Trump, China, And The Geopolitics Of A Crisis

interview with Stephen Kotkin
Tuesday, April 7, 2020

To watch the video, click here.

Peter Robinson: A professor of history at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution here at Stanford. Stephen Kotkin is one of the Nation's most compelling observers of global affairs past and present. Dr. Kotkin is now working on the third and final volume of his definitive biography of Joseph Stalin. Stephen, thanks for making the time to join us. Welcome to this special work from home Edition of Uncommon Knowledge.

Stephen Kotkin: Great to be back.

Peter Robinson: We'll come to the Coronavirus in a moment. First, China and what's gone wrong. Here's a quotation, the late Hoover fellow Henry Rowen writing in 1996. "When will China become a democracy? The answer is around the year 2015. This prediction is based on China's impressive economic growth, which in turn fits the way freedom has grown elsewhere in Asia..." China was supposed to follow the pattern of South Korea and Taiwan. You start with economic freedoms, you achieve economic growth, the population begins to demand political freedoms and you end up with democracy. That has not happened, how come?

Stephen Kotkin: First of all, God bless Henry Rowen. And unfortunately, he did not predict the future properly. Would have been better had Henry been right. I'll give you two quick answers to your opening question, Peter. First, an important point is that, it's nonsense that authoritarian regimes have some type of unwritten social contract with their population, so that the population agrees to give up their freedom, and the regime promises to raise standards of living. The reason that's nonsense is because if the regime fails to uphold its side of the bargain. For example, if it fails to continue to generate economic growth, the regime doesn't say, Oh, we failed to uphold the contract and so we're leaving power voluntarily."

Peter Robinson: Right?

Stephen Kotkin: Of course not. The regime instead says, we're gonna use more repression. And we're gonna ramp up the nationalist xenophobia or whatever tools they have in the toolkit. So, it's very important to understand that there is no unwritten social contract or bargain with authoritarian regime. They do not leave voluntarily, ever, for the most part, rare exceptions. The second important point and answer to your question is that the China is ruled by a Communist Party. We forgot about this. We tended to downplay the idea that it was still ruled by a Communist Party. But we've seen how important that dimension of the question is. A communism in rule is an all or nothing proposition. You can't be half communist. In other words, you're either a monopoly regime, or you begin to disintegrate, either you're a sole party, and you don't broke any possible rival competition in the political sphere. Or people who want different political parties and they don't need your monopoly anymore. This is the prime lesson of the history of communism, that the party rule is an all or nothing monopoly or dissolution proposition. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party spent a great deal of time studying this question and has taught all its cadre why the Soviet Union fell. They study the Soviet collapse endlessly, and Xi Jinping, the head of the party in China, speaks about this publicly. So, The Communist Party cannot allow alternatives to its power. Because otherwise that makes the party obsolete and begins the process of dissolution. What you see, however, you see them indulge market economics and retains centralized political power, but indulge the market, because they need the economic growth. They need to benefit from the rising standard of living and everything else. However, when the market grows, it becomes a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. Because people have their own wealth, their own sources of power, their own sense of independence, and they begin to talk about politics as if they have the right to do so, as if it's not the Communist Party's monopoly. So, the party indulges, it allows markets to expand and then it clamps down on the market. It still wants the growth but it's afraid of the political consequences of the growth of people's independence, autonomy, power, wealth, in other words all the things that we support in our research at constitution.

Peter Robinson: Stephen, I want to go back and just highlight this point. I can remember asking you what you've devoted a major portion of your professional life to mastering the material on the Soviet archives. And I once asked you, what's the big finding when you study the Soviet archives? And you immediately replied, they were communists. The notion that the Soviet Union by the time of Brezhnev, they stopped believing, it was just a great power struggle. They were imperialist. And Stephen Kotkin said, "No, they were communists." I don't know of any... Honestly, I don't know of anyone who believes that the Communist Party in China is serious about it's communism. It's all that we used to hear about the Soviet Union in the old days, and you say, "Oh yeah, they are, they are communist." Is that correct? Or do you want to add some nuance? You want to qualify it in some ways?

Stephen Kotkin: You're right, Peter. The secret of the Soviet archives was that they were communists. And so what does this mean? It has two dimensions, one dimension, you could call the dogma or the ideology. The other dimension is the organizational structure, the Leninist party. And so you can watch the dogma unravel. You watch the ideology, get chipped away, until everybody is a cynic, rather than a partial cynic or a minority cynic. However, the Leninist Party organization which means that there's no political system of legitimate voting where multiple parties and secret ballot elections get to compete, with different programs. There's no peacefully leaving power, when the people vote you out of office. Instead, there is a permanently endowed party rule which monopolizes not just the political sphere but the public sphere and imposes censorship on everybody else. So, you can watch the ideology erode. And we've watched that in China. But the party somehow doesn't give up its monopoly position of power.

Peter Robinson: Alright.

Stephen Kotkin: It begins to substitute in the ideology Peter, you begin to see the nationalist story, fill some of the vacuum. So that the party's ideology as it recedes, there's a new ideology Chinese greatness, Chinese history, Chinese civilization, Chinese values under party rule, however. Once they give up the party monopoly, which is what happened in the Soviet Union, the whole thing unravels, like the house of cards that it is. However, if the resolve is there with the elite, and the nationalist card that they play and using repression, if all of that works, they can hold on to power even with the erosion of the ideology. So, we're talking about an organizational phenomenon, party appointments to all major positions, permission of the party, to invest in a large scale in something or other, party directives to state owned enterprises, party directives to the private economy and forcing private entrepreneurs to join the party and be subjected to party dictates, party dictates of the banking system. So that the banking system doesn't invest where it thinks capital can be most efficient, but where it thinks it can support the rule of the party. So, this is what we've seen in China the entire time, even as they have benefited from permitting markets to expand and the private economy to expand. There's always been a limit. And I never expected the party to liberalize. There are some party up our cheeks who believe that liberalization is compatible with the survival of party rule. Those are your Gorbachev like people.

Peter Robinson: Right?

Stephen Kotkin: They think if you open up, you allow pluralism, first you will allow not just markets, you'd allow pluralism in the economy but pluralism politically, that party rule survives. We have no historical case where the party opened up and Communist Party monopoly survive. This is what they've gone to school with in Xi Jinping China, and so I anticipated not an opening but a crackdown. Now they still need the economic growth. They still need the benefits of the market. And so, it's one of those Yin Yang, where they clamp down, they open up, they clamp down, they open up.

Peter Robinson: Steven here, China, present day this very moment. China during the Coronavirus crisis. Here's Walter Russell read in the Wall Street Journal on March 16th, just a couple of weeks ago. "In an ironic twist, an epidemic that started in China may end by increasing Beijing's international reach. The greatest impact of the pandemic will come in less developed countries. Aid donations plus propaganda about the supposed superiority of China's governance model will find sympathetic ears in many countries. China will have opportunities to deepen security, economic, and political relationships with governments around the world." And underneath that, to my way of reading that, is the following question. To what extent does the Communist Party in China remain loyal to the communist dream of, it sounds crude, but it is the communist dream worldwide revolution and to what extent are they willing to supplant the strictly speaking communist aim or goal with a more and limited Chinese Imperial, of the old historical aim of local hegemony? Over to you

Stephen Kotkin: Again, great question, Peter. So, China is the largest economy with such an opaque political regime ever. They hide their policy process, they hide their motivations from their own people and from the rest of the world. But we can deduce their aims from their actions. China's aims in order of importance to their rulers are threefold. The first and most important by far is regime preservation at any cost, they will stop at nothing to keep that regime in power. The second goal that we can deduce from their actions is the pursuit of primacy in East Asia, their own region. This includes the eviction of the U.S. from its military bases in the first island chain, and even the weakening or dissolution of U.S. bilateral alliances in each stage. The third aim is the build out of a grand Eurasia, folding in Russia folding in Iran and reorienting Europe, away from Atlantisism away from the Atlantic and toward China. A Eurasian reorientation including of Germany away from the Atlantic economy and the U.S. Alliance. This is a breathtaking grand strategy. It's not something abstract, like world revolution, world domination, spreading Chinese civilization. It's concrete domination of their region, East Asia and domination of the Eurasian landmass. The Chinese leaders are pursuing these aims, largely without overturning the existing order. They're doing it inside the current order within, using trade, using infrastructure, using loans and aid and diplomacy, as well as us mistakes. This is something that we have to come to grips with as a nation. We've begun to do so but there's a long way to go.

Peter Robinson: Stephen, back for a moment to the Soviet Union. If this isn't a valid question I can count on you to let me know. But it occurred to me the Soviet the famines of the 1930s, the German invasion during the Second World War. We haven't experienced anything like that, of course, thank goodness. But this Coronavirus locked event, a national calamity. Two months ago we had the strongest economy, by some measures, in several decades unemployment particularly among African Americans, Hispanics, the less advantaged groups in this country was at the lowest levels ever recorded. Real income was beginning to rise. And today we've locked down the economy Goldman Sachs is predicting this quarter the economy will shrink at an annual rate of 24%. We haven't had anything like that since the Great Depression. In fact, I'm not sure we had anything quite as sharp drop is that since in the Great Depression. So, this is in its own way a national calamity. Is there anything from the Soviet experience which you know, so well, that comes to mind, lessons to learn.

Stephen Kotkin: So, you're right. This is very serious and moreover, it's potentially very long term. Now, once again, we're early. And it's hard to make predictions. There were people making predictions yesterday and last week and two weeks ago, and a lot of those predictions are worth nothing. So, I would be cautious about predicting the future. But obviously, this is a very serious challenge. And the challenge could get significantly worse, as well as significantly better. In a crisis, what you discover, Peter, is that you need two things. The first thing you need is competent and compassionate leadership, competent and compassionate leadership. What was interesting about the Soviet Union was that it had competence but not compassionate leadership. It fought World War Two, for example, the greatest test any society has ever faced. Invasion of the Nazi land army with its allies. 3.3 million men on invasion day, June 22 1941. It faced that with competent but not compassionate leadership in the sense that the Soviets did not value life. They could lose a million men here and a million men there and it was just there and slave collective farmers, of which there were millions more, whose lives could be wasted by the regime in pursuit of defense of the country. The second thing you need besides competent and compassionate leadership is social solidarity and trust. Social Solidarity and trust, also is an interesting way to look at the Soviet Union in World War Two, because they had social solidarity but they didn't have the trust. The police, the secret police were ubiquitous. The repression there was massive terror, all during the war. And nonetheless, the society held together. So, the regime did not collapse and the society did not collapse. They had a version, but not the version of what you need in a crisis. Now, if you look at overall World War Two, or the Cold War, and the struggle, first against Germany and Japan, and then against the Soviet Union, you see that democracies are better than totalitarian regimes at mass mobilization of resources, because their leadership is compassionate, not just competent, and because their social solidarity is based upon trust, not coercion, plus a sense of nationalism, or tragedy. And so both the U.K. and especially the U.S. were superior at mass mobilization during the war and during the Cold War, after the hot war against its authoritarian or totalitarian adversaries. Whether that's Nazi Germany and Japan during the war or the Soviet Union afterwards. So, this is a long game, Peter. It's a very long game and the advantages are on the side of democracies that have the compassion as well as the competence and that have the trust as well as the social solidarity. However, having said that, you don't win, just because your side has better tools potentially. You win because people step up. The leadership actually performs or outperforms expectation. The Social Solidarity increases, it strengthens over time. You win because you earn it, not just because you're predestined with superior tools at the beginning, this is the challenge for us. We're not gonna win this battle, unless we rise to the occasion. It's very, very important to understand that we have the attributes that nobody else has. The endowments and the attributes, but we can squander them. We can lose the battle, because we're the people who can defeat ourselves. If we have incompetent leadership, if we have non compassionate leadership, if we lose our social solidarity, let's remember Peter, how did we get to the place we're in now? We got to the place we're in now, you could argue, because of two very big trends that are reinforcing. One, elites were unaccountable. They could do the global financial crisis or they could do monetary union in Europe. And then, we'd be left with the consequences and they would walk away and get promoted to get another better job with a higher speaker's fee, or a bigger book deal, or whatever it might be. The unaccountability of elites was something the masses perceived across the globe, in various elections in different forms, in different countries, including in ours. That problem persists. The second reason we're in the situation we're in is the fragmentation of society. Your strength as a society is obviously unity. You wanna have a sense of collective purpose. You wanna be Americans without hyphens. You want all citizens to be equal before the war and part of the national community and part of the collective endeavor. We have fragmented meant that our selves badly. We fragmented ourselves in parts, socio economically with the maldistribution of opportunity. I'm not speaking of equality of outcome, I'm speaking of equality of opportunity, maldistribution of opportunity. But also with the kind of identity politics or a tribal politics which forgets the E Pluribus Unum, which forgets the collective enterprise, the unity of purpose, the strength. So, this unaccountability of elites, and social fragmentation has been deeply debilitating to us. And those are the things that must be overcome, because that's what we need to now get ourselves domestically out of this crisis but also internationally.

Peter Robinson: Stephen, a couple of sentences from your article last summer, in foreign affairs, I'm quoting you. "The Trumpian moment is an opportunity. The best of the United States is there to be rediscovered, reinvented, and repositioned for the challenges the country faces. If properly understood, Trump could be a gift." Explain.

Stephen Kotkin: Peter, it's very hard to talk about the Trump presidency these days in America. As you know, people are reflexively anti-Trump and passionately so and then many other people are reflexively pro-Trump and passionately so. If you say anything about Trump, that's perceived as the least criticism, 49% of the country goes crazy. If you say anything about Trump, that's potentially praise. The other 49% of the country goes crazy. So, I tried in that article to talk about America, rather than this 49%, or that 49%. And I tried to talk about the Trump presidency, not as something to bash or to praise, specifically, but to look at where we are, how we got here, and where we could be going forward. When we talk about the Muller report, which was what that article was about. We talk about Russia's interference in our elections. We don't talk about our own self created problems. Don't talk about our own failings. We talk about how somebody else is causing our problems. Somebody landed from the moon named Trump, and he's not. He's somehow surprising everybody came out of nowhere and maybe Russia put him there, or whatever the story might be. So, this is not a way of self examination. This is not a serious analysis of the trends in our country and where we are and the opportunities that are presented. Trump is a transitional figure. He put his finger on the unaccountability of elites. He did that very successfully during the campaign. And he's a master political manipulator of the societal fragmentation. That's part of the secret of his political intuition. So, he is in many ways, showing us where we are. And so, the answer is not an antidote to him personally. The answer is moving away from the shiny object, moving away from the polarized 49% against 49%. And reconstituting a sense of social unity, reconstituting a sense of how our political sense system works. It works through compromise. The way our founders set up our political system was to make it difficult to get anything done. Unless people came together in the middle. There's separation of powers, where all sorts of mechanisms to prevent majorities from an acting a tyranny over an arms. Cooperation coalition is required to get things done enduringly. Not to pass something with 50 plus one, 50 percent plus one vote Which the next administration overturns with their 50% plus one. And so, I see Trump as an invitation for all of us to get back to first principles to rediscover who we are, and why we are so successful and to get that mojo back and not to fight this battle endlessly. As if it's world war three, as if the end of civilization, if one side wins or the other, it's not the end of civilization. It's not world war three.

Peter Robinson: Stephen two last questions for you, if I may. Here's the first, in the winter of 1946, right at the get go of the Cold War. February of 1946, you know, of course what I'm about to say, diplomat George Kennan sent what we now call the long telegram from Moscow to Washington. 5000 words, it was a long telegram. And in it, Kennan outlined the policy of containment, which would remain substantially the framework for American foreign policy for the next four and a half decades until the end of the Cold War. Why haven't we had a long telegram on China yet? For that matter, why have we wasted a quarter of a century supposing they were going to become more democratic when Stephen kotkin knew from the get go, that would never happen? 

Stephen Kotkin: In part, Peter, it's because China is not just a foe or an opponent, but as also a collaborator, is also a partner. China's success has redounded to America success. We have been better off because of China's success. It has thrown off tremendous benefits for the Chinese. The hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, but also all around the world. And so we don't want Chinese success to stop. We wanna figure out a better way to manage the relationship. We wanna continue to benefit from the relationship, but not have it be the one sided relationship it had become partly prior to President Trump changing the national conversation about China. And so, the absence of the canon is in part because fundamental nature of China is different from the Soviet Union. Having said that, what's similar is a potentially successful or perceived to be successful, authoritarian, great power. That changes the game internationally. And authoritarian power that's a basket case, is not gonna galvanize a whole lot of others onto its side, or to imitate it, or to do its will. But an authoritarian power that projects its ability to lock down a country and stop the spread of the virus.

Peter Robinson: Right

Stephen Kotkin: To manufacture all the medical equipment that the world needs and to supply it on a voluntary philanthropic basis to countries in need. That kind of power, authoritarian power. That's the challenge that we face. Now, once again, Chinese scientists, they may be the ones that come up with the vaccine. We may have a race to the moon, like we had with the Soviets, over the vaccine, or other aspects of the pandemic. I welcome that rivalry but I would prefer cooperation. It could be that our race with China for the vaccine as well as Germany and Japan and other countries of biological science. It could be that, that accelerates the process of discovering the vaccine. But cooperating with Chinese scientists on the vaccine would be even better potentially. And so, that's the proposition. Where is there competition and rivalry that requires a strong response from America to defend freedom and other first principles? And where are the areas of cooperation that require not confrontation, but in fact, benefiting from the incredible dynamism of Chinese society and the human capital that they have? This is the heart of conversation, Peter. We have had this conversation at the margins, it has been occluded by our entertainer infotainment complex, that we all know what it is and some of us are quite entertained by it on occasion. However, it could well be that now, many of those recently written or written some time ago analysis of how to both compete and cooperate with China. Get a second look and and we figure out what we need to do. The bottom line on all of this is how do we protect liberty and the rule of law at home and globally?

Peter Robinson: Here's the last question then Stephen. The Chinese vastly outnumber us, their economy may very soon be bigger than ours. They're spending on the military as you often pointed out, Russia and Iran don't even come close in military spending to what the Chinese are doing. And they possess a central government. We would not want to live under the central government that they have, but it can get certain things done. And all we have is a 230 year old constitution. How optimistic are you?

Stephen Kotkin: That's an excellent question and I'd have to say that I'm a pessimist by nature. The beauty of pessimism is that a, you're always right. And b, if by some freak of nature, you're wrong it's because something good is happening. However, in this particular case, I don't think full pessimism is called for. China has a fundamental vulnerabilities. And those fundamental vulnerabilities involve mostly politics, we understand their banking system presents fundamental challenges. We understand ecologically, they face enormous challenges demographically. But, I wanna talk in closing about the politics and why our system has strains that we continually rediscover. In the Chinese case, you can imagine it as six vulnerabilities over time. Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet are four of them. Those are all predominantly ethnic challenges to the Chinese and they've dealt with them first by overrunning their areas which, Han Chinese settlements, so that Manchuria is now predominantly Han Chinese, and has virtually disappeared as a separate ethnic territory. Inner Mongolia, overrun by Chinese settlement, Xinjiang where you have a large Uighur population has not been fully overrun in the same way as Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and today we have up to two million people in Xinjiang and re-education camps. Tibet also is not as easy for Han Chinese settlement because of the altitude. But nonetheless, the challenges that they represent Xinjiang and Tibet are of a more limited quality, however tragic from a humanitarian point of view. The other two pieces of the six are Taiwan and Hong Kong. And they are political challenges. They are ethnic Chinese political system that's different from Communist Party rule. And the strength and durability over time of Taiwan and Hong Kong are the two most important assets that we have on our side and that are the greatest vulnerabilities to Communist Chinese rule. Hong Kong and Taiwan represent our kind of systems, U.S. style systems, where liberty and the protection of property are higher values than the preservation of a certain kind of rule of the Communist Party. We have to remember this. We have to remember that China has those vulnerabilities, and they're right there at home. China has reclaimed Hong Kong from the British, and they would like to reclaim Taiwan. They claim it as their territory. But as we've seen, they've had a very difficult time assimilating Hong Kong politically. And this has redounded to sentiment in Taiwan as well. And so, let's not forget that as great as China's story has been. I'm a very big admirer of the accomplishments of modern China. I'm awed by the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of that society. It's amazing what they've been able to achieve. And without them, we would have a lot fewer medical supplies right now, in the crisis that we're in. At the same time, they're politically vulnerable. And we are potentially politically strong, if we can rediscover what it is that made us the country that we are.

Peter Robinson: Stephen Kotkin of Princeton and the Hoover Institution, thank you. Stephen now Will you please get away from your microphone and get back to work on the third and final volume of your of the Stalin trilogy? I get emails every week from people, when is Dr. Kotkin gonna finish that trilogy?

Stephen Kotkin: You know, nobody wants to finish quicker than I do, Peter. I've been living with this monster for a long time now.

Peter Robinson: Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and the Hoover Institution thank you. For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox nation, I'm Peter Robinson.

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