Reagan Reincarnate?

February 28, 2017

I have been writing so much about Trump and the follies surrounding his administration that this blog has detoured a bit from my observations on China and the rest of Asia, so I am considering a new site dedicated to that man and his insanity.  While I work that out, I will continue to use this space to call out the absurdity of his policies.

I was heartened to see House Minority Nancy Pelosi calling out Trump for doing nothing on Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC.  While I don’t always think Pelosi is the most effective leader of Democrats in the House, I did like her term “deflector-in-chief” which is the point I was making in a previous post.  The transgender bathroom brouhaha is nothing more than Trump trying to make it appear like he’s doing something when he’s really not done much at all since taking office.

Now we get to see the contours of a Trump federal budget, which calls for increases in military spending on roughly US$54 billion and a similar amount of cuts in programs and departments including the EPA and foreign aid at State.  I’m not sure how another $54 billion in the military budget helps ensure that America “put[s] and will put its own citizens first”, as Trump insisted he was going to do in his CPAC speech.  Perhaps all that extra military is just another way to bring jobs back to America since our defense contractors are presumably manufacturing their wares in the US.  If Trump thinks more military spending is putting Americans first by protecting us from threats from abroad, it makes little sense to cut the State Department budget when diplomacy should go hand-in-hand with any military might.  I also don’t know what conventional military threat we’ve faced on our shores since Pearl Harbor, but perhaps he’s developing some top-secret missile shield, though I am sure that would cost a lot more than $54 billion.  So back to my point – if he wants to put Americans first (whatever that really means), why cut diplomacy when that can be just as effective in keeping the world safe?  Even better, where is his promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would truly put Americans first by creating jobs and modernizing our crumbling infrastructure that millions of Americans rely on daily.

What this initial budget announcement really amounts to is an obvious lack of understanding of how government works on Trump and his advisors’ part, as well as a blatant example of the hypocrisy that runs rampant in his administration.  Take Trump’s brilliant realization on reforming the health care system, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”  Have you ever heard anything more insightful?

Reading the news each morning, I more often than not end up with a headache because some of it just makes no sense.  I mean, on one hand we have this crazy opening gambit on a budget while our president comments on the Oscars  (politics was the reason for the Best Picture mistake)  or making comments at the National Governors Association about imaginary tiles falling from the tunnels under NY’s rivers.  The man should focus on running the country rather than weighing in on awards shows or falsely putting down our nation’s infrastructure without coming up with a plan to fix it.

I struggle to understand this man, but a friend of mine had one theory on his behavior, especially in light of his push to increase military spending and our nuclear capabilities. Trump thinks he is the reincarnate of Ronald Reagan and in the process is attempting to resurrect the 80s, which coincidentally is also the time when Trump came anything close to being a baller.  It’s one possible explanation that’s certainly plausible, but doesn’t fully explain the crazy coming out of D.C.

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Enough is enough.  Or is it?  I live 13 hours ahead of Washington, D.C., so when I wake up in the morning I am hit with the full force of the day’s news versus the usual sporadic updating of headlines I would normally be subject to if I was still living in the U.S.  Reading about the absurdity that is American politics in such a concentrated form means my morning coffee is usually punctuated with quite a bit of head shaking, the occasional expletive, and calls and texts back home filled with words like “ridiculous”, “crazy”, “nightmare”, “horrible”, and “insane”.  I often feel like I have run out superlatives to describe what’s going on and we’re only a month into what is supposed to be four years of a Trump presidency.

Just when I am about to write about how the latest tweet or actual utterance is going to ruin the republic, something else happens that’s even worse than what preceded it.  The upside to not writing about what’s been going in real-time is that I have had a month to let things sink in for a bit of perspective, though I am not sure what good perspective is when facts are lies and lies are facts and when we have double-speak coming from within the same administration, whether it’s about our commitment to Europe or relations with Russia.  What’s missing from all this activity are actual policies, which to some may be a good thing, but it also means Trump can perpetuate the lies he needs to solidify support from his base.

I think it’s important to meet with and record interviews with his supporters to understand why they stand behind this man.  The Washington Post, part of the cabal of fake news, had an article with quotes rom Trump supporters.  Forget about the actual article and it’s macro point about a real divide in the country and focus on the words of his supporters.  They believe Trump and his attacks on the media and feel as if he is not getting a fair shake at things.  Trump’s PR plan is masterful in that his supporters believe him hook, line, and sinker.  When he says he saved thousands of jobs with the signing of an executive order or that Sweden suffered a terrorist attack, his supporters only look at the his tweets or the headlines that support his point of view and make up their minds.  This blind following begs the question – when do they lose faith?

That question is one that vexes me to no end.  What will break this almost spell-like enchantment with Trump?  Will it be when Republicans actually do something to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and people realize that when they next go to the doctor, they have no insurance?  Will it be when people who thought Trump was bringing back their jobs are still unemployed two years later?  Will it be when he gets us embroiled in another global conflict and American troops are being sent into battle?  Will it be when he launches a trade war and inflation skyrockets as the cost of imports soars?  I worry that given where we are as a country, none of these things will matter because Trump has these people hooked on the twin beliefs that all news that runs counter to his narrative is fake and any problems that arise will be deemed to have been handed to him by his predecessor, even a year or two on from when Obama was last in office.  Perhaps the better question is this one – what happens if his supporters, in spite of bad things continuing to happen, do not lose faith in him?

Then the answer depends on what the so far feckless Republicans decide to do about Trump and his lies.  I won’t even begin to discuss the Democrats because they’re still out in the wilderness trying to figure out the best way to make themselves heard.  It’s the Republicans, the part y of the majority, that have the power and moral imperative to ensure that Trump does not destroy the republic.  Yet, what we’ve seen from Republicans is more of the same that they pulled when Obama was president, except now they are in power and actually have to do something to ensure that our country continues moving forward.  House Republicans led by the increasingly unprincipled Paul Ryan are still talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails when it’s possible we may have a president and his administration colluding with what should be the true enemy, Russia.    Thank goodness for Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who while perhaps not aligned with my politics, speak about protecting the same country that am proud to call mine.  But other Republicans have not shown the same respect and concern for our country, blinded more by advancing a specific agenda that would be meaningless if what made America truly great was no longer.  Yet these Republicans are unable to see what could be the unraveling of America as a beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy.  Rather they continue to operate in an environment that is increasingly looking like a quaint anachronism, where Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, left and right, were all we had to worry about when governing.  Unfortunately, it’s bigger than that.  It should not matter what side of aisle or political debate we are on.  Rather this is about America and the future of our country, what is stands for at home and abroad, as well ensuring we have something we’re proud off to hand off to future generations.

Today we face a president and his inner circle of truth-bending loyalists who boast of non-existent policy achievements and disavow themselves of any mistakes or errors in the first month of this administration.  Yet we have others hanging out in the other branches of government, namely Congress, willing to look away while he chips away at the foundations of our country in the hopes that they can get some policy concessions out of him.  Such behavior is not only short-sighted, but increasingly so partisan as to be nearly non-American.

 

Forward, Not Backward

October 11, 2012

It’s been over three months since my last jaunt to China and part of me yearns to be back on the ground in the thick of things given how much has happened since I’ve returned – the government has finally set a date for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition (November 8th), Japan and China are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea supposedly sitting on abundant natural resources, the Chinese people are protesting in a more sustained and forceful manner over issues raging from the aforementioned Sino-Japanese dispute to environmental and labor issues, and Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun have been victims of the theatrical spectacle that has been Bo Xilai’s downfall.  Definitely exciting times in China.  Throw in a slowing domestic economy, a restless population in Hong Kong, and an American presidential election where China has once again turned into a scapegoat for candidates trying to falsely prove to voters they have the balls big enough to contain China and you have enough material for a ten-act play that would only barely scratch the surface of the complex forces at work in that part of the world.  Yet here I am in my bubble known as New York wishing I could just wander the streets of Guangzhou or be in a classroom in Linyi and just feel what is transpiring over there.  Instead I have to read all I possibly can and apply my own experiences and knowledge to try and make sense of what is going on over there.

I am an American and no matter how much time I spend in China, I will never be an insider.  Thus it’s probably more productive for me in the long run to figure out how to use what I have learned over the years to effect positive change in the U.S. – Sino relationship going forward.  Though I struggle with how to exactly do such a thing.  I have been lucky over the years to have been asked to teach in Chinese universities, attend conferences, provide testimony in front of a Congressional commission, and study both modern China and Mandarin.  What do I do now?  I watch an American foreign policy engaged in a tug-of-war between trying to cling to a past where America called the shots and everyone else stood at attention (case in point, see Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East published on October 1st) and recognizing that America is one player among many that can no longer dictate how other nations conduct both their domestic and international affairs.  I think Aaron David Miller’s piece on FP.com responding to Mitt’s op-ed is spot-on when he writes:

The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region [the Middle East] reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.  This has nothing to do with being a ‘”declinist” or not believing in American ‘”exceptionalism.'” We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too.

Extrapolate Miller’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to any other hot spot in the world and this principle of recognizing a balance between how things are and how we would like them to be can be applied.  Our approach to China should also hew to this principle of finding a balance, but instead we get a policy that appears to be reactionary and ill-informed.  Threats of labeling China a “currency manipulator”, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and standing in the way of Chinese investment in the name of political expediency ignore the reality that China has arrived as a power and America must learn how to live with that reality rather than try to set the clock back 20 years and invoke policies that apply to a world that no longer exists.  I have traveled and lived around the world and I will be the first to admit that as a privileged liberal arts college student, patriotism was the last thing on my mind.  Today I find myself more proud to be an American and an ambassador for the ideals and values our country is supposed to represent, but I also recognize that our power unfortunately has limits and we must think long and hard about how we maximize our impact upon the rest of the world.

Admitting that America has limits does not make me any less of an American than Mitt Romney who implores us that “[I]f the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.”  I find such a call to arms more alarming than rousing, one dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.  It’s an over-simplistic approach to a world that is not a simple place to begin with.  Romney seems to mistakenly and rather naively believe that if we restore America’s economic strength and expand our military’s budget, we can start “shaping” events in the Middle East and beyond.  If only it were that simple – create robust economic growth and maintain a spendthrift military to restore order and sanity in the world on America’s terms.  Mind you that Romney has not put forth any policies to make those two pillars of his foreign policy a reality except for promising to expand the military’s budget, but that’s not my main point.

Putting aside Romney’s lack of specifics for a second, it’s this hubristic and one-note approach to American foreign policy that is most problematic.  We don’t live in a unipolar world where America merely needs to reclaim her mantle and we certainly don’t live in a world where a one-note approach predicated on solely restoring America’s greatness is going to do anything to move the needle in that direction for us.  The world is a nuanced and complicated place, which almost makes it sound manageable when reduced to two seemingly simple adjectives.  However, the only way to tackle this type of world is with a proactive foreign policy.  Proactive does not mean throwing our military might around the world and shoving our values and ideas down other people’s throats.  It means listening and understanding what we’re up against and maximizing the tools at our disposal to create a framework where America’s tangible and intangible support is valued and sought out.  Being a bully is not the way to get people to ultimately listen to you because once the bully hangs up his boxing gloves. it’s as if he never existed and the playground will revert to the chaos that preceded the bully.  The same goes for the world stage.  America cannot merely bully with its military and dollars without understanding where other regimes and their people are coming from and ascertaining what we’re up against before blindly throwing our might around.  Once we begin to understand, we need to begin crafting a framework that builds relationships co-opting our existing allies and cultivating new ones based on mutual respect and understanding.  It’s not an overnight process and it’s certainly not easy, but it requires us being proactive and getting out in front of events rather than merely reacting to them.

Where does China fit in a proactive foreign policy?  Take the vaunted trans-Atlantic alliance that was the bedrock of Cold War-era foreign policy.  America had a grand strategy predicated upon principles that were transparent and engendered support from multiple parties.  Granted it was a seemingly simpler time with a bipolar world engaged in a Cold War divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but the important thing during that time was that American foreign policy was guided by a framework that actually required some forethought and was used to guide our actions around the globe.  One can argue that the framework was merely containing Communism, but that initial goal required carefully balancing relationships around the world and trying to use our resources in the most effective way possible.  We live in a seemingly more complex world, but that same forethought and commitment to clearly articulated principles is required, hence what I like to call a proactive approach. If we believe all of the pundits, we are increasingly moving into a new bipolar world with China and America each heading up a pole.  Even if we are not moving to a purely bipolar world, China is going to be an increasingly important power on the world stage and we are still left reacting to her every move.  This approach is the opposite of proactive.  We need to re-evaluate our relationship with China and try to better understand where she is coming from as a rising power, warts and all. and construct a grand strategy for working with her during her rise instead of just playing tit-for-tat on the global stage and coming across as a bunch of awkward adolescents trying to figure out the contours of their relationship.

Romney reiterated his foreign policy “ideas” in a speech this past Monday and it was a lot of the same.  He wants to restore America’s greatness and blamed Obama for making America weak.  Putting aside the election politics of the moment, one flaw on both sides of the aisle is a lack of thought and wherewithal for dealing with the world as it is today.  We respond to things, whether they be in the Middle East, Asia, South America, or even Europe.  Rather than trying to make America great by restoring her past glory, we should be thinking prospectively how to keep America great by playing to her strengths that reflect the reality of today’s world.  Perhaps my role in all of this craziness is to figure out how to bring my China experience to the forefront to continue helping  in some small way to bridge the gaps in understanding.

At my talk last week about the enforcement of anti-monopoly laws around the world, I wrote that for two hours after my speech I took on the role of an expert about all things American.   What surprised me the most about the questions was the breadth of topics in which the audience was interested.  I have spent the past few days wondering where these people I met received their information about America.  I have also have been turning over a question asked by one of the audience members., ” How much and what do Americans know about China?”

Timothy Garton Ash, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, published April 16, 2009, examines the issue of a China bias in the Western media through the lens of media economics.  Ash’s reason for why the American media is inundated with China stories about Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, corruption, and its repressive government is because this news is what the American public wants to hear about China.  It becomes a vicious cycle whereby the American public learns only about these things and then expects the news coverage to cater to these needs.  It becomes very hard for the average American to learn about what day-to-day China is like, the China that I have been experiencing for the past eight months.  If I only paid attention to the American media, my impression of China would be black and white, ignoring the large grey area that is the real China.  Ash hits on what is an unfortunate reality, that many American newspapers are cutting back their foreign desks and this is affecting the quality and quantity of stories coming in from the rest of the world.  With this happening, can Americans be called upon to take their own interest in international affairs and other countries by subscribing to blogs and other alternative media sources?

In my faculty and staff class this evening, we talked about Ash’s article and media bias.  A professor in my class said that Chinese people know more about America than vice versa because more original sources are translated from English into Chinese than vice versa and more Chinese speak English than Americans speak Chinese.  Both of these ideas would explain the breadth of questions I experienced after my talk last week.  

So two questions remain: First, how does one get more Americans to understand the real China that is a society as nuanced, if not more so because it’s still developing, than America?  Second, how does one work to minimize the distrust and misunderstandings that exist between the U.S. and China?  

Neither question has an easy answer.  More of what I have been doing in China is definitely part of the answer.  Every day that I am here, I am learning a little more about this country, it’s culture and it’s people.  When I was a freshman in college, I was drawn into China because I thought back then that no matter how much I studied the country, I could never begin to understand all of it.  Now over ten years later, that idea remains more true than ever and I am still fascinated and surprised on a daily basis.  This blog is supposed to chronicle my surprise and education living here and bring along some of you in the process, many of whom have never been to China before.

It’s here that I leave you to ponder those two questions and perhaps how to work these questions into the larger framework of U.S.-China foreign policy.

Cultural Skirmishes

March 28, 2009

Today is my eight-month anniversary in GZ and I’m thinking about the cultural differences between America and China.

Cultural relativism of some form is inevitable when you are living in another country.  The idea that people’s beliefs and actions need to be viewed through the lens of that country’s culture is valid, but only to a point.  I am also a believer that some things transcend national cultures and are just part of being human, regardless of whether you are Chinese, American, or from any other country.

Some of my blog posts have scratched the surface of cultural differences, whether it’s the difference between being out as a gay man in America versus China or the way that my students ask me very pointed questions or make comments unlike how they would treat their Chinese professors.  Sometimes the cultural differences come up in the most unexpected ways.  I was walking by Tiyu Xilu this afternoon when I saw a father bending over holding his son as his son was watering the base of a tree next to the sidewalk.  This public urination took place in broad daylight with crowds of people doing their Saturday shopping.

Being in China for eight months, it’s hard not to think about cultural differences and what to do when encountering them.  This post could easily devolve into one where all I do is list the differences I’ve encountered and leave it at that, but I would rather just put it out there that sometimes I wrestle with where cultural relativism ends and the universal human condition begins.  I’m learning about how to deal with indirect requests for help and passive aggressive approaches to what should be constructive feedback.  Most importantly, I have been fortunate enough to be given a window looking onto Chinese culture.  Living on the mainland is different than being in Hong Kong or in Taiwan and it’s valuable experience to meet all sorts of people and learn how to approach and work with them.  Like any experience we go through, we meet all different types of people and this year in China has expanded my ability to work with different types of people.  In the process, I am learning more about China and how to navigate a country that is sometimes very different than my own.

All of these experiences do not mean that I understand cultural relativism any better or that I do not get frustrated when I am told to be overly apologetic or appreciative in emails or meetings when I have nothing to be apologetic or particularly appreciative about.  What these experiences mean is that I am being challenged and learning, which might be the main theme of this year in China.