Should Economists Make Moral Judgments?


May 26, 2018

Should Economists Make Moral Judgments?

At least since the days of John Maynard Keynes, professional economists have not had to worry too much about the moral implications of their technical work. But that is quickly changing with the global march of illiberalism, and economists now must ask themselves hard ethical questions before dispensing policy advice.

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BUDAPEST – I recently attended a PhD seminar in labor economics at the Central European University in Budapest. In it, we considered whether the Hungarian government’s scheme to focus on long-term unemployment is working efficiently, and we raised a host of technical problems for the doctoral candidate to address.

But I came away disturbed by the experience, wondering whether professional economists (particularly in the West) need to reassess the moral and political context in which they conduct their work. Shouldn’t economists ask themselves whether it is morally justifiable to provide even strictly technical advice to self-dealing, corrupt, or undemocratic governments?

To be sure, reducing long-term unemployment would alleviate a social evil, and possibly ensure a more efficient use of public resources. Yet improved economic performance can shore up a bad government. This is precisely the dilemma confronting economists across a range of countries, from China, Russia, and Turkey to Hungary and Poland. And there is no reason to think that economists in the “democratic heartland” of Western Europe and North America won’t face a similar dilemma in the future.

 

Over time, economists have offered three different moral or political justifications for their technical work. The first, and simplest, justification simply assumes that the “powers that be” (the ultimate recipients of their work) are “benevolent despots” in the mold that John Maynard Keynes described (though Keynes did not consider the British bureaucrats of his time to be despots).

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In the 1970s, this defense was challenged by economists at the other end of the Western political spectrum, who pointed out that bureaucrats were a supplier lobby like any other. As such, they will always have an interest in expanding their own individual and collective importance, regardless of whether it maximizes social benefits. This assumption led economists to become “intervention skeptics” who preferred market-based solutions for any problem where the need for regulation was not obvious.

Between these two positions, most economists have been content to ply their trade on the assumption that, however self-interested bureaucrats might be, they are subject to oversight from democratic politicians whose own self-interest is to get re-elected by keeping voters satisfied. So long as the economist’s technical solutions to policy problems are offered to officials with democratic legitimacy, according to this view, there is no cause for political or moral concern.

In fact, even economists in communist dictatorships could proffer their best technical advice with a comparatively clean conscience, because they were convinced that introducing more market-mediated outcomes would inject efficiency into planned economies and increase the sphere of individual freedom. This was true even in the Soviet Union, at least after Nikita Khrushchev’s accession to power in the 1950s.

But now, for the first time in many decades, economists must consider the moral implications of giving good advice to bad people. They are no longer exempt from the moral quandaries that many other professionals must face – a classic example being the engineers who design missiles or other weapons systems.

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The new moral dilemma facing economists is perhaps most stark within international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, where economic mandarins with significant influence over public policy earn their living.

After the fall of Soviet-style communism, the IFIs admitted Russia and the other former Soviet republics (as well as China) on the assumption that they were each on a path to embracing democracy and a rules-based market economy. But now that democratic backsliding is widespread, economists need to ask if what is good for authoritarian states is also good for humanity. This question is particularly pertinent with respect to China and Russia, each of which is large enough to help shift the balance of world power against democracy.

That being the case, it stands to reason that democratic countries should try to limit the influence of authoritarian regimes within the IFIs – if not exclude them altogether in extreme cases. But it is worth distinguishing between two kinds of international institution in this context: rule-setting bodies that make it easier for countries with hostile ideological or national interests to co-exist; and organizations that create a strong community of interest, meaning that economic and political benefits for some members “spill over” and are felt more widely.

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Among the IFIs, the WTO is an example of the first type, as is the United Nations among international political institutions. The European Union, on the other hand, is the preeminent example of a true community of interests. And the IMF, the World Bank, and many UN agencies lie somewhere in between.

From this categorization, we can derive guidelines for economists to follow when advising authoritarian regimes. Advice or scholarship that allows authoritarian governments to avoid conflict with other countries would be morally acceptable in most cases. After all, as Winston Churchill famously observed, “jaw-jaw” is better than “war-war”. A good example would be research into how best to share scarce freshwater among Middle Eastern countries.

On the other hand, economists need to take great care when providing advice or conducting research with clear policy implications for authoritarian governments. Economists should not be in the business of helping authoritarian regimes advance nefarious ends on the back of stronger economic growth or resources saved. That probably means not giving advice to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on how to reduce long-term unemployment.

Needless to say, every case will be unique, and economists will have to decide for themselves. As in the past, some may even embrace authoritarianism. But for the profession as a whole, the moral consequences of translating economic analysis into practice can no longer be ignored.

America’s Collision Course With China


May 17, 2018

America’s Collision Course With China

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

In the future, historians will lament that America’s long-term policy toward China was not a result of calm calculation. Instead, they are likely to focus on how America’s political polarization and simplistic ideology – shared by many who should know better – drove it into a highly damaging and utterly pointless conflict.

SINGAPORE – The world’s most important bilateral relationship – between the United States and China – is also one of its most inscrutable. Bedeviled by paradoxes, misperceptions, and mistrust, it is a relationship that has become a source of considerable uncertainty and, potentially, severe instability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brewing bilateral trade war.

The key assertion driving the current dispute, initiated by US President Donald Trump’s administration, is that America’s trade deficit is too big – and it’s all China’s fault. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has gone so far as to demand that China unilaterally cut its trade surplus vis-à-vis the US by $200 billion by 2020.

But most sensible economists agree that America’s trade deficits are the result of domestic structural economic factors, especially low household savings, persistent government deficits, and the US dollar’s role as the world’s main reserve currency. According to Joseph Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, if the US wants to reduce its trade deficit, it should start by reducing its massive fiscal deficit.

Yet it is not even clear that America’s trade deficit urgently needs to be cut. While the external deficit is certainly large, the US can live beyond its means in a way other economies cannot. Thanks to the dollar’s reserve-currency status, the US can absorb most of the rest of the world’s savings, which finance its saving shortfall. Moreover, as Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisers noted in February, the US enjoys a services surplus with the world, including with China.

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But it is not just the Trump administration that shuns rational economic argument. Trump’s approach to trade with China enjoys more mainstream support in the US than most of his policies, because most Americans – including many who otherwise oppose Trump – are convinced that China is not playing fair. The political commentator Fareed Zakaria, for example, has stated that “on one big, fundamental point” Trump is right: “China is a trade cheat.”

What all this China-bashing leaves out is that cheap Chinese imports have drastically improved the quality of life of American workers, whose median income has stagnated for 40 years. According to the consultancy Oxford Economics, buying Chinese imports saves American families around $850 annually. Given that 63% of American households do not have even $500 saved for emergencies, this is not an insignificant amount.

Of course, open trade with the US and the rest of the world has enabled China to achieve the fastest poverty reduction in human history. But that does not mean that China is reaping most of the economic benefits. For example, the Chinese manufacturer Foxconn earns just $7.40 for every $800 iPhone that is sold; most of the value goes to Americans.

Chinese policymakers now put their faith in what was arguably the West’s most important export: modern economic theory. Yet they remain subject to damaging decisions made by a US plagued by misperception. The question is whether China will bow to US pressure.

China’s leadership is, ultimately, pragmatic. If a few symbolic concessions (like the voluntary export restraints to which Japan agreed in the 1980s) could prevent a collision, China may make them. But, when it comes to bigger – and economically unjustified – demands, China is likely to hold the line.

Here, the most obvious example is Mnuchin’s demand that China abandon its “Made in China 2025” plan. China has already been subjected to American export controls on high-tech equipment (including the recently imposed seven-year ban on the sale of software or components by US companies to ZTE Corporation). It is not about to give up its quest for high-tech development, a critical element of a clear long-term strategy for moving its economy up the global value chain.

In short, however rational China tries to be, a trade war remains a real possibility – one that will hurt both Americans and Chinese. And this outcome is made all the more likely by a deepening disquiet in the bilateral relationship.

A three-month sabbatical at two leading US universities has underscored for me the extent to which attitudes toward China have soured in recent years. If Chinese policymakers were aware of the intensity of this shift – and I have informed a senior figure among them – they would realize that their calm and rational policies toward the US during the past 20 years may well not work in the next 20.

It would take an entire book to explain why America’s opinion of China has turned so negative. But some reasons are obvious. Within the next decade, China will overtake the US economically, despite not being a democracy. Several thoughtful Americans have told me that they could live with a larger China, if it was democratic.

Here, again, there is some irrationality at play: a democratic China would be far more susceptible to populist and nationalist pressures, and thus would probably be a pricklier partner for the US. Yet the US remains blinded by ideology, and thus is unable to see the benefits of a China guided by economic rationality.

In the future, historians will lament that America’s long-term policy toward China was not similarly a result of calm calculation. Instead, they are likely to focus on how America’s political polarization and simplistic ideology – shared by many who should know better – drove it into a highly damaging and utterly pointless conflict.

Liberal Totalitarianism


May 6, 2018

72 Hours to Polling Day, May 9, 2018. Vote for a Better Malaysia by removing toxic Caretaker Najib Razak and his band of UMNO-BN Thieves

Liberal Totalitarianism

by 
http://www.project-syndicate.org
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It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. But liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space.

 

LISBON – It used to be an axiom of liberalism that freedom meant inalienable self-ownership. You were your own property. You could lease yourself to an employer for a limited period, and for a mutually agreed price, but your property rights over yourself could not be bought or sold. Over the past two centuries, this liberal individualist perspective legitimized capitalism as a “natural” system populated by free agents.

A capacity to fence off a part of one’s life, and to remain sovereign and self-driven within those boundaries, was paramount to the liberal conception of the free agent and his or her relationship with the public sphere. To exercise freedom, individuals needed a safe haven within which to develop as genuine persons before relating – and transacting – with others. Once constituted, our personhood was to be enhanced by commerce and industry – networks of collaboration across our personal havens, constructed and revised to satisfy our material and spiritual needs.1

But the dividing line between personhood and the external world upon which liberal individualism based its concepts of autonomy, self-ownership, and, ultimately, freedom could not be maintained. The first breach appeared as industrial products became passé and were replaced by brands that captured the public’s attention, admiration, and desire. Before long, branding took a radical new turn, imparting “personality” to objects.

Once brands acquired personalities (boosting consumer loyalty immensely and profits accordingly), individuals felt compelled to re-imagine themselves as brands. And today, with colleagues, employers, clients, detractors, and “friends” constantly surveying our online life, we are under incessant pressure to evolve into a bundle of activities, images, and dispositions that amounts to an attractive, sellable brand. The personal space essential to the autonomous development of an authentic self – the condition that makes inalienable self-ownership possible – is now almost gone. The habitat of liberalism is disappearing.3

That habitat’s clear demarcation of private and public spheres also divided leisure from work. One need not be a radical critic of capitalism to see that the right to a time when one is not for sale is all but gone, too.

Consider young people striking out in the world today. For the most part, those without a trust fund or generous unearned income end up in one of two categories. The many are condemned to labor under zero-hour contracts and wages so low that they must work all available hours to make ends meet, rendering offensive any talk of personal time, space, or freedom.

The rest are told that, to avoid falling into this soul-destroying “precariat,” they must invest in their own brand every waking hour of every day. As if in a Panopticon, they cannot hide from the attention of those who might give them a break (or know others who might). Before posting any tweet, watching any movie, sharing any photograph or chat message, they must remain mindful of the networks they please or alienate.

When lucky enough to be granted a job interview, and land the job, the interviewer alludes immediately to their expendability. “We want you to be true to yourself, to follow your passions, even if this means we must let you go!” they are told. So they redouble their efforts to discover “passions” that future employers may appreciate, and to locate that mythical “true” self that people in positions of power tell them is somewhere inside them.

Their quest knows no bounds and respects no limits. John Maynard Keynes once famously used the example of a beauty contest to explain the impossibility of ever knowing the “true” value of shares. Stock-market participants are uninterested in judging who the prettiest contestant is. Instead, their choice is based on a prediction of who average opinion believes is the prettiest, and what average opinion thinks average opinion is – thus ending up like cats chasing after their own tails.

Keynes’s beauty contest sheds light on the tragedy of many young people today. They try to work out what average opinion among opinion-makers believes is the most attractive of their own potential “true” selves, and simultaneously struggle to manufacture this “true” self online and offline, at work and at home – indeed, everywhere and always. Entire industries of counselors and coaches, and varied ecosystems of substances and self-help, have emerged to guide them on this quest.

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Was Plato a Liberal Totalitarian?

The irony is that liberal individualism seems to have been defeated by a totalitarianism that is neither fascist nor communist, but which grew out of its own success at legitimizing the encroachment of branding and commodification into our personal space. To defeat it, and thus rescue the liberal idea of freedom as self-ownership, may require a comprehensive reconfiguration of property rights over the increasingly digitized instruments of production, distribution, collaboration, and communication.

Would it not be a splendid paradox if, 200 years after the birth of Karl Marx, we decided that, in order to save liberalism, we must return to the idea that freedom demands the end of unfettered commodification and the socialization of property rights over capital goods?

Yanis Varoufakis, a former Finance Minister of Greece, is Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.

Is Marx Still Relevant?


May 5, 2018

Is Marx Still Relevant?

by Peter Singer*@www.project-syndicate.org

“The most important takeaway from Marx’s view of history is negative: the evolution of ideas, religions, and political institutions is not independent of the tools we use to satisfy our needs, nor of the economic structures we organize around those tools, and the financial interests they create. If this seems too obvious to need stating, it is because we have internalized this view. In that sense, we are all Marxists now.”–Peter Singer

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Remembering Karl Marx–200th Anniversary of his birth on May 5, 1818

On the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete. So why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century?

From 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists triumphed in China’s civil war, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall 40 years later, Karl Marx’s historical significance was unsurpassed. Nearly four of every ten people on earth lived under governments that claimed to be Marxist, and in many other countries Marxism was the dominant ideology of the left, while the policies of the right were often based on how to counter Marxism.

Once communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and its satellites, however, Marx’s influence plummeted. On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete. So why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century?

Marx’s reputation was severely damaged by the atrocities committed by regimes that called themselves Marxist, although there is no evidence that Marx himself would have supported such crimes. But communism collapsed largely because, as practiced in the Soviet bloc and in China under Mao, it failed to provide people with a standard of living that could compete with that of most people in the capitalist economies.

These failures do not reflect flaws in Marx’s depiction of communism, because Marx never depicted it: he showed not the slightest interest in the details of how a communist society would function. Instead, the failures of communism point to a deeper flaw: Marx’s false view of human nature.

There is, Marx thought, no such thing as an inherent or biological human nature. The human essence is, he wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach, “the ensemble of the social relations.” It follows then, that if you change the social relations – for example, by changing the economic basis of society and abolishing the relationship between capitalist and worker – people in the new society will be very different from the way they were under capitalism.

Marx did not arrive at this conviction through detailed studies of human nature under different economic systems. It was, rather, an application of Hegel’s view of history. According to Hegel, the goal of history is the liberation of the human spirit, which will occur when we all understand that we are part of a universal human mind. Marx transformed this “idealist” account into a “materialist” one, in which the driving force of history is the satisfaction of our material needs, and liberation is achieved by class struggle. The working class will be the means to universal liberation because it is the negation of private property, and hence will usher in collective ownership of the means of production.

Once workers owned the means of production collectively, Marx thought, the “springs of cooperative wealth” would flow more abundantly than those of private wealth – so abundantly, in fact, that distribution would cease to be a problem. That is why he saw no need to go into detail about how income or goods would be distributed. In fact, when Marx read a proposed platform for a merger of two German socialist parties, he described phrases like “fair distribution” and “equal right” as “obsolete verbal rubbish.” They belonged, he thought, to an era of scarcity that the revolution would bring to an end.

The Soviet Union proved that abolishing private ownership of the means of production does not change human nature. Most humans, instead of devoting themselves to the common good, continue to seek power, privilege, and luxury for themselves and those close to them. Ironically, the clearest demonstration that the springs of private wealth flow more abundantly than those of collective wealth can be seen in the history of the one major country that still proclaims its adherence to Marxism.

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Under Mao, most Chinese lived in poverty. China’s economy started to grow rapidly only after 1978, when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (who had proclaimed that, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”) allowed private enterprises to be established. Deng’s reforms eventually lifted 800 million people out of extreme poverty, but also created a society with greater income inequality than any European country (and much greater than the United States). Although China still proclaims that it is building “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it is not easy to see what is socialist, let alone Marxist, about its economy.

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President Xi Jinping, China’s Globalist and Man of the moment. Read on: https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/04/xi-jinping-china-distracts-from-massive-debt-rural-poverty/

If China is no longer significantly influenced by Marx’s thought, we can conclude that in politics, as in economics, he is indeed irrelevant. Yet his intellectual influence remains. His materialist theory of history has, in an attenuated form, become part of our understanding of the forces that determine the direction of human society. We do not have to believe that, as Marx once incautiously put it, the hand-mill gives us a society with feudal lords, and the steam-mill a society with industrial capitalists. In other writings, Marx suggested a more complex view, in which there is interaction among all aspects of society.

The most important takeaway from Marx’s view of history is negative: the evolution of ideas, religions, and political institutions is not independent of the tools we use to satisfy our needs, nor of the economic structures we organize around those tools, and the financial interests they create. If this seems too obvious to need stating, it is because we have internalized this view. In that sense, we are all Marxists now.

 

*Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), Rethinking Life and Death, The Point of View of the Universe, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can Do, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, One World Now, Ethics in the Real World, and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, also with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.

Franco-American Relations: Macron’s recent Charm Offensive is not without risk


May 1, 2018

Franco-American Relations: Macron’s recent Charm Offensive is not without risk

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/macron-trump-visit-ineffective-by-dominique-moisi-2018-04

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If French President Emmanuel Macron’s appeals to Trump’s vanity were producing positive outcomes for along the way, Macron’s efforts might be worthwhile. But to flatter Trump is one thing; to obtain significant diplomatic and trade concessions from him is quite another.

PARIS – For centuries, France and the United States have been friends, allies, and competitors. Both have been world powers; both have been models of liberal democracy; and both achieved democratization through revolution. In fact, France was the first ally of the new US, having provided military support during the American Revolutionary War – the first of many times the countries would collaborate in military endeavors.

On his recent trip to Washington, DC, French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to use this history to reinforce the bilateral relationship today, potentially giving France more influence over US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable administration. But Macron’s affability and bonhomie cannot obscure the fact that the two countries are operating under very different circumstances than in the past, much less ensure any semblance of reliability from the Trump administration.

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During the Cold War, General Charles de Gaulle wanted France to serve as a bridge between the West and the East. This implied being a faithful US ally, in good times and in bad, while acting as something of a fair-weather friend to the Soviet Union and China.

Today, Macron wants France to serve as a bridge within the West: between the US and Europe. This might seem to be an easier task, given the two sides’ shared history and values. And, indeed, it is that history and those values that Macron attempted to invoke, as he established himself as a defender of liberal democracy and internationalism, with language and vision marked by American-style optimism.

Nor is this the first time a French president has acted like an American leader. But Nicolas Sarkozy – who literally coined for himself the nickname “Sarko the American” – was more eager to align himself with George W. Bush, especially when it came to foreign policy. Macron, by contrast, is espousing the values and adopting the rhetoric of Barack Obama.

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French President Emmanuel Macron criticizes Trump in his Address to US Congress

Neither has much in common with Trump, who, in the words of former FBI Director James Comey, acts more like a mafia boss than a US President, and seems utterly disinterested in sustaining US global leadership. The challenge ahead for Macron may thus turn out to be even more formidable than the one confronted by De Gaulle.

If Macron’s visit were a soccer game, it would have included some beautifully executed plays – such as Macron’s speech to the US Congress – before ending in a draw. Beneath the veneer of mutual affection on display in Washington, Macron’s visit was marked by deep disagreements, including over climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.

Macron’s declaration that “there is no Planet B” has not elicited any substantive move by Trump to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. And, despite the mention of a new, enlarged agreement with Iran, Trump continues to embrace the radical visions of his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton.

By establishing a friendly public rapport with Trump, Macron may even have put himself at risk. After all, it will not look good if Macron is closely aligned with a Trump who makes catastrophic strategic decisions or ends up in the jaws of the US justice system. Trump is simply too unpredictable for a close relationship with him to be anything other than a political liability.

If that closeness – those appeals to Trump’s vanity – were producing positive outcomes for along the way, Macron’s efforts might be worthwhile. But to flatter Trump is one thing; to obtain significant diplomatic and trade concessions from him is quite another. And Macron seems to have found success on only one of those fronts.

By establishing himself as a voice of reason, moderation, and responsibility, Macron tried to lay the groundwork for his emergence as a real agent of change. He does not want his legacy to comprise simply powerful speeches; he wants to tackle real issues affecting France, Europe, and the world. But it remains far from clear whether his tactics will work, particularly with regard to Trump.

The question is whether the alternative approach to Trump – the far less friendly, more businesslike approach of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – will produce better results. It seems unlikely, but when it comes to securing actual concessions, at least Merkel cannot do much worse.

Trump’s New National Security Team


April 24, 2018

Trump’s New National Security Team

by

While Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have shown that they can communicate with Donald Trump, neither has ever shown any capacity for dealing with a crisis, much less arresting the decline of US leadership in the world. The expected meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be their first test.

DENVER – US President Donald Trump’s recent cabinet shakeup – with former CIA Director Mike Pompeo replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and foreign-policy hardliner John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser – represents a significant shift in national security priorities and attitudes. A dangerous world could become more dangerous still.

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After over a year of near-daily drama, the world has begun to adjust to the reality of the Trump Administration, which includes frequent ad hominem attacks on foreign leaders and capriciousness in relations even with close allies. Beginning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, America’s allies, especially in Europe, have recognized that they can no longer count on the US as a partner.

As a result, these leaders are increasingly attempting to mitigate the effects of the Trump Administration’s unilateral decisions, many of which directly undermine global cooperation. Notably, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – two initiatives that would have helped to cement America’s global leadership, had the Trump Administration not insisted on regarding them as Lilliputian conspiracies against the US.

 

More recently, Trump doubled down on this approach, announcing stiff tariffs on aluminum and steel, from which some allies – but not Japan – are temporarily exempted. This doesn’t look good for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had rushed to be the first to embrace the Trump Administration. While Abe will recover his political footing on the tariff issue, he will be far more cautious moving forward.

As these developments unfolded, Tillerson and McMaster struggled. Diffidence and arrogance are a fatal combination for a Secretary of State, yet that is precisely what Tillerson displayed – and he rarely seemed to have a good day in the job. Similarly, McMaster – a hasty but welcome replacement for the disgraced Michael Flynn – seemed to be in over his head, unable to connect with the President or manage interagency dynamics.

By contrast, Pompeo and Bolton have shown that they can communicate with Trump – no small feat for a President who, well into his second year in office, has yet to develop a strong relationship with his National Security team. But neither has ever shown any capacity for dealing with a crisis, much less arresting the decline of US global leadership.

 

Becoming Secretary of State – the cabinet’s most prestigious position – is a significant step up for Pompeo, whose short tenure as CIA director was preceded by a six-year stint in the House of Representatives, representing Kansas’ fourth congressional district. Most Americans first heard of him in 2015, when he grilled then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her supposed role in the tragic death of the US Ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. While that performance could conceivably indicate a welcome concern about the security of US diplomats abroad, it also indicates a politicized approach to security and decision-making, which was also reflected in Pompeo’s tenure at the CIA.

As for Bolton, he has served as a political appointee in several administrations. He made his mark as an archenemy of traditionally apolitical government agencies, which Trump administration officials have now labeled part of the “deep state,” regularly accusing such professionals – as well as diplomats – of “appeasement.”

A relentless bureaucratic brawler, Bolton is not without accomplishments. His Proliferation Security Initiative, launched during President George W. Bush’s administration, is generally regarded as a diplomatic success that has helped to foster international cooperation. But, for the most part, Bolton has shown himself to be a foreign-policy hawk with a penchant for unilateralism.

With the North Korea crisis looming, the world will not have to wait long to find out how Bolton’s and Pompeo’s inclinations translate into action. Both are expected to start their new jobs in the run-up to Trump’s expected summit with Kim Jong-un – the product of yet another abrupt unilateral decision by Trump.

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Many within the Republican Party who are skeptical of diplomacy, of whom Bolton is a leader, have balked at Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, arguing that talks with dictators are a waste of time that ultimately play into autocrats’ hands. Even those who instinctively support diplomacy have serious doubts: with no further diplomatic steps available, if Trump’s gambit fails, only military solutions will be left.

Bolton and Pompeo may believe that the best possible outcome is for the meeting to take place, with Trump storming out angrily. But a negative outcome is not what most people want, especially given the lack of compelling alternatives. And it is almost certainly not what Trump wants, given his eagerness to prove that he was wise to accept Kim’s invitation to meet. The extent to which Pompeo and Bolton support the initiative will thus have a significant impact not just on the summit itself, but also on Trump’s presidency.

Successful summits tend to be those that are well prepared. Will Bolton be willing to engage the South Korea’s leaders, whom he has so often criticized as appeasers, in order to harmonize the US and South Korean positions? Will he or Pompeo work with the Chinese to identify an effective mode of cooperation? Will either official be willing to meet with the North Koreans before the summit to ensure a positive outcome?

A President may pull a rabbit out of a hat from time to time. But that trick is possible only when diplomats – usually led by the national security adviser and the secretary of state – have prepared the props. Whether Pompeo and Bolton can do so remains unclear. What is clear is that we will have to rely not on experience, but on hope.

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Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is Chief Advisor to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.