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Monday, January 1, 2018
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

Recently I read something about the “Burning Man” festival and movement, about which I knew very little. So I did a search and read up on Burning Man, interested in seeing what the hub-bub is all about. To be honest, Burning Man is not my cup of tea – you’d need a bit more testosterone in your blood than I have to spend two weeks in the Nevada desert asserting your masculinity with survival exercises, construction projects, mystical chanting, mega-artwork, nude body painting, and games and competitions. E.g., one exercise involves man-to-man combat within a “thunderdome”. I don’t think I’d do too well with that.

In one of the articles that I came across, I saw photo of a typical Burning Man exercise – it involved a whole bunch of guys pulling on long thick ropes, moving a huge wooden replica of a Trojan Horse across the desert floor.  (Of course, once night comes, they burn the thing in front of everyone – what else would you do with a Trojan Horse at a “Burning Man” convocation?) That photo got me thinking about the original “Trojan Horse” concept – i.e., a gift that seems totally legit up front, but turns out to be a subterfuge, a disguise for a secret invasion by a destructive force. 
The whole Trojan Horse concept then made me think of modern international politics, i.e. what has been going on between the US and China over the past half century (see Council on Foreign Relations timeline). I.e., we were once sworn enemies, but in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger arranged for some ping-pong team games, Nixon went to China, and over the next few decades, we started trading with and investing in each other, more and more as time passed. By 2000, Congress and President Bill Clinton granted permanent trade relations with China, and thus in 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. Between 1980 and 2004, U.S.-China trade rose from $5 billion to $231 billion; by 2006, China surpassed Mexico as the United States’ second-biggest trade partner; in 2015, China edged out Canada to become the largest partner. The average American consumer today is quite aware that almost everything we buy and use these days, except maybe food, entertainment, vehicles, gasoline and a small handful of other goods and services, are imported from China (and maybe a few other developing nations like Vietnam). China provides us with a whole lot of stuff at minimum possible cost (even after accounting for shipping costs across the Pacific), along with decent quality.

So it would seem as though our nation’s decision to engage with China has been a winner in terms of giving the American consumer more for less. And it has allowed rapid and continuing economic growth in China, transforming that huge nation from a poor and over populated Marxist state into a quasi-capitalist modern power. China turned away from Marxist economics (while still espousing the “theology” of communism), and embraced a hybrid form of capitalism along with a limited expansion of government “liberality” (allowance and protection of individual rights), balanced against continuing government control of many features of both the economy and social / political life. China managed to make good use of its vast, disciplined and relatively talented labor pool while maintaining control of political expression and criticism, leveraging “eastern values” such as respect for authority, elders, and schooling. The people of China appear to desire much less individuality than American culture assumes.

Because of US engagement over the past 50 years, China became an international economic power and invested its profits and earnings heavily into infrastructure, education, science and technology. Today, China is using those strengths to expand its military might and influence. The Chinese government also directs the use of these savings and investments to bolster international influence, e.g. the One Belt One Road initiative. At the same time, the US has become more and more individualistic and less and less collective – and our politicians have responded by cutting taxes, increasing personal freedom (in some ways, e.g. gay marriage and legalizing marijuana), and gutting the central government. During the “China engagement era”, low cost and decent quality Chinese goods spurred economic changes within the US that are turning out to be politically and socially disruptive – e.g., much less manufacturing and thus more regional economic distress and public discontent (especially in the “Rust Belt” states that were heavily dependent upon manufacturing). Other effects include worsening income distribution and fewer opportunities for those without high levels of technical or financial ability and training.

As a result, China continues to grow in international military and economic influence, while the US appears to be slowly losing both. So, with 20-20 hindsight, was expanded trade with China really a good decision? At the time it seemed totally rational – it would increase wealth in both nations, would encourage better relations with China, would remove China from the “Communist block” threat of the 50s, 60s and 70s, and maybe encourage China to slowly give its citizens more rights. But a half-century later, we are seeing domestic and international side-effects that we didn’t anticipate back in 1980 – effects that play into the notion of “the weakening of the US” and the end of the US as the #1 nation. At the same time we are seeing a China that is becoming more aggressive, assertive, less liberal, less cooperative, and more focused on geographic domination . . . It really is starting to look as if the gift of free trade with China and all the affordable consumer goods that it has provided our nation really was a Trojan Horse.

What will be the outcome of these trends in their effect on our economic strength and standard of living? It probably won’t be good for many or even a majority of Americans; the “rust belt” economic trends will continue, with more and more people relegated to being only marginally useful to the modern international economy. And yet, compared with the developing world, Americans remain very individualistic, difficult to manage, asking too high a price relative on their talents, and demanding too high a standard of living (e.g. near-free healthcare) for what they can offer in the workplace. Thus, too many working-age Americans remain partially unemployed or outside the workforce; this trend becomes more apparent outside of the increasingly internationalized urban coastal regions. The unexpected rise of Donald Trump as a national politician and Presidential candidate and his unexpected victory last November clearly had a lot to do with these trends.

Another effect from the Chinese Trojan Horse is the declining international bargaining power of the United States. A recent article in Bloomberg outlined how, the US doesn’t have many cards to play in the world today, including against China (especially with regard to the unruly leader of North Korea), despite recent optimism by Secretary of State Rex Tillitson. Furthermore, China’s growing military might and our continuing dis-investment in military strength (despite cosmetic moves by the Trump administration to reverse this) will make it more and more difficult to geopolitically control China especially in the eastern Pacific basin.

Unfortunately, we can’t roll back the Trojan Horse; our economy is too dependent upon Chinese trade and would be severely impacted by any real move to curtail it. Some quotes from China experts:

China, unknown to many Americans, is our fourth-largest trade partner. There are certainly probably 300,000, 400,000, 500,000 American jobs that are directly dependent to exports to China, and there are some of our most competitive high tech sector. Obviously, given the state of our own economy, we don’t need more unemployment.
But China’s economic importance — particularly to the United States, but the global economy in general — hasn’t been recognized in another way, and that is inter-dependence. Let me just give you a fact that I think is just demonstrative of a larger reality. Eighty-seven percent of the motherboards of computers in the world are made in Taiwan. And of that 87 percent of the brains of a computer, the motherboards made in Taiwan, 50 percent are now made in the PRC, and that industry is even moving more rapidly towards the PRC. So in certain key areas, China’s component manufacturing is absolutely key to a strategic global industry.

To be honest, I don’t see an apparent way out of this. I don’t like being unduly pessimistic, but it appears to me that America’s days of world dominance may be coming to an end, and in the future, our nation may go the route of Great Britain following its fall from empire during and after World War 1. We may still be powerful both economically and militarily, and much of the world still admires our social and cultural moxie — American movies, music, fashion and design are still desired in remote villages in Africa, Asia and South America. BUT we are going to be increasingly subject to being pushed-around by foreign powers and interests. One response might be to go isolationist, to build walls and trade barriers, reneg on our many international military commitments and bring home our troops along with our “blue water” navy, and withdraw into an “America first” fortress. (Which is what candidate Trump talked of, but doesn’t seem to be doing as President.) However, despite saving money on military budgets, international isolation will clearly have long-term economic impacts that will slow or stall American economic growth, and eventually diminish our standards of living.

IMHO, the most realistic option is to accept what is inevitable and manage the decline, try to make the most of what remains. Many people say that this need not happen, that America still has many good cards to play on the world scene. The current trends are thus said to be a temporary crisis, but American democratic and individualistic values will eventually triumph because repressiveness is the Achilles heel (ah, another ancient Greek notion, to go along with the Trojan Horse !) of China, Russia, Iran, and other nations challenging US international dominance and will lead to their downfall. But the populations of these places may have quite different values and historical awareness; what we call repression may be interpreted by the people of such places as national cohesion and solidarity in the face of international dangers.

So, I side with the “American declinism” point of view. I don’t think that its inevitable that we will be conquered and collapse, as happened to the Western Roman Empire, or worn down to nothing over a few centuries, as with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). But in order to make the best of our decline and retain enough strength to remain a significant player on the world scene for the foreseeable future, I believe that we need to start with a frank admission that the glory years for America are coming to an end (and yes, former President Obama was more realistic about this than President Trump). The Chinese Trojan Horse worked. But that doesn’t mean that we must go the way of mythological Troy, either.

But America’s survival will take a sense of renewed interest and pride in the notion of nationhood and citizenship, on the part of all Americans of all colors and gender identification and economic circumstances and political beliefs. Right now, given all the social, cultural and economic divisions in America, that’s looking like a tougher and tougher sell. Can those Burning Men out in the desert help us to find an acceptable 21st Century American identity, one that everyone from Alaska to Florida can embrace, something that both Rachel Maddow and Steve Bannon can agree on? If the Burning Men want a REALLY tough challenge, I’d advise them to take that one on!!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 pm      

  1. Jim, I have to say I do not understand the whole “Burning Man” thing, be it festival or movement. I find myself wondering about men who have a need to “assert” their masculinity. Seems to me it should be self-evident and there not be a need for such an “assertion”. Well, what do I know when it comes to that?

    And as to the metaphor of China being a Trojan horse, I suppose our president might find that an apt comparison.

    There is one thing I think I do understand: Some countries simply have a different view of the individual than others do. China for one is a country where the people generally are willing to put the individual at the service of the country rather than making what the individual wants the primary focus. I have Chinese friends, one of whom some many years ago surprised me when he said that sure, he’d be willing to forego what he wanted to do if the country wanted him to do something else. It surprised me, and I noted the difference between America and China and the individuals within the countries.

    Who is to say one is right and one is wrong. Perhaps both are right.

    And thus, the tho’t that China may turn out to be a Trojan horse with regard to America seems to lose its meaning when one considers the difference in cultures. I think we do not often appreciate the value other cultures have to offer; we are too busy considering that America is the BEST and all others are less good. Here I am not specifically criticizing YOU but thinking about the attitude of the general population of the U.S.

    I then find myself wondering if it would not do the U.S. population well to consider the value other countries have to offer. Perhaps, rather than a Trojan horse, the people of the world in general might think in terms of a “global” cooperative approach to the economy of the world.

    Angela Merkel’s comment, after a couple of meetings with Donald Trump, made the comment that “we’ll have to go it alone”, meaning that Germany would not have the U.S. leading the world.

    Which makes me wonder why the U.S. must lead the world? Maybe it’s time for a “global” approach to the world in general. I’ve often tho’t that the whole concept that de Chardin developed, that of the noosphere would develop first on an economic level. It seems to me that its money that gets people’s attention first. So a global, cooperative approach to the economy may be well worth it.

    Who knows? Maybe both the U.S. AND China would each individually and as countries in their own right learn a lot with a different approach to trade, the economy of the various countries of the world, etc. Each country doing what it does best might have a good influence on what it does best and add something positive to the world in general. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 3, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

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