More Chimerica, Ferguson, Fallows, Kaiser Wilhelm, etc

Apparently it will still be a while until full videos of various Aspen Ideas Festival sessions go on line, as opposed to the selected clips now available (see the right side of this page). So because it may not be apparent from the short video of my discussion with Niall Ferguson, or from David Brooks' very fair-minded column about the discussion, or from my previous item on it, here is a little more about what was discussed and where I think the differences lay.

1. The main part of my "side" of the argument that was necessarily left out of a 750-word summary of a 90-minute discussion, but that I've tried to express in all the articles I've written from China over the past three years, is that anything is possible when it comes to developments inside China and also relations between China and the outside world.
For instance, when one questioner asked for "scenarios" about China's political evolution, Ferguson replied that "all my Chinese graduate students at Harvard" gave him the same scenario: that there was no huge appetite for a democratic shift in China now, economics came first, etc. I said that I could imagine countless possible scenarios: internal disaster because of environmental or other emergencies; another Tiananmen-like internal crackdown that alienated the outside world but reflected the government's belief that domestic control mattered more than outside approval; a nationalistic backlash triggered by something like last year's foreign protests against the Olympic torch relay; a Taiwan-related emergency; even rising middle-class pressure for democratic openings. Whatever. These are all conceivable. What seems to me most likely, however, is what we've seen since the early Clinton years: continued US-Chinese engagement in a deeply connected but often contentious way.

This is in contrast to Ferguson's argument that the "Chimerica" bloc had been the indispensable basis of the world economy until recently, but now was headed for inevitable breakup because of economic troubles inside the US and political developments inside China.

2. The specific part of Ferguson's view I most strongly resist is his assertion of close, cautionary parallels between Germany's rise in the years leading up to World War I and China's rise now.


Historical patterns and analogies are obviously essential and instructive. But just as obviously, it's crucial to recognize the differences as well as the similarities in different stages of history. This was the central argument of the wonderful "Lessons" of the Past: Uses and Misuses of History in American Foreign Policy, by Ernest May, a favorite professor of mine in college and afterwards who sadly died this year. Another valuable work by another Harvard professor is Richard Neustadt's Thinking in Time: The Use of History by Decision-Makers. As May pointed out in his book, when LBJ and his confidants thought only of Munich, Chamberlain, and Hitler when hearing about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, they mis-assessed their adversaries and badly hurt themselves. We've seen the same mistake more recently in the pre-Iraq war assertions that because it was a mistake to delay a military confrontation with Hitler's Germany, the same principle applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

A systematic examination of the similarities and differences between the Kaiser's Germany and Hu Jintao's China would be an interesting exercise. As I run through them informally, it strikes me that for every similarity (relatively rising economy, naval-force expansion) you can think of at least ten differences (scale, overall stage of economic development, geographical points of tension with existing powers, religion and ideology, recent military history, environmental and other possible constraints on growth, etc).

The real point is: The fact that Germany's rise was followed by a disastrous-for-all-parties world war is worth remembering. But to assert that this means that China and America are necessarily or even probably headed for a showdown is just assertion.

3. More than assertion, it is dangerous assertion. Even historians -- or especially historians -- recognize that world events are shaped in part by deep economic, demographic, and technical trends, but only in part. Real human beings make real decisions that have real effects. (Cf: LBJ in 1964, Bush-Cheney in 2001, JFK-Khrushchev in 1962, etc.) If we recognize that a collision with China is possible, but only one of several possibilities, then we act so as to reduce that possibility and increase the probability of better outcomes. If we think breakup is inevitable, as Ferguson is arguing, then the odds of a collision in fact occurring become higher than they would otherwise be. (Because each side interprets the other's moves in the darkest way and responds in kind.)

4. As will be seen when the tape goes up, Ferguson's opening remarks included repeated references to what "the Chinese think" and "the Chinese want" and "the Chinese will demand." My opening comment was how treacherous it was to say that "the Chinese" do or think or want anything, since in practice the place often behaves like 20 separate countries and countless regional factions and many self-interested businesses and a billion-strong individuals. This is related to the previous point, in that any analysis that starts with the idea of one big, coherent Chinese entity is both more alarming than other understandings -- and, in my view, less realistic.

5. Although I didn't address this part of Ferguson's analysis directly, he pointed out -- correctly -- that China's export machine has been profoundly affected by the collapse in surplus US demand. But Ferguson's conclusion, that this means the end of "Chimerica," seems to me far less convincing or nuanced than, say, the running analysis by Michael Pettis of Peking University. His web site is here; he was among the analysts I quoted in this article about what the economic downturn will mean for "Chimerica."

There's more, but this will do till the tape appears!