TOM PLATE WRITES – This column seeks to contrast and compare Richard Falk, Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump with the outlook of young people we teach at universities. Don’t think that’s so easy to do!
Our young students get plenty of lectures. Consider nuclear apocalypse. Princeton University emeritus professor Richard Falk, often tabbed ‘the world’s leading international lawyer,’ notes in his extraordinarily far-seeing book Power Shift that it’s constantly drummed into us the silly notion that the time is just not ripe, due to today’s international tensions (blah, blah, blah), for nuclear disarmament to happen. “Utopian preconditions” to progress, Falk rightly sneers. I believe that sentiment mirrors the feelings of many intellectually frustrated young people today, who might wonder, as Falk puts it, whether the human species even wishes to survive at all.
Consider the issue of the PRC-versus-USA. How to teach about China? Currently enrolled in my university course are students from sectors of the U.S. who range from not knowing the Central Committee from Comedy Central, to citizen-students from China who just might be grandchildren of Central Committee members. In the best American academic tradition, we generally don’t ask – we research, we teach, we discuss – and in the Chinese way (more humility and wariness than secrecy) students generally don’t tell.
And so, a few years ago, when our university class in superpower perceptions on the part of China and the U.S. was launched, faculty colleagues were supportive, of course—although one chuckled and termed the pedagogical plunge a sheer “mission impossible.” He was only half-joking and, as it turned out, he was only half wrong. Still, overall today’s students care about understanding the dynamics of their immediate future. Nuclearized China-US tensions may not be like the epic natural sweep of climate change—not to mention the Covid-19 plague— but all these tensions nevertheless weigh as precariously on the world’s mental balance as if plutonium droplets dripping off the wings of the unknowing butterfly.
Balance in foreign policy is central. Former Vice President Joseph Biden, accepting last week the Democratic Party’s nomination to oppose President Donald Trump’s re-election, mentioned China only once in his comprehensive domestic-policy speech, while appealing to our better angels by steering clear of rhetorical gutter snipes about China. Now, how will the Trump super-production convention this week play the perceived panda problem – with a mugging or a hugging? Bet on the mug. There may just be enough on-the-fence voters that can be led to believe, faster than you can tweet Zhongnanhai, the kind of anti-China tropes that in the midst of a heated campaign sound close to conventional wisdom. And it is easier for Team Trump to sell the idea of China as wolf warrior than as pretty panda since in recent times that’s exactly how Beijing has been marketing itself.
How do international students tend to process the confusing scene? With more cosmopolitanism than many U.S.-educated natives. Neither hug nor crush the China panda, neither worship nor mutilate the American flag. No nation is wise enough to be right on every point, no one craven enough to be absolutely always in the wrong; that contravenes all common sense.
Consider the issue of interference in the internal affairs of other nations – a presumed normative international no-no, of course. But nations do it all the time: Moscow does it, sometimes, with poison. Sparta-Washington will not refrain from does it clumsily, opting for ‘shock and awe’ regime-change rather than the steady soft sell of soft power. Beijing, you have to admit, is too big to be nominal or neutral on some issues, even if it so desired. Rather, China can ‘interfere’ simply by creating new tensions or by over-responding to a deliberate American taunt, handing Trump a hot-button issue to tweet from here to eternity; or – alternatively – by staying calm, well under the world’s radar for the time being, calculating that a President Biden will prove more predictable and level-headed than jumpy Trump.
If there is one big book that can cover all the nuances of the bilateral relationship in the tsunami of a single semester, I haven’t heard of it. One problem is that many touted ‘experts’ have limited expertise – they know one or two topics on China very well, but little else about this huge and dynamic country. Some books are propagandistic, which has value, but not balanced scholarship. Others convey an attitude of American monochromatic swagger.
Despite these odds, my preference is to zone in on one special book, stay with it, absorb its wisdom, and integrate what else might be necessary to complete the picture.
For this purpose, “On China,” by Henry Kissinger, is still the single best serious book-analysis around. Not easy reading — but a special work of needed expanse, crafted by an accomplished academic for whom the mists of history always hover over the present, and who intimately participated in many of the pivotal events recounted. Extra credit goes to an author who actually interacted with key figures who helped make the history with which we have to live.
Students will tend to rise to the challenge if they sense that the challenge is authentic rather than synthetic. Sometimes I get inspired by their doggedness – by their acceptance of two-sides to a story, of three-dimensional situations and even of contrasting, counter-factual scenarios. But they would also deeply appreciate some sensible skyway to heaven: some workable plan to escape the calamity of policy silos into which we are dug. And yet, even the Kissinger perspective, for all its depth, never rises above the horizon of nation-states juggling their own interests.
My sharpest students know that we’re stuck in one titanic historic rut, not to mention in a monster pandemic. More than a university course or two will be needed, they know that too. But we must plot a great escape, with probably not a lot of time left to engineer it. The right course can nudge them in the right direction.
Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and founder of Asia Media International. the innovative LMU student web-magazine. The original version of this column appeared in the acclaimed South China Morning Post, where Prof Plate columns regularly appear.