Good Reads: China's next leader comes to Washington, as US enters a funk

Lots of talk of America's decline but few suggested solutions as Chinese vice president Xi Jinping visits Washington this week.

China Daily/REUTERS
China's Vice-President Xi Jinping (R) and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attend an evening banquet to commemorate the 40th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, January 16.

This week, as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping pays a visit to Washington, there will doubtless be many calls for the Obama administration to talk tough with America’s largest trading partner. No more of that nonsense of undercutting US workers with your cheap labor, sir, and you had better start supporting some democratic reforms in the Middle East and back home or there’s going to be trouble. Big trouble.

There will also be calls for the US to cultivate Mr. Xi, who is likely to replace President Hu Jintao when Mr. Hu is ready to step down. Show him the superiority of the free market system, unfettered by regulations and government planning. Slip some of that American Soft Power ™ into his green tea in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan did it with Mikhail Gorbachev, and now Mr. Gorbachev is endorsing Louis Vuitton.

But what should the Obama administration do? Some say America’s persuasive power have passed their peak. The American economy is beginning to recover, but the longer term trends of job-loss, debt, and geopolitical exhaustion mean that any US president – Democrat or Republican – will have limited tools of bluster to define the terms of any future US-China relationship. Americans expect exceptionalism – remember Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation – and they expect their leaders to take up where the Roosevelts, Eisenhowers, and Reagans left off.

But a slew of well-argued pieces this week show that these expectations are maybe misplaced.

In Foreign Policy, Daniel Blumenthal – an expert on China at the American Enterprise Institute – says that it’s naïve to think that either tough talk or sweet talk are going to win over Xi and set China on a different path. The truth is that the China that Xi would eventually govern is much more pluralistic and complex than the China that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon negotiated with during the cold war, or as politically weak as the Soviet Union that Mr. Gorbachev so helpfully dismantled.

“…engagement among top leaders is not enough. China is far more pluralistic than it was when Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon made their secret deals with party leaders or when President George H.W. Bush secretly sent national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to toast the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Today, China's entrepreneurs want a truly free market. The less privileged want protections from a rapacious state. Reformers want more of a voice. U.S. engagement must expand to all levels of Chinese society, both within the Communist Party's confines and outside them.”

One-on-one diplomacy has its place, but nothing beats having a real strategy on how to deal with China, and Blumenthal calls America’s current policy a “muddle.”

America itself is not the giant disciplined gunboat that some foreign policy hawks assume it is, either, writes Charles Kupchan in this month’s Foreign Affairs. All over the world, democracies have suffered the most through economic globalization and in the recent economic meltdown. Indeed, it may be authoritarian governments with state-run economies who have ridden out the economic panics of 2007 and onward, leaving democracies to face the anger of their voters.

"Voters in industrialized democracies are looking to their governments to respond to the decline in living standards and the growing inequality resulting from unprecedented global flows of goods, services, and capital. They also expect their representatives to deal with surging immigration, global warming, and other knock-on effects of a globalized world. But Western governments are not up to the task. Globalization is making less effective the policy levers at their disposal while also diminishing the West’s traditional sway over world affairs by fueling the 'rise of the rest.' The inability of democratic governments to address the needs of their broader publics has, in turn, only increased popular disaffection, further undermining the legitimacy and efficacy of representative institutions."

In excerpts in the Atlantic and in a book review in Friday’s New York Times, Charles Murray has resurrected his Bell Curve theory to explain the growing inequality of US society. The key to success, if I understand Mr. Murray’s theory correctly, is education, and the key to success in education is to inherit a great IQ from your parents. For the rest, the door is shut. Sorry about that.

Maybe I missed them, but I didn’t see any articles out there proposing solutions. Diagnosing a problem seems to be the easy half of this battle. But how about the solution?

Is the decline of America preordained? Is there anything that businesspeople, elected American officials, and even individual American voters can do to turn things around? Can the US build the kind of strategic partnership – based on common goals and ideals – that the US built with its onetime colonial master, Britain? If someone wrote a story about solutions, I’d certainly read it.

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