The TLS publishes Niall Ferguson’s essay on China: the subtitle tells the reader all she needs to know. ‘The risks China poses to global security’. Old Socialist comments.

Note that the first paragraph of Mr. Ferguson’s essay, is the standard ‘History Made To Measure’ of the Technocrat, when writing propaganda:

It is usually clear when a war breaks out. Even if there is no formal declaration, the work of invasion or destruction begins. The outbreak of war can be given a date, even a time. This is not true of a cold war. We now recall as prophetic Winston Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, in which he referred to an “iron curtain” descending across the European continent “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”. In fact, Churchill was simply giving a vivid name to what was already happening. At the time, however, few Americans shared his pessimism about Soviet intentions. The New York Times’s commentary on the speech implied that the US had to choose between an alliance with the British Commonwealth or one with the Soviet Union, making it seem like a finely balanced choice. And just days before the address, the Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg – who would later play a vital role in the creation of NATO – was still willing to offer Stalin “a direct treaty of mutual defense, under the United Nations”, and to affirm his belief that the US and USSR could “live together in perfect harmony”. Only gradually did it become clear to most Americans that the “cold war” George Orwell had predicted as early as October 1945 – an indefinitely prolonged “peace that is no peace” – was a reality. 

Most threatening when weak?

This paragraph features Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Cold War Speech’. Yet Ferguson’s need for an exemplar of Cold War virtue leads him to forget one of the closely held beliefs of a large portion of Post-War American Conservatism:

Since 1945, and especially during the Cold War, the agreements reached at Yalta have been the subject of subsequent criticism, especially in the United States. President Roosevelt, who died only two months after the conference, was accused by some of handing over Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to Stalin and for allowing the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in the Far East against a promise of Russian intervention in the war against Japan.

Future Secretary of State James Byrnes, who was present at Yalta, recorded in his memoirs that, ‘so far as I could see the President had made little preparation for the Conference’. Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, thought that the President was ‘a very sick man’ with only a few months to live. Churchill was to complain to Moran that: ‘The President is behaving very badly. He won’t take any interest in what we are trying to do.’

But Churchill was also criticised for his seemingly passive acceptance of Soviet domination of Poland and Eastern Europe. In the House of Commons debate on Yalta, 21 Conservative MPs, including future Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, tabled an amendment which regretted ‘the transfer of the territory of an Ally to another power’. Junior minister George Strauss resigned in protest against the government’s policy on Poland.

The reader is just on the first paragraph of Ferguson’s essay. Perhaps he is offering Churchill’s political virtues, in his maladroit way, as rhetorically comparable to his own commentary on the Cold War, in its latest iteration? Expressed in these catch phrases “cool war”, “hot peace”. Who should appear but Henry Kissinger, Ferguson being his Boswell, of a kind.

Yet even Henry Kissinger, who began the work of creating a relationship between Washington and Beijing fifty years ago this month, acknowledged in November 2019 that the two governments were now “in the foothills of a cold war”. Even if they prefer other terms (“cool war”, “hot peace”), a growing number of commentators implicitly accept this – which is to say, they accept that China under Xi Jinping is behaving in ways that recall Churchill’s characterization of the Soviet Union’s “expansive and proselytizing tendencies” under Stalin.

The patient reader will find that Ferguson’s framing is just a highfalutin introduction to a collection of ‘book reviews’ and or just some considerations on books that he is ‘aware of’, and the authors of those books being Policy Technocrats/Academics etc.

Listing these writer/thinkers/academics/technocrats, not to speak of government employees, with Ferguson’s brief and longer comments, is instructive as to ideology. And what our author’s opinion of their book length political commentaries , essays and their theses, for want of a better descriptor.

The One Hundred Year Marathon: China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower (2015) by Michael Pillsbury of the Hudson Institute. 


This, along with Jonathan T. Ward’s China’s Vision of Victory (2019), furnished the administration of Donald J. Trump with a more compelling rationale for its new and a more combative policy towards China than the President’s own quixotic protectionism


American Enterprise Institute’s Dan Blumenthal, who argues in The China Nightmare: The grand ambitions of a decaying state (American Enterprise Institute; paperback, £14.95) that “a Chinese world order would look … like the [Chinese Communist Party’s] China” – “malign”, “repressive” and “reliant on tools of social control, coercion and repression”. 


Rush Doshi’s new book The Long Game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order (Oxford University Press; £21.99), begins with the propositions that China “now poses a challenge unlike any the U.S. has ever faced” and that “Beijing’s ultimate objective is to displace the U.S. order globally … to emerge as the world’s dominant state by 2049”. Of all the books to appear on this subject in 2021, this will be the one most closely read, as Doshi is now the director for China on President Joe Biden’s National Security Council and a protégé of Biden’s “Asia tsar”, Kurt Campbell. 


Elizabeth Economy, recently argued in Foreign Affairs (May 28, 2021) that China is in fact much weaker than it looks, spending $30 billion more on domestic security than on the People’s Liberation Army, the price of keeping an increasingly unequal and fractious population under the Party’s control.


Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s Invisible China: How the urban-rural divide threatens China’s rise – University of Chicago Press; £22 – is not to be missed.)


And Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna noted in a column for Bloomberg (May 27, 2021) that, in terms of wealth and military (especially nuclear) capability, China is still far behind the US. In his view, “manifold internal weaknesses, which range from rapid demographic deterioration to social unrest, ethnic tensions and an inefficient state-capitalist system … will limit the growth of Chinese power”. 


It is a sign of the times that a veteran journalist of the British left, Ian Williams, in his new book Every Breath You Take: China’s new tyranny (Birlinn; paperback, £16.99), should describe the country under Xi as “an aggressive and expansionary power that not only represses its own people but is now the biggest threat to western democracies, their like-minded allies, and to democratic values in general”.


Luke Patey, of the Danish Institute for International Studies, argues in How China Loses: The pushback against Chinese global ambitions (Oxford University Press; £22.99) that it is precisely this kind of sentiment, not only in the UK but in Europe too, that will cause China to lose its bid for world power – “not because it lacks global power … but because the actions and visions of its leaders elicit … pushback across the world”.


Eyck Freymann’s definitive study of BRI, One Belt One Road: Chinese power meets the world (Harvard University Press; £48.95), reveals a motley array of projects wrapped in a great deal of propaganda, sometimes losing money, sometimes losing friends as quickly as it gains them, though Freymann still thinks it “represents a working model for a future geopolitical bloc led by China, structured along the lines of a modern tributary system”. 


In China Coup: The great leap to freedom (University of California Press; £18.99), the former British diplomat Roger Garside imagines a version of the Soviet internal crisis of 1991, with Li Keqiang joining forces with Wang Qishan to overthrow Xi in response to a crisis triggered by US financial sanctions.


On the other hand, Gordon Chang published The Coming Collapse of China in 2001. A compendium of all the articles predicting a Chinese collapse over the past twenty years would be a fat one. 


A year ago, in the National Interest (June 11, 2020), Graham Allison, the author of the hugely influential Destined for War (2017), drew a parallel between US economic sanctions against Japan prior to Pearl Harbor and the current measures directed against China – not so much Trump’s tariffs as the measures targeted against Chinese technology companies such as Huawei. 


In The Great Decoupling: China, America and the struggle for technological supremacy (Hurst; £25) Nigel Inkster – a veteran of UK intelligence now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies – notes that the biggest difference between the Cold War and the present is the extent of the economic interdependence between the US and China, something Trump’s tariffs predictably failed to diminish.


The corollary of decoupling is to restore the US manufacturing base that was so rapidly eroded in the era of what Moritz Schularick and I called “Chimerica”. Clyde Prestowitz’s The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the struggle for global leadership (Yale University Press; £25) proposes a lengthy list of new measures and institutions designed to restore the United States to economic independence and predominance:


It is in this context that Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis’s novel 2034(Penguin; $27) is well worth reading. Stavridis imagines a surprise Chinese naval encirclement of Taiwan as one of the opening ploys of World War III. The US sustains such heavy naval losses in the ensuing maritime struggle that it is driven to hit Zhanjiang (in Guangdong province) with a nuclear missile, which leads in turn to the obliteration of San Diego and Galveston.


“For China to seize Taiwan by force”, Westad has argued, “would be a bit like wanting to fly and jumping off a cliff to prove that it is possible: the war that would follow would be cataclysmic for China and the world”. But Norman Angell made similar arguments about the illusory nature of German aggression just five years before 1914.

I have selected what seemed to me the most viable/readable books and essay titles. Note that ‘Straussian Arguments’ are about exhausting the readers patience, and ability to find a cohesive thread of argument, within the chock-a-block of examples. How can one person, one reader, come to terms with an essay awash in Straussian Bad Faith?

The reader reaches Ferguson’s penultimate paragraph:

In their different ways, many academics, journalists and diplomats aspire to be the Kennan of Cold War II. None of the books reviewed here, however, comes close to the clarity of Kennan’s article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, published in Foreign Affairs a year after Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. It bears re-reading today. “Who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world”, Kennan asked, “is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? … the possibility remains … that Soviet power … bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced”. Some might ask the same question of China today. Yet Kennan was forty-three when he wrote those words and eighty-seven when the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in December 1991. 

Anders Stephenson in his Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy of 1989, offers a more probing and cogent analysis of ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. Mr. Ferguson’s endorsement of something that Kennan eventually repudiated, is demonstrative of Ferguson’s retrograde politics.

Mr. Ferguson ends his teetering rhetorical monstrosity, in this last paragraph, that riffs on a political centrism, that he adopts as the-in-order-too of the care and maintenance of political respectability. Mr. Ferguson and his allies were/are the enthusiastic architects of that New Cold War. The first sentence is self-apologetic in the guise of conjecture.

Just as no one can quite be sure when a cold war begins, nor can there be any certainty about the duration of such a war. Just because Cold War I lasted around forty years is no guarantee that the same will be true of Cold War II. Those making US foreign policy today must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It may indeed be a long game. 

Old Socialist

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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