Readers of the Scholar’s Stage will be familiar with a thesis I have pursued in multiple essays and posts over the last half decade: America was once a place where institutional capacity was very high. Americans were a people with an extraordinary sense of agency. This is one of the central reasons they transformed the material, cultural, institutional, and political framework of not only the North American continent, but the entire world. That people is gone. The social conditions that gave the Americans their competence and confidence have passed away. Where Americans once asked “how do we solve this?” they now query “how do we get management on my side?”
Different pieces have investigated different aspects of this thesis.
Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:
In an essay published in 2018, Geramie Barme recommends observers of US-China relations read through five pieces that Hu Qiaomu and Mao Zedong published in 1949 under the latter’s name. The five pieces were Mao’s response to Dean Acheson’s China White Paper, a compendium of State Department documents intended to clear the Truman administration from the charge of “losing China.” Neither Mao nor Hu slogged through the hundreds of documents there compiled, but they did pay close attention to the prefatory “Letter of Transmittal” that Acheson released along with the White Paper. In this statement Acheson famously argued that “the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States” and expressed his hope that “ultimately the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign [i.e. communist] yoke.”
Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy concludes with a dramatic pronouncement:
At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will hold
I find myself strangely affected by this document.
My annual list of books arrives a bit later than usual. However, this delay is in some ways fortunate. Now my list will not be seen as an extended comment on the Lex Friedman reading list discourse. Those not on Twitter will have heard little about this. I envy you: we would all be better off if none of us had seen Friedman tweet out a proposed list of books to read in 2023—some as simple as The Little Prince, others as long and complex as Brothers Karazamov—and the avalanche of snobbery that followed. The entire brouhaha strikes me as a strange upper middle class status game. It seems that an attachment to books normally assigned in 10th grade English is the literary equivalent of glitter mascara or an overcooked steak. All three belong on that select list of items the commentariat can gleefully make fun without fear of “being the asshole.”
On January 16th the friends of Cao Zhixin, a 27 year old book editor residing in Beijing, posted a video of Cao onto Youtube. The video spread quickly spread across Chinese language Twitter, and from there into newspaper reports in Great Britain, the United States, and Taiwan…. Had Cao’s video ended on that note of triumph little attention would have been paid to it. But Cao concluded on a very different note: she was about to disappear. One by one her fellow vigil-organizers had gone dark. Where they were taken, and on what charges, she did not know. She knew only this: she was next.
Over at Foreign Affairs, Ryan Haas and Jude Blanchette have published an interesting argument. Hass and Blanchette are worried that the United States and China are needlessly inching towards armed conflict over Taiwan because of the two powers’ shared belief that “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” can only be solved by a military settlement. In contrast, Hass and Blanchette argue that “sometimes the best policy is to avoid bringing intractable challenges to a head and kick the can down the road instead.” Implicit in Hass and Blanchette’s framing is the belief the United States controls the pace of the can-kicking. Decision makers in Washington, not Beijing or Taipei, will determine the character of their triangular tango. The reasons for this conclusion are laid out plainly: the United States has the power to constrain Taiwanese behavior, while the Chinese, who understand that the costs of a conflict will prove ruinous even in victory, will stage no campaign unless backed into a corner. It is America that will choose whether the can is kicked into that corner or whether it is kicked further down the road.
Haas and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Haas and Blanchette’s larger argument only is compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.
Many readers have wondered at my low writing output this year. This week I am happy to announce the answer to the riddle: the Center for Strategic Translation.
The Center for Strategic Translation locates, translates, and annotates documents of historic or strategic value that are only available in Chinese. As director of the new center I have had the chance to work with a host of talented translators to make this project a reality.
Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.
Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:
A few months ago Jonathan Haidt made waves with a big think-piece in the Atlantic arguing that most of the ills of the 2010s can be traced back to the invention of the retweet button. I read the essay and disagreed with it vociferously. Today City Journal published my critique. You can read my counter essay here. Below I would like to add some additional thoughts on social media and American politics that could not fit into that piece.