Let a thousand flowers bloom again, Atlantic style

Here is a genuine strength of the community assembled at the Atlantic. We all take our work and the issues we're exploring seriously -- but we don't agree always or even a lot of the time about important issues. The closest thing to an across-the-board outlook was during last year's presidential election, when only a couple of people on the staff were rooting hard for the McCain-Palin ticket. But before the Iraq war, there was a really deep split, with our then-editor and many prominent writers strongly in favor of the war, and our then-managing editor and many others strongly against. Those differences were apparent -- I think in a useful way -- to anyone reading the magazine in those days and seeing the different perspectives argued out. Right now there are real differences on economic-policy matters, various aspects of foreign policy from Afghanistan to the Middle East to China, the futures of the Republican and Democratic parties, defense issues, and a lot of other specific points.

I mention this as a strength of the organization internally and also, I think, a virtue from the reader's point of view. The real differences but also real sense of community and respect can encourage people to explain and argue-out their positions more carefully rather than just assuming agreement. It's like "not Red States or Blue States but the United States of the Atlantic Monthly"!

In that spirit of respectful disagreement with a colleague and friend, let me say that Robert Kaplan's "we" does not speak for the whole magazine's staff when he says just now about China:

For years we had perceived China as a state galloping ever forward, en route to peer competitor status with the United States and its military. We forgot that foreign and defense policy emanates from a country's domestic conditions, and that if its domestic conditions are less than harmonious, its policy toward the outside world, too, may be less than robust. In other words, China's rise cannot be taken for granted. To wit, China is also grinding away at its environmental base. Its water table is diminishing, along with the nutrients in its soil. But the regime cannot afford to slow down its economic growth for fear of a popular eruption far broader than what we just saw in Xinjiang....Remember, nothing is destiny.

The limits on China's "galloping" rise and the "nothing is destiny" perspective on its future are points I've tried to convey so often that many readers may be going crazy from the repetition. (Eg here or here or here.) In a sense the heart of my disagreement with Niall Ferguson at the Aspen Ideas Festival was his seeming confidence that anything at all could be assumed as certain about China's future -- either the rise that seemed inevitable to some people until recently, or the breakup with the U.S. and the outside world that he says is now certain to come. That's my disagreement with Bob Kaplan's statement of previous views on China: "we" may have seen things that way, but "I" most certainly didn't.

Arguing for uncertainty, or for many possible futures that will in fact be shaped by real choices by real human beings, may seem weak and unsatisfying. On the other hand: it conforms to the facts, and, at least as important, it focuses attention on the difference that "we" can make through our choices, wise or foolish, about China policy and other matters from economic interaction to environmental protection. And by "we" I mean political leaders and the politically-interested community in the United States, and China, and around the world.

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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.

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