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Ann Scott Tyson on Sino-American Relations

Saturday, October 24th, 2020

[mark safranski / “zen“]

Ann Scott Tyson, Beijing Bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, recently published an important in-depth reflective piece on the evolution of Sino-American relations, particularly the deep slide under China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping. Featured prominently in the story are the views of former National Security Adviser,  LTG H.R. McMaster.

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Fueling US-China clash, years of disconnects

….What is clear is that the current conflict has been exacerbated by profound misperceptions and misplaced expectations that go back decades, eliciting feelings of betrayal on the U.S. side and arrogance on China’s side.

All these dynamics were on the mind of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as he rode the next day in the presidential motorcade toward the massive, Soviet-style facade of the Great Hall of the People, for another meeting with Chinese leaders. The three-star Army general was preparing to unveil a new U.S. national security strategy at home with an elevated focus on China. On his first trip to the country, he was soaking up “the symbolism, the zeitgeist” of Beijing, he recalls in an interview.  

As General McMaster settled into a black swivel chair at a conference table in the great hall, he and his team had one simple goal: to wrap up the meeting quickly so the president could prepare for the evening’s lavish dinner. Premier Li Keqiang began speaking, reading from 5-by-8 cards – as Chinese officials often do to stay on message. The general girded himself for more empty diplomatic speak.

But what came next surprised General McMaster. Despite Mr. Li’s reputation for being friendly to the West and relatively pro-reform, he spoke bluntly, echoing Chairman Xi’s assertive 3 1/2 hour speech at the October party conclave. His brusque message: China no longer needs the U.S. China has come into its own. Beijing would, however, help Washington solve its trade problem by importing U.S. raw materials for China’s emerging high-end manufacturing economy. 

What struck General McMaster was how Mr. Li’s monologue suggested an almost neocolonial relationship between a superior China and a servile U.S. It was “remarkable for the aura of confidence, you could almost say arrogance, and the degree to which he dismissed U.S. concerns about the nature of not only the economic relationship but the geostrategic relationship,” he recalls.

Such encounters helped convince General McMaster that a dramatic shift in China strategy was critical. “It reinforced the work we were doing and highlighted the urgency of it,” he says. 

Soon, it would be Beijing’s turn to be surprised.

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Imperious rhetoric was also a feature of Chinese Cold War diplomacy under Mao ZeDong and Zhou Enlai during the first twenty years after the 1949 declaration of the People’s Republic; first toward the United States and then increasingly toward the Soviet Union as the two Communist giants accelerated to the Sino-Soviet Split. Interestingly, during this time the PRC fought a ground war against US and UN forces in Korea and later clashed militarily with the USSR over some islands in the Ussuri river border area which nearly escalated to a nuclear war. Relations with Moscow had grown so hostile and the ideological convulsions of the Cultural Revolution so extreme that when Soviet premier Alexi Kosygin phoned Zhou Enlai in an attempt to defuse the order war, the Chinese operator screamed at Kosygin that she would not put through a call of “a revisionist”. Only after this near miss with WWIII, did Beijing’s rhetoric toward the United States soften at the Warsaw talks and warm in a series of diplomatic backchannels to the Nixon administration.

Mao has been something of a convenient lodestone for Xi in his drive to centralize power in his own hands, tighten the grip of the Party over the life of ordinary Chinese citizens and expand China’s influence in the world, echoing Mao’s prior ideological effort to contest for leadership of the Communist bloc, especially those “revolutionary” movements in the Third World struggling against “western imperialism”.

In December 2017, Washington released its new National Security Strategy. In sharp contrast to the 2015 blueprint, which welcomed China’s rise and hailed “unprecedented” cooperation, the new document labeled China a “strategic competitor” that seeks to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Underlying this shift – ending the decades-old U.S. policy of engagement with China – was American disappointment that had been building for years. To be sure, U.S. engagement with China had multiple goals and had succeeded on many fronts. President Nixon reestablished ties with Beijing primarily to counter the Soviet Union, and the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979 ushered in decades of relative peace and rising prosperity in East Asia. 

….“Was it foolish or … misbegotten? I don’t believe it was,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Engagement was worth the chance, he says. At different junctures, Communist Party reformers seemed to gain the upper hand. But success was never guaranteed. Hard-line, anti-Western leaders won out, fearing a loss of control that would spell the party’s demise, he says.

What was naive, experts say, was the conviction among some Americans that opening China’s markets made political liberty inevitable – a misperception echoed in centuries of Western interactions with the country. 

Western engineers, soldiers, and other advisers brought expertise to China “as the wrapping around an ideological package,” seeking to entice the Chinese to accept both, writes historian Jonathan Spence in “To Change China,” a study of Western advisers in the country from 1620 to 1960. “It was this that the Chinese had refused to tolerate; even at their weakest, they sensed that acceptance of a foreign ideology on foreign terms must be a form of weakness.”

Similarly, when China opened up in the late 1970s, pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping introduced market techniques to generate wealth and raise living standards, but without relinquishing state ownership or one-party rule.

“China saw that prosperity was related to capitalism, and Deng Xiaoping’s revolution basically adopted capitalism with socialist characteristics,” says Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, president of the U.S.-China Education Trust. “Things they saw in America were things they aspired to – not the values, not the political system, but the things, the prosperity. They wanted that.” 

….But as reforms stalled and then reversed after Mr. Xi took charge in 2012, disenchantment grew among Americans who had long championed change in China.

Some U.S. officials, in fact, felt deliberately misled. Looking back, General McMaster, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees deception. “The party officials with whom we engaged for so many years, in so many different dialogues, were just great at stringing us along and holding the carrot in front of our donkey noses,” he says.

U.S. engagement “underestimated the will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to constrain the scope of economic and political reform,” concludes a White House report on China strategy published in May.

Read the rest here.

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Tyson does an excellent job reconstructing the rosy assumptions of US post-cold war policymakers regarding China “evolving” toward, if not liberal democracy, a mellower state increasingly incorporating western notions about liberal markets and rule of law domestically while becoming a responsible global citizen internationally. McMaster deserves plaudits for pushing a (very) long overdue strategic reassessment of China’s ambitions abroad and the nature of the regime at home. Ironically, McMaster’s difficult tenure at the NSC probably would have been far more successful in most regards in a “normal” Republican administration like that of Ford or either Bush but would never have succeeded in revising China policy with an establishment administration. While it is fashionable today to express bipartisan skepticism of China now, prior to Donald Trump taking office, the DC foreign policy consensus backed by corporate America was to ignore Beijing’s insults and provocations, no matter how outrageous, when not actively rewarding them. That’s an uncomfortable fact to discuss in a polarized campaign season, but a fact it remains.

Since McMaster left the administration, Xi’s regime has engaged in mass incarceration of the Uighurs, built the most advanced surveillance state in human history outside of Orwell, engaged in border disputes with most of its neighbors, including India, crushed Hong Kong, stretched it’s Party and secret police hands to university campuses in Western democracies and is currently threatening – loudly – to invade Taiwan. One would hope that regardless of the outcome of the presidential election that the new consensus to stand firm against Chinese belligerence will hold firm in Washington and that Xi’s regime will be measured by it’s actions as well as it’s chronically unfriendly words.

If not we will come to rue it sooner rather than later

Exiting From Hegemony on the Break it Down Show

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

[Mark Safranski / zen ]

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Exit From Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order

I had the pleasure of joining Break it Down Show host Pete Turner in interviewing Dr. Alexander Cooley and Dr. Daniel Nexon, authors of Exit From Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order. Cooley is Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute of Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies while Nexon Associate Professor Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (Dan also blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and was the founder of the well respected group blog, Duck of Minerva). The two IR scholars have written a tightly argued, scholarly book regarding the potentially seismic shifts underway in the American-led liberal order and the potential directions a “post-hegemonic” world may take.

Without spoiling the show that I hope you will tune into below, Exit From Hegemony blends theory with contemporary geopolitical trends, strategic threats to “exit” the status quo posed by illiberal great powers of rising China and a waning Russia, transnational far-right (and far-left) populism and the role of America since the end of the Cold War up to and including the Trump administration. It’s a fascinating read an illuminating conversation.

“The Gold Standard of Dictatorships”

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

[mark safranski / “zen“]

The Hoover Institution interviews historian Stephen Kotkin about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Kotkin, a professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University,  is 2/3 of the way through writing his three volume biography of the life and times of Stalin. The first two volumes are each groundbreaking and monumental and if the third is their equal then Kotkin will have written the definitive work in the field.
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Stalin’s only true peers are Hitler and Mao. Kotkin’s second volume – subtitled Waiting For Hitler – does not seek to reprise Alan Bullock’s work or those of Richard Overy or Robert Gellately – Hitler is important not as a direct comparison to the Soviet dictator but as a geopolitical and military threat posed by Nazi Germany with which Stalin was forced to account even as he pursued his internal purges or faced military provocations by Imperial Japan. Stalin feared Hitler and admired him in a backhanded way without really understanding the Fuhrer. In Hitler’s shoes, Stalin never would have gambled so recklessly and most of his brutal policies were bent toward increasing Soviet security as he saw it, even devastatingly counterproductive ones like the purges or the Winter War.

Hat tip to Scott Shipman

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928    Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941

Manea interviews Bob Work at Small Wars Journal

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Octavian Manea interviews former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work for Small Wars Journal. Work, generally regarded as a straight shooter and smart Pentagon insider, served in this position both for the Obama and the Trump administrations and is also a former Undersecretary of the Navy and CEO of CNAS.

The Role of Offset Strategies in Restoring Conventional Deterrence 

Manea: Usually when we are talking about the Cold War, the first thing that we think in terms of a strategic framework is containment. But what has been the role the offset strategies played in the broader Cold War competition? In 1997, William Perry made an interesting observation that I think is worth reflecting on: “these strategies, containment, deterrence and offset strategy were the components of a broad holding strategy during the Cold War. I call it a holding strategy because it did not change the geopolitical conditions which led to the Cold War, but it did deter another World War and it did stem Soviet expansion in the world until the internal contradictions in the Soviet system finally caused the Soviet Union to collapse. The holding strategy worked.”

Work: As Bill Perry suggests, technological offset strategies played an important role during the Cold War. The thinking about offset strategies can actually be traced to WW2. When the United States entered the war, planners concluded that the U.S. would need over 200 infantry divisions and about 280 air combat groups to ultimately defeat the Axis powers. However, U.S. leadership knew that if they built so many infantry divisions, the manpower they would need to work the arsenal of democracy wouldn’t be there. They therefore made a conscious decision to hold the number of infantry divisions to no more than 90 while keeping the 280 air combat groups. The thinking was that a “heavy fisted air arm” would help make up for the lack of infantry parity with the Axis powers.
The “90-division gamble” turned out to be a winner, but it was a close-run thing. In 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army literally ran out of infantry, forcing leaders to rush untrained troops to the front. Despite this, the idea that technology could help offset an enemy’s strength took hold in American strategic thinking. As a result, throughout the Cold War, the U.S. never tried to match the Soviet Union tank for tank, plane for plane, or soldier for soldier. It instead sought ways to “offset” the potential adversary’s advantages through technological superiority and technologically-enabled organizational constructs and operational concepts.

President Eisenhower was well aware of the 90-division gamble. When he became president, he asked how many infantry divisions it would take to deter a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe. Coincidentally, he was told about 90 divisions. Eisenhower knew that having a “peacetime” standing army of that size was neither politically nor fiscally sustainable. To counter Soviet conventional superiority, he therefore opted for what is now thought of as the First Offset Strategy (1OS), which armed a much smaller U.S. ground force with battlefield atomic weapons, and an explicit threat to use them on invading Warsaw Pact forces.
The 1OS strategy worked. We know this because the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies adopted a new campaign design to forestall NATO’s use of nuclear weapons early in a campaign. They planned to conduct conventional attacks in powerful successive echelons to achieve a penetration of the NATO front lines. Once a breach was achieved, an Operational Maneuver Group (OMG) would drive deep into NATO’s rear.  The Soviets believed that once an OMG was operating behind NATO’s front lines, NATO leadership would be dissuaded or incapable of resorting to nuclear weapons. We’ll never know if NATO would have ever approved atomic attacks in response to a Warsaw Pact invasion.  But we do know the 1OS provided a credible deterrent and had a major impact on Soviet thinking.

Fast-forward twenty years…..

Read the rest here

 

REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.


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