Pausing at the Precipice

The Western response to Russian invasion falls hard and fast. The actions of the E.U., the Anglosphere nations, and Japan are both extraordinary and consequential: multiple NATO states have brazenly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians— in a maneuver sure to be copied—have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO.

None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.

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The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

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On the Party and the Princelings

Desmund Shum is a red billionaire. Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.

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Engagement’s Second-Order Catastrophes

Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s book Invisible China is an interesting if somewhat dry look at the development challenges China faces over the next 20 years. Chinese officials are perhaps the book’s main target audience. Rozelle and Hell worry that unless Communist officialdom takes drastic action soon, China will be stuck in what has been called the “middle income trap.”

But this post is not about China. Rather, it is about what China did to Mexico. Mexico is the cautionary tale Rozelle and Hell want to scare Chinese officials with. “If you don’t reform now,” they seem to argue, “what you did to Mexico will be done to you!” That is a boogeyman worth fearing.

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When “Engagement” Backfired: The Story Behind Pro-Communist Private Enterprise

Image source Min Ye’s  The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998–2018 is an interesting, if dense, examination of Chinese development politics. I dislike the jargon Ye has invented to convey her ideas, but am delighted with the evidence she marshals in support of her arguments. Ye wants to focus our understanding of […]

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The World That China Wants (III): Taking Chinese Communism Seriously

Image source A few months back I promised I would highlight some of the key passages in Dan Tobin’s testimony to Congress, “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” Tobin’s testimony has since been published by CSIS as a full length report, but in my citations below I will […]

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The Problem Isn’t the ‘Merit,’ It’s the ‘Ocracy’

Image Source Two weeks or so ago Liam Bright posted the following tweet: Liberal technocrats give us literally no reason at all to think their interests are aligned with the great majority of people, yet when they are attacked as a governing class they stress their credentials and competency. But it’d be worse if they’re […]

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Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power

image Source How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the […]

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Are We Ready For What Comes Next?

“We must maintain a holistic view of national security. We take the people’s security as our ultimate goal, political security as our fundamental task, and economic security as our foundation.”  —Secretary General Xi Jinping, April 2014. Are we ready for what comes next? The news this week is that the United States of America has […]

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