Sunday, December 8, 2019

Hollywood meets Asia: a review of McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning



Richard McGregor’s Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century has, according to the numerous blurbs on the cover and comments on the Amazon, received an overwhelming public approval since it was published in 2017. The book deals with the triangular relationship between the United States, Japan and China since the Communist Revolution in China until the Trump administration. Other Asian countries do appear from time to time, but play a very small role in the overall narrative.

The book is good, and perhaps that’s why it has received so much acclaim, as a narrative of that relationship. It is also interestingly written and can be read in a couple of days. It has all the advantage of a good reportage. But it has all of its disadvantages as well, and in my view the latter are much more important.

McGregor’s recitation of events is singularly devoid of deeper historical and geopolitical understanding, or perhaps more accurately, the author is either uninterested or unable to do it. It is much inferior to many books on China and Asia that I have reviewed on my blog:  Kissinger, Hung, Arrighi, Bickers, Jacques, Dasgupta. It is a useful book of references  (when something happened) and of a blow-by-blow history (with some omissions) but otherwise it is unlikely to help you understand things.

There are three countries in the book. They are called the bad (China), the clueless (Japan) and the benevolent (the United States). The entire book, from page 1 to page 377 follows that script. Like a good Hollywood movie, the baddie is not always bad, nor is the benevolent always benevolent but most of the time they do play their assigned roles.

McGregor is the follower of a usual script for such dramas. The bad country has to have some obsession or belief (say, like Dr. No in the early James Bond movies) that is beyond rational understanding or discussion. In this case, it is China’s obsession with the Japanese invasion and Nanjing massacre. Every “normal” country, McGregor avers, should have by now gotten over it, but China because it is a bad country (ruled by a communist party) refuses to do so.

Japan is alternatively naïve and stubborn, hapless and self-interested. It apologizes and then its PMs visit the Yasukuni shrine again; then it trades with China, and later it fears China overtaking it technologically. The United States is a benevolent and just older brother who tries to make the two squabbling sides see some sense and attempts at all costs to avoid conflict and to preserve stability in East Asia.

McGregor would never tell you in so many words that this is the gist  of his book—simply because thus told, it looks risibly like a caricature. But in reality it is.

The book never mentions that US benevolent post-War hegemonism in Asia was precisely done in order to lessen the communist (and thus Chinese) influence  (see Arrighi, Jacques). The US opened its market for Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese exports and helped them build themselves into prosperous industrial nations so that they would be immune to communist propaganda. This was indeed a remarkable deed, but it was not motivated by some profound altruism, but by a well-understood self-interest, by Realpolitik.

Similarly, later, the US extended the same welcome to China. Here again it was motivated, as Kissinger in his masterful “On China” and many other publications writes, by the desire to turn China from a neutral position in the Soviet-American conflict to an American ally. (Brzezinski and Deng in 1979 jokingly, or mockingly, drank the vodka that the Soviet ambassador presented to Brzezinski in order to celebrate the new Sino-American alliance). That calculation was moreover sustained by economic interests that US business had in penetrating the Chinese market. Now, that strategy might have gone, at some point, awry as the US has undoubtedly helped create in a prosperous and rising China a serious contender to its global power—but the calculation was again steeped in national self-interest.

These simple facts are totally absent from McGregor’s book. Surely, in a 400-page long book, one could have dedicated  say twenty pages to some reflections. But that seemed unnecessary to McGregor.

His criticism of Chinese “obsession” with Japanese war guilt is similarly unreflexive. I am of the opinion that the statute of limitation on World War II guilt has expired, but I do notice that this is far from being true and that China is also far from being unique in it. Israel is unlikely to put the Holocaust between brackets any time soon. Poland is mulling asking Germany (with whom it is in the European Union) to pay war reparations. It is impossible to understand the 1991-99 Balkan wars without reference to the genocides that took place during the World War II. The debate on who collaborated with the Nazis and when is very alive in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. One could go on.

So China’s insistence on the importance of the World War II is not singular. In order to render it so, McGregor highlights the fact that it was much less of an issue under Mao than later. But this is not surprising at all. Mao, like all communists, emphasized the ideological, not national, part of the war. He put together as “fascists” the imperial Japan and KMT. That reduced the national responsibility of the Japanese as such and transfered it more widely to the “enemies of the people”, whether Japanese or Chinese.

I went to an elementary school in communist Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia’s World War II experience was very similar to China’s.  A powerful country (Nazi Germany) brutally attacked it; it was helped in this attack by all other neighboring countries and by the “domestic traitors”. Only communist fought against everybody. In the reading of history that we got in school, the German people qua people were implicitly absolved: it was the German upper classes that created and benefited from Fascism, and found a willing ally in various domestic reactionaries. (It was the same script as taught/believed in East Germany.) This history is uncannily similar to China’s except that KMT did fight the Japanese unlike the domestic collaborators in Yugoslavia. But Mao was hardly likely to advertise that.

Thus, the fact that the Maoist China raised the “remorse” and “apology” much less frequently than the post-Dengist China is indeed explained by ideology. But McGregor is reluctant to accept this simple  explanation because it would place him in the same camp as Mao. So he prefers to believe that the fact that the Nanjing massacre became much greater issue with passage of time indicates some uniquely Chinese villainy or perfidy.  

McGregor could have also wondered why the Holocaust was much less present in worldwide conscience in the 1950s than it is today. It  is an utterly simplistic view that the political importance and social consciousness of committed crimes lessens with time. It more likely follows an inverted U-shape, becoming eventually irrelevant but not without reaching a peak at some point rather far in time from the original crime.

McGregor is one of the “narratores rerum” (Cicero; not in a laudatory way) who would give you the dates on when certain things happened, and interesting short life histories of the principals but little else. If you are yearning for some real understanding you have to look elsewhere.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Political Decay in Our Time. A review of Fukuyama’s vol. 2.


I have reviewed Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (OPO) here and here, and I could have written at least two additional reviews. It is a great book in many respects. Its sequel Political Order and Political Decay (POPD) is less so. It is a very good book but in its overarching essential idea and originality of discussion it is not at the level of its predecessor.

Technically, POPD has two objectives: first, to continue with the exposition of how the three pillars of good governance (strong state, rule of law and accountability) have been created in various parts of the world from the Industrial Revolution to today, that is to continue with the line of discussion from OPO which ended at the time of the Industrial Revolution;  and second, to look at the causes of political decay (institutional rigidity and repatrimonization). The first objective is much less clearly achieved than in the previous book: the country stories, while interesting, are hardly new and it is not always clear if they were truly necessary to highlight  a given idea. The second objective is discussed practically only in the last part of the book with reference to the United States.

I have to start the review with some negatives. The historical episodes that are discussed, at times with verve, are unfortunately also often somewhat cliché-ed. The capsule version of histories of Greece, Southern Italy, Nigeria, and Argentina resemble Wikipedia summaries which are useful if you want to learn history of a given country in ten pages, but otherwise neither new nor exciting. Moreover, just a couple of paragraphs (rather than the capsule version of history) would have been enough  to provide examples the author needs. The book is thus unnecessarily long (more than 600 pages) and at times seems to consist of  notes that an author takes from his readings in order to use them later in his own book. (Yes, some people do read Grundrisse, but do we need every writer’s Grundrisse pasted in his book?)

Lots of that unnecessary length is also due to quasi verbatim repetitions of certain points. I found these word for word repetitions rather annoying because they seem to be somewhat condescending to the reader. Early on Fukuyama makes a very interesting and important point that countries that democratize too early before a strong civil service has been created, almost inevitably develop clientilistic politics. He uses, among others, the examples of Germany (democracy after civil service) and Italy and Greece (the reverse) to illustrate his point. But then repeats this at least twenty times in the following chapters. One grows a bit tired of this repetition. Moreover, it is only on page 201 that we learn that the original idea about the sequencing of civil service and democracy belongs to Martin Shefter. I was thus left under the impression that no one, including possibly even the author, has read the book—as a book—from page 1 to page 609, because such copy-and-paste repetitions would have been deleted.

Let’s now move to substantive points.  

I found Fukuyama’s discussion of clientelism illuminating. He considers clientelism as a kind of proto-accountability. Full accountability of the rulers implies the existence of democracy and an impersonal (non-patrimonial) state. But short of that ideal, clientelism nevertheless imposes constraints on political leaders because they have to deliver “goods” to the electorate or more exactly to their voters. Fukuyama uses, in addition to the already mentioned Greece and Southern Italy, US in the 19th century (after Andrew Jackson) as a prototype of a clientilistic state. It was the Progressive Era in the 1920s and then FDR that managed to create a more impersonal civil service, even if never to the extent that it existed in advanced European countries. But currently the US is sliding, or even rushing, toward repatrimonization (I will address this later).

Another important point is Fukuyama’s disagreement with the idea of “extractive institutions” allegedly inherited from colonialism (Acemoglu and Robinson) and with geographical determinism (Engelman ad Sokoloff). Both are fundamentally the same: “While Acemoglu and Robinson criticize what they  characterize as economic determinism of writers such as Sachs and Diamond, and point to good institutions as the cause of development, they nonetheless trace the origin of institutions in turn to conditions of climate and geography.” (p. 235). Fukuyama’s disagreement is most clearly stated in the case of Africa where the European legacy is not “extractive institutions” but no institutions at all (p. 392); but in Latin America too, Argentina and Costa Rica illustrate the development paths that are exactly at the opposite of what geo-institutionalists would expect.

The last part of the book (some 100 pages) is dedicated to the decay of political institutions in the United States. It is important to underline that the book was written before Trump, so facile ascription of all evils to Trump and “populism” which is the bread-and-butter of political scientists today does not apply here. Problems that Fukuyama uncovers go much deeper than Trump. They are of four kinds.

The fist two are judicialization of the legislative function and adversarial legalism whereby normal legislative functions of a parliament (Congress in the US) are delegated to courts. It is through legal process that individuals, NGO and lobbyists decide what is the public interest. The shift towards many of the decisions being taken through the legal process (rather than a vote of representatives) might seem at first to be more democratic or participative until one realizes that the public interest is then left to be defined by whoever has most resources to pursue expensive legal suits or most patience to do so. Thus both lobbyists and NGOs come for criticism. And the legislature as well which has abdicated its natural role to define what is the public interest and is in the process of returning the US to being the country of “courts and parties” that it used to be in the 19th century.

The third is the “gift exchange” which is the essence of lobbyism and the core of the influence of private interest on government. Since the “gift exchange” (say, high paying job in the private sector for a former “friendly” politician) is not an immediate quid pro quo, but is delayed in time, it does not fall under the category of bribery although it fundamentally is.   

The last is vetocracy or the existence of too many veto players which makes political decision-making very difficult or totally stalled. While the first three ills are examples of political decay due to repatrimonization, the last one is an example of decay due to institutional rigidity: “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document, so get them to rethink its most basic tenets would be an uphill struggle” (p. 505).

In the Afterword written in 2015, Fukuyama responds to the critics who found his views of the US political system too harsh. It seems, on the contrary, in the light of what has transpired since 2015, that Fukuyama’s views have been rather confirmed.

Despite book’s problems (which could have been fixed by a good editor), and the fact that it is a less incisive book than its predecessor, POPD is still an excellent book, definitely worth reading. At times, after a few paragraphs that seem to come straight from one of the boilerplate Obama speeches, and with one’s attention flagging, there is suddenly a brilliant sentence that displays the magic of an erudite thinker. It is like Maradona lulling his opponents to sleep just in order to strike a more improbable goal.