Leadership starts with end in mind.
The White House may be right in choosing aggressive action against China, but it is certainly not going about it right.
This is the first challenge the US has faced from an aspirational super power in the 21st century. China is not play acting, it wants to lead in vital new technologies – Quantum Computing, 5G, AI – just as it now leads in autos, shipbuilding and fast rail. It is prepared to dishonour accepted legal disciplines of behaviour and trade to do this. It is determined to be the ruler in its own back yard. It is already building a Eurasian coalition that is reaching to the underbelly of Europe itself. It has been thriving on a political system completely at odds with US democracy. And so far repeated US efforts at soft deplomacy have not achieved much.
Yet right now China is not a fully fledged super power and it faces significant and complex domestic challenges. Its economy still growing strongly, is nevertheless slowing down. Its growth is being slowed further by the trade wars. Hong Kong is only one manifestation of the political challenges the totalitarian system may face over the coming years.
So the White House saw an opportunity to try belligerence as a means of getting China’s attention – and it did no harm that this played well with the unthinking and simple folks who support the President.
Here are some of the worries:
– Nations such as China, that are run as totalitarian sovereign dictatorships have the advantage of being able to focus enormous treasure on selected programs. The Dictators have less short term timing challenges. They do not face a fresh election each year. Few democratically elected leaders enjoy the totalitarian’s single minded power, degree of available treasure or the ability to think and act long term – in any straight confrontation China will simply spend more, focus more and wait out the US – all three factors, spend, focus and time, are on its side.
– Totalitarian nations control the news – democratic leaders cannot do this. They must answer daily to the enervating questioning of their voters and their press.
– China is in fact not weak – it is already a superpower in many highly relevant respects. It is the world’s leading market for cars, luxury goods, food, power supplies and a massive investor in international economies. It will be hard to win a consensus against so welcomed a trade partner as the cost emerges to each nation of US bellicosity.
– Before China “get’s it”, it will need to be surrounded by a caolition of allies, all seeking a new and agreed relationship with the new power, a new understanding that can build on the evident mutual trust the coalition already has within itself. There is no evidence that such a coalition of partners is available. If anything the White House has lost international trust.
– Ultimately playing hard ball is a process of little steps that leads to social suffering, to the collapse of the economy, and to war. Along the way everyone loses. There are no takers for war – this is a highly flawed strategy. It is posturing for stakes that would be too high even for a sophisticated, experienced and life time trained expert administration. They would need extraordinary perseverence and cohesion to negotiate the minefields ahead. They would have to deal with the unexpected consequences of trade tariffs reducing world GDP. They would need the cultural skills to create and hold the attention of a winning coalition of allies. They would need the resiliance to manage the sudden shows of careless impertinences from adversaries such as N. Korea’s missile testing, or China’s investments in Germany and Greece. Above all they would need the full support of both sides of the House.
It would indeed be a team of remarkable equals – a collaboration of trust, knowledge and experience.
Such a White House team is not a working reality.
Indeed as the WSJ showed yesterday in a remarkable piece of journalism, there is little team or experience at all – let alone expertese. The churn within the White House means two thirds of its national cabinet appointments have been removed in the last 18 months. Uncertainty has become the bottom line and “uncertainty” in geo-politics is not a good thing.
The US foreign policy is flawed. Its leadership is unfit for purpose.*
Have a good day, James.
* for a detailed summary of China’s history and a proposed workable geo-political accommodation see my video “China, the US and World War 111” in www.jamescookenterprises.com and send me your comments.