Letters to the Editors
Letters from our readers
In “China’s Illiberal Challenge,” Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner argue that the thrust of China’s threat to the United States is not the tremendous growth of its economic and military power, but instead its illiberal ideology [Issue #2].
As to China’s military threat, this is like arguing that the sun is not dangerous because it can burn you, but rather because it is very hot. Those who argue that China’s military is a threat do so precisely because of the ideology that underpins it. If Great Britain’s military were burgeoning, it would be perceived as an ally and not a threat to the United States because Britain endorses traditional liberalism. Conversely, if illiberalism without military might were a threat, the United States would be looking at serious military challenges from countries like Turkmenistan and Burma. Here, Barma and Ratner may have flipped it over, but they are still essentially hammering at the same old saw. On the question of China’s economic threat, Barma and Ratner commit two errors. First, they disregard the fact that inter-state economic threats depend more on where cash is going than on the type of country it is going to. If Canadian computer companies were securing the international business that IBM and Microsoft now secure, then dollars would flow to Canadian, not American, business owners and employees. Hence, if Chinese companies out-compete U.S. companies for international business, China will be an economic threat regardless of its degree of liberalism.
Second, the facts Barma and Ratner cite to demonstrate the “exportability” of China’s model actually undermine their point. China’s relationships with states like Kenya and Angola do deserve scrutiny. But China is not funneling to Angola its illiberalism as a means of inspiring Angola’s leaders in the way that Montesquieu inspired Madison. On the contrary, China is funneling to Angola cold hard cash to build roads, ports, and pipelines. It can do this not because it is a new paragon of illiberalism, but because it is an economic power that has cash to send abroad. Again, illiberal countries that are not economic powers cannot support massive foreign development projects, and thus cannot use this as a means of monopolizing access to those countries’ resources.
The fundamental lesson remains that economic reforms are more essential to poverty reduction and development than reform of governance. Thus, as Barma and Ratner point out, advocacy for liberal governance will need to rest on more than its economic promise. How the West will convince autocratic regimes to reform without this economic carrot becomes an overwhelming question. But so remain the questions of how we can prevent China from hoarding global cash flows and becoming the predominant military power of the Pacific.
DENNIS CLARE Washington, D.C.
I strongly approve of Joel Kotkin’s article “Urban Legend” [Issue #2]. It is refreshing to read about a pragmatic plan that will materially improve people’s lives, rather than a proposal for another sweeping federal bureaucracy to mismanage the economy or an attempt to blame a social problem on some nefarious group of people who must be destroyed in political warfare before change is possible.
I am also glad to read a liberal on the subject of urban policy. Local politics is overlooked far too often in high-level debates, even though many of the policies that impact citizens most are made in city councils and state capitals.
The main weakness I see in this article is its quick gloss over crime and social order. A big draw of the suburbs is safety; families are afraid of the presence of drug dealers in urban areas, not the absence of sandlots and playgrounds.
Besides that, the article also lacks a more specific agenda–“creating jobs for the middle class” is an American sentiment as old as apple pie. Likewise, Kotkin’s pleas to make government “efficient” and education “improved” are vague. Nor would it hurt Kotkin’s article if he mentioned a specific regulatory barrier or tax that ought to be “reduced.”
JAMES BAILEY Houston, Texas
I am puzzled about the details of the economic aid program Peter Beinart envisions in his article “The Right Stuff” [Issue #2]. The countries of the Middle East are not like Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa. They are countries with many capable people and plenty of routinely squandered and underutilized capital, which are languishing within underproductive economies. For example, it turns out that many young Muslims, when given the opportunity to get a university education, choose to study theology instead of engineering, business, or science.
Beinart’s Marshall Plan notion strikes me as posturing. Aid programs only work when there is a willing recipient. The Middle East does not appear to want our charity and does not really need it. (Of course, this does not apply to Lebanon and Iraq. These places need to be rebuilt.) Progress happens when people are left alone and enjoy a large space of time free from violent conflict and meddlesome outsiders. People can lift themselves up without aristocratic manna from foreign heavens. But conflict intervention and cultural intrusion tend to produce reactive responses of resentment, wounded pride and cultural retrenchment, and retarded progress. Perhaps we should focus more on simply ceasing to produce bad results, and get out of the way.
Beinart is right about one thing: Terrorists can only thrive in an environment where they enjoy active and passive support, or at least feeble resistance. Most of the people of the Middle East would not kill innocent people themselves. But they agree with the broad agenda of reclaiming their regional independence and ridding themselves of foreign masters, controllers, and well-intentioned but culturally chauvinistic and haughty “benefactors.”
DAN KERVICK Bow, New Hampshire
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