Monday, March 15, 2010

Joseph Nye Swung and Missed

Many of you probably have heard of Professor Joseph Nye, now of Harvard and former U.S. assistant secretary of defense. I remember him as the very persuasive advocate of the effectiveness of the exercise of soft power in international relations. He stressed that properly applied soft power in the form of nuanced diplomacy can be far more effective than in-your-face display of raw military might.

It is therefore most disappointing that in his latest analysis of Sino-U.S. relations, which he called a "turn for the worse," that he completely missed the mark. Nye blamed China for failing to toe the U.S. line of imposing sanction on Iran. He did mention President Obama's meeting with Dalai Lama and agreeing to sell arms to Taiwan as sources of friction in the bilateral relations but he seemed to believe that with ample prior precedents, China should be accepting and not get hot and bothered.

Nye also mentioned that "many American congressmen" complain about American jobs being destroyed by China's maintenance of an artificially low yuan, but he failed to point out the ludicrous premise such complaint is based. Instead he accuse Beijing of making a serious miscalculation because the U.S. is not in decline but still ranks as the second most competitive economy in the world, after Switzerland.

I am not sure how World Economic Forum, an organization based in the West, gage economic strength, but I am not as sanguine as Nye about America's future. I fear that America is about to become a failed state.

Take the health care standoff. I do not find members of Congress talk about what's in national interest. I find members working diligently to make sure the other side do not score any popularity points.

Thanks to a protective coddling of Wall Street, we experienced a great economic meltdown and have incurred trillions in national debt. Our only prospect of getting out of debt is prayer and a pig in the poke, hope for the best some hazy years down in the future. No one has the political courage to say we need to cut spending and (gasp) raise taxes. Obviously a major cut in spending is to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan but we don't seem to know how to do that either.

Our collective aversion to paying taxes plus our preference for guns over books has led directly to a drive to bottom for our public education system, pioneered by California condemned to mediocrity with the enactment of Proposition 13. We are successful in not leaving "any child behind," instead just entire generations behind.

President Obama has said that we will pull out of the economic doldrums through an economy built on innovation. But where will future innovations come from, if we don't want immigrants, won't encourage foreign students to stay and depend on lousy schools to crank out poorly prepared graduates? On top of all that, we have a significant fraction of Americans that seriously believe the study of science is anti-Christ tantamount to devil worship.

Not to worry, some will say, because we have the strongest democracy in the world. Is that so? Thanks to the American invention known as gerrymandering (a manipulation of voting districts to favor a particular political party), members of state and national legislatures once elected are virtually guaranteed lifetime employment. To further enhance their job security, they raise money. The more the better. Once a politician wins an election, he or she immediately raises more campaign contributions because the politician knows full well that vulnerability is inversely proportional to the size of the campaign bank account.

America hasn’t been a democracy based on one person, one vote for decades. We used to go door to door campaigning for our candidates. No more, now we organize neighborhood gatherings for the purpose of collecting political contributions. America has become a democracy based on money. With rare exception, the one that raises the most money, wins. Guess what, most money come from special interest. Every politician rails against special interest—but, by the way, contributions gratefully accepted. Special interests love to make contributions because contributions get access and influence. Consequently, our politicians are not beholden to the voters, just the special interests.

Politicians are safe in their seats so long as they do not rock the boat. Thus they take the easy way out. Rather than exercise leadership and statesmanship and telling the American people of the hard tasks that lie ahead, they just blame China, for everything conceivable.

China in the meantime is building a network of high speed rail that will crisscross the country based on its own technology, i.e., not stolen from Los Alamos. They are proposing to build three trans-continental high speed rail systems: Two to Western Europe by way of Russia and central Asia and one south to Singapore.

China has the wealth to invest in infrastructure based on latest technology and they are sharing with their neighbors. The high speed rail will inevitably bring China closer to the community of nations that will share in the economic benefits. There may even come a day when bilateral relations with America will pale in importance compared to relations with rest of the world.

Nye reminded the readers that Deng Xiaoping would have “led China to the cooperative relations with the U.S. that marked the early of part of last year.” Alas, Nye did not seem to realize that it has been America that has changed from early last year and not China.


Bevin Chu said...

Dear George,

Very disappointed in Nye. I expected better from him, based on his past record.

Since Deng, mainland China has adopted a highly conciliatory attitude toward other nations, including the US.

It has for example, made peace with all its immediate neighbors by attempting to peacefully settle any lingering border disputes.

It is not mainland China that is the belligerent party in Sino-US relations. It is the US hegemon, which is jealous of its global preeminence, and fearful that mainland China is about to replace it as "king of the hill."

In fact, mainland China is not thinking in these zero sum game terms to begin with.


Ivy said...

One would expect much better reasoning than what Nye, one of the most influential scholars on American foreign policy, showed in his piece.

To say that China should not protest so vigorously a U.S. president’s receiving the Dalai Lama and selling arms to Taiwan since these acts “had ample precedent” is like saying one would be a cry-baby to object to being poked in the eye as that had happened repeatedly in the past. Only a bully would think thus.

To point to China’s recalcitrance in complying with the U.S. agenda on Iran and global climate change in Copenhagen is to dismiss the possibility that China may merely be responding to U.S. policies and acts. After all, China voluntarily sets carbon emission goals, drafts an aggressive clean energy program which will account for 15% of its total energy consumption, and is admittedly leading the race to make renewable energy. Then too U.S. has such double standards with regard to nuclear proliferation, unilaterally exempting India from the strictures of a signee of the Nuclear Proliferation Act, that any country with an ounce of courage and half a brain would refuse to follow the U.S. lead; instead that country would determine its own stance on the issue. But it could be gathered from Nye’s writings that he doesn’t consider China on a par with the U.S. Therefore, speaking from the high vantage point of U.S. as the sole superpower, Nye labels China’s actions as stemming from “hubris and overconfidence.”

Nye makes an excellent point as to China deriving little power over U.S. from its holding so much of the U.S. treasury bonds. Perhaps many of the politicians and pundits railing against China also realize this but are loath to give up their convenient blaming of China for U.S.’ economic woes. In reality however, China, may be at a disadvantage, as the interdependence may not be as “balanced” as Nye seems to think. After all it is operating within a Bretton Woods system dominated and dictated by the U.S. and the West. What if the U.S. decides to devalue its currency as it had done in the past to partially get out of its debts? China would lose either way, whether it holds on to or dumps part of its accumulation of U.S. bonds.

All this goes to show that as long as U.S.’ pre-eminence is deferred to, a patrician-cum-bully like Nye could have gone on talking about “soft power” and looking benign. But in practice “complex interdependence” boils down to asymmetric power backed by the threat of overwhelming military power. So try to claim equality or refuse to follow the U.S. lead once and you’ll see these patrician bullies show their true colors.