Making China Great Again -The Atlantic


“As Donald Trump surrenders America’s global commitments, Xi Jinping is learning to pick up the pieces.”

There are several interesting points in this article. The first, is its main thesis which is that China is moving into the void left by the Trump administration’s neo-isolationism:

  • For decades, China avoided directly challenging America’s primacy in the global order, instead pursuing a strategy that Deng, in 1990, called “hide your strength and bide your time.” But Xi, in his speech to the Party Congress, declared the dawn of “a new era,” one in which China moves “closer to center stage.” He presented China as “a new option for other countries,” calling this alternative to Western democracy the zhongguo fang’an, the “Chinese solution.”

The second is the way Chinese political elite see Trump:

  • China’s leaders rarely air their views about an American President, but well-connected scholars—the ranking instituteniks of Beijing and Shanghai and Guangzhou—can map the contours of their assessments. Yan Xuetong is the dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations. …..he said, “I think Trump is America’s Gorbachev.” In China, Mikhail Gorbachev is known as the leader who led an empire to collapse. “The United States will suffer,” he warned.
  • During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, Chinese officials noticed that, on some of China’s most sensitive issues, Trump did not know enough to push back. “Trump is taking what Xi Jinping says at face value—on Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea,” Daniel Russel, who was, until March, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told me. “That was a big lesson for them.” Afterward, Trump conceded to the Wall Street Journal how little he understood about China’s relationship to North Korea: “After listening for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
  • Russel spoke to Chinese officials after the Mar-a-Lago visit. “The Chinese felt like they had Trump’s number,” he said. “Yes, there is this random, unpredictable Ouija-board quality to him that worries them, and they have to brace for some problems, but, fundamentally, what they said was ‘He’s a paper tiger.’

The third is the confusion in the White House as how to deal with China.

  • Inside the new White House, there were two competing strategies on China. One, promoted by Stephen Bannon, then the chief strategist, wanted the President to take a hard line, even at the risk of a trade war. Bannon often described China as a “civilizational challenge.” The other view was associated with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who had received guidance from Henry Kissinger and met repeatedly with the Chinese Ambassador, Cui Tiankai. Kushner argued for a close, collegial bond between Xi and Trump, and he prevailed.
  • Trump’s deference to Xi—the tributes and tender musings about chemistry—sent a message to other countries that are debating whether to tilt toward the U.S. or China. Daniel Russel said, “The American President is here. He’s looking in awe at the Forbidden City. He’s looking in awe at Xi Jinping, and he’s choosing China because of its market, because of its power. If you thought that America was going to choose you and these ‘old-fashioned’ treaties and twentieth-century values, instead of Xi Jinping and the Chinese market, well, think again.”
  • In its national-security strategy, the Administration suggested that, to stop the theft of trade secrets, it could restrict visas to foreigners who travel to the U.S. to study science, engineering, math, and technology; it dedicated itself to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which, in practice, will likely expand military coöperation with India, Japan, and Australia. Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, is considering several potential tariffs in order to punish China for its alleged theft of intellectual property and dumping of exports on U.S. markets. “We’re not looking for a trade war,” a senior White House official involved in China issues told me. “But the President fully believes that we have to stand up to China’s predatory industrial policies that have hollowed out U.S. manufacturing and, increasingly, high-tech sectors.”

The result: a “bunch of drunks in a car fighting for the steering wheel.”

  • If the White House takes such actions, they could collide with Trump’s admiring relationship with Xi. In the meantime, many China specialists describe the Administration’s approach as inchoate. In the first eleven months of Trump’s Presidency, none of his Cabinet secretaries had given a major speech on China. The post of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the State Department’s top job for the region—once held by W. Averell Harriman, Richard Holbrooke, and Christopher Hill—remained unfilled. David Lampton, the director of China studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins, told me, “I think this is like a bunch of drunks in a car fighting for the steering wheel.”

Finally, it addresses the question of whether China will supplant the US as a global power:

  • Global leadership is costly; it means asking your people to contribute to others’ well-being, to send young soldiers to die far from home. In 2015, when Xi pledged billions of dollars in loan forgiveness and additional aid for African nations, some in China grumbled that their country was not yet rich enough to do that. China is not “seeking to replace us in the same position as a kind of chairman of planet Earth,” Daniel Russel said. “They have no intention of emulating the U.S. as a provider of global goods or as an arbiter who teases out universal principles and common rules.”
  • According to Richard Haass the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “More likely, the world is entering an era without obvious leaders, an “age of nonpolarity,”

See also:


Breaking with tradition, Trump skips president’s written intelligence report and relies on oral briefings -Washington Post


“For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.

Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.

Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

The arrangement underscores Trump’s impatience with exhaustive classified documents that go to the commander in chief — material that he has said he prefers condensed as much as possible. But by not reading the daily briefing, the president could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.”

These 3 Everyday Products Show Who Won and Lost From Nafta -NYTimes


The title of this article is a little misleading, it does not show so much who won or lost with NAFTA as much as it shows the complexities of trade and production within the agreement. Beer sold in Mexico brewed from grains grown in America. Jeans made cheaply in Mexico for American markets, but with American cotton. Bacon from pigs born in Canada but raised in the USA….  The author argues in the case of the jeans, that without NAFTA production would likely move to Asia. This may or may not turn out to be the case. It seems very hard to tell what would happen. But this is the main point. The arguments we usually hear about who wins or loses from trade agreements like NAFTA are superficial. Much of the trade and production involved in manufacturing is not obvious to consumers who only see the final product. And, the people who profit from it are not always as salient as the people who have been hurt by the changes created by NAFTA. In the United States, Donald Trump has played to the type of superficial understanding of trade this article exposes. In the UK, the Brexit campaign did too. This is not to say these deals are good or bad, just that they are complex.


What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on Syria’s Kurds -NYTimes


This article provides some basic background on the Turkish assault on Syrian Kurdish positions in the Afrin area of Syria North West of Aleppo.

“Mr. Erdogan fears that the Syrian Kurds would use control of much of northern Syria to support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the P.K.K., a separatist group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union all consider a terrorist group.

Here’s where things get complicated. The United States has armed a Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, that has played a crucial role in battling ISIS.

As the fight against ISIS nears an end, Turkey fears that the militia will turn its attention toward helping its Kurdish allies in Turkey. That fear is not entirely unjustified, according to Renad Mansour, a scholar at Chatham House in London, who points out that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader imprisoned since 1999, was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades.

Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Wilson Center who has studied the Syrian Kurds, says that many of them joined the Protection Units “for the simple reason that they wanted to defend their towns, like Kobani, that were under attack from the Islamic State, and not necessarily because they were convinced by the ideology of the P.K.K.”

Michael M. Gunter, a political scientist at Tennessee Tech who also studies the Syrian Kurds, said, “The Turks overplay the threat, but it’s not completely a figment of their imagination.”





Donald Trump has now been in office for one year. And, with Michael Wolff’s new book The Fire and the Fury coming out, it is worth looking back at a few older articles examining the changes in the White House staff since he took over. So, this is the first of several posts on the subject.

This post links to a discussion on War on the Rocks, and focuses on Trump’s reliance on military personnel (active and retired) for advisers. From the title, one can immediately deduce the article is not supportive. Here are the three reasons why relying on the military is problematic:

  1. First, having a retired general (Marine Gen. John Kelly as his chief of staff) serve in such an unabashedly partisan role further blurs the boundaries between the military and politics, and erodes the long-standing reputation of the U.S. military as an apolitical institution……..
  2. Second, Kelly’s appointment promotes the myth that military leaders are superior to civilian leaders. Healthy civil-military relations cannot rest upon a belief that when the nation is in trouble, calling upon military leaders to “take charge” in senior civilian roles is the best or only answer………
  3. The final danger of having Kelly (or any military leader) serve as White House chief of staff is that any major policy failure occurring on his watch would undermine the standing of the military, rightly or wrongly. Any such failure would inevitably lead to questions about Kelly’s judgment and fitness to serve…….

For the details of these arguments, see:


See also:




Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times


I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East ( and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea -The New Yorker


This article from the New Yorker looks at the tensions between North Korea and the United States. It provides a rare glimpse into the internal workings of the insular state. Along the way it also raises some important issues about brinksmanship as a foreign policy and the strategy of deterrence.

Quoting Thomas Shelling one of the founders of American strategic thought, brinksmanship is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” It involves creating a crisis or escalating a crisis with the expectation that one’s opponent will back down. Basically, it’s a game of chicken. In theory, it is a rational game played by rational actors, making careful calculations about the other side’s interests and the level of their aversion to escalation and possibly conflict. That being said, “…they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” Given the nature of the two leaders involved, Donald Trump & Kim Jong Un, the article correctly goes on to ask, “what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?”

The article also raises deeper questions about brinksmanship and deterrence, though. For these strategies to be employed without producing a disaster, there has to be a clear understanding of the other side’s interests and red-lines. Regardless of the specific leaders in place, this article suggests that neither side really understands the other.

  • US on North Korea: “Experts can’t say definitively why Kim wants nuclear weapons. Are they for self-defense, as North Korea claims, or will Kim use them to achieve the unfulfilled ambition of the Korean War—forcing reunification with South Korea? A senior Administration official told me that members of Trump’s national-security team are not convinced that Kim will stop at self-protection. “There are fewer and fewer disagreements about North Korea’s capabilities now, and so then, inevitably, the question of their intentions becomes critical,” he said. “Are they pursuing these weapons in order to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula, or are they seeking to fundamentally alter the status quo?””
  • North Korea on the US: “… I asked Pak what he and other North Koreans thought of Trump. “He might be irrational—or too smart. We don’t know,” he said. They suspected that Trump’s comment about “fire and fury” might be part of a subtle strategy. “Like the Chinese ‘Art of War,’ ” he said. “If he’s not driving toward a point, then what is he doing? That is our big question.”
  • Even China struggles to understand their neighbor: “In 2008, when Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, Randal Phillips, a senior C.I.A. officer overseeing operations in Asia, met a Chinese counterpart to share analyses, as they sometimes did. But Phillips discovered that Chinese intelligence “didn’t know what was happening,” he told me. “I think the Chinese know a hell of a lot less than people assume.” Compared with other American adversaries, North Korea is the “hardest target,” Terry said. “There’s no other country that’s like that,” she told me. “It’s just pieced together.”
  • To make things worse, the North Koreans are deliberately obtuse: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog,” Kim Jong Il once said, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”


Deterrence also requires effective communication, and as the article illustrates, the two sides have not been good at messaging each other. The following discussion provides a perfect example of how not not to communicate in the context of deterrence:

“So is he going to launch them or not?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Pak said. “It depends on whether the United States sends another nuclear asset, like a B-1B, over the Korean Peninsula.”

“Does the U.S. know that’s the determining factor?” I asked.

“We haven’t told them! But they should know, because we said they should not send any further ‘nuclear provocations.’ ”

For those familiar with the 1960s Cold-War satire, Dr. Strangelove, it is eerily similar to the miscommunication that leads in the movie, to nuclear Armageddon.