Monday, 29 June 2009

“The Coming China Wars”, by Peter Navarro (FT Press)

Navarro-ComingChinaWars A sensational look at the “China Threat”

In The Coming China Wars, Peter Navarro describes the threats presented by China’s dramatic rise as an economic and military power. The book (now in this expanded and updated paperback edition), covers the complete range of issues that affect the US-China relationship, as Navarro puts it, the “China Wars” of the title. These issues are predominantly in the economic sphere, but the author also covers China’s military modernisation, increasing environmental degradation, China’s voracious appetite for natural resources, and numerous human rights issues and their implications for the future.

The book is meant to offer an “alternative path to safely manage China’s growth and avoid global catastrophe” (emphasis in original). What it really does, though, is provide a sensational account of China’s faults and the contentious issues inherent in the US-China relations (usually presented in a way highly critical of the PRC, but also of US corporations who take advantage of China’s lax enforcement standards), and an image of the PRC as a “cold and callous government”, disinterested, negligent, and a selfish economic cheat, with its finger hovering over the trigger, ready to start a “hot” war.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the author, reading The Coming China Wars is an entertaining experience. Navarro’s writing style is very accessible and he has a gift for turning the occasional amusing or pithy phrase. His language is frequently hyperbolic and/or sensational, lacking the balance or restraint that is normal for academics (the author is a business professor at the University of California-Irvine). For example:

Trade with China has “vaporised literally millions of manufacturing jobs and driven down wages”

China has “slave-labor conditions coupled with a potent array of unfair trade practices that violate virtually every tenet and norm of international trade”

Manufacturing employees, “Upon being injured or maimed,… simply become the detritus of a ruthless manufacturing machine”

“virtually nothing coming out of today’s China should be "considered safe”

Chinese entrepreneurs and manufacturers are described as having “cold, black, godless hearts”

China’s “brass-knuckled, amoral approach to securing its oil reserves” is facilitating tragedies in Burma and Darfur, as well as “rapidly accelerating the global arms race and nuclear proliferation”

All very sensational, and no doubt most readers will be able to tease out the facts from among the general hyperbole, but his use of such language is important to note.

It would be difficult to ‘prove’ the author wrong, as he provides plenty of concrete examples and facts to support his argument (everyone’s heard of the poisonous toys and medicines, the dodgy cars and other manufactures, for example). He draws extensively on existing literature (predominantly journalism) and also includes plenty of quotations from officials and scholars to make and back up his case, but Navarro doesn’t provide enough of a moderating tone to tease out norms from the (admittedly not infrequent) exceptional examples of malfeasance. The lack of sufficient bibliographical information is a considerable shortcoming, and prevents deeper study or possible follow up, not to mention calling into question the depth of his research approach. Even the book’s website doesn’t offer any bibliographic information.

Each new section is opened with a quotation, but there are no sources listed for the information and quotations used in the main body of the text. Also, at one point, when trying to portray the shortcuts China takes in manufacturing, and the resultant dangers this presents, he uses the following construction: “To understand the very real dangers, consider these fictional scenarios – which are all based on real-world events”. As someone who endeavours to make a real contribution to the study of China’s Rise, it is disappointing that he would resort to fictional scenarios, when there are, by his own admission, plenty of factual examples available.

If someone wanted to have a distilled account of the China-skeptics’ agenda, Navarro’s The Coming China Wars is a perfect starting point. The lack of balance is disappointing, but there is a wealth of interesting (not to mention amusing to read) information contained in this volume. I would, however, direct people towards Ted C. Fishman’s China, Inc. and James Kynge’s China Shakes the World before I recommended The Coming China Wars.

Some interesting stuff, but not a book that will be taken particularly seriously by those in a position to make decisions. Given his academic background, the author should have been prepared to provide sources, and perhaps tone down the shrill sensationalism. This could have been a far more powerful and immediate book if a little more care and attention had been paid to style and framework. Regardless, some interesting stuff that offers plenty to make one think, but there are better books out there.

Further Reading: Ross H. Munro & Richard Bernstein, The Coming Conflict With China (1998); Ted C Fishman, China, Inc. (2006); James Kynge, China Shakes the World (2006); Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall (2007); Sara Bongiorni, A Year Without “Made in China” (2008); Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World (2009); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); Hugo de Burgh, China: Friend or Foe? (2006); George Walden, China: A Wolf in the World? (2008); Paul Midler, Poorly Made In China (2009)

[Recommended alternatives are linked]

Monday, 22 June 2009

“The Post-American World”, by Fareed Zakaria (Penguin)


The Rise of the Rest, and what it means for America and the World

“This is a book not about the decline of America but rather the rise of everyone else.” This is a pretty interesting statement, especially for foreign policy realists, who consider a gain in power by one necessitates a decline for another. But, Zakaria is not attempting to prove Chalmers Johnson and Niall Fergusson’s “blowback” theory, rather he offers a mostly hopeful sketch of global politics in the 21st Century: “the rise of the rest need not be destabilizing. America is not sinking fast, about to be replaced by a single country.”

In The Post-American World, Zakaria (international editor of Newsweek and a host on CNN) considers what the world might look like when the United States no longer holds its clear position of dominance. This post-American environment will be “one defined and directed from many places and by many people.” While this process has clearly begun, with the 2008 Economic Crisis and its global shockwaves, the United States still holds a unique position in the world, and remains a template for modernism and development (with undoubted cracks in the facade starting to show). Its ‘hard power’ (military might) remains unquestioned, but the reality is that across the world, “economics is trumping politics”, and the United States has recently not been doing too well, economically.

The author provides in-depth examinations of how the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) might affect the world system as they grow their power and influence – whether at the expense of the US or not. He identifies this as just the latest in a string of three major “tectonic power shifts” – the first was the rise of the Western World; the second was the Rise of the United States; and now we are seeing the Rise of the Rest. The best parts are when Zakaria discusses the rise and development of modern China.

Zakaria also looks at the state of the world as it is, stripping it of the media-inflated sense of insecurity and imbalance, and also addressing anti-American sentiment (“Everywhere you go, people angrily denounce American foreign policy. But where is the actual evidence of regional instability? Most Middle Eastern countries… are booming”). It’s refreshing for a journalist to write about the shortcomings and faults of the media, and Zakaria argues that “war and organized violence have declined dramatically over the last two decades”, but “the immediacy of the [TV] images and the intensity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle combine to produce constant hyperbole.”

Ultimately, Zakaria argues, the United States and the rising powers will all need to work together: “we now live in a world i which common action is not just desirable, but vital… International cooperation is a tricky animal. Even where there’s a will, there is often no clear way” to proceed. The author argues that the US is still needed to provide “rules, institutions, and services that help solve the world’s major problems, while giving other countries – crucially, the emerging powers – a stake in the system.” Unfortunately, the United States has not been doing this of late – but neither has any other country.

Zakaria is a shrewd observer of the global stage. The Post-American World is an excellently written and argued book, and one that should be read by all who have an interest in how the future of international politics might look. However, there are a couple of shortcomings here. Firstly, I spent a long time waiting for that “eureka” moment – a concept that would (re-)define how I looked at the world. Perhaps this is down to timing (I didn’t read the hardback edition, so I’m a year behind, I guess); as books of a similar theme start to overflow the shelves, it’s possible that the book’s content has just become too familiar.

This is not to say that one should ignore the book. From not seeing international affairs as a zero-sum game, the book gets its greatest strength. It is a popular feature of many books looking to the future to see the US in an unstoppable downward spiral. Zakaria does recognize that there are plenty of examples that might suggest a decline (the state of the dollar, the troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan), but it is not the end. While China’s rise is nothing less than spectacular, it brings with it considerable potential for disaster and/or disruption: it’s growing too fast, and environmental issues are acute.

Despite this, though, it is an excellent introduction to the changing nature of global politics and economics – accessible and well written by an intelligent, gifted journalist. I would recommend this before many, if not all, of the other books of a similar theme and topic.

Highly recommended among an increasingly-crowded field.

Also try: Bill Emmott, Rivals (2008); Parag Khanna, The Second World (2008); Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere (2008)

Sunday, 7 June 2009

“The Age of American Unreason”, by Susan Jacoby (Old St. Publishing)

Jacoby-AgeOfAmericanUnreason Dumbing Down & the Future of America and Democracy

In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby gets to the bottom of a new wave of anti-intellectualism that has saturated American political and popular society. Considering the natures and characters of America’s founding generation – particularly Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams – to suggest that being “an intellectual” is a negative is certainly strange. The United States was founded by a collection of intellectuals the likes of whom have not been seen in decades (if not centuries), yet the current climate is one of acute anti-intellectualism and ideology-infused blindness.

Combining historical context and analysis with contemporary observations, the author dissects an America that is decidedly at odds with its history and the Enlightenment ideals on which it was founded. Jacoby first walks us through a brief overview of her appraisal of America today, taking in such topics as the prevalence of a-literacy in American adults, a lack of scientific knowledge, “the absence of curiosity about other points of view”, and how combined these have led to the political popularity of the “common man”, “average Americans” and McCain’s bizarre pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.

“The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent, represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions.”

After this quick, very strong contemporary chapter, Jacoby takes us through the various key ages of American intellectual history. At this point the book remains interesting, but it loses some of the impact of the introduction and first chapter (before picking up again in chapter eight). She first discusses the age of the Founders up until the Civil War, when the aforementioned “polymaths” reveled in wide-ranging and diverse study and pursuits. Moving on from there, the author takes us through the years between the Civil War and World War I (and the popularity of social Darwinism – only by another name); the Red Scare of the inter-war years (which bears a considerable amount of blame for American public’s suspicion of intellectuals); the post-war increase in “middlebrow” interests, which the author remembers fondly; the sixties (“unquestionably [a] favourite whipping post”) and seventies.

She also explains the key, consistent, foes of intellectualism and abettors of anti-intellectualism – namely religion and television. Jacoby has a particular objection to television’s impact on attention spans. Fundamentalist religious beliefs (but not more liberal denominations) and obstacles to intellectual freedom and growth are particularly targeted for rebuke: “Regardless of how fundamentalists fine-tune their beliefs, there is unquestionably a powerful correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education” (true outside of the US, too).

Of particular annoyance for Jacoby is that many who toe a fundamentalist line frequently “are as ignorant and poorly educated about the particulars of religion as they are about science.” The “Other Sixties”, when religious fundamentalists began their campaigns and proselytizing to help bolster their particular goals, went largely unnoticed in suburbs, where it was taken for granted that religion and the politics of education were separate, and teaching evolution in schools was not in the least controversial. With the marginalisation of once mainstream Protestantism, and the rise in affiliation with stricter Southern Baptism (1980s), which led to Reagan’s victory and open courting of the religious right, things started to change. During this chapter (eight), there is little doubt that the author believes American religious fundamentalists have done a considerable amount of damage to the United States. Things that mattered in the opening decades of the United States weren’t really of great import, but in today’s world they are considerable. For example:

“creationism, which denies the most critical scientific insights not only of the twentieth but of the nineteenth century, has adversely affected public education in many areas of the nation and is one important reason why American high school students know less about science than their contemporaries in Europe and Asia.”

The Age of American Unreason is a very well-written book. Jacoby has a style that is both intelligent and easily accessible at the same time – avoiding all the negative stereotypes certain members of the conservative side of American politics are fond of throwing about. However, she does have a tendency to quote from some obscure authors or thinkers, which don’t always add to her argument or position.

Despite it being obvious that many of her arguments are based on observations of the political right, she is equally unsparing of the political left, and also scathing of the deleterious effect of “infotainment” and the “dumbing down” of American society and culture. Curiosity for varied opinions and points of view is, according to Jacoby,

“essential to the intellectual and political health of any society. In today’s America, intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, whether on the left or right, tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo. This obduracy is both a manifestation of laziness and the essence of anti-intellectualism.”

What the author has to say is frequently relevant to the UK, much to our despair (particularly the rise of a-literacy, the prevalence of infotainment, and a distinct increase in anti-intellectualism), though there is also plenty within about what makes America so unique and equally baffling to outsiders.

Sometimes funny (particularly when decrying the use of the word “folks” in American politics today), scathing and passionate, yet always clear and well-argued, the book is of tremendous value to anyone studying America, or with an interest in its culture. It has the added benefit of being an enjoyable read, even if the pace (and also my interest) does sometimes lull in certain chapters.

A worthy successor to Richard Hofstadter’s excellent American Anti-Intellectualism (which, the author admits, was an inspiration), Jacoby has written an essential, entertaining and lucid indictment of contemporary American (political) culture.

Essential reading.

Also try: Richard Hofstadter, American Anti-Intellectualism (1973); Nicholas Guyatt, Have a Nice Doomsday (2007); Justin Webb, Have a Nice Day (2008); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant (2005); Mark A. Smith, Right Talk (2009)

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

“The Ascent of Money”, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin)


How money has made the world go round

Until the economic crisis we are currently experiencing, it appeared many that the world’s financial service gurus were the new masters of the universe. City and finance-sector bonuses were the envy of everyone else, and each year the UK and US grind out an ever-increasing number of MBAs and accountants.

In The Ascent of Money, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson gives us a history of the financial system that just broke. Starting with characters such as Pizarro and his plundering of South America for silver and gold, Ferguson discusses a number of specific issues in each of his chapters: currency, the emergence of banks, bonds (which “have power because they are the fundamental base for all markets” that determine the values of pretty much everything), risk, the housing booms and busts, and finally “Chimerica”.

One stated purpose of the book is “to offer the lay reader an introduction to finance and, in particular, to financial history.” The world financial system is based on a number of developments hailing from Europe – most frequently Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. The book does not seem to take a position as to the morality of the financial system: while the author acknowledges the immoral qualities of some who inhabit this realm, and “despite our deeply rooted prejudices against ‘filthy lucre’… money is the root of most progress.” The British and Dutch empires, the rise to power of the US, and also the contemporary rise of China could not have happened without mastery of the financial system.

The author explains, in a manner totally understandable and clear to any lay person, how the system works and what the system is capable of: “money does not literally make the world go round. But it does make staggering quantities of people, goods and services go around the world.” Jargon is explained clearly and quickly, and the author’s style is fluid and quick.

Ferguson shows us how nothing in business and economics is new: Bubbles always burst, sooner or later; Greed will inevitably morph into fear when these bubbles and their foundations start to look shaky. The globalisation of finance and war is nothing new, either – the most successful mercenary (condottiere) operating in the mid-14th Century Italy was in fact an Essex boy, Sir John Hawkwood, while the war was financed through government debt.

Ferguson is good at using a varied selection of examples from around the world – both macro and micro – to illustrate his arguments and history. Be it the Glasgow housing projects, the Napoleonic and World Wars, or the Italian city-states, the author offers a colourful, entertaining collection of case studies to help improve our understanding of the evolution of money and finance.

From the immensely powerful Medici family in Italy (in 1385, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici would be reminiscent of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 3, as he tried to make the family legitimate), to the stock market bubble that caused the French Revolution (the architect of which, John Law, was also a convicted murderer), and also the exceptionally successful and obscenely wealthy Rothschilds family, Ferguson tells us the story of booms and busts like never before.

The most interesting chapter for me, though, was the aforementioned “From Empire to Chimerica”. Starting with the West’s forays into Asia and in particular the British Empire’s (“history’s most successful narco-state”) role in the Opium Wars, and then the slow shift into the interconnectedness of China and America and what this means for the world; how the Chinese propensity to save has allowed American profligacy to continue (the US borrowed $800 billion in 2007). Ferguson describes this change as “one of the most astonishing shifts there has ever been in the global balance of financial power”:

“The globalisation of finance has… blurred the old distinction between developed and emerging markets, turning China into America’s banker – the Communist creditor to the capitalist debtor, a change of epochal significance.”

“It has never been more necessary to understand the ascent of money than it is today.” With this book, Ferguson has provided an accessible, highly readable and even gripping account of the history of money.

By the Same Author: Virtual History (1998), The House of Rothschild Pt.1 (1999) & Pt.2 (2000), The Cash Nexus (2002), Empire (2004), Colossus (2005), The Pity of War (2006), War of the World (2007)