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.
  • Gift thoughts for the holidays

    I am a fan of nearly every kind of small aircraft, but I might draw the line here:


    It's a personal helicopter, really two rotors on a hat. Action video here, from Makezine (thanks to Dave Proffer). As it happens, one of my upcoming New Year's resolutions is to get back into aviation actively. But avoiding this hat-helo would be consistent with two of my rules for a happy flying career: Don't fly anything that's not factory-built (sorry, home-crafters); and fly only airplanes, not helicopters. More on all of this another time.
  • More on "many nations of China"

    Two weeks ago, I mentioned Patrick Chovanec's Atlantic feature, "The Nine Nations of China," which included this map of regional differences within the country:


    Shortly thereafter the Shanghaiist had a further riff on the theme, with maps of China representing the mental images of people from different parts of China. For instance, China as seen by people from Shanghai:

    And according to people from Hong Kong:

    The spirit is that of Steinberg's famous map of the USA as seen from Manhattan. Worth checking out.
  • Asian politics, American politics, press fail (updated)

    My colleague Marc Ambinder has just published a very astute and important, and in its way very depressing, analysis. It is an assessment of the Washington press corps' reluctance to look outward, to what we might quaintly call the "real" world, as opposed to informing itself purely with its own inside assessments of "narratives" and "perceptions" and "optics."

    Yes, all those "perceived" things matter. In the real world, Gerald Ford had been a collegiate all-star football player; in the world of optics, he became a stumblebum, thanks his misstep on an Air Force One stairway and the virtuosity of Chevy Chase's subsequent riffs on SNL. Ford lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to Jimmy Carter in 1976; the bumbler image was part of the reason. I was working for Carter during that campaign, and we exulted in a front-page photo of Ford at a stop in Texas eating a tamale -- corn-husk wrapper and all, which fit the bumbler theme.

    Perceptions have always been part of political life, and always will be. But the purpose of the press is supposed to be giving reality a better chance. And as Marc Ambinder demonstrates, this past two-week episode of Obama-in-Asia represents a really flagrant and consequential failure in that regard.

    Ambinder's assessment tees off a new Politico item by John Harris that is a distillation of the "perception is all we care about" approach to the world. Yes, I realize -- as Ambinder obviously does -- that the topic of the Politico item is perception itself. But in talking about a damaging story line (one of seven!) the Obama Administration has to fight, the item asserts as truth something that simply is false*, and that seemed "true" only to White House reporters judging a diplomatic trip as if it were a series of stump speeches on a campaign swing. Actually, it's worse than that. If the trip to Asia had in fact been a campaign swing, political reporters would probably have been amenable to a more sophisticated analysis: what matters isn't the boilerplate at the press conference, it's the developments we see over the next weeks or months. That's a kind of looking-beyond-the-obvious that politicos would pride themselves in when thinking about, say, pledged-delegate counts or vote-wrangling in the House. For whatever reason, it didn't happen when it came to the substance of dealing with China.

    Essentially we have journalism about an important topic -- America's relations with the country that has a lot to do with our environmental and financial well-being, plus with the prospects for containing Iran -- presented as if it were coverage of another branch of pro sports. What's the difference? In sports, the only thing we finally care about is how well the game is played. People in Washington are depressed because the Redskins are so terrible, but that's not going to cause a run on the dollar or lead to international crises. The interestingness and drama are the only point. But the "sport" of negotiating with China involves something that are objectively very important -- as Ambinder, to his credit, goes on to examine by asking, "is the damaging story actually true?"

    This is about as destructive a case of "who cares about the realities?" press mentality as I remember since miscoverage of the Clinton health care plan 15 years ago, as described here and here. (I am excepting the buildup to the Iraq war, when there were a lot of other factors at play.) I have said several times before that I'll give the theme a rest -- and maybe this time I finally will, leaving it in Ambinder's hands. But it matters.
    * Arguments that it is false and jejune: here, here, here, here, and further links from those items too. Later today I'll create an omnibus "Obama in Asia" category for these posts. UPDATE: As a way out of this topic, I have now tagged all 12 related posts, including this one, with the "Obama in Asia" marker, and they can be found in reverse chronological order here.

  • Before the Afghanistan speech, two more views on China

    Two readers with hypotheses about Obama's mission to China and its "failure." First, from a reader with a lot of experience outside the United States:

    "Those media people who portraited Obama's visit to China as a failure simply had little idea about Chinese political culture. The way the Chinese government does things is that they cannot give people the impression that they are yielding to other governments' pressure. So if you come to lecture the Chinese government, you'll be disappointed. But if you come and show your respect and humility, you may well get what you wanted. Last time the Renminbi was re-evaluated [allowed to float], it did not occur when American politicians were lecturing China to do so, but when the shouts from Washington were relatively mild. This time, China stressed that its announcement of carbon emission targets was a "voluntary" action, even though we all know it had something to do with Obama's visit. [JF note: This all rings 100% true to me.]

    "When it comes to international reporting, American media is generally too quick to draw conclusions and too much on the surface. Maybe now you can have a better idea of why so many well-informed Chinese people are often so frustrated at American media's coverage of Chinese affairs. It is not because they are just "Chinese nationalists", as American media like to believe."

    Then, from a reader in the US:

    "Just a thought -- is it possible that the media's negative portrayal of Obama's China trip is giving the Chinese government cover to be more conciliatory than it otherwise might have been? As persuasive as Obama might be in private, the Chinese might be reluctant to give him the appearance of a major "victory" over them; but since his trip has been viewed as a "failure," they do not lose face when they make concessions.

    "Perhaps the media actually helped Obama's case!"

    And perhaps this is long-sought conclusive proof of a liberal media conspiracy to prop up Obama! For the record, I take a much more positive view of Obama's efforts and results on the Asian trip than I expect to about the new buildup in Afghanistan, if that is indeed what he will announce. More on that anon.

  • The humiliating Obama-in-Asia failures mount up

    NYT front-page lead story today:
    From the story:

    "WASHINGTON -- The United Nations nuclear watchdog demanded Friday that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once secret uranium enrichment plant,  a sharp rebuke that bore added weight because it was endorsed by Russia and China...

    "Administration officials held up the statement as a victory for President Obama's diplomatic efforts to coax both Russia and China to increase the pressure on Iran. They said that they had begun working on a sanctions package, which would be brought before the United Nations Security Council if Iran did not meet the year-end deadline imposed by Mr. Obama to make progress on the issue....

    "In recent weeks, the Obama administration has been painstakingly wooing Russia and China, the two permanent members of the Security Council most averse to imposing sanctions... Persuading China has, so far, proven more difficult. After meeting with Mr. Obama in Beijing, China's president, Hu Jintao, said nothing about additional pressure on Iran.

    "But administration officials said that behind the scenes they had been working hard to get China on board, and expressed hope that those efforts would pay off.... Rahm Emanuel,  the White House chief of staff, said China's support on Iran and its decision to set a climate change goal on Thursday showed that Mr. Obama's trip to Beijing was producing results despite criticism of the visit. "This is the product of engagement," Mr. Emanuel said, adding that it was "a direct result" of the trip."

    To the NYT's credit: the online version of today's story contains a link back to an influential earlier "we didn't see anything happen in public, therefore nothing happened" story (by one of the same correspondents) about the "failure" of the trip. It's the link in the third quoted paragraph from the story, starting with the words "Chinese president Hu." So, no joke, this is a relatively classy gesture by the Times and better than we've seen from any of the networks or talk shows or other publications. It would have been very natural and easy to leave that link out. We'll take our progress where we can find it!

    And to be clear on one other point: the areas in which the Administration needed to engage the Chinese -- Iran, North Korea, climate issues, currency value and economic "balancing," human rights in general and talks with the Dalai Lama in particular -- are obviously all difficult. China's initial offer on emissions targets is nowhere near "sufficient"; similarly with its RMB-and-economic commitments; the Iran problem is far from solved; and so on. But ten days after the trip's completion, the apparent results are closer to the high end of what the Administration could reasonably have expected than to the across-the-board humiliation and disappointment that "analyses" of the trip generally proclaimed. There is evidence of at least first-stage engagement by China on all the issues that mattered to the United States. First-stage is not completion, but it's something -- and something most of the press, viewing the trip as if it were a campaign swing, missed at the time.

  • If you're in Washington this weekend

    Do not miss the chance to see Edward Burtynsky's "Oil" exhibit of mammoth-sized photos at the Corcoran Gallery in downtown Washington.

    One photo from the exhibit is the "Gallery" feature in this month's issue of the Atlantic. It shows the now-derelict SOCAR oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan.



    Here's another, of the oil-sands operation in Canada:

    2_Edward Burtynsky Oil.jpg

    The impact of the exhibit as a whole is, well, hard to convey in words. I had originally been drawn to Burtynsky's photos because his portrayal of factories in China resembled what I had seen there -- eg, in the one below, perhaps the most famous picture from his China series:


    The series on Oil was more enlightening to me -- perhaps because I'd already seen these Chinese factories, but mainly because very few people have seen the range of oil-industry artifacts that he has captured in his wall-sized and incredibly-detailed photos. Extraction and refinery operations around the world; the industries oil has made possible; the indications of the end of the oil era. Hard to forget. (In DC until December 13.) Thanks to TMF and EBF for the prod to actually drive downtown and see this.
  • Yet more evidence of pathetic failure of Obama trip to Asia

    From the NYT just now, under the headline,  "Iran Censured Over Nuclear Program by U.N. Watchdog":


    Previous evidence to same effect here. And for previous discussion from "senior government official" on what Obama told the Chinese about Iran, go here. Will wait to see if this weekend's talk shows or opinion sections offer any "hey, wait a minute" reconsideration of their unanimous judgment last week about the way the Obama team was manhandled and stonewalled by the Chinese. I'll wait, but I won't hold my breath.

    (Updated thought: Seriously, when does an official part of the chattering class -- one of the weekend talkers, someone from the leading newspapers -- look back on these past two weeks in journalism's effort to represent reality and ask how the dominant narrative could have been so wrong, and wrong in a way that was easily noticeable at the time? Just curious. The guiding motto for the inquiry should be the deathless subhead on Tish Durkin's article: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    Also, when talking about "leading newspapers," I should make clear that accounts from the WSJ, which still has large bureaus in Asia, were far more balanced and accurate throughout this process than anything else I saw.)
  • Thanksgiving special: more evidence of failure of trip to Asia!

    Today in the NYT:ChinaEmissions.jpg

    Today in the Washington Post:

    Today in the (state run) China Daily:

    Today also in the China Daily:

    Along with the failure indicated yesterday, also in the China Daily:

    Yesterday on Xinhua.net -- announcement of the 40-45% reduction target for emissions:


    I am thankful for the prospect of more such failures ahead. (And to Jeremy Goldkorn and others for leads.) And on this festive day am thankful to have decided not to bother linking these stories back to the "humiliation and disaster" coverage of the trip to Asia while it was going on. Gratitude all around.

  • Airspace over the Hudson

    One more thing to be thankful for: a sensible response to the tragic airplane-helicopter crash over the Hudson River in August. As of this week the FAA has applied new traffic-separation rules for small airplanes, airliners, and helicopters flying above the Hudson that should reduce the risk of such a collision ever happening again. The rules codify what had been informal procedures for keeping aircraft out of each other's way. But they don't over-prescribe, regulate, or restrict. Here is the FAA's diagram of the new separation procedures:


    Versus the chart of how confusion could arise under previous rules:


    When regulators and security officials address a problem through minimal rather than excessive rule-setting and interference or panicky over-reaction, that is worth our thankfulness too. Building toward a crescendo of things to be thankful for at this time of year.
  • Ever wonder what a Chinese travel show looks like?

    Here is your chance to see CCTV3's "Dali Impressions," in a 26-minute clip at this site. Site is in Chinese, as is the program -- but regardless of language, if you watch for a little while you will get the idea.

    Reason I mention it: starting about 4 minutes in, the program is shot at the "Linden Centre," in Xizhou, "happy town," in Yunnan province. This is the place I wrote about in this article two months ago and mentioned in this post, which includes the Atlantic's own video presentation. Starting at time 6:20 of the CCTV show, you can see Brian Linden strolling through his family's adopted home town. Starting around 7:15 you'll see him chatting in Chinese with the townsfolk.

    Other reason I mention it: TV really is the least globalized of media. Cars look more and more the same worldwide; electronic products are the same. But the styles, stars, programs, allusions, etc on TV really are distinct country by country. For a sense of the melodramatic, quasi-heroic aesthetic of modern China's "cultural" programming, let this run in the background. If you put it on a loop so it runs five or six hours straight, you'll have a sense of the ambiance of our home life in Shanghai and Beijing.

    Heroic introduction of Brian Linden, from the show. This is a screenshot rather than an embed, so the click-to-play button won't work:


    Also, you'll see one of the touches I most appreciated about Chinese TV broadcasts. The narration is in Chinese, which is then subtitled -- in Chinese! (Much as Trainspotting or other films with extreme regionalisms in spoken English might be subtitled - in English.) I assume the subtitling is a bow to the wide variations in spoken Chinese across the country; it's a big convenience for foreigners working on the characters too. 

    In the ever-thankful spirit, this picture, taken from a deck at the Linden Centre and looking toward what become the Himalayan foothills, captures the feeling of my family's time in Xizhou:


  • Getting a start on being thankful: new Kindle firmware

    If you have a Kindle 2 or Kindle DX, the new firmware update is worth checking out, so you can play with it while dozing off in front of the football games tomorrow. Amazon's announcement here. Stalwart Kindle Classic customers like me will have to gut it out with original firmware. But those who, like my wife, have the newer models can take advantage of features like better handling of PDF files and the option of rotating files to view in landscape or portrait mode (ie, horizontally or vertically). FWIW, I find that reading .DOC and .PDF files makes up more and more of my time with a Kindle. It's a much more palatable option than printing them out (wasteful) or logging yet another hour staring at a normal computer screen (ugh).

    One more plus of the new firmware, reported today by reader D.P. in Shanghai:

    "Just upgraded my USA (CDMA) Kindle 2 to firmware version 2.3 (via USB), and it registers and connects to amazon here in Shanghai! Just got my new December issue of The Atlantic over Whispernet. This is pretty interesting."

    Now that's the ideal use of new technology! The real thing to be thankful for is that there is so much activity in the "e-reader" field, so that a few months from now we'll have not just the Kindle and B&N's Nook but many other competitors too. This is what the Pilgrims must have had in mind when they started the Thanksgiving tradition.

    On this front: my interview two weeks ago about e-reader use with Len Edgerly, on his The Kindle Chronicles series.

  • Last words on Obama and China

    Yes, there are more!

    1) We All Know that Obama was humiliated and stonewalled by the haughty Chinese leaders, in contrast to the titanic American presidents of yore who spoke sternly to Mao and his successors and therefore always got just what they wanted in Beijing. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has reminded us of his fecklessness again.

    And yet...  my favorite newspaper of all, the (state-controlled) China Daily, has just indicated in its November 25 edition that China's recent year-long freeze on the value of the RMB may be about to end. (Thanks to my friend Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei.org in Beijing, for the tip.) If Obama had "demanded" this in public, or insisted that it be announced while he was standing next to Hu Jintao in Beijing, his "toughness" might have received better one-day coverage in the U.S. press or on SNL.  But the chances of his getting what he was after would be nil. Of course, the chances are still uncertain. But this was the major item on the economic-rebalancing agenda; and the Administration's argument all along was that influencing China's behavior was a long game. This news story is not conclusive but does support rather than weaken the long-game approach.

    2) We All Know that the Shanghai town hall was an embarrassment, because the audience was packed with young Communist Party stalwarts who could be depended on to ask anodyne questions. ("What's the best step toward a Nobel Prize?" etc.)

    But remember the moment when Obama turned to Ambassador Jon Huntsman and said more or less, "Jon, did any questions come in via the internet?" I now have heard from enough different informed sources to be comfortable saying that the Chinese government did not know this was coming, and that the ensuing discussion about the Great Firewall was not at all according to their script. Jeremy Goldkorn adds a note about that question -- whose answer, as I mentioned earlier, has the potential to resonate within China. Goldkorn says:

    "The Great FireWall question at the Shanghai town hall came directly from the blogger briefing arranged by the Embassy and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

    "I attended the briefing and live tweeted it. The bloggers included Anti and Bei Feng, two of the loudest voices calling for open media in China at the moment, but also Rao Jin from AntiCNN.com. The most common question, asked several times by different bloggers, was if Obama knew about the Great FireWall and if he would do something about it."

    3) Most Americans don't know about the Southern Weekend interview -- the one interview Obama gave to a Chinese publication, and not to the People's Daily or CCTV but to a Guangzhou-based paper that is famed in China for its muckraking exposes of corruption and abuse. It would be as if a visiting head of state passed up CBS and the NYT and spoke instead only to Frontline or Mother Jones. The Obama team was well aware of what their meeting with Southern Weekend would symbolize -- not necessarily to the traveling press but to the educated population of China. As the government official I have previously quoted explained to me, "We wanted to highlight an edgy, aggressive Chinese paper that has run stories that others don't run. That was meant to be a statement encouraging serious journalistic effort in China."

    As Jason Dean explained in the Wall Street Journal and Jeremy Goldkorn did in Danwei, the authorities then interfered with the distribution of Southern Weekend in a comically ham-handed way. For instance, they (apparently) tore out pages containing Obama's interview from copies headed for foreign news bureaus -- but let them in for ordinary Chinese readers. The government official said, after marveling at the crudeness of the censorship, "I read a piece somewhere saying how naïve we were thinking we could get it out that way. But we did get a message out to a fair number of people. Did we expect it to be uncensored? No. But again think what the episode shows about the American government, and the Chinese."
    As Thanksgiving draws near in America, readers can give thanks that I will bid adieu to this topic. To sum it up: the Administration may or may not end up getting what it hoped for from this trip to Asia, especially China. But its members had a clearer idea of what they were after, how they could get it, and how to represent American interests and values than most coverage gave them credit for. The words that stick with me through this whole episode are those in the subtitle of Tish Durkin's piece last week: "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the US media did."

    And I'm not even getting into the whole "Obama carries his own umbrella" brouhaha! Read about it here, if you want.  Happy upcoming Thanksgiving Day.
    obamaumbrella_CV_20091116220111 (1).jpg

  • Manufactured failure #6: the wrapup

    I think this is it for a while, in three extensive sub-parts! Background here.

    1) Today the Columbia Journalism Review published part 2 of its interview with Howard French; first part was here and was discussed here. It is long and convincing, but here is the heart of its criticism of the dominant "Obama was a wimp" coverage. French says:

    "I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist [JF note: this is very true], so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China.... But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there's a kind of implicit premise [that...] is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don't think there's any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary."

    2) From the U.S. government official who has appeared twice before, these final comments on the trip and its consequences:

    On atmospheric payoffs of the trip:

    "Two of the press conferences, in Japan and South Korea, both began with the same elements. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama got up and gushed that "my friend Barack calls me 'Yukio.'" Then the Korean press conference began with [president] Lee Myung-bak saying, 'We have become close friends.' That says something. Those are not just routine polite words. It meant that Obama is profoundly popular in those countries.  Hatoyama's poll numbers are high but dropping, Lee Myung-bak has been embattled, though recovering. But both saw it as enormously important in terms of their own agenda to be identified with Barack Obama. In my mind, the personal popularity and respect for him is a strategic asset. And not one that gets you results in a day. If you have foreign leaders who see their own fate tied up with Obama, that becomes a chip you can draw on. If you need a last minute shift on climate change, they do not want to separate from Barack Obama. Everyone wants to be his best friend."

    What about the view that Obama caved to the Chinese on human rights?

    "Here are the things we tried to do. Number one, he made a robust statement in Shanghai. Number two, have that reach as many tens of millions of Chinese as possible. You can argue about the degree of success, but the message got out. They had a chance to see him in a setting no Chinese had seen before. And beyond that was to be explicit and direct in the private meetings about the importance of our values and the effect on our relations. And then we put in references in the press conference statement to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and the importance of rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of the rights of minorities, which was an obvious reference to the Uighurs and Tibetans. We went straight to Tibet in the statement, saying that we consider it part of China and urge direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama."

    [NB: This following paragraph is from me, JF, and not the official. Before the trip, Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the DL said in public that was fine with him, since smooth US-Chinese relations at the start of an Administration were important. Obama said that the fact of a meeting was not in doubt, only the timing. I said then and still think that the test will come in the next three or four months  If Obama meets the Dalai Lama during that period, he will have preserved the tradition of his predecessors in treating the D.L. as a substantial religious and cultural figure who has earned international respect. If he doesn't, then it will be time to talk about "caving."]

    About non-China aspects of the trip:

    [This is the official again] "We thought the Southeast Asian part went well. We showed up a day late because of the Fort Hood memorial ceremony. But Obama got to the dinner, which the leaders liked. And the funny-shirt part, which they also liked. [See below - a tradition at meetings of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC.] And the ASEAN meeting [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. He announced he was going to Indonesia next year, which soothed some of the feelings from his not being able to go there on this trip. The Indonesians love him.  Lee Hsien-Loong [prime minister of Singapore; son of Lee Kwan Yew] was very positive about US presence in the region. As for Burma, of course they were at the ASEAN 10 meeting. Kurt Campbell [assistant secretary of state] had just gone to their capital, the first executive-branch representative to go there since almost forever. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, and we are seeing some preliminary results. There's a little bit of the ice breaking there. I wouldn't overstate it.  Maybe we'll see some developments, but it will take time. And the other ASEANs feel they are getting attention that they haven't gotten before.

    "With Japan, it's a new and untested government. It's the first time in power for their party, and they're finding their sea legs. Everyone understands that. We were not trying to knock them off their uncertain sea legs, particularly in public. Not make them lose face or back them into a corner. But at the same time, we wanted to provide a degree of clarity about the future of the bases there. We announced a working group about the bases, and 99 of the 100 press outlets in the room understood that this meant we were not changing the agreements. We're making some adjustments around the edges, we want to show sensitivity to local concerns about the environment and other issues. But we're definitely not throwing out the agreements. Unfortunately, one person got it wrong, and [the New York Times] portrayed it as a stunning "concession." It was the exact opposite.

    As for Japanese prime minister Hatoyama's calls for a new "East Asian Community," which would explicitly leave the U.S. out:

    "We were very clear privately and publicly that the U.S. is going to be in on the ground floor on consultations about new international institutions. The key countries in the region really don't want a line drawn in the middle of the Pacific. There's a general concern over any attitude that would leave us out. No one is going to speak openly about any concerns over China's rise. Everyone understands that it's better to have a prosperous China than the reverse. But a robust U.S. presence in the region is widely seen as the best counterweight in the long-term."
    About trade and financial imbalances between the US and China:
    "Obama talked a great deal in public and in private about the need for the Chinese to increase demand. He made clear that we're simply not going back to the old model. [Old model = China makes, saves, and lends; US borrows and buys.] So we are moving down what will be a long path. [US coverage has implied that China is the dominant paymaster in the US-China relations, but:] Their positions on climate change and rebalancing the economy all reflect an awareness of internal fragility and a reluctance to do anything that would affect their export industries. The nervousness over the Shanghai town hall was also a reflection of internal fragility and the need to assert and demonstrate control."

    Comparing bubbles:

    "From inside our bubble, we thought we were doing what we should be doing. From inside the press's bubble, I think it came across fine except for China. I think some of them wanted us to be rude to the Chinese leadership. That seems to be the standard for effectiveness. Not only is it bad form in general to be rude, and ineffective in Asia, but the last person on the planet who would be rude is Barack Obama. That is part of the reason he got elected."

    3) Bonus! Selections from a note from a reader with experience around the world.

    "-  No one should assume that because the Obama visit was only aired on limited TV outlets (I understand his town meeting was aired in Shanghai), that it will not be seen throughout the country.  Download videos, live streaming videos, etc. will circulate over the next weeks and it will be widely seen.

    "-  Americans tend to view most relationships through the prism of win/lose.  Asians (as you well know) tend to be more subtle.  This is why Americans often have difficulty bargaining for goods in Asian markets.  They want to 'win' the transaction.  The transaction as seen by the Asian is to try to find a price where each party feels that they got something of value and feel that each party is responsible for protecting himself from being cheated.  It's up to you not to be taken... I have suggested Richard Nisbett's "The Geography of Thought" which addresses differences in ways of thinking of things east and west.

    "-   From the Asian perspective bowing to the older Japanese leader is a sign of strengthOne does that because the power is not questioned, not because it is.  Will Americans ("just win baby", "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing") ever understand this?...

    This does it for the time being.

    More »

  • One more on scholars, career paths, and Wall Street

    While waiting for one last installment on the Obama-in-Asia front, here is one last installment on the "does it matter that bright young things go to Wall Street" front. This is from a reader I know, American by background but living overseas for many years, on postings in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He went from a high-prestige academic track to the financial world, for reasons explained below and after the jump.

    Heart of his argument: the problem is not so much the financial rewards of Wall Street, which had not begun their stratospheric ascent when he made the switch 20-plus years ago. Rather it was the scarcity of other work for people trained and interested in international work -- and, as he puts it, the distinctive role of business-based experts in American public life.

    "Please allow me to give a view on the "Rhodes Scholars take the path to Wall Street" topic -- as I think my own experience sheds light on a fundamental fact which might be missing in the author's dismay that young US students in Oxford might lower their moral standards by pursuing a get-rich career in Wall Street: we need to understand the heavy weight of business pervading many segments of American political life and society, and to appreciate the lack of alternatives available to young American professionals if they wish to create a respectful career with an international background in non-business areas (diplomacy, journalism and/or academic). That in a nutshell is how I wound up in a Wall Street job coming out of a traditional university environment.
    "I arrived at a Wall Street kind of job and witnessed many of the excesses bemoaned in the article, but I entered down this path not in the search of the Holy Dollar but rather due to a search to apply my expertise in international affairs and could not find an acceptable alternative to business. I was always fascinated by international affairs and had a real passion to understand the reasons for Marxism and world revolution. I wound up being a specialist in Soviet studies. I first sought to make my calling in the university as a professor, feeling that this would be an area where people following a sincere quest for higher learning would be able to make a contribution for society. I found however that young academics in American society tend to have few choices given the weak pay found here compared to many other professions in American society. US society seems to give lower priority to the teaching profession than is the case for many other countries. This was in the 1970s when the US economy showed a lot of weakness and had little interest in Soviet specialists (despite the rising threat of Brezhnev's USSR).
    "As I became dissatisfied with the lack of choices available to a teacher in the US, I began to explore alternatives hoping to find a more satisfying way to make a living in which I could continue to make a contribution to society while also being able to pay my heating bills.  Unless I were willing to become a spy and work for the CIA, I found few areas where I could convert my Soviet expertise into a non-teaching job. Unlike scholars I knew from Europe who enjoyed the prospects of the respectable alternatives of diplomacy or journalism (where expertise in foreign languages and local histories have been highly valued), I found a different story in the US: that the US State Department and major US newspapers tended to look down on being a "country expert". The State Department in the 1970s made a deliberate shift toward generalists (so a Soviet specialist would be sent first to Guatemala to work stamping visas and then to Kenya to follow agricultural projects) and the Washington Post and NY Times preferred to send to Moscow a reporter who had spent a few years following the police beat in Chattanooga. Meanwhile I noticed that among the people of influence in Washington and in the US embassies, there were many seniors coming from the business world. In the US, the path to contributing to international affairs is often through the business network.
    "Hence despite my university-nurtured prejudice against businessmen, I eventually found to my surprise that there were intelligent people "even in the business world" and that in the business world overseas it was actually VALUED to have US executives who learned the local language and knew about the local culture and history of a country where you were working.  I eventually chose a banking career, NOT because I wanted to be a banker or reach for a stratospheric salary, but rather because I found my skills could have greater outlets for appreciation than in the "higher" types of calling such as diplomacy or journalism.
    "Looking back now to that career choice taken years ago, I see a mixed bag in which international banking certainly witnessed the excesses leading to the global financial meltdown of 2008, but it also led to the creation of social benefits which deserve more respect than is usually the case. The financing of power plants or aircraft deliveries or  semiconductor fabs might not appear to be an obvious case of "doing public service", but with the financial meltdown of last year we see the perverse consequences to the world economy when bank credit for even basic goods and services gets withdrawn from the economy.
    "My point here is to illustrate a fact about American life which sets us apart from Europe and Asia, namely the unique role of business within the fabric of American society. The commentary on the Rhodes Scholars seems to scoff at the idea of US students leaving Oxford to enter the business world -- a choice which might be found less frequently among the Oxford Dons but whch is not really startling if we appreciate how business dominates American society. Read Tocqueville and you'll find it wasn't that different when America was a younger country. Wall Street and Main Street are much more intertwined in the US than in Oxford, Paris or Heidelberg."

    More »

  • Rhodes pushback

    Yesterday I mentioned Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post, which said that a shift in career choices for Rhodes scholars -- before, mainly politics/academics/writing; now, increasingly Wall Street -- was one more illustration of how outlandish pay in the financial world was distorting American incentives. For a Chinese perspective on this same point, see the thoughts of Gao Xiqing in my article last year, here

    A current Rhodes scholar at Oxford writes in defense of today's students:

    "Although I'm [from a country other than the US] and so outside of Mr Gerson's jurisdiction, I'm friends with many American Rhodies and I think it's worth noting one or two things about his article. It was an interesting and thought-provoking piece, but...

    "First, it should not be assumed that Rhodes Scholars are leaving Oxford for business in overwhelming numbers. The most convincing evidence Mr Gerson cites is that 6 (presumably 6 out of 32 American Scholars) went into business "recently". While 6/32 is a lot more than the 3/320 in the 1970s, it hardly signals that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation or the Scholars involved. The road from Oxford High Street to Wall Street is far less well travelled than the road from Oxford to law school in New Haven or med school in Cambridge, MA.
    "Second, it should not go unsaid that there is a lively debate in Oxford among Rhodes Scholars (of all nationalities) as to what is an 'appropriate' career path for those who have been fortunate to be given this tremendous opportunity. There is ongoing heated debate over the 'appropriateness' of professional work, non-profit work, academic work, and, yes, business work. To the extent that Mr Gerson's piece implies that we are all unquestioningly interested in, or tempted by, obscene earning differentials, this is unfair, inaccurate and offensive.

    "Third, it was a curious decision indeed for Mr Gerson to focus on this aspect of the Rhodes program. Why, on the day that 32 new [U.S.] Scholars were elected, should we focus on the minority who go into business? Why not focus on the overwhelming majority who work in higher education, medicine, law or public service? Mr Gerson opened his piece by noting that "For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service." Mr Gerson's own statistics, and my own experience, confirm that Rhodes Scholars continue to overwhelmingly choose these paths.

    "Fourth, it should not be forgotten that while the scholarships are important in the United States, they are overwhelmingly an international scholarship. More than two-thirds of each class come from outside the 50 states. Mr Gerson's data sample is limited.

    "Mr Gerson may well have an interesting point to make about earning differentials and the undoubtedly obscene levels of pay in many businesses today. He struggles to make the point convincingly by using the data relating to Rhodes Scholars."

    For what it's worth. The point of the article really was about today's grotesque pay differentials rather than this select group of American youth, but it's fair to hear pushback at their being used as data points this way. That's the end of this discussion, for my purposes. Consistent with my ongoing points about coverage of American diplomacy in Asia, we'll wait to see in a generation or so how this crop of students decides to spend its time.

    More »


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