No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: In the New York Review of Books, Adam Tooze recently wrote that: "across the American political spectrum, if there is agreement on anything, it is on the need for a firmer line against China". He is correct: On this, the bombs-and-bullets people, the geopolitics people, and the blame-somebody-else people are all agreed. The U.S. needs to do something to strengthen its relative position, and that means it needs to start doing something to China.
But that would be going about it the wrong way. Thinking that the right way to do something is to do something to China is a very bad way to think.
In the short-run of zero to four years, the United States could inflict a lot of damage on China and inflict a lot of damage on itself in a trade war. The Chinese would probably suffer less: the Chinese government could buy and if necessary give away products made by factories that would otherwise have sold to the United States in order to prevent mass unemployment and social turmoil, while the U.S. government does not have the capability to do the same for those whose jobs would be destroyed by trade disruption. In the medium-run of four to ten years, the U.S. faces a huge problem in a trade war with China: China can replace the U.S. as customers and suppliers with Europe and Japan. A U.S. that has just broken its trading relationship with China will have a hard time convincing anybody else to make the large investments needed to step into China's current role. Being an irrational doofus country with an incompetent government has costs. Thus I see a U.S. attempt to "get tough" with China on international economic issues as more likely than not to accelerate the U.S.'s relative decline and accelerate China's rise to its long-run economic relative position, which if the U.S. does any more damage to itself will more likely than not be one of quasi- or semi-hegemony.
With respect to pursuing not a geoeconomic but a geopolitical or a geomilitary "get tough" with China, the fact that the Trump administration has been a geopolitical chaos monkey has robbed the United States of the ability to do the second, and the third would be most unwise. The fact that the U.S. elected Trump, and that the Republicans in congress did not immediately geld him but fell into line, has gravely weakened all of our alliances far more than did George W. Bush and his ill-advised "coalitions of the willing". We will never get back to the solid geopolitical position we had in 2000. We are unlikely to get back to the less-solid geopolitical position we had in 2016. A geopolitical "get tough" is simply a non-starter.
As for a geomilitary confrontation... a Cold War with occasional proxy or small-scale points of heat... or something hotter... our problem is that we cannot now see what form war will take in the twenty-first century, but we know (or hope) what it will not be. It will not be any of (a) nuclear exchanges, (b) mass forces deployed and supported by near-total industrial mobilization, (c) insurgencies of decolonization or deneocolonization, or (d) limited imperial adventures-on-the-cheap. Nuclear exchanges would be a total human catastrophe, the existence of nuclear arsenals means that conventional mobilization cannot be decisive and so is pointless, there are no properly colonial or neocolonial regimes left, and the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Bolton-Bush 43 plan to take down Iraq with two divisions, then take down Iran with six, and then cheaply rule as hegemon freed from the Bush 41 and Clinton respect for the wishes of the U.N. Security Council did not turn out so well.
That leaves us with no models for any war in the 21st century a sane government would undertake. What a sane war—to the extent that war can ever be sane—would look like is opaque: it would be some form of the continuation of politics by other means, but what form we do not know. In the face of such uncertainties, it is unwise for any government to seek to continue politics by any means other than... politics itself.
So what should the United States do in order to achieve the aims of this political current that wants to improve the U.S. position relative to China? Well, the U.S. could improve its relative position by demonstrating that it has a more competent, more responsive, and less corrupt government than China because it is a healthy democracy under the rule of law. The U.S. could improve its relative position by demonstrating that it has a more dynamic high-tech economy by accepting workers and ideas from all over the world and rewarding them handsomely. The U.S. could improve its relative position by demonstrating that it can quickly change course and get rid of gridlock causing massive sectoral disfunction—in a health care system that grossly overcharges and yet also grossly under provides care to the vulnerable, in a massive nationwide neglect of infrastructure in a stalled energy transition. The U.S. could improve its relative position by demonstrating that it can curb the moldings of malefactors of great wealth created by the maldistribution of prosperity. The U.S. could improve its relative position by once again becoming a society in which those at all levels live better than their predecessors because the fruits of economic growth are equitably distributed.
In short, the U.S. could create the nation it would be had it elected Al Gore to the presidency in 2000 and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, and backed them with responsive and patriotic congresses.
That is how the U.S. could forge a 21st century condominium with China.
And note that—of course—all those necessary and needed pieces of action require that the U.S. look and act inwardly, not outwardly.
Adam Tooze: Democracy and Its Discontents: Weekend Reading
Earlier at Grasping Reality: What to Do About China?: Live at Project Syndicate
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