Trump’s global war on TikTok

By Robert Wright, Aug 13 2020

As you may have heard, President Trump is waging thermonuclear war against a smartphone app. Last week he declared, in an executive order, that the famously zany video app TikTok represents a national emergency and will be crippled by new legal restrictions come late September—unless, he has said, it’s sold to an American company by the Chinese company that owns it.  

You may have also heard that Chinese political and corporate leaders aren’t happy about this. But you probably haven’t heard that lots and lots of regular Chinese people aren’t happy about it. This is something that, so far as I can tell, the American media isn’t reporting.  

In fact, to confirm my suspicion about this grassroots blowback, I had to go beyond googling and email a Chinese-American friend who for years lived in China and now follows China closely as part of his job back here in the States. He emailed back, “There's certainly a lot of popular resentment at the Trump Administration for the TikTok ban.” Many Chinese people are “livid,” he continued, “that Trump has tried to kneecap the one Chinese app to finally break through globally.” 

In other words: Trump’s latest move has strengthened nationalist sentiment in China. And you know who likes to keep nationalist sentiment strong in China? Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, whose popularity is directly proportional to it. 

Kind of ironic! After all, a professed purpose of Trump’s increasingly hostile stance toward China is to weaken its authoritarian leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a landmark speech delivered last month at the Richard Nixon library, said the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to that end. (He “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change,” the Wall Street Journal noted.) Yet Trump, rather than engage the Chinese people, is alienating them—and in the process has empowered the regime.

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George Floyd and American foreign policy

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

In early June, small groups of demonstrators gathered in Israel and the West Bank to protest the killing of two men. One was George Floyd and the other was Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who on May 30, while making his daily trek to a school for people with special needs, was killed by Israeli police. Protesters held signs that said #BlackLivesMatter and signs that said #PalestinianLivesMatter.

Are these two cases really comparable? Does the moral logic behind America’s Black Lives Matter protests naturally extend to a country 5,000 miles away?

Yes is just the beginning of my answer. Comparing the cases of George Floyd and Eyad al-Hallaq can be the first step toward a broad re-examination of American foreign policy. The George Floyd moment is an excellent time to ask why, in various countries, the United States routinely contributes to the killing, brutalization, and oppression of so many people—and why pretty much all those people are people of color.

It’s easy to point to differences between the cases of Floyd and al-Hallaq. Al-Hallaq, like all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had faced discrimination of a more formal kind than Floyd faced. He didn’t, for example, get to vote in Israeli elections, even though the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territory on which he lived.

The incoherence of the anti-China left

By Robert Wright, May 16 2020

Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.

Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.  

I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect. 

Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.

For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?) 

And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.   

One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.  

Globalization as a moral good

By Robert Wright, May 16 2020

The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature. 

Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!

This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:

1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.

To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.

It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.

What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:

2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.

That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.

Let’s kill the aiding-and-abetting meme once and for all!

By Robert Wright, Apr 25 2020

This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers. 

The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it: 

Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. 

OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:

But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. 

I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.   

Steve Bannon and the struggle for America’s post-pandemic soul

By Robert Wright, Apr 11 2020

When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” 

But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion. 

Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.  

Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening. 

Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”

Did the World Health Organization fail us?

By Robert Wright, Apr 11 2020

This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy. 

Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”

This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.

In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.

Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.

Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.

The China Derangement Syndrome

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign. 

Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.” 

There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.

Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.

To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together. 

One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did

But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate. 

You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!

Why neoliberals should love Bernie

By Robert Wright, Mar 07 2020

Three months ago, on the website Counterpunch, Richard Ward wrote that Bernie Sanders is “the one possible challenger to the neoliberal order.” That status, he went on to assert, accounted for the timing of the Senate impeachment trial; it was the neoliberal order’s way of keeping Sanders off the campaign trail. I can only imagine what Ward thought this week after the Democratic establishment swung into action to convert Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina into victory on Super Tuesday.   

If Biden’s resurrection was indeed in some sense the work of the “neoliberal order,” the effort may have been misguided. However qualified Sanders is to overthrow that order, he’s also qualified—maybe uniquely qualified—to save the things about it that many neoliberals profess to cherish, things that may otherwise suffer a grim fate.

To see what I mean, you have to first appreciate an odd thing about the word “neoliberal.” Unlike most ideological labels, it is claimed by virtually no one. It’s used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like “a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.” And that’s not the kind of phrase you put in your LinkedIn profile.   

But even if no one wears the neoliberal label proudly, and even if the term is now thrown around so loosely as to make it unclear who really merits the label, it’s possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term “neoliberal” back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies—policies collectively called “the Washington consensus”—and an underlying philosophy. Adherents of that philosophy are still around, and many of them—neoliberals in a precise and not-necessarily-pejorative sense—are now being called neoliberals in the vaguer, pejorative sense.

These are the people I’m calling neoliberals, and here is the point I want to make about them: If their detractors are right—if they are mere tools of rapacious capitalism, cloaking their true motives in liberal cliches—then they should definitely oppose Sanders. But if their goals are the more high-minded ones that they profess, Sanders may be their man and Joe Biden may not.

Tom Cotton, soldier in Bill Kristol’s proxy war against evil

By Robert Wright, Jan 18 2020

Among the things I dislike about each fresh burst of American warmaking is seeing its cheerleaders bask in the spotlight. Consider Senator Tom Cotton, who has been unsettlingly visible since the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. 

Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol, who played a big role in getting the US to invade Iraq and has since championed various other forms of American belligerence, many of them aimed at Iran. Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise. (August 26: “Cotton: Greenland Purchase Would Secure ‘Vital Strategic Interests’.”)    

You may, like me, find Cotton hard to take, but there’s virtue in persevering and paying attention to his recent doings. They nicely illustrate some key components of America’s war-starting and war-sustaining machinery—the powerfully primitive worldview that drives it, the dubious logic employed to justify it, and the sleazy tactics that are sometimes used to silence its critics. 

Exhibits A and B, from the past 10 days: (1) A New York Times op-ed Cotton wrote, defending the killing of Suleimani; (2) a letter that he and two other senators sent to Trump’s attorney general, requesting an investigation into a group that criticized the killing of Suleimani.

1. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed. This piece is notable for, among other things, employing a rhetorical device that has impeded human understanding since the dawn of civilization. You might call it the “falsely implied comparison.”  

In the course of casting various Democrats’ reactions to the assassination in a negative light, Cotton wrote in the Times that “Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.”