No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?

The Secret Orientalism of Martin Jacques

Writing for the BBC, Marxist journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, joins the most important discussion foreign policy elites will have in the next ten years — how will China behave as a superpower?  Sadly, Jacques begins well, talking about the weight of China’s population upon the country’s massive economy, but then immediately falls into the same trap as Pankaj Mishra, namely, recycling the Chinese government’s own narratives about Chinese history rather than doing critical research.

The milk of Jacques’ argument begins to turn sour around this point in the article:

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

If we hold China to the same standards that America and Britain have been held to by the left, then its cultivation of client states in Africa and Southeast Asia is precisely that —  a neo-colonial power.  If, on the other hand, we discard dependency theory as warmed-over Marxism and look at China through a traditional realist lens, Chinese behavior in Africa is balancing behavior, not neo-colonialism.

And while I’m sympathetic to this argument, I can’t imagine that Jacques or other admirers of China in the new left would excuse Western behavior the same way Jacques is prepared to make excuses for China.  This is, as we shall see, the key flaw in Jacques’ argument.

We continue:

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t.

These passages are bizarrely, totally, wrong.

For starters, China, like Russia, India, and the United States, is a continental empire-state.  All of these countries grew out of a strong core nation that, after acquiring sufficient resources, proceeded to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations until obtaining a large contiguous landmass with fairly stable natural borders (e.g. mountains, rivers, seas).  Colonialism doesn’t enter into the picture like it did for, say, Belgium, because an empire-state has enough resources within its own borders that it doesn’t necessarily need colonies.

Understand that colonies qua colonialism are largely a function of distance.  If a country can control the territory of its neighbors first with puppet governments and increasing military presence, outright incorporation usually follows.  How, for instance, is China’s final incorporation of Tibet — which was an independent country for most of its history — different than what Japan attempted to do in China proper?  In fairness, Jacques goes on to acknowledge the massive growth of Chinese empire during the Qing Dynasty, yet this doesn’t trouble him because China didn’t have any colonies.  Except it did.

Let’s look at just one example.  As any good historian of Vietnam will tell you, the Ming Dynasty spent the early 15th century subjugating Vietnam, which led to a guerrilla war against Chinese occupation — a Vietnamese specialty — and the withdrawal of Chinese forces after their defeat by Vietnamese hero Le Loi.  In summary, the Chinese invaded Vietnam in 1406 and administered the country as a colony for two decades.  Perhaps this doesn’t count to Jacques because the Chinese didn’t move to crush Le’s forces with the totality of their might, but the British don’t get any credit for letting India slip away, so why should China?

Jacques gives himself a little leeway to address the Vietnam case, but never does so directly.  He continues:

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

What we see here is that Jacques, the Marxist, begins to paper over classical power relations where China is concerned, and Jacques, the Orientalist, begins to raise his ugly head.  Focus on the Chinese tributary system as a kind of benign empire that doesn’t carry the taint of colonialism was also a thrust of Mishra’s piece, so allow me to quote Dan Trombly’s excellent response to Mishra:

[C]onsidering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

We should also remember that many of modern China’s territorial claims, including settled questions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Chinese nationalist fantasies of seizing the Korean peninsula and Okinawa, are based on these lands once participating in the tributary system under their former feudal rulers.  A troubling paradigm within official Chinese scholarship treats Chinese vassal states as the equivalent of Chinese territory, and China’s neighbors understand that when China engages in political archaeology such as the Northeast History Project, the goal is the Sinification of the past to achieve the Sinification of the future.

Returning to the article, Jacques outlines the staggering reach of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and contrasts it to humble Ming Dynasty China, which, as we have already seen, was not as benevolent as Jacques would have his readers believe.  (An aside here for my materialist friends:  how much of the power wielded by Western imperialists, compared to the Chinese 300 years earlier, was actually a function of technology rather than ideology?)  Consciously or not, Jacques reiterates Chinese national propaganda about Zheng He, the “can-do eunuch”:

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

This account of Zheng He, which closely follows the official Chinese history, would have us believe two things:  that Zheng He’s expeditions didn’t have a military function, and that the Ming saw the Chinese diaspora as pariahs.  As for the first point, history records that Zheng He was as much an enforcer of Chinese hegemony — a MacArthur figure, if you will — as he was an explorer.   His fleets pursued pirates throughout Asia, and in Sri Lanka he led the Ming forces in a two-year war against the kingdom of Kotte, installing a puppet ruler who was deposed by the Sri Lankans in 1414.  Rather than piracy, it seems the Chinese fixation on Kotte — they had invaded under the Yuan Dynasty as well — had to do with acquiring the Tooth of Buddha and taking it to China.  (Attempting to steal another country’s artifacts is downright … European.)

As for the second point, Zheng He interacted freely with the Chinese diaspora and they were vital parts of the Ming’s trading network.  If there was any schism between the diaspora and the emperor, it may have been because many of them moved abroad during earlier dynasties.  Zheng He himself referred to these overseas Chinese as “Tang Dynasty men.”  Yet they, along with local peoples in Southeast Asia, venerated Zheng He, which undermines Jacques’ characterization of overseas Chinese, and also calls into question the next passage:

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

Zheng He, while not being a hero of colonial expansion per se, is certainly a hero of hegemonic power.  His are not the only statues of a maritime hero one finds in China, however.  Monuments to Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga, have been erected throughout coastal China as well as in Taiwan.  A Ming loyalist and pirate, Koxinga operated from southern China during the early Qing Dynasty before invading Taiwan in 1661 and overthrowing its Dutch rulers.  With the Europeans out of the picture, Koxinga was left with the task of brutally subjugating the aboriginal Taiwanese — a fact deemed so inconvenient to the official Chinese narrative that the Koxinga scholar Tonio Andrade was told to censor his recent book on the subject or risk being unable to publish a translation in China.

At this point in the article, Jacques makes the correct argument that Chinese rulers remain more internally focused than Western leaders; that, when Xi Jinping becomes president, his agenda “will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.” Jacques also argues, correctly, that Westerners are fixated on exporting their values to the rest of the world.  But he falters when he suggests China is uninterested in spreading its values.  The doctrine of “non-interference,” which Beijing regularly upholds with its UN Security Council veto, is itself a universal value.  The friends Beijing makes through the non-inteference doctrine leads to the contradiction of Chinese becoming more cosmopolitan as the country becomes richer, then looking at their country’s list of allies with shame. And when one of those allies abruptly changes course and becomes freer than China, the envy can be palpable.

Next, Jacques reduces Western influence over the world to a byproduct of Western (read: American) military power and argues,

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The economic power of the ascendant China will unquestionably great, and as Beijing’s shameless monkeywrenching of ASEAN shows, China has already begun to “bend … countries to its will,” but cultural power remains a giant question mark.  Chinese cultural malaise has paradoxically increased even as China grows economically stronger, which suggests that either the patterns of cultural development have changed considerably and thus economy and culture are no longer fungible, or else the current Chinese government, despite its merits, lacks the openness and vision of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  The Chinese critique, from the Heshang documentary series in 1988, to Wolf Totem twenty years later, to Han Han’s writing today, is that, for various reasons, Chinese culture is backwards and lacks vitality.  Perhaps this self-doubt will change “when China rules the world.” Perhaps not.

Martin Jacques has no room for Han Han and the fierce urgency of now, though.  By the end of the piece, Jacques the Orientalist is fully in charge, telling us that Chinese have a different way of looking at history:

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

For Chinese peasants and their feudal lords, a century was nothing.  But can we say the same for Han Han’s generation?

Romney Beats Romney, Obama Wins

I tuned into the debate at the halfway mark, just as Romney was giving an effective, soft-spoken critique of Obama’s broken promises. It was the only hit Romney would score on Obama for the next 45 minutes. By the time my C-Span stream cut out during Obama’s closing remarks, it was clear the president emerged the victor in the second presidential debate of 2012.

Obama wasn’t an excellent debater, but he was good. He was engaged, energized, and aggressive — the total opposite of the Obama of the first debate. He was helped by having a center-left New York audience, and also by Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate. He managed a couple of good quips at Romney’s expense, especially when Romney whined about the investments in the president’s pension. And this time, he was aware that he would be seen on the split-screen (and by the audience), so he adjusted his body language accordingly. There was no looking down.

But Obama wasn’t beyond mistakes or stupid arguments, such as saying automatic (not semi-automatic) weapons need to be taken out of the hands of criminals (for those unaware of American law, this is not an actual problem), calling manufacturing jobs high-skilled jobs (they aren’t or else they couldn’t be outsourced to China) or bragging about the growth in American exports (which is more attributable to the historically weak USD than anything else). And on the economy, which will be the most important issue in most voters’ minds, Obama failed to convince people he would be better than Romney — which is pretty remarkable.

Romney’s defeat was not as devastating as Obama’s was in the first debate, but at a time when both campaigns are focusing on the margins, Romney lost valuable ground. I missed both “binders full of women” — the most quotable Romney line/gaffe of the evening — as well as Romney criticizing the Bush administration, which, if Twitter commentary was any indication, was borderline bitter. What I was there for, however, was Romney’s weird stream-of-consciousness answers once Obama knocked him off script.

What will frustrate Republicans the most is how many missed opportunities Romney had. Every time he had a good question or opening, he would mangle his lines or go off on rambling tangents. He was given a chance to criticize the president on Libya, and responded in such a hamfisted way that I can’t imagine him being able to bring it up effectively in the final foreign policy debate next week. He was given a question on immigration that Republicans need to answer, but he focused largely on illegal immigration instead of a comprehensive policy that would talk about enforcement on the one hand and more paths to citizenship on the other. Gun control led to an sloppy invocation of the Fast and the Furious scandal, then a discussion of two-parent families, and Romney’s basic correctness was overshadowed by the awkwardness of the transition.

Finally, Romney’s Lou Dobbs-esque pledge to start a trade war with China was his most annoying position. I can’t believe Romney even believes it, since he defended his personal investments in Chinese companies. Governor Romney would’ve had the sense to call for a balanced relationship with China, as would have businessman Romney, but candidate Romney’s China policy exists in Schumer-Dobbsian anti-China talking point netherworld where constantly repeating “I will label China a currency manipulator on day one!” is a demonstration of strength. Xinhua will not be amused.

On China’s Cultural Malaise

A few months ago I talked with my students about the culture vs. practicality difference between foreign language students in American who study Japanese and those who study Chinese. For better or worse, Japanese classes are filled with otaku and similar cultural aficionados of Japan, while Chinese classes are dominated by business Chinese students and others who want to learn Mandarin as a marketable skill yet care less about Chinese culture.

Students find this trend extremely upsetting whenever I point it out, and even before the whole Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands mess you could get a hate-Japan session going by suggesting that Japanese culture is more popular than Chinese culture abroad. It is, and the Confucius Institutes aren’t going to change that anytime soon. If you think about it, most Chinese language students in the US are actually being pretty “Chinese” about their studies — cutting out the artsy “fat” and focusing on those “meaty” parts of the language needed in their careers. For example, when I taught Chinese English majors I was depressed by how many cared little about English poetry and literature outside of general knowledges needed to graduate from college.

Getting back to my recent students, I made them even more angry by asking which version of the Monkey King is most famous with Westerners. “Stephen Chow’s?” they asked. “Nope, Dragonball Z.” Some gritted their teeth. I pointed out that Japanese culture is a “child culture” which works within a synthesis between China as a “parent culture” and the West as a “neighbor culture.” There’s a similar theory among Chinese Japanophiles that Japanese culture has flourished because it “borrowed” Tang Dynasty culture, and thus the Japanese have actually preserved former Chinese greatness in their own culture.

The Marxist position taken by one of my students in response was that it’s a matter of development, that Chinese culture will grow popular once China is as developed as Japan. But this theory ignores the fact that Japan’s cultural heavy hitters first started appearing in the postwar period, when Japan was far less developed than China today. By now, China ought to have its own Osamu Tezuka, its own Kurosawa. It doesn’t. And, as the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos notes, it doesn’t even have its own PSY.  For some Chinese, that’s cause for shame.

In 2010, the Chinese writer Han Han, reflecting on Chinese soft power or the the lack thereof, argued that if all of your cultural products are based on things written down 2,000 years ago, then your culture is basically dead. It’s true that a lot of Chinese cultural malaise and the constant focus on ancient culture is the result of political self-censorship and direct censorship in mainland Chinese media, which Osnos explores at length with nice anecdotes from Chinese director Lu Chuan, but that can’t explain everything, because Hong Kong and Taiwan — which are as developed as Japan — also lack significant cultural soft power around the world, although they have vast reserves of it to spend in the mainland itself.

The bigger problem is that Chinese culture remains both insular — with taboos about mocking cultural images — and, more damningly, lazy. Hong Kong and Taiwan media magnates rely on “templates” for managing stars’ careers and plotting movies. For instance, a model will appear on TV, release a CD, and then start acting in movies, regardless of her actual talents in these fields. This happens so often that stars have become interchangeable, predictable, and boring. Movies are much the same, especially now that Chinese directors have adorned their films with CGI the way a “new rich” Chinese covers himself in golden baubles.

As for Osnos’ piece, PSY is not a highly representative cultural product of South Korea, so the Chinese Osnos says are soul-searching are doing so based on a false premise. South Korea has, by and large, followed the exact same pattern of “manufacturing” entertainers as China, and Korean films and dramas are filled with an army of cookiecutter stars with lookalike plastic surgery-enhanced faces.  PSY, on the other hand, is sui generis in Korea — polished in a way that looks unpolished, amusingly critical of Korean society, and with a face that sets no Japanese housewives’ hearts-a-flutter. He is, emphatically, not the typical K-Pop artist. And based on news coverage, Koreans themselves are at a loss to explain why PSY has conquered the globe when the Wonder Girls, Jun Ji-hyun, Super Junior, and Rain could not.

Alas, there is no parsimonious explanation of why China has no “Gangnam Style” or why no Chinese director could make Kung-Fu Panda. I admit that economics and “face” is part of it. Once Americans start thinking of China as a rich country they’ll respect China more and come to appreciate Chinese culture. Politics is part of it, too. As I quipped during the anti-Japan riots, protestors calling for a boycott of Japanese cultural products should be protesting SARFT for not allowing Chinese artists to be as experimental as their Japanese (or Korean or American) counterparts.

Ultimately, though, Chinese artists have also succumbed to the laziness that follows economic success. Hong Kong and Taiwanese directors and producers were at their most innovative in the 1970s and 1980s when budgets were tight. Once money flowed freely, they lost the incentive to be creative. Instead, they flooded the market with forgettable, mass-produced, lower quality cultural products.  Why would the mainland be any different from the rest of China?