trump. Clinton had the more thoughtful, balanced policy, and Trump almost surely had no real grasp of how his own international strategy fit together. Even so, he got people out of their seats.

Trump’s perverse admiration for Putin preserved his purity as the candidate who did not agree with Obama on a single thing.

In both the primary campaign and the general election, Trump showered all his rivals, Republicans and Democrats, with schoolyard taunts. Yet he always treated Barack Obama as his true opponent. On issue after issue—immigration, trade, alliance commitments, nuclear weapons, China, Syria, isis, Iran, Israel—Trump positioned himself, with greater consistency than any other Republican candidate, as the anti-Obama. He disagreed with every element of the president’s foreign policy.

This pattern may even hint at an explanation of Trump’s odd stance on Russia. By 2016, Obama’s relationship with Vladimir Putin had long since unraveled. The sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, beefed-up U.S. troop deployments in eastern Europe, opposition to Russia’s intervention in Syria—all of these policies were a problem for most Republicans. Could they really prove that they were tougher on Putin than Obama was? Trump had his own, ingenious solution to the puzzle. His perverse admiration for Putin—the claim that the two of them would “get along very well”—preserved Trump’s purity as the candidate who did not agree with Barack Obama on a single thing.

Had Donald Trump run for President in 2012, the entire case he made about America’s desperate position in the world probably would have flopped. In that campaign, foreign policy was widely considered one of Obama’s strengths, and he coasted to reelection—just as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, two past presidents brought in to clean up unsuccessful wars, had done.

As Obama’s second term wore on, however, the global landscape changed. A series of new problems made his policies look more ragged than commanding. Americans’ personal regard for their president was up, but they felt his international standing was down. (In 2012, 55 percent of respondents told Gallup that they thought Obama was respected abroad; by 2015, that number was just 37 percent.) In this new environment, Trump was able to make his critique more compelling than anyone else’s. Though his views—and his way of presenting them—were shocking, there was a kind of brilliance in the way he seized the moment.

Elections often settle our cyclical foreign-policy debates. Not in this case. The discussion has now gone into overtime, and Trump is faring far worse than he did in the campaign. His crude and contradictory ideas have proved hard to implement—and hard to sell to audiences more skeptical than his campaign-rally crowds. His opponents have the rhetorical advantage and seem likely to hold it.

Trump’s problems go far beyond the familiar idea that politicians campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose. He has had to confront the enormous difficulty of advancing a platform that promised simultaneously to do more and less. Writing in his diary, Richard Nixon, who had tried a similar strategy himself, recalled Churchill’s views of its challenges: “One can have a policy of audacity or one can follow a policy of caution, but it is disastrous to try to follow a policy of audacity and caution at the same time. It must be one or the other.”

In this spirit, many analysts found it hard to believe that Trump would stick to his more outlandish policy ideas and impulses once he took office. Weren’t they just a little too nutty to survive in the real world? A Saturday Night Live skit soon after the election gave this forecast a wide audience. As the rattled president-elect, Alec Baldwin reversed one ambitious campaign promise after another. Mass deportation of immigrants? “Let’s not do it. Scrap it.” Obamacare? “No change.”

The hope that Trump would yield to reason gained further strength from his selection of sober-minded Cabinet secretaries—General James Mattis to run the Pentagon and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State—and the choice of H. R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as national-security adviser. As administration spokespeople backed away from Trump’s statements on many issues—China, NATO, mass deportations, the Iran nuclear deal, a two-state formula for Israeli–Palestinian peace, and others—the voices of good sense seemed to be carrying the day.

Trump is not the first president to have assembled a divided team of advisers, or to face the near-united opposition of senior Cabinet officers. (Lyndon Johnson would have stories to tell Trump about how he handled such problems.) What makes the new administration’s predicament unique is the apparent commitment—still very much in place—to pursue a more activist foreign policy while reducing the costs and risks of America’s global leadership role. To start “winning” again at last.

The tension between the two halves of Trump’s policy is not merely one of logic, but one of institutions. Activist policies are necessarily inclusive—to work, they depend on the resources, technical expertise, coordinated implementation, and support of the national-security bureaucracy. By contrast, downsizing requires central control of policy—fewer hands on the tiller, careful steering, quiet diplomacy, and conceptual discipline.

A president trying to change policy can hurt himself if he misunderstands America’s power—and if he is misled by his own rhetoric.

Yet in the administration’s early going, Trump and his advisers have gotten things exactly backwards. The initial version of their “Muslim ban” was precisely the kind of activist measure that called for the laying-on of hands by multiple agencies. Instead, it was hatched virtually in the dark by a few brand-new White House aides. As for rapprochement with Russia—whether it makes sense or not—the entire idea calls for confidential talks out of the usual channels, in which each side’s flexibility and interest can be carefully explored. Despite Trump’s clear personal interest in outreach to Putin, he may have already lost the chance to make the initiative work. He has let so many of his own officials criticize it—and allowed so much congressional opposition to build up—that his options are drastically narrowed.

No President with any knowledge of government at all would have bungled these matters the way Trump has. Even inexperienced presidents have adjusted more adeptly to the exercise of power. The Obama administration’s first-year fulfillment of a campaign promise—the controversial 2009 decision to add troops in Afghanistan—was almost a textbook case of good process compared with Trump’s. Obama got bureaucratic buy-in where he needed it: His advisers came together in backing the decision for a “surge.” At the same time, he maintained personal oversight of the issue he cared about most—a tight timetable for the withdrawal of the extra troops, which most of his team hated but no one openly opposed. Obama’s early decisions helped him gain control of policy. Trump’s have helped him lose it.

A President trying to change policy can also hurt himself if he misunderstands America’s power position—and is misled by his own rhetoric. When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 finally obliged Jimmy Carter to toughen his strategy toward Moscow, his administration quickly came forward with a raft of additional measures: a new “doctrine” for Persian Gulf security, outreach to China, suspension of strategic arms control, and more. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security adviser, even appeared at the Khyber Pass with a dagger and a machine gun. With tensions (and tempers) running high, my old boss Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged the president and his advisers to recognize that they had badly misjudged the balance of power—and could not know for sure how the Soviets would respond to their show of strength. It was crucial, he said, to make no false moves. Nothing would be worse than to pick a new fight and lose it.

President Trump probably needs to learn the opposite lesson: Don’t pick fights that the U.S. has already won. Trump painted a picture of extreme American weakness convincing enough to win him the White House. But he will keep making mistakes if he believes his own assessment. With net migration from Mexico at its lowest levels since the 1940s, and with not a single person since at least 1975 (and maybe ever) having been killed in terrorist acts on U.S. soil by nationals of the countries on the administration’s “Muslim ban” list, Trump has the freedom to decide which problems he most wants to solve. His actions have to be broadly consistent with the message that got him elected, but he has nothing to gain from urgent and disruptive measures to address vulnerabilities that do not exist. Such moves will not reverse the decline Trump fears; they will accelerate it.

Ronald Reagan, Trump might recall, defeated Carter by pointing to the danger of Soviet military advances. In office, however, Reagan was acutely conscious of the communist system’s flaws and sought to exploit them carefully. He wanted a big military buildup, not a war. Advisers who didn’t understand this fell out of favor. Secretary of State Alexander Haig confided to Reagan early on that it would be easy to turn Cuba into “a fucking parking lot.” The President ignored him.

There may be no more important indicator of how isolated Trump has become in the post-election round of foreign-policy debate than the routine way in which critics berate him for undermining what they see as America’s supreme foreign-policy achievement—an international order variously described as “open,” “liberal,” and “rules based.” Whatever the value of these labels, the critics are right that, after World War II, the U.S. repudiated beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and every-man-for-himself security policies. They’re also right that Trump seems strangely attracted to such approaches. Despite the stupendous results of American strategy since 1945—victory in the Cold War, spreading global prosperity, an era of sustained (if uneasy) peace among major states—the president is clearly convinced that the United States has paid for almost everything and gotten almost nothing in return. In order to shift the cost-benefit analysis back in our favor, he seems determined to challenge the policies and practices that have cemented America’s vast power and influence in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In doing so, Trump has unified people who disagree about many elements of U.S. foreign policy and who recognize the many shortcomings of the so-called liberal international order. Experts, scholars, and former policy makers do not have a single view of the institutions that embody this order. NATO enjoys strong support in most quarters; the European Union, considerably less support; the United Nations, far less than that—and even supporters disagree about how the United States should make use of these forums in the future. Whether they lean Democrat or Republican, or reject both parties, the best experts and analysts take for granted the need to rethink, and to do better. It’s good that they disagree about the big choices America faces—about globalization, terrorism, military spending, foreign assistance, democracy promotion, nuclear proliferation, cyber-security, climate change, the rise of China, the future of Iran, Putinism, and much more. Trump, unfortunately, has gotten the very people who should be leading our debate to put their differences aside.

This unity comes at a cost. A once-every-two-decades debate is an opportunity to measure American policy against all the ways in which the world is changing—and the ways in which U.S. responses have fallen short. It’s a chance to come to grips with the vulnerabilities of the liberal order. To do so means thinking about narrow practical questions and broad conceptual ones. Can America’s leaders manage, explain, and defend this order better in the next decade than they did in the last? At a time when the power of the U.S. is, in relative terms at least, slowly declining, will rules that have long depended on that power continue to matter? Americans have never much liked applying the rules to themselves. What will happen when others feel strong enough to evade them too?

These are, in one form or another, the questions that the candidates, experts, and voters were supposed to wrestle with in last year’s campaign. Because of Trump—and the very necessary push back against him—serious discussion of America’s role in the world has been virtually suspended, and no one can say when or how it will start up again. One thing is for certain, though. We can’t wait another 20 years to resume the debate.