In “China’s Illiberal Challenge,”
Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner argue that the thrust of China’s threat
to the United States is not the tremendous growth of its economic and
military power, but instead its illiberal ideology [Issue #2].
As to China’s military threat, this is like arguing that the sun is
not dangerous because it can burn you, but rather because it is very
hot. Those who argue that China’s military is a threat do so precisely
because of the ideology that underpins it. If Great Britain’s military
were burgeoning, it would be perceived as an ally and not a threat to
the United States because Britain endorses traditional liberalism.
Conversely, if illiberalism without military might were a threat, the
United States would be looking at serious military challenges from
countries like Turkmenistan and Burma. Here, Barma and Ratner may have
flipped it over, but they are still essentially hammering at the same
old saw. On the question of China’s economic threat, Barma and Ratner
commit two errors. First, they disregard the fact that inter-state
economic threats depend more on where cash is going than on the type of
country it is going to. If Canadian computer companies were securing
the international business that IBM and Microsoft now secure, then
dollars would flow to Canadian, not American, business owners and
employees. Hence, if Chinese companies out-compete U.S. companies for
international business, China will be an economic threat regardless of
its degree of liberalism.
Second, the facts Barma and Ratner cite to demonstrate the
“exportability” of China’s model actually undermine their point.
China’s relationships with states like Kenya and Angola do deserve
scrutiny. But China is not funneling to Angola its illiberalism as a
means of inspiring Angola’s leaders in the way that Montesquieu
inspired Madison. On the contrary, China is funneling to Angola cold
hard cash to build roads, ports, and pipelines. It can do this not
because it is a new paragon of illiberalism, but because it is an
economic power that has cash to send abroad. Again, illiberal countries
that are not economic powers cannot support massive foreign development
projects, and thus cannot use this as a means of monopolizing access to
those countries’ resources.
The fundamental lesson remains that economic reforms are more
essential to poverty reduction and development than reform of
governance. Thus, as Barma and Ratner point out, advocacy for liberal
governance will need to rest on more than its economic promise. How the
West will convince autocratic regimes to reform without this economic
carrot becomes an overwhelming question. But so remain the questions of
how we can prevent China from hoarding global cash flows and becoming
the predominant military power of the Pacific.
I strongly approve of Joel Kotkin’s article
“Urban Legend” [Issue #2]. It is refreshing to read about a pragmatic
plan that will materially improve people’s lives, rather than a
proposal for another sweeping federal bureaucracy to mismanage the
economy or an attempt to blame a social problem on some nefarious group
of people who must be destroyed in political warfare before change is
I am also glad to read a liberal on the subject of urban policy.
Local politics is overlooked far too often in high-level debates, even
though many of the policies that impact citizens most are made in city
councils and state capitals.
The main weakness I see in this article is its quick gloss over
crime and social order. A big draw of the suburbs is safety; families
are afraid of the presence of drug dealers in urban areas, not the
absence of sandlots and playgrounds.
Besides that, the article also lacks a more specific
agenda–”creating jobs for the middle class” is an American sentiment as
old as apple pie. Likewise, Kotkin’s pleas to make government
“efficient” and education “improved” are vague. Nor would it hurt
Kotkin’s article if he mentioned a specific regulatory barrier or tax
that ought to be “reduced.”
I am puzzled about the details of the
economic aid program Peter Beinart envisions in his article “The Right
Stuff” [Issue #2]. The countries of the Middle East are not like
Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa. They are countries with many capable
people and plenty of routinely squandered and underutilized capital,
which are languishing within underproductive economies. For example, it
turns out that many young Muslims, when given the opportunity to get a
university education, choose to study theology instead of engineering,
business, or science.
Beinart’s Marshall Plan notion strikes me as posturing. Aid programs
only work when there is a willing recipient. The Middle East does not
appear to want our charity and does not really need it. (Of course,
this does not apply to Lebanon and Iraq. These places need to be
rebuilt.) Progress happens when people are left alone and enjoy a large
space of time free from violent conflict and meddlesome outsiders.
People can lift themselves up without aristocratic manna from foreign
heavens. But conflict intervention and cultural intrusion tend to
produce reactive responses of resentment, wounded pride and cultural
retrenchment, and retarded progress. Perhaps we should focus more on
simply ceasing to produce bad results, and get out of the way.
Beinart is right about one thing: Terrorists can only thrive in an
environment where they enjoy active and passive support, or at least
feeble resistance. Most of the people of the Middle East would not kill
innocent people themselves. But they agree with the broad agenda of
reclaiming their regional independence and ridding themselves of
foreign masters, controllers, and well-intentioned but culturally
chauvinistic and haughty “benefactors.”
Bow, New Hampshire