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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

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part III

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

[Mark Safranski/ zen]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of BooksI will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part III of the series.

Part I can be found here

Part II can be found here

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

….

What the author does not consider is whether those wars suggest a deeper problem, an unspoken or implicit problem, with America and republicanism, that he does not want to address.

 6. Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

Here we start to see that the issue is more than a lament over the electoral challenges or policy proposals for the conservative movement. They are too conservative since they spend their time defending the status quo or tinkering with change. The author wants more, he wants serious and fundamental change. At this point, the question is whether the author is being ironic since he is asking conservatives to seek a fundamental change which would suggest he wants them to start a revolution. He does not explain how one decries the ills of society means that one defends the status quo. The author provides no evidence so we are to take his word that the conservatives defend the status quo. Except that they don’t but that is not a concern to the author since he has a point to make. Instead of trying to conserve institutions, rule of law, or the norms that sustain decent politics, the author lets us know that we must embrace a candidate who will challenge, change, or even undermine these institutions and norms so that conservative ideals can be encouraged if not enforced through electoral victory because no one else is serious about doing something “truly fundamental”. In a strange way, conservatives are to be as much social engineers as the “progressive” they appear to denounce. In this approach, we start to get a sense that the problem isn’t a specific political policy or norm, the problem for the author appears to be what is fundamental about America. Will the author explore this question? Will he get to the heart of the matter?

7. If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff. 

Despite the promise that something fundamental is at stake, we get the warmed-over platitudes that have been presented at any number of elections for the past 50 years if not the past 100. These are not the fundamental questions that face America for they are the same questions we have faced and answered since the founding. Even if the conservatives are right they are not necessarily going over a cliff because they can be right in principle but not application. We can have immorality on a large scale and still have a decent society. As should be readily apparent to any political thinker all societies contain contradictions so that it is not an axiom that if the conservatives are right on their preferred areas that America is going over a cliff. The first problem is that conservatives cannot even agree if they are right about what they are proposing. Moreover, the different policies they propose often conflict with each other when they have to be applied. The author says that conservatives want better schools and they want a smaller government. At the same time, they want a strong defence and a smaller government. Yet, none of these are issues that have been resolved as they remain questions for each generation to answer. America’s strategic situation is not fixed as the threats it faces and the opportunities it seeks change. They are not what challenges America to its core nor are they *the* core question that the conservative movement faces. The cliff the conservatives face is not a policy mix or even the next election, but the author never explores that since he is only concerned with scoring political points and not stopping America from going off the cliff it was truly going over a cliff.

If America was really going over a cliff, it raises the question of when it started. Did America really start going over the cliff in 2008 when President Obama came into office? Did the issues that conservatives lament only begin then or did they begin in 2001 or did they begin sooner or have they always existed because they represent core questions about what it means to live as we do and cannot be resolved definitely?

Let’s look at the list of what the conservatives might be right about to indicate America is going over the cliff.

  1. virtue, 
  2. morality
  3. religious faith, 
  4. stability, 
  5. character
  6. if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; 
  7. if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia;
  8. if they are right about societal norms and public order;
  9. if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society;  
  10. if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions;
  11. if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere

If they are right or wrong about these issues, they must convince the public that they are right and why the are right. In doing this, they must put together policy proposals that accord with the political institutions, the constitution, to ensure that any changes they propose are legitimate and sustainable. If they are truly about the common good, then they need to demonstrate or at least convince the public to vote for it locally, at a state level, and at a federal level.

If America is going over the cliff why are the conservatives, why is the author, apparently the only ones who can see it? It seems strange that the rest of the country is blind to this or unaware of it. 

8. But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff. A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.

The author wants to claim that America is beyond renewal except if Trump is elected. He will accomplish what no one other conservative has been able to accomplish. How the author knows this is uncertain, yet that is his claim. Trump has displayed no insight into politics or America nor has he ever held an elected office yet he is going to be the one to enact *the fundamental change* that conservatives need and none have been able to deliver. 

What is unexplained and is alarming is that the American people, including conservatives, have gone along with this corruption. The unspoken theme throughout this article is that the American people are simply passive, almost unwilling, participants. Except that they are not. The American people have consistently chosen what they want. We may not like their choices but they have decided. To suggest, as the author does, is that they are the deceived, the rubes in this great game is something disturbing. What it suggests is that the conservative movement has been part of this great game but only it is the virtuous one or more precisely it is only Trump as the conservative saviour who knows this and will succeed where other politicians and presidents have failed. Trump alone can renew conservativism, but most importantly he will reform America by stopping and rolling back the “tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption.” If only that were true. What is surprising is that any candidate that demonstrates the dysfunction, immorality, and corruption of America that the conservatives preach against, it is Trump. Time again he has proudly demonstrated his immorality “I would date my daughter if she wasn’t my daughter”. He has displayed his corruption where he famously promises to pay the full amount only to pay the mount minus the potential legal costs to the supplier which forces them to accept the lower amount as it will cost them more in legal fees to get the difference between the promised amount and the offered amount. He has demonstrated dysfunction as his family and his businesses demonstrate dysfunctionality as many of his brands have failed and his failed university ended up settling a 25 million dollar fraud case out of court. Yet, the unstated thought is that the people may be the virtuous ones and the conservatives and the progressives have been out of touch with America and what the American people have wanted. The author never explores that possibility. Trump, though, is not the answer.

How can Trump be the solution when the author’s lament is that Conservatives typically combine “the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable.” Is there any better description of what Trump promised and has delivered? The only thing that is missing from his description is incompetence which Trump has delivered. By contrast, the previous conservative Presidents or at least with the largest element of conservative ethos and policy, of which Reagan is held to be the paragon, demonstrated a hard-headed understanding of what they could deliver with the political pragmatism based on compromise. Above all, though these administrations, unlike the conservative commentators cheering from the side lines, demonstrated competency, which now seems less important than commitment or loyalty as if the means to power determines the ends to power since the only goal is power yet we know that power without purpose is something conservatives have always, or at least before Trump, decried. Perhaps, we have to accept that whatever Trump can deliver is considered worth supporting him though his inexperience suggest that he will deliver less politically, which means effecting lasting positive change, that is starting policies and programmes that reflect a vision for America as opposed to a negative change which is about stopping what previous presidents have done as if that is a positive change, than truly transformational presidents like Reagan, LBJ and FDR. 

At the same time, pre-Trump commentators did not hold the American public in such contempt by dismissing them all as immoral, dysfunctional, and corrupt. Moreover, one would not find Clinton making those claims about the American public. If a statesman is one who can weave together a web of politics to protect the community, that is to protect and promote the common good, then we must ask how Trump demonstrates that aspect of statesmanship if his policies, personality, and pronouncements are divisive? Instead of uniting the country or seeking a higher consensus through which a new vision for American can emerge, he has sought discord with a clear appeal to his faction as the expense of all others. In that sense, he operates a form of trickle-down politics in the sense that if he deliver for his faction, in particular the corporations, the rest of the country will receive whatever secondary benefits trickle down from what has benefitted his faction and his party.

End Part III.

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part II.

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

[Mark Safranski/ zen]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of BooksI will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part II of the series.

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

Part I can be found here

[continued]

4. Not to pick (too much) on Kesler, who is less unwarrantedly optimistic than most conservatives. And who, at least, poses the right question: Trump or Hillary? Though his answer—“even if [Trump] had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s”—is unwarrantedly ungenerous. The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—immigration, trade, and war—right from the beginning.

The author suggests that Charles Kesler understands this choice and although he does not openly declare for Trump, he accepts that his policies would be sounder than Hillary’s. What is curious is how Kesler knows that Trump will be sounder given that he has no experience and presents quixotic opinions about America, what the Federal Government can do, as well as what is best for America. Moreover, neither the author nor Kesler appear to provide any basis for determining why Trump would be sounder than Clinton on policy choices except that Trump is not Clinton. Although the author gently chides Kesler for being “unwarrantedly ungenerous”, that does not mean that he disagrees, only that it is not warranted in being ungenerous. However, the author does not examine Kesler’s claim, which is a good example of political rhetoric because it sounds good and satisfies most listeners, especially those already pre-disposed to oppose Clinton and to promote Trump as a viable alternative by saying he (possibly any candidate) cannot be as bad as Clinton. By his failure to examine the evidence for Kesler’s statement, or to consider their policies, the author does a disservice. What is surprising is that if this is the level of analysis for how one studies statesmanship, that is it is about political rhetoric to flatter an audience so as to confirm one’s prejudices and not provide a standard to judge a statesman, what is the point of studying statesmanship? Trump as a candidate has displayed none of the characteristics traditionally identified with statesman. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has and even if her statesmanship is not of a high quality, she does possess the necessary characteristics of a statesman.

As Kesler does not explain what Trump is sounder about, the author argues that Trump has sounder opinions or policy proposals about immigration, trade, and war. This triumvirate is important for several reasons as they reveal what the author’s intent is. The author will develop them, but it is worth noting that two of them are explicitly about foreign policy and the third, immigration, while mainly about America’s appeal, is also about foreign policy. If we were reaching the EoH, then we would expect that immigration would actually cease for the Hegelian world state, as predicted by Kojeve, would not see a need for immigration or migration since equal recognition and comfortable self-preservation would ensure a universal society. (one notes in passing that the author has no problem with America migration, only the dreaded immigration) The triumvirate is also important for two further reasons. First, as they relate to foreign affairs they are areas where the president possess the least constrained authority. Second, quite curiously considering the rest of the essay, they have very little to do with the domestic realm except for the sense that the domestic realm creates a demand, for immigrant labour, for foreign goods, and for a well ordered republic. Yet, this triumvirate has a dark side.

5. But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

What is surprising for a student who took Charles Kesler’s Cicero course at Claremont, is the claim that conservatives no longer see anything bad happening to the republic or the West. The “Crisis of the West” is practically a Strauss trade mark. Leaving aside that obvious point, the paradox raises some questions. First, who are these conservatives? Are these the ordinary conservatives mentioned at the start or the extra-ordinary conservatives or simply the abnormal ones? If the author is a conservative, then is he included in this litany of ills? If he does, then can he explain his time justifying the Iraq War and the pre-emptive war that has transformed the republic as that would be a clearer threat to the republican ethos than a symptom like Trump or even Clinton’s policy proposals. More to the point, what does victory look like in these wars against “sub-Third World” [sic]? One wonders if he expects a victory as decisive with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy. If he is, then he seems unaware of how warfare has changed since the enemy’s centre of gravity does not exist in the same manner that allows decisive defeat as it is not linked to a state. Perhaps what the author is suggesting is a subtle critique to that the dichotomy that created the idea of the Third World is no longer appropriate for there is no difference between America and Russia as there once was during the Cold War.

If we look at his list of ills, which appear to be a sub-category within his concern for trade, immigration, and war, they tell us something about the author’s intent. 

  1. Illegitimacy. 
  2. Crime. 
  3. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. 
  4. Politically correct McCarthyism. 
  5. Ever-higher taxes and 
  6. ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. 
  7. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. 
  8. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. 

 

Except for the seventh ill, the other seven are focused on the domestic realm and they are not areas where Trump has offered anything new or noteworthy. Moreover, Trump has demonstrated, through his own behaviour and attitude a certain equanimity if not embrace of these issues since he proudly and unapologetically enjoys fornicating. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has worked her whole political life to deal with these issues. She has held elected office to deal with these issues and in that role has proposed and passed legislation to deal with them. Yet, it is her policies which are unsound?

As for his eighth ill, it is almost a cliché. One wonders if the author is an old man shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. Yet, here we are. One of the ills facing America is that the youth of today are rebellious, uneducated, and ill-disciplined.

If we focus on the wars, we return to a question that the author does not want to address. Does he mean only since 2001 to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or does he mean since 1945? From the context, it appears the issue is with wars fought since 2001 or the greater reach of American foreign policy because of the attack on 11/9. If that is the case, it raises the question of why the author, who was in the Bush administration after 11/9, is now concerned about the inability to “win” these wars. Does he disagree with the response to 11/9? It seems curious that an author who presents the Flight 93 election, which was part of the 11/9 attacks, would dismiss American foreign policy that was a response to the attacks without explaining what alternative he would support or explain what it means to “win”. He seems to find fault with Bush and Obama’s response. Would he have counselled a different response to 11/9? If so, what would he have America do? Shrink from the fight or resort to nuclear weapons to settle whatever the issue? Yet, he was part of the administration that conducted the response to the 11/9 attacks and he did not resign from his post. The other ordinary and extraordinary conservatives who supported the Bush response to 11/9 did not question the war or the strategy. Perhaps, these conservatives are fair weather ones who want to be there when the trumpets sound but shrink away when caskets and injured return.

End Part II.

Footnotes

 4. Trump’s policy proposals can be found here: https://www.politiplatform.com/trump/all  . Clinton’s can be found here: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/ 

5. The author seems naively unaware of where the term Third World originates, which is surprising. The first world was capitalist, the second world was the communist bloc and the Third World were the non-aligned developing countries, mainly in Africa, South, and South- East Asia. As such, there cannot be a sub-Third World for a fourth world country would not be able to exist outside the typology he has chosen.

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part I. : The Reichstag is always Burning

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

[Mark Safranski / zen ]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted.

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

The Flight 93 Election

By: Publius Decius Mus

September 5, 2016

On 5 September 2016, a writer under the pseudonym of Publius Decius Mus, wrote a defence of Trump which was also an extended meditation on the American conservative movement. Although not aware of it, the author was engaging in the age old American practice of the jeremiad, the difference, though, was that it was a European jeremiad, not an American one as it addresses the problem but offers no solution. Or, in this case the author offers a solution that is worse than the problem.

The following is an extended commentary on the essay, which hopes to honor the author’s wish to be flayed in the public domain.

  1. 2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Like my title, the author’s was hyperbolic and like his, my title serves a purpose. It is to warn the reader that we cannot always believe the Reichstag is burning, that each election is a democratic Gotterdammerung for the conservative movement if not America, in part because one can find this language in nearly all elections going back to the founding. A cursory reading of J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, would show that republics are always unstable, surging with democratic thymos, virtù as well as their corruption, since they seek to maintain a bounded

space within time fully conscious that they may share the fate of their predecessors. Yet, the American Republic is different and it is this difference the author does not acknowledge or simply declares is no longer material which causes us to consider the author’s intent.

The author seems intent on arguing that both choices are bad with one choice worse than the other simply because of what it means for conservatives and by extension America, which seems to invert the normal understanding that what is good for America should be good for conservatives but that seems at a level of nuance beyond the author’s intent.

If we start with the opening sentence, we find an unsettling proposal. If this is the Flight 93 election, then the airplane is America and the pilot is POTUS and the cockpit is the government. The author suggests that America has been hijacked and that would mean that the sitting President was an Al Qaeda terrorist intent on killing the nation that is crashing the plane. Why would we start with that premise? How can a responsible person, let alone a publication like the Claremont Review of Books, publish something as irresponsible as this and still seek to portray itself as sober, serious, and scholarly in its work to understand and promote statesmanship and its study? The author wants his readers to take his writing seriously, yet he starts with a premise that is simply unsustainable and is deeply insulting to the American people. He is suggesting that the President who was twice elected by large majorities and was responsible for the country’s national security and its general wellbeing, for which he and his administration did an honourable job in delivering, is the equivalent of an Al-Qaeda suicide attacker. Are we to understand that this is the level of debate and argument which is now worthy of being promoted and celebrated by the Claremont Review of Books and those who support it? If this is the case, then what evidence does the author have, beyond disagreeing with policy decisions, that the President and his administration are Al-Qadea operatives?

The author does not elaborate on this possibility and moves to exploring the core issue: the choice between Trump and Clinton. 

    2.  Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

Leaving aside the idea that playing Russian Roulette with a semi-auto is simply guaranteed suicide which begs the question of the comparison since the game is played with the same weapon. You don’t get to choose which weapon you want to use for your turn in Russian Roulette. In any case, the author wants us to know that both candidates are a potential disaster, if not a certain disaster. It has been a long time since we had a election like this one. One could only point to the nearest equivalent, in modern era, of Nixon vs McGovern or, if you are of a certain persuasion, even Nixon vs Kennedy, to see the choice that the country faces. What is clear though is that one of the choices was not a politician who had held an elected office.

Once we understand that the choice is between an experienced politician and an amateur, we must consider the nature of the organisation that published this essay. The Claremont Institute is nominally dedicated to the study of statesmanship, which requires one to have an understanding of what statesmanship means, how to recognize its appearance and absence. In other words, if we are to understand or study statesmanship we have to be able to differentiate between better and worse statesmanship. We would expect this from the essay, so that we could understand what the election means as well as what the candidates represent, but will we find that in this essay? 

 

      3. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!

Here the author starts to explore the conservative movement’s strange genealogy. He states that there are ordinary conservatives so there must be extraordinary ones or abnormal ones. Who are these extraordinary conservatives, these uber-conservatives who will give us the new conservative values? Who will admit to being the abnormal conservative? Are these the Trump supporters? Will it be such men as Publius Decius Mus, for they alone have the courage to see and speak about what others cannot or will not see or speak about. Moreover, do they have the virtù to make it happen? Strangely, though he invokes Hegel as if this is the moment when history ends, not 1989 but 2016 is the EoH. I wish someone would make up their mind since we were told that it was originally 1805. Perhaps the EoH like treason is a matter of dates. In any case, the author chides those, like the late Harry Jaffa, who believe that all human outcomes remain possible, for there is no tomorrow if Hilary is elected. It would appear that we can expect a 1000 year progressivist Reich to begin with her election, which neither the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, nor the people could resist. Except the American regime is based on the idea that no election ever ends history since the process is that renews America and provides her vitality since its political institutions are based on the idea that elections every two years allow the people in their wisdom to change course by changing their elected representatives. In their choices they are guided by the United States Constitution which acts like a sheet anchor to steady the country’s path.

The challenge, though, according to Charles Kesler and the author is that America is in crisis. For a writer who uses an ancient Roman general as his pseudonym, this claim seems ahistorical. The question to ask is: “When has the Republic *not* been in crisis?” A cursory reflection on republics, as even Publius understood in the Federalist Papers, would indicate that republics are always on the brink of crisis for they are a dynamic entity that thrives on crisis for renewal. Every four years America undergoes a political revolution. How can we say a country is not in crisis when it has a revolution every four years? However, there is something different with this election. There is something that is important. It is the choice between Hilary and Trump. The choice, though, is not a choice in a strict sense, but the author does not notice that or if he noticed it, he chose to overlook it once he has mentioned it.

End Part I.

Footnotes:

 

  1. Mus was inspired by a religious dream. One has to ask whether the person who used him as a pseudonym has similar religious belief. If he had, would he have written this approach that presents an end of the world scenario.
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Stephenson-t.html
  3.  A jeremiad is a political sermon designed to criticize those who have fallen away from the path of righteousness. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, there are two kinds of jeremiad, the American and the European. An American jeremiad promises, and is infused with the belief, that future success will occur so long as the audience accepts the necessary reforms. The American jeremiad is optimistic in its promise. By contrast, the European jeremiad is pessimistic in that it does not suggest that reforms will return the righteous to the promised destination. The European jeremiad addresses the problem but offers no final salvation.  Bercovitch, in modifying the work of Perry Miller, differentiates between an American Jeremiad focusing on renewal within the promise and potential of America against the more pessimistic and anxious European Jeremiad. In this typology, Kissinger’s jeremiad would be European because his anxiety over the United States’ future belies a belief in its power to renew itself and the world. Kissinger believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent problem and that the United States’ could only hope to adapt to its diminished role. He did not see the possibility that the United States could achieve more than the modest goal of reducing tensions with the Soviet Union and stabilizing the international system. For a careful assessment of Miller and for Bercovitch’s variations on Miller, see Francis T. Butt, “The Myth of Perry Miller” The American Historical Review 87, no. 3. (Jun., 1982): 665-694.

 

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.


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