So there have been a lot of recent articles and media appearances. When I started this Substack, I was hoping to have more time to work on some unique essays that are important and of interest to me but might not necessarily find a place in a normal publication. As it turns out, I have been a bit busy for that, and this week in particular has been full of publications and media appearances. This is a good thing, but fun Substack essays are unfortunately the opportunity cost.
Perhaps the most important publication of the week was an essay for Palladium on what I think is the true nature of the “China problem.” Basically, I reject IR theories that say “great power competition” is inevitable, and also other theories that say China is a uniquely evil state bent on dominating the world. Rather, hostilities can be attributed to American domestic pathologies. This is not a matter of America being evil and China being good; a country doesn’t have to be moral to be able to get along with others, it just has to be rational and self-interested, that is, have coherent policy goals that bear some resemblance to the national good, rather than being distorted by some combination of concentrated interests and ideology.
The following passage explains what went wrong with political science analysis that said that because there was a relationship between economic growth and democratization in the past, we were likely to observe the same in the future.
To underderstand the motivations of analysts, think tank fellows, and generals, one must comprehend how they see themselves and the American role in the world. For decades, the ideology of the American government in its dealings abroad has been based on the necessity of creating a liberal democratic world—a necessity which, as the Soviet model proved an ineffective threat and the Cold War ultimately ended, became seen as ever more natural. The assumptions supporting this view have, in various ways, driven American leaders since the post-WWII era.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall increased this confidence. While the possibility of nuclear war had to be managed, and it was assumed that communists might hold on to their captive populations indefinitely, the spread had been contained. During the entire Cold War, the trend was towards more democratic governance and the opening of markets.
The 1990s saw the U.S. engage in what can be described as mop-up operations against the few holdouts against the trend towards democratic capitalism like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Academics even before Francis Fukuyama saw democratization as a natural consequence of people demanding more of a voice in their governments, as incomes rose, and as they became more educated. Countries like Chile, South Korea, and Taiwan seemed to validate this view….
What went wrong with political science models that generalized from a moderately large number of cases in which economic growth led to democratization? To see how they erred, one could imagine a social scientist at the end of the first millennium arguing that the whole globe would become Christian because princes across Europe had all adopted that religion. If statistical models existed then, one could have done a regression and “proved” this hypothesis. The most common statistical models used today rely on the assumed independence of observations. The logic of regression analysis and hypothesis testing as applied to political development says that if we see the same patterns across time and space, then we may be able to infer a causal chain of events.
But the spread of economic and social systems operates in the realm of path dependence and network dynamics. Under this view, the move towards democratization after the Second World War depended on the power and missionary zeal of the U.S. more than the laws of history. If American power declines, its focus on world affairs wanes, or democracy loses its luster due its perceived shortcomings, the connection between economic growth and democratization can break down.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
Staying on the China issue, I have an article in Real Clear Public Affairs about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the 15-country free trade deal agreed to last month, and how it contradicts American perceptions of what is happening in East Asia. Countries are accommodating China, not begging for American help.
If that’s not enough contrarianism for you, I was also on Blogging Heads with Robert Wright, talking again about why there will be no second American civil war. This was really fun. I used to watch Blogging Heads back when the internet was new, before YouTube and podcasts, so it’s cool to be a guest now. Beyond the arguments I made before, I talked about the “pro wrestling” nature of our politics, and how surreal it is that our debates really aren’t about all that much. See here if you prefer to listen to the podcast.
I also got to talk about it on The Hill TV, and on the Realignment podcast. The hosts on both these shows told me that the report fundamentally changed their views on how politics work, and that’s very high praise for a writer. Telling people what they want to hear is easier, but CSPI is banking on there also being a market for those who want to be challenged, and understand the world as a step towards ultimately making it better.