TOM PLATE WRITES — The way it is going now, I might have been wrong. The professor had written a good book but (in my mind) smudged it with an ethically snarky title: Destined for War. A few critics (okay, mainly me) pointed out that the addition of a simple question mark (Destined for War?) might have eased the melodrama and lowered our blood pressure. But maybe the Harvard guy was onto something?
It is indisputable that without commitment and imagination that soars far above the bromides of bureaucracies and the short-term needs of politicians — on both sides of the Pacific Ocean – the relationship between America and China may be doomed. But slated for war in this nuclear age?
Let’s begin with Beijing. If Chairman Xi Jinping isn’t going to lighten up – re South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia – then this formidable leader might soon need to double down on a Bird’s-nest budget balloon of public relations to persuade the world that China’s worst is in the past, not in our future. Simply put, China is scaring people. This thrills feral mainland nationalists, but it’s bad for China if its goal is to help lead this century to peace and prosperity without the black clouds of war.
I sincerely advise Beijing to retire the negative wolf-warrior image of China into some cage at the Beijing Zoo – perhaps not far from Panda House.
This is no joking matter because, to make matters worse, many have come to think of our erratic President Trump in terms hardly more endearing. His sulky pullout from the World Health Organization was some special kind of stupid – a jarring contribution to world disorder, perhaps even to further anti-pandemic disorganization.
Might Washington soon run out of international institutions and multinational accords to insult or drop? At times its isolationist direction almost reflects an adolescent kind of a North Korean juche: Who needs to relate like an adult to the rest of the world?
It’s true – Mr. Trump can remind one more of Kim Jong Un than John F. Kennedy. Consider the following: For all its horrors and faults, North Korea, profoundly ethnically Korean, is a culture in which higher education is honored. The wildly wittily named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea boasts of hundreds of higher-education institutions, though none rank on any global honor-roll list of which I am aware. And even in the best of them – probably Kim Il Sung University – visiting foreign students, a key index of openness and cosmopolitanism, are few.
By contrast, U.S. universities host more than a million international students, a core arsenal of our soft power: the heartfelt reason for their welcome here is not just their helpful capability as tuition-paying students but even more for their contribution to the cosmopolitanism of the serious-minded U.S. institution of higher-leaning. Because of international students we are the greater, and without them we are greatly diminished. They honor us by wanting to be here – and they become part of our larger family.
The American higher-education institution is one of the ongoing, exceptional aspects of our culture. But it has a complex chemistry that is beyond the intellectual comprehension of the Trump administration. Just last week its sprawling immigration and visa apparatus sucked into its sticky web university leaders, already flat-out buried in the torture of evaluating various Covid-19 coping scenarios for incoming fall students. Our government makes the problem tougher by positing that foreign students will be eligible for visas only if their universities offer both in-classroom as well as on-line courses.
Thanks a lot, Uncle Trump. With an ally like this, who needs enemies. With the help of health authorities, universities had been working night-and-day to figure out what mix of this or that would be safest — whether the sole way to reduce student risk to the Covid-19 epidemic still sweeping this nation (thanks in part to the Trump administration ineptitude) would mandate online mainly or online instruction only.
“We are devoted to our international students and are exploring academic and housing options to assure their safety, security, and academic success,” patiently explained Timothy L. Snyder, president of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. LMU then filed an amicus legal brief adding to a widely supported federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the Department of Homeland Security’s and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new rules governing international student visas.
Countless other prominent U.S. universities across the country, not just LMU, linked arms with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who teamed up to comprise the first wave of resistance in the courts to derail the Trump administration’s disrespect of foreign students. I, for one, am betting on Harvard and MIT – and our other prominent universities – to prevail.
The Trump government seems to possess an uncanny instinct for aiming to make America small again. Sometimes, for all China’s wolf-warrior growl, Beijing seems almost a ‘responsible stakeholder’ when compared to America’s ill-conceived trade war, its amateurish UN diplomacy, its shrinking commitment to environmental care, its blowhard lecturing and interfering in Hong Kong affairs, and the widening sense that a screw or two seems to be loose in the mind of the “leader of the free world.”
The danger is that Beijing will be tempted to look for openings to exploit as a preoccupied U.S. stumbles forward in its presidential election year. That would be a blunder of horrific risk: It would suggest to the world that indeed there might be a wolf-warrior after all, and some day that wolf might show up at the door. Hmmm – didn’t someone once write that the two superpowers were destined for war?
Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate, author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book quartet (Marshall Cavendish International), taught at UCLA for 15 years and then at LMU for the last 10. He is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. The original version of this column appeared in the award-winning South China Morning Post, where he is a regular commentator.