James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Copenhagen

  • What happened in Copenhagen, #4

    Previously here. Three more accounts today. I hope to have a report from another Inside Observer by this evening, and then it will be time to wrap things up.

    - What about Obama? From a reader in Europe:

    "A familiar situation. When all are to blame, each of the culprits tries to point the finger at the one, only, uniquely blamable fiend who spoiled it all. Personally, in this particular circumstance I found the US President's decision to arrive at the last minute and put on the pretense of saving the day as objectionable as the resistance of the Chinese to discarding Kyoto and being blamed as the main destroyers of the planet's climate balance. What about an equally penetrating inquest on the true motivations and behaviour of the US and other key Western delegations?"

    Fair question. My initial reply, subject to amendment below as noted, is: Whatever one thinks about the theatrics of Obama's last-minute intervention, there does not seem to be much mystery about his motives. He was trying to show his "relevance" and influence over world affairs -- remember, this was one week after his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; he was trying to build momentum for one of this year's upcoming and difficult legislative battles, the climate/energy bills left over from last year; he may have been trying to show that his talks with the Chinese leadership during his much-maligned Asian trip would really pay off. (The long-term tests of a Chinese-US understanding will also involve whether they are able to find common ground about Iran, North Korea, currency values and general economic rebalancing, on top of these crucial environmental/ climate questions.) I don't know of a worldwide burble of curiosity and confusion about what Obama was "really" trying to do in Copenhagen, comparable to the effort to interpret the Chinese strategy.

    - "Extreme outburst." An expat reader in Beijing writes to comment on the line from Kenneth Lieberthal's analysis, which includes this line, "The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama." The reader adds:

    "This really caught my attention - hard to imagine a Chinese official shouting at a foreign head of state!  

    "So, I checked and in the Chinese media it was reported that representatives of Brazil, India and South Africa were meeting privately with Wen Jiabao and the Chinese team, when Obama "impolitely" ( "失礼") [shiji - rudely, lacking manners] entered the meeting uninvited. The Director of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, Jie Zhenhua, gestured and exclaimed, "Get out!"  to Obama. Premier Wen then instructed the translator not to translate this 'extreme outburst' and personally left the room in order to speak with Mr. Obama. See http://www.chnqiang.com/article/2009/1222/mil_12610.shtml. [A nationalist-toned site called 强国网.] Sounds like Premier Wen was very diplomatic.
    "The headline for the piece suggests that at least in certain quarters, Xie's actions were viewed positively:  中国雄起:铁血解振华愤怒指着奥巴马命令其出去!  Something like "China's Might Rises Up: Valiant Xie Zhenhua Angrily Points at Obama and Orders 'Out!'"

    - No mystery to the Chinese. From a reader with a Chinese name, a similar argument:

    "I have been following your posts on the objective of the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen. It seems like you are only citing English sources. My casual reading of the Chinese media (mainly the Southern Weekly) [the relatively independent paper also called Southern Weekend in English, which did the interview with Obama during his visit, and whose editor was later punished for doing so] is that the Chinese was upset that the developed countries had been trying to go back on principles behind the Kyoto and Bali agreements. The Chinese press have played up a story about some "secret" draft the Danish host was circulating without the input of the China and other developing countries at the beginning of the conference. [This also got a fair amount of coverage in the US.] Obviously, one should not trust the Chinese press entirely. But it strikes me that in this case it might be easier to infer what the Chinese want from reading the Chinese media. Whether what they want is reasonable is a separate matter.
    "I think the notion that the Chinese is set against all deals is simply ridiculous. They are only against all deals that developed countries thrown at them. Developed countries would be against any deal too if it were the Chinese and India doing all the proposing."

    Obviously another fair point, which takes us back to the first commenter. Perhaps Obama's motives seem more obvious to me because I can effortlessly take in anything that's said or written about them in the U.S. press. Versus the slog of dealing with Chinese-language material. Or perhaps that's just part of the explanation. For now, this is additional grist for the mill.

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #3

    More on the accumulation of blind-men-feeling-the-elephant efforts to determine whether the Chinese delegation was actually working purposefully to scuttle any climate deal (as originally claimed here), why they might have done so, and what it all might mean in the longer term. Complete Copenhagen chronicles here. Three more accounts to consider now:

    1) An article last week by two guest analysts for UPIAsia.com, here, who use the same Rashomon image that I invoked yesterday -- hey, a cliche is not really a cliche if it doesn't occur to many people simultaneously! -- but who say that the prevalent focus on China's role is wrong. A different billion-person fast-developing country deserves the spotlight, they say:

    "The big surprise was India. After sending some mixed messages before the conference, New Delhi finally made it clear that as far as it was concerned the meeting was about long-term strategic options. It questioned the good faith of the Western negotiators, with at least one Indian strategist pointing out that some of the same people involved in credit default swaps that contributed to the collapse of the global financial system were involved in setting up carbon trading. In some quarters, the financial crisis has substantially undermined trust in Western-backed financial mechanisms.

    "India didn't like or trust the proposed deal and wanted to show the West that a compliant India could not be taken for granted. Just as important, it wanted to show that, should a perceived fair deal with the West not be possible, it had other options, namely a closer relationship with China."

    Much more on the implications of an Indo-centric (or Indo-Chinese centric) interpretation in their essay.

    2) An article to be published tomorrow in the Sydney Morning Herald, billed as "the first detailed interview since Copenhagen with Western media by a Chinese official." In this version of reality, China's ambassador for climate change, Yu Qingtai, tells John Garnaut that far from China being the culprit, someone else was to blame. The real obstacle to agreement was the United States, plus rich countries in general:

    "Yu Qingtai, told the Herald that the climate change summit was "a step in the right direction", but repeatedly blamed a breakdown of trust at the conference on rich countries ganging up on China.

    " 'During and before Copenhagen there was a concerted effort by a small group of developed countries who believed that by joining hands [they could] force us to go beyond what we are responsible for or capable of,' Mr Yu said.

    " 'But Copenhagen proved that those attempts will not be successful. In fact they should have known better. So what the developed countries need to learn from this whole process is to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China.' "

    3) Finally, for the moment, another whole line of analysis: that the apparent sidelining of one of the well-known rising stars of Chinese diplomacy could be due to China's perception of its "failure" at the Copenhagen talks. This argument was presented last week in the Guardian here, and it involves a man named He Yafei. This is a person so well-connected in diplomatic and journalistic circles -- imagine, more or less, a Chinese version of Richard Holbrooke -- that I think I might be the only person who has lived in both Beijing and Washington DC but doesn't know He Yafei. Here he is at the conference, in Guardan photo.


    Intriguingly, a counter-narrative has also emerged, holding that Mr. He will actually be rewarded for leading a staunch Chinese resistance at the Copenhagen talks. Evidence inconclusive until it becomes clear what his next job turns out to be and whether he seems to be heading, up, down, or in a holding pattern. Who said international negotiations were dull!

    Upcoming: a business-strategy analysis of China's negotiating objectives, and a view from the U.S. side. And a reminder of why this matters: quite a bit about the prospects for dealing with climate change, plus the larger prospects for China's "peaceful rise," depends on the interpretations of what just happened in Copenhagen, and why.
  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #2

    Previously here. The idea of this and the next few installments, all with the Copenhagen category tag, is to lay out some of the various Rashomon* accounts of what the Chinese delegation did, and why, in appearing to torpedo an agreement at the world climate talks last month.

    Two additional accounts to consider. The first is by Alex Wang of the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Beijing, with two colleagues. It came out this week and is here. Whereas the account by Mark Lynas in the Guardian that kicked off most discussion claimed that the Chinese delegation was dead-set on blocking a deal, both to show it could throw its weight around and to thwart any impediment to its industrial growth, Wang says there is a more benign explanation for the Chinese approach:

    "China's reported actions could be seen to reflect its disagreement with developed countries on how future mitigation burdens should be allocated considering historical responsibilities, rather than a flat-out desire to block any long-term deal as Lynas suggests. [Ie, the US and Britain have been polluting for centuries; why shouldn't China have the same chance?]...  These are substantive differences among the countries that need to be worked out, and we do not get any closer to resolving these differences with accusations of bad faith. In any case, China and the rest of the world will have an opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their commitment to addressing climate change in the coming year..."

    Alex Pasternack of the Treehugger blog, in a post ten days ago here, offered a complementary analysis, which also stressed (a) how the "fair chance to develop" situation looks from China's perspective, including their expectation that the US will do much more than it already has, and (b) what it may take to get practical progress, whether or not now-developed countries agree with the Chinese "it's our turn to pollute now" logic. Parts of his "what it all means" takeaway, with emphasis in the original:

    "- The world treated COP15 like a trade treaty, not a peace treaty. Every country, not just China and the U.S. came to the conference to debate on terms and needs specific to their own country, even though the effects of global warming are distributed globally... If the world needs the biggest emitters, not every country, to sign onto cuts to launch a global low-carbon economy, perhaps much of the work on a climate treaty should be left up to talks at the G20...

    "- However powerful China may now be -- or however powerful people wish to perceive it --the most powerful actor on the climate stage is the United States, led by President Obama.... But his role in the future will be determined in no small part by the success of climate legislation in the U.S. If he can succeed at convincing the United States that a low-carbon economy is a sustainable economy in every sense of the word, he will be able to make the U.S. a leader at climate talks and assure an American economic advantage...

    "- The fragile sense of trust exposed in the aftermath of Copenhagen cuts both ways. For a good-faith deal to come about, the West and China specifically both need to work on improving not just their relationship, but more fundamentally, how they perceive the other. The summit has illustrated China's ascendance to world power, even as it reinforces the country's role as leader of the developing world. We owe it to China to keep the pressure on, as they are the world's largest polluter, and maintain big expectations commensurate with their strength. But we also need to keep reality in mind, recognizing not only the country's limitations but its suspicions that the developed world wants to limit China's growth.

    " - The leaders of the developing world have a lot to do. The developed world has to do more. If the US and rest of the developed world can cap emissions and innovate to meet new standards, they will not only be addressing their historical responsibilities and kick-starting a global low-carbon economy. They could well be assuring their own economic futures. New standards would lead to technologies they could sell to rapidly developing countries like China, which will need such solutions as their own standards increase."

    And there's a lot more. For the moment, these two additions to the analysis; later, we'll pull the threads together and see what they suggest about what happened last month and what should happen in the months to come.

    Bonus: for the completely opposite perspective, a blunt dismissal of the "it's our turn to pollute" claim from China and India, from Willem Buiter in the FT last summer, here. Offering it now in the Rashomon spirit; sorting-out later on.

    * I have learned to spell out all allusions. On the implications of Rashomon, here.

  • Back to China and Copenhagen: what actually happened?

    Two weeks ago, just after the Copenhagen talks wrapped up, I mentioned the very provocative article in the Guardian contending that Chinese officials had intentionally and alarmingly torpedoed the prospects of a deal, which included going out of their way to thwart Barack Obama's last-minute personal intervention. (Original post here; follow up here.)

    Sorting through the contending accounts to understand what exactly the Chinese delegation did, why they did it, and what it means matters quite a lot. It will reveal things about the Chinese government's mood and intentions in its current phase of economic success. (Has it become triumphalist? Has an overbearing stage begun? Or was this the result of mis-reading the circumstances and overplaying its hand?) It will reveal things about the future prospects for dealing with climate issues. It will have implication for the next steps in US-China and world-China relations more broadly.

    A lot of material has turned up over the past two weeks; today and over the weekend, I'll point out some of the leads, evidence, and interpretations that seem most interesting. To kick it off, here is an account published two weeks ago, soon after the conference, by Ken Lieberthal of Brookings, that does a very deft job of sketching out the evidence pro and con -- and indicating why there is so much curiosity about the way the Chinese team behaved. As he says: 

    "Chinese diplomacy at this meeting overall was somewhat puzzling. Second-level Chinese officials showed up at critical meetings of heads of state on Friday afternoon - the kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ. The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's [premier Wen Jiabao] delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama - suggests that Wen had lost control over his own negotiating team (Wen told the translator not to translate this official's initial outburst and then simply ignored him the second time he raised his voice). Was Wen going beyond the limits of his negotiating authority? Were members of his negotiating team protecting their personal flanks back in Beijing? Whatever the explanation, this initial Chinese foray into the middle of a global conference with extremely high stakes highlighted that Beijing still has some work to do as it assumes more central roles in global negotiations on financial, nuclear and other issues."

    Lieberthal concludes on a tone I'll paraphrase as "it wasn't bad news overall, considering how bad it could have been." He applies that both to the future of climate negotiations and the prospects for US-China relations. Eg, "The Copenhagen 'failure' may in fact have put the world on a more effective, practical approach to addressing the core issue of constraining future greenhouse gas emissions."

    More to come through the next day or two. This is a good place to start.

  • "Significant if true" follow up (China in Copenhagen)

    Reaction to the Guardian story yesterday, alleging that Chinese negotiators "intentionally" embarrassed Barack Obama and sabotaged the Copenhagen talks, turns out to be a Rorschach test for views on a variety of issues. Views of China (inherently untrustworthy); views of the US and the West (inherently biased against rising China); views of Obama (ludicrously out of his depth in dealing with the Chinese); views of man-made climate change and big international conclaves like this (big frauds in both cases).

    Herewith two representative responses. First, from a reader with a Chinese name asking "understanding and patience" for China. Then, someone with a realpolitik argument about Chinese negotiating interests. The Chinese reader says:

    "The points Mark [Lynas, on the Guardian's site] made in the article is too judgmental and biased. Actually Premier Wen attended two meetings with President Obama. Another fact he fails to mention is that CO2 emission per person in China is only 1/4 that of US, 1/2 of Europe. Great Britain is a service-based economy and no longer a World Factory even a century ago, but someone has to produce clothes, cars, and toys. right? Yes, They are made in China (also for Chinese) now with coal-based industry. So what? Put a tariff on these products ,move back manufacturing, put a halt to China's heavy industries? No offense, but China is really still a very young man towards modernization and may never enjoyed a lifestyle many of us envied so much. Is it fair to accuse a young man to stop growing up as an adult? [JF note: This is a familiar image in Chinese discussions.]
     "Of course China's economy needs restructuring, and this will surely proves very hard. From a high-carbon economy to low-carbon economy, the transition nowadays seems more like a international politics issue than an internal economic issue. On the way to a greener economy, Mark really should make less accusations with more understanding and patience."

    Now, from a non-Chinese reader:

    "It is with a sort of sad bemusement that I read the Guardian account of the Chinese action at Copenhagen. There are a couple things which indicate that the writer might be somewhat insufficiently well-informed, not the least of them the assumption, prior to being wrecked at the conference, that China somehow would like to do things within nearly 200-member multilateral regimes, when in fact the very philosophy of the larger Chinese diplomacy, for the past century, has been dead-set against using such a regime in a positive, rather than negating, manner. I am not sure what exactly possessed Mr Lynas, the writer, to assume thus, but it is certainly not familiarity with Chinese methods.

    More »

  • A story that, if true, is important

    This account, on the Guardian's site this afternoon, from a writer who says he was a first-hand witness when Chinese representatives "intentionally" torpedoed Barack Obama's proposals and wrecked the Copenhagen deal. The headline tells the story:

    How do I know China wrecked the


    Copenhagen deal? I was in the room

    As the author, Mark Lynas, notes at the end of the story, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses are indeed sponsoring very ambitious clean-tech and clean-up programs across the country. But he argues that the Chinese representatives saw it as strategically in China's interest to thwart any specific or enforceable deal, and to position the West, and in particular the U.S., as the culprits for the failure. Lynas is identified in the article only as a "freelance writer working full-time on climate change." But in another Guardian article he is identified as being an adviser to the Maldives, one of the island nations most threatened by rising sea levels, which could explain why he was "in the room" during the negotiations. I'm sorry he wasn't clearer in the article itself about how he knows what he says he saw.

    Obviously I can't tell independently whether this account is true, or fair, and it certainly differs in tone from much of the other coverage and analysis out of Copenhagen. (Difference #1 from most U.S. coverage: declaration of abject failure. Difference #2: flat-out blame on China as the obstacle, rather than problems-all-around. Of course some other U.K. coverage and commentary has struck a similar note. Nuance #3 that rings strange to American ears: the idea that Obama showed up in Copenhagen with anything like a "strong mandate" from the U.S. for a substantial climate offer.)  But even in a provisional sense, this seems worth noting as one strand in the emerging interpretation of China's new role in international affairs, and the prospects for the much-bruited China-U.S. cooperation on climate issues.

    I could write in my sleep the response that will come from Chinese officials and from Chinese netizens about the unfairness of this view and the possibility that it will "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." I pass it along as worth notice to those interested in the next stage of China's international interactions -- and those interested in the environment too.


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