TOM PLATE WRITES — It is still true, even in this speed-freak era of AI and machine-learning, that international diplomacy needs governments to station quality representatives in foreign capitals, and for international organisations to listen and learn, soak up the ineffable atmosphere, and interact with real people, especially those with “issues”, and report back home.
Long-distance artificial intelligence calibrations suffice for number problems and may work well enough for the Pentagon, but for the complex measurement of (sometimes insane) people and their crazy politics, AI comes up short precisely because of its artificial rationality.
Cut-rate diplomatic appointments can blow up in your face and trying to do things on the cheap with big-bucks campaign bozos or oily hacks can insult the very host country with whom tensions are building.
In this sense, the Biden administration deserves praise: two candidates who have emerged as the potential US ambassador to China are Nicholas Burns and Charlene Barshefsky. The former is a pleasant but blunt-as-he-has-to-be career diplomat and former State Department official; the latter is an expert lawyer with international trade expertise second to none.
Foreign Service officer Burns is a graduate of the highly-regarded Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; trade lawyer Barshefsky is famous for her amazing teamwork two decades ago with premier Zhu Rongji on China’s admission to the World Trade Organization.
As a former US intelligence official said of Burns: “Anyone appointed is going to be hawkish on China, and Nick at least is a seasoned diplomat.”
Russia and China, with their own mountains of problems, are ranked by the Biden administration as the main international challengers, but the true existential challenge comes not from afar but from within.
The US economy may well be recovering but the American psyche is still mostly flatlining. Washington would do better with its time and money if it were to focus less on how to destabilise Beijing or Moscow and more on how to restabilise an America that seems lost at home and adrift abroad.
The big search – deep, broad and realistic – is about taking America in a better direction.
This cannot be accomplished by conventional thinking: not within the besieged ranks of the US Foreign Service, for all the human gems it fields; nor within the pious sanctuary of the Council on Foreign Relations, scrambling for relevance; nor even from canonical American business schools (Harvard, etc), who can teach one plus one but not right from wrong.
The 2008 global meltdown spotlighted America’s own legions of greedy wolf warriors, feeding at the trough. Neither America’s nor China’s wolf warriors offer happy returns, but only our best deep thinkers, it seems, know this.
One is Richard Falk who, in his just-published political memoir Public Intellectual, is as successful as anyone in making the point that what’s needed is not simply a course correction but a new course.
The renowned Princeton University professor emeritus of international law admires the famous quote from the late William Sloane Coffin (iconic clergyman and anti-war champion): “For the world is now too dangerous for anything but the truth and too small for anything but love.”
No doubt such gooey sentiment will seem to our macho wolf warriors everywhere as mushy as the average Korean TV soap opera.
Not Falk, whose lifetime résumé merits some kind of global peace prize for his recognition that “…militarist approaches to the foreign policy of geopolitical actors have lost their effectiveness in most postcolonial contexts even while augmenting their destructiveness and human costs.
“The fact that China and Asia understand this, and the US and the West do not, helps explain China’s rise and the West’s decline.”
Deeply doubtful of the utility and validity of Marxism thanks to the Soviet disaster, but at the same time deeply alienated by presumptuous claims of American exceptionalism, Falk proposes that any Western evaluation of China should give it some credit, valid human rights issues notwithstanding, for marrying Marxism with market-driven thinking and transforming otherwise static state socialism into a “spectacular instrument of growth, influence and stature at home and throughout the world”.
Falk, who nowadays divides his time between his wife Hilal Elver’s Turkey and his adopted (and far warmer than Princeton) California, is no Asianist, much less a stereotype-prone Orientalist.
He honed his intellectual chops at Yale Law School; his career took him to the stratospheres of international law – ecological and human rights in particular – and on noteworthy near-impossible peace missions with post-Shah Iran.
For years, as the fearless UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, he bumped heads with the Israeli government almost as often as he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (annually since 2009).
Understanding China, he believes, requires a special effort. The good-versus-evil bifurcation produces policy astigmatism that clouds judgment. Naval-gazing – at China’s build-up in the South China Sea – need not trigger regional warfare if China’s motive is understood as strategically defensive rather than offensive, and if issues are negotiated, not militarised.
A bold statement was made last week by President Joe Biden. After 20 years in Afghanistan, American troops would be removed by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers.
Neither the al-Qaeda attack, nor the prolonged American counter-attack, accomplished much except to end the lives of many human beings. When will mankind learn?
Perhaps Biden, at 78, after such a long career, has it figured out: humanity needs fewer militaristic answers to very deep questions. If the Xi Jinping government interprets the Afghanistan withdrawal as American weakness, this would be a blunder.
Understanding America, as it tries to get its proper personality pieced back together, will also take a special effort now, especially in Beijing. Very rare political memoirs such as Falk’s can help both sides get things right.
Tom Plate, university professor and career author and journalist, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles