Soft Power

Gordon Chang is enjoying a TV punditry renaissance just now, having rebranded himself as a North Korea expert. In his previous life as a pundit he wrote The Coming Collapse of China – seventeen years ago. No surprise he went to ground for a while.

I fear Joseph Nye may be making the Chang mistake. In an article for the Australian think tank ASPI, he similarly discounts the juggernaut that, truth is, China really is nowadays.

Nye has come around toward the end of his career to focus on an idea he coined the term for back in the late 1980s: the idea of “soft power,” understood as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. He thinks China is sorely lacking in soft power, writing

“no one should be tempted by exaggerated projections of Chinese power. If the US maintains its alliances with democratic Japan and Australia, and continues to develop good relations with India, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global military balance, China lags far behind, and in terms of demography, technology, the monetary system and energy dependence, the US is better placed than China in the coming decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th, while the US is third.”

Maybe. But should push come to shove, does the United States under the Trump administration have the will or the desire, at the far end of its supply lines and on China’s doorstep, to resist Chinese expansion inside the nine-dash line?

Nye writes “no one knows what the future will bring for China. Xi has torn up Deng Xiaoping’s institutional framework for leadership succession, but how long will Xi’s authority last?”

Since 5 June, 1989, when that man stood in front of the tank just outside Tiananmen Square, wishful-thinking pundits have written similar things about each successive Chinese leader, and their conviction that sometime soon anti-authoritarianism will triumph in China.

I’m just saying, how’s that working out so far?

When that man stood in front of that tank, China was a mere shell of the global behemoth it has become since. Its model of state capitalism has since beguiled the leaders of just about every developing country in the world, showering them with loans and influence free of judgmental politics, like the gleaming new railroad between Nairobi and Mombasa, the Madaraka Express train in Kenya,  and the massive Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. That, seems to me, is its own sort of soft power.

Dear Mr. Nye: a word of caution on the soft power thing. No Gordon Chang moment, please.

Quotes: On the Impossibility of the European Union

I mentioned a couple weeks back that I’m working through a trio of books on the common theme of the challenges facing liberal democracies, and specifically the European Union. I think this quote, from After Europe by the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, particularly well illustrates the wicked insolubility of the Euro Debt Crisis that broke out first in Greece some eight years ago:

“In handling the rebellion from Athens, European leaders faced a stark choice. They could either allow Greece to default and thus put the common currency at risk, destroy the Greek economy, and send the message that in a political union of creditors and debtors there is no place for solidarity – or save Greece on (Greek Prime Minister Alexis) Tsipras’s terms and thereby signal that political blackmail works, inspiring populist parties across the continent.

Faced with the dilemma, European leaders identified a third option: to save Greece on such Draconian terms that no other populist government would ever be tempted to follow its example. Tsipras is now the living demonstration that there is no alternative to the economic policies of the European Union.

Krastev calls it “the victory of economic reason over the will of the voters” and writes that “For the common European currency to survive, voters of debtor nations must be deprived of their right to change economic policy despite retaining a capacity to change governments,” and that this is not democracy. He contends that

a political union capable of backing the euro with a common fiscal policy cannot be accomplished as long as EU member states remain fully democratic. Their citizens will just not support it.”

So the choices are democracy or the common currency, but not both. It’s hard for me to find fault with his analysis. No wonder Krastev called his book “After Europe.”

Weekend Reading

Hunting for something interesting to read this weekend? Here’s the list you were looking for. And since we’ve had a couple of posts that touch on British imperialism this week, we start it off with:

The Great British Empire Debate by Kenan Malik at NYR Daily

But wait, there’s more! Enjoy these, too, and have a lovely weekend.

A Bakery in a War Zone by Lily Hyde in Roads and Kingdoms
How warp-speed evolution is transforming ecology by Rachael Lallensack at Nature.com
What science is like in North Korea by Andrada Fiscutean in The Outline
The Person in the Ape by Ferris Jabr at laphamsquarterly.org
America Is Not a Democracy by Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic
How America Collapsed by umair haque at eand.co