433 Comments
May 21·edited May 21

I agree we’re in a second Cold War. But I think it’s not just with China, and it’s important to underline that.

I also think it’s pretty clear when that second Cold War began: February 24, 2022.

The Ukraine war made it official: We’re not going back. Regimes like Russia and China are not just going to try to oppose Western-aligned regimes, but discredit, neuter, and render democracy a dead letter where it lives—and where they do not accept it, physically crush it. China and company clearly regard all that as critical for their own regimes’ survival.

Qua Anne Applebaum, I think the dictators of the 21st century have found each other and realized their common interests, and what stands in the way of their common interests. And also qua Anne, I think that second Cold War is being very clearly fought at home, in a way the first never was, no matter what Joe McCarthy pretended.

A MAGA victory, and the return to power of a lawless indicted criminal in the United States, is China, Russia, and the whole corrupt gang’s dearest hope for victory, and for their enemies to go the way of the USSR circa 1991.

(Trump himself would probably agree, in a way—he seems to regard China’s model for governance with more admiration than America’s. If they just stopped calling themselves “communist” they wouldn’t be so bad, in his mind.)

To an extent MAGA ideas seem aimed at unwittingly losing the second Cold War, that may not be a coincidence. The MAGA foreign policy vision, if you can call it that, seems aimed not so much as bringing about “peace” as re-directing our martial energies away from engaging in world affairs, and toward crushing its domestic opposition at home. To them, Russia, China, authoritarianism writ large are nothing compared to the “threat” of the people in their own country they don’t like. All their boasting about their anti-China bonafides to the contrary, it’s a literally, and almost openly, anti-American message.

We may have to start acting, and politically treating them, accordingly. It will be difficult to align the fractious liberal coalition behind such a counterintuitive, “patriotic” platform. I don’t know that liberals can unite for any reason at this point, let alone for that one. But I think they’ll ultimately have no choice.

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Generally agree with your point here. I especially agree that it's underrated how much Trump probably secretly admires China's governance/economic strategy. Authoritarianism mixed with the world's biggest manufacturing industry is definitely a winning formula to him.

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...Secretly?

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Secretly in that Trump doesn't literally say: "China's authoritarian governance combined with their strategy of swamping the world with exports isn't good."

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I think it is quite wrong to frame this as dictators vs democracy. Saudi Arabia's government is worse than several of our main adversaries and they are a key ally. You don't want leaders of countries like that to be encouraged to join up with China/Russia because our rhetoric threatens their hold on power. Nor do you want a democratic revolution in countries whose populations would choose anti-Americanism.

I think people have to grow up about being foreign policy realists. And part of it is to not think the world's democracies are all going to band together. Some populations hate America and some even have good reason to. And Anne Applebaum is just a very overrated thinker about this stuff.

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The last 8 months have changed my view slightly on Saudi Arabia vs Iran. I used to think the US should keep its hands as clean as possible and try to only have close relations with democracies, but Iran deciding to back both Hamas AND the Houthis just for the sake of generating chaos in their own Cold War has convinced me we're on the slightly less bad side of this one. As you point out, giving the Middle East "democracy" may lead to the people electing crazy-ass mofos who enjoy attacking their neighbors. Forget it. A dictatorship that is slowly interested in making peace with its neighbors is preferable to that.

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100% right. What people forget is that democracy is only half of the pair we actually care about: *liberal* democracy. There are more than enough examples of atrocities and atrocious regimes that had democratic support. I don’t see how supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Hamas in Gaza is a good idea just because they have democratic legitimacy.

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They have democratic legitimacy at first lol then not anymore

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Or the Republican Party in America

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I agree with you. But I also think that if Saudi Arabia and Iran both had simultaneous overthrows of their governments (which are both unpopular) then there would be a good case for trying to become friendly with both of the successor states, and it might even be a good thing on net despite the chaos (though it could easily go horribly awry, as revolutions tend to do).

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Based on my very narrow understanding of Iranian public opinion, the nascent Iranian state would probably be friendlier to the US.

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Agreed. The population has had it with the hard liners but unfortunately the reformers are locked out of government, and so many reformers have stopped even really trying to accumulate power. I'm not sure what the answer is here!

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I wish the Kurds had a state :(

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Absolutely. I'd be a LITTLE less gung-ho than that-- i.e., if the Saudi public has a revolution and overthrows the royal family, we have to figure out how to deal with that and that probably includes respecting the public's right to self-determination (how can we not?). But as long as that isn't in the cards, we want the people in power in Saudi Arabia on our side of the fence even if they aren't democratic, and we certainly would rather not see democratic government flourish in a part of the world where the public is very anti-American.

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I have no clue what the Saudi public thinks, but if it's similar to what the public of nearby nations think, that's not great.

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It isn't.. It's bad. I'm just saying we don't want to position ourselves so EXPLICITLY against democracy in the region that we can't deal with a democratic revolution if one happens.

But as long as the autocrats are in power, court the autocrats and be thankful for them. :)

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Depends what type of "democratic revolution." People actually marching for women's rights? Probably good. The coalition to overthrow the dictator and replace him with a crazier dictator? Probably bad.

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I feel like SA and Iran are both broadly irrelevant and that we have no real interests in that region that aren’t Israeli interests. Not now that we’re producing our own oil and diversifying the energy used to power our car-based transportation system.

The Suez Canal, but if we weren’t intervening in the region that would be more stable, not less.

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Saudi Arabia (and the other gulf countries) strike me as the exception that proves the rule. Alternatively, that this is less about democracy than it is about liberalism (even as the two go together 90% of the time). Saudi and UAE and others are specifically pushing their countries in a more liberal dimension. Suffice it to say that the new Axis of Evil is not.

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Saudi Arabia is pushing their country in a more “liberal” direction the same way the Soviet Union pushed themselves in a more “liberal” direction, and the same way China has been “liberalizing” for decades.

That is, they’ve been trying to modernize, industrialize, and raise the wealth, technology level, and living standards of the population (at least, what they consider to be the “loyal” population) while tightening control, surveillance, free speech suppression, and political repression of anyone they consider to be a threat to the leaders’ power.

They are certainly “liberalizing”, if you mean technology advancement and material prosperity. If you mean “liberal” in any literal sense, they are obviously going in the reverse direction.

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I would say that going from “alcohol can’t be consumed in the country and even visiting women need to be escorted by a man” to not that is unambiguously a) substantial liberalization and b) not just a function of raising material and technological standards. And it’s not like the list stops there.

By contrast your list of the ways they are regressing in terms of liberalism are almost entirely a list of the ways they are regressing democratically, which proves the point.

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It's pretty limited. The Saudis are backing off slightly on the sort of obviously Islamist stuff that gets them disproportionately bad press in the west. But if you stand on the streetcorner in Riyadh handing out anti-MBS leaflets you will still be arrested and brutally tortured. How you cash that out as "liberalization" is up to you.

In any event, the broader point is they are still one of the world's most brutal theocratic dictatorships and an absolutely key US ally, and neither of those things is changing anytime soon.

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Yeah, I'm glad Saudi Arabia is slightly liberalizing, but (1) it's pretty much in their self interest and they are still a theocratic dictatorship, and (2) they were steadfast allies of the US even before their liberalization.

It's just not a democracies/autocracies or liberalism/illiberalism frame. At best, it should be about following rules, although even that is tenuous because the US has been very bad about actually following the rules of a rules based order.

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Not a bad idea for the Democrats to do while they’re still in power

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May 21·edited May 21

I don't think we need to adopt a hard line about that either but there's a way to stay medium on the subject. I was a huge critic of that sort of thinking during the W years. However I think the realist community has retrenched in such a way as to seem loathe to make a defense of the Western world at all. If there's really no difference between us and them why stand up for anything? Meanwhile the people who actually live in these kinds of places show their revealed preference by flooding into the West by any means possible.

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The way to make sure there is a difference is for the US and its allies to adhere to rules. Hence, a rules based order.

The problem with the Anne Applebaums of the world is they hate the notion that the US might be constrained by rules.

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May 21·edited May 21

Saudi Arabia is almost certainly not “our” ally. At least, if you mean the ally of liberal democrats (small l, small d) in the U.S.

Like I said, the war is being waged inside the U.S. and outside. Matt himself (and his current co-podcast host, Brian Beutler) have been constantly hammering the fact that Saudi Arabia’s leaders are pretty clearly salivating for Trump’s return and have been doing their best, within the bounds of plausible deniability, to make that happen.

Meanwhile, if Trump wins, again, he will make both Russia’s and China’s long-run dreams come true. This is not really a stretch—Trump has all but promised just that to both countries, openly, on the matters they care about most.

It’s only plausible to call Saudi Arabia an “ally” in this particular context if you are being hyper-literal, and consider Biden’s and Trump’s relationship to Saudi leaders to be one and the same. Which, to be sure, many people, mistaking surface impressions for reality, do.

I do agree that not all democracies are necessarily going to band together at the moment, though. Like non-Trump political factions in the U.S., they seem more inclined to indulge petty grievances with each other than truly face what they’re up against. Anne would agree.

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This is silly. Saudi is salivating for Trump’s return because Biden decided to go all-in on marginalizing them early in his term (for extremely silly reasons.) Even more importantly, Biden has proven to be completely feckless in terms of dealing with Iran, whereas Trump was the opposite. An administration that puts Robert Malley in charge of Iran policy - irrespective of whether you think that’s going to be good for America - is not going to be appreciated by a country Iran sent a terrorist proxy after. Much less an administration that pressured that country to cease fighting that terrorist proxy.

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Blinken mentioned the murder of a US resident and an American journalist. If that is “all-in on marginalizing” them, heck, let’s just stop defending our own free press entirely.

And if you think “Trump was the opposite of feckless” in what he did with Iran during his presidency, you do not live in the same universe as most human beings. Not even most self-declared “realists” on this board.

Live in an alternate reality if you want. I’m not going to waste time engaging with this.

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No ones making you.

But this is why it’s difficult to engage in conversations about foreign policy in the US. We were discussing whether Saudi might have good, non-pro Russia/China/Iran reasons to prefer Trump. I noted them. You responded by noting how the things we did were in our interest. You understand at least how this is a non sequitur right?

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"all-in on marginalizing" is a massive overstatement for the US response to the murder of Khashoggi. It was pretty much entirely rhetoric. Authoritarian countries that want an alliance with democracies have to deal with the fact that the democracies are going to publicly criticise them, and if they genuinely insist that the democratic governments don't criticise them as the price of the alliance, then that alliance is clearly unsustainable.

If you want an example of feckless foreign policy in the Middle East, it's Trump's policy on Iran. Obama and the JCPOA had put the thin end of the wedge between Iran and China/Russia. Making that a bipartisan policy - which Trump could have done - would have driven that wedge deeper. Instead, he drove Iran right back into the arms of the US's enemies.

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Saudi Arabia is our ally in the sense that they use their energy policies, intelligence, and foreign policy to keep Iran in check. Including when Biden is President. If you don't think that is worth a lot to the US, I don't know what to tell you.

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Whoa. Keeping Iran in check? Poor, isolated Iran is a critical national security threat to the US? We don’t need Saudi Arabia to keep Iran in check. We can do it ourselves.

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Actually Saudi Arabia is involved right now in proxy conflicts against Iranian proxies. It is also seeking to eventually make peace with Israel (one of the reasons for 10/7 was Hamas wanted to stop this) so they can ally against Iran.

You can't fight everything with drones. The Saudis absolutely provide front-line support if you want to contain Iran.

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It is ludicrous to suggest that we need Saudi help to fight Iran. Iran isn't a direct threat to the US. It might be a threat to US interests, but unlike North Korea (recently), Russia, and China, Iran does not have the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons. There are reasons we might want them on our side which are largely economic/sociopolitical, but to protect the US from Iran? Please.

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Yes. It’s an Israeli interest, not an American one. Another reason to stop supporting Israel

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The only person with a platform and a theory of American greatness is Matt Yglesias.

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Check out Noah Smith - he's been beating this drum for years.

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It took me a while to realize this wasn't a guest post by Noah Smith.

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Yeah it felt like that to me too

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Yglesias is smarter and more self-aware than Noah. I can't think of a foreign policy example, but Noah thinks Obama's response to the 2008 GFC was "progressive" because "Keynesian stimulus" and "reforms"... but the stimulus went to banks, provoked roaring wealth inequality, and eviscerated the middle class. The "reforms" were written by the foxes, and now the too-big-to-fail banks are even bigger and more consolidated than ever. Yglesias has the brain for these nuances. Noah just comes off as a liberal nationalist.

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May 21·edited May 21Author

I can’t speak to his analysis of the Obama stimulus because I’ve never read it. But he’s one of the more accessible and clear minded voices on China/international trade.

And while I’m obviously a fan of Slow Boring (I work here!) I think Noah is essential reading as well on this topic.

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MY and Noah Smith are the only two Substacks I've ever subscribed to and compliment each other almost perfectly.

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That's one way to narrow your news diet to a single point of view and multiply your blind spots.

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See my own response. I'm not sure how seriously we should take this commentator.

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Your response was wrong.

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"The stimulus went to banks" is just factually untrue. You are likely talking about TARP...which was passed in September, 2008 and signed into law by the George W Bush. The lie that TARP was passed under Obama has been a right wing talking point for years as a way to discredit the Keynesian response to the recession.

The stimulus was a mix of aid to states, tax cuts and infrastructure spending. And oh by the way, the immediate aftermath of the stock market crash was to significantly narrow wealth inequality because rich people have a disproportionate amount of their money in stocks and the stock market (not shockingly) tanked. The S&P 500 did not reach it's July, 2007 high again until spring of 2013.

There is a criticism of the Obama response to the financial crises it was that the stimulus was not nearly large enough and the result was a more extended period of elevated unemployment than necessary. In fact, this lesson is almost certainly a big part of why our response to the pandemic recession was so robust...and in fact too robust as it was a factor (although I don't think the main factor) in the big increase in inflation. Having said all that, I'll take our response to the pandemic recession all day over the one in 2009. And even here I'll note that our response in 2009 was hamstrung by too people in Congress and inside the Beltway who overlearned the lessons of deficit reduction in the 90s.

If you want to do criticism of the response to the 2008 crisis by all means. I just did obviously. But I would at least ask that you get your basic facts straight.

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It's also worth noting that the US government made money off TARP

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May 21·edited May 21

My friend.

QE = buying Treasury bonds and other assets from banks and other financial institutions... a.k.a., giving money to the financial sector. The second round of QE began in 2010, under Obama.

Obama is also responsible for the program of zero/negative interest rates, which is free money for banks and financial institutions.

If you want to argue that it "trickles down" to the middle class, go ahead, but you should be aware that 1) this policy eviscerated the middle class, and 2) you're literally making a trickle-down argument.

What actually happened is that post-GFC Obama economy was terrible for middle-class Americans, leaving us bereft of any scarce assets we'd managed to accumulate in the 2000s; meanwhile, the elite used all the free capital from Obama's admin to buy those assets at bargain bin prices. Now they own everything. If you doubt culpability by Obama's admin, remember he appointed Tim Geithner, a very controversial Wall Street insider, who advised and executed this very policy.

Finally, over-spending during COVID merely instigated stubborn inflation in 2024. The ROOT CAUSE is 15 years of QE and ZIRP dumping money into the financial sector. Early on in QE, Bernanke said the Fed would unwind its bad assets ASAP, because central banks buying and holding Treasuries is "the stuff of banana republics." Well, eight years under Obama and that never happened. Just like in a banana republic, we now have sticky inflation. Don't believe me? The stickiest part of CPI is housing, which is the sector that is most immediately affected by loose monetary policy.

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Do you know how bad this economic analysis is? Yes I'm aware QE is buying treasury bonds. You realize this is done by the Fed right? An institution that very famously has an independent mandate. Same with zero/negative interest rates. Also, you're arguing this Fed policy is the root cause of the 2021-2023 inflation? I'm sorry, supply chain disruptions had nothing to do with this? And talk about a long lag time here.

The elite used all the free capital from the Obama administration to "buy all the assets"? I'd ask you unpack this, but this is honestly sounds more like a 16 year old smoking too much weed at Warped Tour. If you want to argue that too few people own too many assets in America I'm not going to argue. But holy crap talk about a trend that long long precedes Obama that you can basically track to 1980. If anything inequality fell slightly under Obama. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-income-gap-began-to-narrow-under-obama/

And I would like you to post the article that quotes Ben Bernanke saying central banks buying and holding Treasuries is the "stuff of banana republics". Here's one problem, Bernanke is the won who continued QE; the thing you hate so much.

You know what would have much much worse for the middle class? The Fed not dropping interest rates and not doing QE. You know what sucks for the middle class? Job loss. Do you know much higher unemployment would have been without Fed actions? Keeping borrowing costs unusually high in the midst of the worst financial crash in 100 years would basically be a supercharged version of passing the Smoot-Hawlkey tariff that passed in 1930. We don't have to imagine, all you have to do is look back at 1929 to 1932.

Again, if you want to argue the stimulus should have been bigger, there should have been more checks sent to working class people, there should have been mortgage cramdowns and more done to help middle class people underwater on the mortgages. I'm not going to argue. If you want to argue there should have been more investigations of Banks and more perp walks of bad actors. Again not going to argue. But this economic analysis of Obama is some weird Frankenstein's monster of Rand Paul Libertarianism and Jacobin editorializing.

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Noah Smith is pretty damn smart.

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A lot of smart people are wrong.

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Do *not* bring Larry Summers into this discussion. :-)

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The power that democracies have over autocracies is dissent. It lets democracies adapt and prevent mistakes more readily than systems reliant on displays of fealty.

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I agree with every word you wrote, especially the last paragraph which is what angers me so much about progressives who spend more time attacking Joe Biden as "Genocide" Joe than they do attacking Trump who would actually support a genocide against Palestinians, along with being bad for all the reasons you highlighted.

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founding

That said, the middle eastern components of the alignment are definitely troubling. I have zero compunctions about standing with Ukraine and the EU against Russia, and with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan against China and North Korea. But I have *some* compunctions about standing with Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and Palestine. Obviously, Israel is a less flawed democracy than Iran, but Iran is in fact more democratic and even liberal than Saudi Arabia (women can vote, even if the morality police try to control how they dress in public). If the uprisings in Iran a couple years ago had changed the political situation there, and they had as a result not been so gung ho with Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthis, the resulting country might possibly have been a better regional partner than Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both obviously have deep, deep flaws in their current state, far deeper than the flaws even in other somewhat illiberal regional allies like Turkey or Singapore.

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Weren't women allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, or am I misremembering? (I understand that the people who actually have the power aren't up for election in either Saudi Arabia or Iran, but I'm asking more from a trivia perspective, because I think I've read an article about it at some point.)

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I had forgotten that! It looks like Saudi Arabia does have municipal elections once in a while. In 2015, there was a round of municipal elections in which women were allowed to vote, but there haven't been any elections of any sort in Saudi Arabia since then.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Saudi_Arabia

It's true that Iranian elections don't choose the Ayatollah, but the President and Parliament seem to have some relatively important roles in running the country, and there are sometimes real choices in those races, which occur every four years, and women have been voting in them - and even winning a few dozen seats in Parliament.

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Ah, I see. We can say that women have voted in the same number of elections as men in Saudi Arabia since 2015 to make it sound better!

As far as Iran is concerned, I've spent a good amount of time among Iranians in the US (they make great PhD students!), and my understanding is that there is a committee that decides who can stand in their elections, so anyone who is not personally supported by the Supreme Leader can't run in the first place. My understanding is that, once elected, officials aren't allowed to disagree with the Supreme Leader either. Now, maybe my friends hate their government too much, and that's not accurate; I'm just repeating what I've been told in conversations.

I would like to add though that the Iranians I know seem to dislike their government much more than the Saudis I know. My total guess (not an expert!) from anecdotal evidence is that the Saudi government uses oil money to buy a lot of popular support and also that Saudis themselves appear to be more religious, while the Iranian government sends the money to various terrorists groups and uses repression. Also, the Iranian government faces a less religious population.

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There did seem to be some important differences between Ahmadinejad and his rivals in the 2005 and 2009 elections, though not as big as the differences with some candidates who were banned from running. It's hard to know what exactly that means.

I suspect that disliking a government more is a feature of democracies - the things that politicians do to appeal to swing voters are usually negative-sum, and lead in the long term to a generalized dislike of "politicians" that is much stronger than dislike of aristocracy or bureaucracy.

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Why do you think Turkey’s flaws are less than Israel’s? Turkey currently occupies substantial parts of Syria, which it has ethnically cleansed of Kurds. It regularly kills Kurds in Iraq as well. It was deeply involved in the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh last year and refuses to recognize its historical ethnic cleansing or grant full rights to its ethnic minorities.

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Hmm I hadn’t been particularly aware of Turkey’s activities in Syria, or its connection to Azerbaijan in the latest conflict. Maybe I shouldn’t be so clear that they’re less problematic than Israel.

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I also don’t think we provide a lot of military support to Turkey that isn’t paid back, like we’ve used them a lot for our misadventures in the Middle East. What do we get in return from Israel besides more headache?

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Mustafa Kemal was the shit, it’s true, but Erdogan is no substitute

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I take your overall point but it's a leap to lump SA and Iran in the same bucket as Israel. Despite Israel's steady drift to the right and accommodation of ultra right settlers it's a well settled democracy. It's in no way comparable to SA, Iran or even Singapore when it comes to democracy and liberalism - that's to say it's a far more free country than that group. I say that as someone who thinks Bibi should be attached to the next rocket launched at Gaza.

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Absolutely. But democracy is only one plank in the broader platform, and my understanding is that over the past ten years, Singapore has been building a better overall platform than Israel in that same time frame, despite its democratic deficits. (I might be wrong though.)

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And they just had a peaceful transfer of power, iirc

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Fair enough - it depends on how you look at it though. Singaporeans cant even smoke weed or chew gum without thinking about being tossed in prison for the rest of their lives and that's not to mention the well documented exploitation of migrant labor. I worked for a Singaporean company for a couple of years and I'll never forget getting on a zoom with a colleague who was extremely jealous I was able to simply chew gum without a second thought.

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Why am I not surprised the Professor has trouble standing with Israel against Hamas.

I mean, one allows gay people and one stones them. But Jews, you know.

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I don’t have trouble standing against Hamas. I am 100% on board with opposing Hamas. But I have also strongly opposed Likud and Netanyahu for years, without thinking they are as bad as Hamas. And Netanyahu has now been causing far more death and destruction and oppression than Hamas in the past few months (even if Hamas would do more if given the chance).

I don’t have a single drop of those same concerns about Zelensky, or the leadership of Korea and Japan, and even the leadership of Turkey and Singapore is not as clearly problematic as the current leadership of Israel or Saudi Arabia.

It’s important to be able to understand that not all of one’s allies are equally good people, and that some of them are bad enough that we would consider dropping them if their enemies weren’t being worse.

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Your concern for the welfare of Kurds is noted.

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I urge you to schedule a trip to all of those countries with your partner and let me know how it turns out.

But, yeah, Netanyahu isn't the best. He still won't condone killing you because you are gay.

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May 21·edited May 21

"But Jews, you know."

This seems uncalled for, John.

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founding

Maybe so. But maybe not.

To say that one has *some* compunctions standing with Israel against Iran and Palestine (which includes Hamas and Gaza), while giving Israel the faint praise of being a "less flawed democracy" than Iran (!) seems a bit more anti-Israel than merely disagreeing with Netanyahu would indicate.

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Netanyahu is just the tip of the spear. The bigger problem is the ultra-right wingers in his government that explicitly call out for ethnic cleansing and expansionism

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Also too, Persian history and culture is really cool, whereas not so much the Saudis

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We tried to give all of our crazies to the MAGA Right but a few seem to have stuck around. There has always been these people on the far Left and always will be. It is best to ignore them and remind others to do the same.

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I find it hard to ignore them when they're actively trying to tank the election in Trump's favor.

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I am not sure that they are actually trying. But if they are anti-Biden, why does it matter if they wear red hats or tie-dyed shirts? Our job is to propagate a sensible center-Left position. At least that is how I feel about it. I can't be bothered by the fact that there are idiots in the world. Otherwise I will be bothered all the time and need to start taking blood pressure meds.

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Hopefully it does not come to the point when an American President needs to give a version of Winston Churchill's speech hoping, practically begging, for the day when "the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old." But it could happen, if we don't manage things right, and not if MAGA thinking carries the day. Would Germany, Japan and South Korea, with their combined heavy industrial capacity, come to the aid of the US? Probably, but it would be better not the leave our fate to others on far away shores.

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Would we be begging them for help?

I think it's more likely that Germany, Japan, and South Korea would in fact be begging us to save them from Russia/China, and that a hypothetical MAGA America would say no.

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I don't know, could be any number of scenarios. For example, we miscalculated and got ourselves into a shooting war with China over Taiwan and/or Russia and Iran over some Middle Eastern commitments, found we'd bitten off more than we could chew, and couldn't extricate ourselvess when they decided to press their advantage while they had us on the ropes.

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" For example, we miscalculated and got ourselves into a shooting war with China over Taiwan and/or Russia and Iran over some Middle Eastern commitments, found we'd bitten off more than we could chew, and couldn't extricate ourselves when they decided to press their advantage while they had us on the ropes."

After watching our performance supporting Ukraine, I don't think this is a scenario that needs to be worried about.

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In a new Cold War, what are we fighting for?

- Protecting territorial integrity and minimizing wars of aggression. Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are the primary threats. But China is part of the equation since they facilitate the power of both regimes. And the primary foreign policy goal would be to drive a wedge between China and Russia, difficult as that may be. Chinese tariffs are counterproductive.

- Maximizing American economic prosperity. Russia and Iran are nearly irrelevant. China is a rival, but not to the extent that a Cold War mentality is needed. Things like tariffs are standard tit-for-tat responses to China subsidizing manufacturers.

- Promoting American liberal values (small “l” liberal, not left liberal). Now China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, most dictatorships, etc., are rivals. But the more we oppose them, the greater their incentive to align militarily and economically. It’s a very tough problem to solve.

- Maintaining America’s power and freedom to act internationally. This shouldn’t be a goal unless it’s in service of something more tangible, but it best defines the turf people are fighting over. China does not seek to expand through military action — with the important exception of Taiwan — but it does want to project economic power aggressively and wants to establish a more amoral system of international norms. Americans split on this dimension. The MAGA crowd wants economic prosperity, but doesn’t care whether we can project power internationally and has an isolationist view that doing so is counterproductive. The foreign policy blob sees projection of US power as important in its own right for a mix of moral and economic purposes.

The first Cold War was simpler because our adversaries aligned on all dimensions. Now it’s muddier.

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founding

In many ways it’s more like the interlocking regional alliances and rivalries that defined the early 20th century, rather than the global Cold War alignment that defined the late 20th century. Those weren’t grand ideological alliances - it was a lot of “the enemy of my enemy might as well be a convenient friend”.

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May 21·edited May 21

Chinese tariffs could be hugely effective. Russia is a bit player [edit: economically]. China would jump at a 5% relaxation of tariffs in exchange for bailing on Russia.

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It will be interesting to see how they respond to the TikTok ban (assuming it's upheld by courts, which it likely will be). The "rational" move is to just sell it and let ByteDance focus on non-US markets. If they refuse to sell it, it will indicate that they are willing to bear economic costs in service of ideological groups. I personally doubt they would even entertain small tariff reductions for abandoning Russia. It's also a dubious policy choice as it indicates that they are able to be bullied by the US.

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>To them, Russia, China, authoritarianism writ large are nothing compared to the “threat” of the people in their own country they don’t like<

Republicans have been blistering in their criticism of Xi, China and the Chinese Communist Party. People claim to know that Trump isn't concerned about the fate of Taiwan, and I guess that's possible, but if so he seems to be hugely outnumbered in his own party by genuine China hawks. And it was Trump who started the current trade war with China. It was Trump who initially tried to ban both WeChat and TikTok. It was Trump who engaged in the use of racial invective as part of his get tough approach to China. And many of the most forceful proponents of confrontation with China—Mike Gallagher, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Mike Pompeo and quite a few others—are Republicans.

I'm highly critical of the GOP on any number of policy issues. But the case that they're soft-peddling the threat from the People's Republic of China isn't one I think holds much water. If anything I think they're somewhat reckless compared to Democrats, who at least (in the main) seem to combine their toughness on the Xi regime with a belief that dialog with Beijing still holds some value.

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founding

Notably, Trump didn’t just start an economic war with China - he also started an economic war with Europe, Canada, and Japan at the same time. He wasn’t particularly interested in the China angle (except that they’re the biggest one) so much as the anti-internationalist angle (which ends up actually aligning well with Xi’s interests at the moment).

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Trump certainly issued tariffs on Europe, Canada and Japan, but realistically Biden has kept or even expanded most of those. Nor was that unique as Obama, Bush, et. al did similar things.

The biggest difference was in rhetoric and there Trump's approach to China was certainly for more extreme than his rhetoric toward the others.

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Trump has openly said, on numerous occasions—recently—that the “greatest threat is not from the outside of our country, but from within”.

He also just flipped on his opposition to Tik-Tok a few weeks ago. It was a headline for about two minutes, before we all apparently forgot about it.

From a raw interest standpoint, I really don’t blame him. The greatest threat to his re-election and his personal freedom, the U.S. criminal justice system, really is “within” the U.S. And it can’t have escaped his notice that some of the most strident left-wing anti-Biden voices, appealing to young voters, are viral on the platform—and that one of the largest megadonors in the Republican Party held a large stake in the company.

Trump is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, not some minority voice soon to be drowned out. He has remade the party in his image.

It seems motivated reasoning to rationalize that “genuine China hawks” are going to stand in his way in the event of, say, a cross-strait invasion that he (again, pretty clearly) considers to be something that isn’t worth the US’s while to enter a war over.

It seems even more motivated reasoning to believe, in the face of deeply reported plans by Trump and his allies to deport millions and deploy the military to cities across America, that he doesn’t consider crushing his domestic opposition a higher priority than any foreign foe.

My advice: Pay attention to what Trump is doing and saying right now, and avoid the temptation to search for bread crumbs to the contrary. That’s more popular a thing to do than ever before right now, and people need to break themselves of the habit.

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My advice: pay attention to what Republicans did when they had the opportunity to vote for legislation that would effectively ban TikTok, against the wishes of their God-Emperor.

We can try to read his mind all day long. But on China, at least, if Trump's a squish as you claim, it doesn't seem to be having much effect on the Republican Party or the wider American polity.

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I think the most obvious lesson of the previous Trump presidency is that he knows how to push levers within the Republican Party to effectively control its direction when he holds the office of the president. Any thought that the Republican Party won’t be entirely beholden to him in the event he wins seems completely untethered to reality.

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Yes, Republicans have mounted more opposition to Trump (both in and out of office) on foreign policy than everything else. But the President has enormous power in this area, and their opposition -- if he wins -- won't mean that much.

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My take on Trump is (really going out on a limb here) he's fundamentally a transactional politician. He apparently has a personal stake in preventing a TikTok ban, so that's the stance he morphed to. But he also really, *really* values holding onto his GOP allies as closely as possible. He's not much of a "reach out to the center" type—hence the hard-edged fervor of his pro-GOP partisanship. When you're not likely to get a lot of centrists to vote for you, you absolutely have to hold onto every last base voter.

Anyway, I doubt he cares personally much either way about our Taiwan policy (and his instincts may well say: why do we care about that country's fate?). But, safe in the knowledge that he's in firm control of the GOP, he doesn't go to the barricades over every single policy position. IOW he doesn't sweat the odd disagreement with the base, but beats a strategic retreat. It's arguably a pretty smart strategy. Hence he hasn't really fought the base on vaccines (he'd like to take credit for them; his base hates the very idea of vaccines). Nor on abortion (you think Trump really wants the procedure banned? He rightly fears the political ramifications of the post-Roe world).

I'd put Taiwan in this category. I don't see Trump's non-interventionist instincts—nor his desire for his organization to be able to do business deals with China—upending the Republican Party's very deep-seated hostility to the CCP regime. He's just not going to expend political capital fighting the base on this.

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Well said. My sense is that Trump might actually like the idea of the US going to war against some enemy and him being the strong, valiant wartime leader (see: Bibi Netanyahu) but at some point the generals told him that managing a war is so time-consuming and dependent on decisions made at the highest level that he would have to give up most of his golfing, watching cable news and tweeting. And in the face of that threat, he would never pull the trigger.

Because ultimately he's a lazy buffoon who won't do anything demanding.

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I think Trump's attitude toward Russia vs. China is confusing because I think he sees Russia as a role model and China as an enemy because Russia is an example of white ethno-nationalistic authoritarianism that uses a return to traditional values as its justification while China is a non-white state that uses communism as its justification. In reality, the two operate in very similar ways domestically and see themselves as aligned and each other's greatest allies.I think Trump would love to be close to Russia and model the US government after it but also prevent China from being a non-white super power with a non-US value system. That isn't really coherent with the reality that surrounds him but I think that the lack of need for intellectual coherence is a big part of how Trump is able to remain philosophically flexible. I also think he could pivot to liking China if he thought that would put him on the winner's side and/or make him rich. I think his flip flop on TikTok was all about influence from investors in Truth Social rather than China at all.

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Yes, it's notable that there are a lot of Republicans that talk tough about China. None of that matters. It only matters what Trump says; none are brave enough to take him on directly if he goes in a different direction. And on China, Trump has been all over the map. Do you believe Trump would consistently stand for American values, power, influence and security, and that of its closest allies, in the contest with China? I sure as hell don't.

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>Do you believe Trump would consistently stand for American values, power, influence and security, and that of its closest allies, in the contest with China?<

I believe Trump will not pick a fight with his base on China. It'll certainly have nothing to do with values.

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After watching the US lose interest in Ukraine, why would Taiwan feel good about big American talk?

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They shouldn't. They also shouldn't be spending only 2% of GDP on defense. They're practically begging the Chinese to invade them.

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I hope we do not forget Iran in here. Iran is setting itself up to be a far more difficult to contain (and thus exponentially more dangerous) North Korea.

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North Korea has nuclear weapons. Iran doesn’t.

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Thank you!!!

You say it more reasonably than I can bc it makes me so spitting mad.

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Gotta love the left’s ability to turn every big conversation topic into a masturbatory condemnation about MAGA America.

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Don’t deserve condemnation. Then you won’t have to worry about it.

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"he seems to regard China’s model for governance with more admiration than America’s"

What is China's model for governance? Is the model bad or are the people running it bad? Which does Trump actually seem to admire?

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May 21·edited May 21

His specific admiration, on record, dating back to 1990, was for how they bloodily put down Tiananmen Square protests. He said they did it “with strength”, as a compliment.

As a commenter below noted, John Bolton has said that when he was national security advisor, Trump complimented Xi for his treatment of the Uighurs.

The pattern there seems to indicate Trump admires Xi and other Chinese autocrats for how they crushed dissent, punished free speech with violence, and collectively punished whole regions and groups for the actions of a few.

He seems to consider that “strong”, and likely worth emulating.

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Thanks, but how about the first part of the questions? I'm still confused about China's model of governance? It doesn't seem to be a simple dictatorship although maybe it kind of is.

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It seems to be a generic nationalist dictatorship. Communism plays the same role in the legitimacy of the regime as the Russian Orthodox Church does in Russia—both serve as national creeds more than as moral systems of any real kind.

They’re far more Big Brother-esque than most nationalist dictatorships in history, but that’s largely a product of technology, opportunity, and necessity than by original design.

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founding

It doesn’t seem to be a dictatorship in the standard sense. At least, from 1985-2005 or so, it really seemed like it was the communist party bureaucracy as a whole that ran things far more than any individual. Party rule obviously isn’t democratic in the standard sense, but it did allow for opportunities for many people to get involved and rise in the ranks and have a variety of interests represented.

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It's pretty much the emperor wielding power holding the mandate of heaven while ruling the Middle Kingdom, and expecting both his subjects and the barbarian foreigners to kowtow to him while assembling the 21st century equivalent of the Treasure Fleet to impress and awe his neighbors.

But in this iteration fortified with amazing new technological tools for controlling the population.

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founding

Maybe it is now. But for a period, it seemed that the Communist Party really did allow a way for many voices from around the country to rise and participate in negotiations that affected the overall decision making and direction. Though now it does seem to be re-consolidating into something closer to a dictatorship.

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I think that more hopeful era has passed. I think we took a bet that economic liberalization was a faster road to a friendly china that political liberalization and we turned out to be wrong.

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Trump has on one or two occasions spoken admiringly on the record of Xi's political toughness, effectiveness and so on. He purportedly also told Xi (I believe this is unconfirmed) that he approves of the regime's brutal policies in Xinjiang.

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The good news is this issue is genuinely getting traction, and throughout the Biden administration you've clearly seen bipartisan elite support moving in the right direction. The bad news is the American public has become more distinctly isolationist. I don't think there's public enthusiasm yet for going to bat for allies (or even for Taiwan) over Chinese aims in the Pacific. There needs to be a very distinct threat directly at American interests to galvanize support.

This all feels very sadly 1930s. The New Axis is armed to the teeth and on a roll, the New Allies are dawdling, with American elites trying to quietly start moving America back to war footing while the public, disillusioned by some foreign escapades about 20 years ago, wants nothing to do with playing a role in the global order. We might need a kick in the pants, but if Pearl Harbor happened now we'd be in trouble. By 1941 we were fully rearmed and in wartime production, or ready to be in months.

And I've said it elsewhere, but it is genuinely tragic that China is heading in the direction of is. The integration of a billion Chinese into the liberal order would have been outstanding. Look at the cultural footprint of the Asian powers that entered the order - batting way above replacement. The Chinese diaspora has made a huge positive impact here in the US. Nothing is set in stone, and things can still work out for the best. But it's not looking great right now.

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author

> it is genuinely tragic that China is heading in the direction of is. The integration of a billion Chinese into the liberal order would have been outstanding.>

This point sometimes gets left out of conversations about the second Cold War and great power competition, but I like when it gets said. Because it is just absolutely tragic. The repression of Persian culture in Iran is tragic. The amount of amazing Russian art and literature that is lost under Putin's thumb is tragic. This list could obviously go on and on. But the point is that authoritarianism is obviously most devastating for the people living under it. But it also just robs humankind of our collective potential. That's why, however imperfect we are, America needs to continue the fight for democracy.

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One of the goals of fixing the immigration system should be getting their best and brightest here and on our side. Or more crudely making sure our Chinese (Americans) are better than the Chinese's Chinese.

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Yeah, not sure that's a great idea. These won't be Russian refuseniks or dissidents, these will be heavily filled with ChiCom aparachiks who will be mainlining Western data back to China. I doubt we have the capacity to do decent background checks on Chinese, and even if the West somehow did, with anyone with family back on the Mainland the ChiComs will be able to get hooks into them.

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This comment is more than a bit slanderous.

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In any event, even if we got some apparatchiks in our pool of immigrants, I think we'd still come out way ahead on net.

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By a substantial margin, this is the grossest thing I can recall ever reading in the Slow Boring comment section. And look, I have to think about Chinese expats exfiltrating our IP every damn day.

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Am I crazy in thinking that Eastern Europeans who wanted to work in the US had to defect during Cold War I? You’re claiming we should have been sharing scientific data with people who were traveling back and forth to the motherland? Seems like you’d be operating a free R&D service for the Chinese.

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I work this problem Monday through Friday. Did I stutter?

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I mean you didn’t say anything of substance, so I guess you don’t have much to add other than getting your knickers in a twist.

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Does immigration really need to be “fixed” in that regard? I thought the biggest barrier to that would be on the other side, China not letting such people leave?

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Nope. American universities are filled with Chinese students who would love to stay here forever but have to deal with endless visa uncertainty for some reason. It’s very self-defeating on our part.

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May 21·edited May 21

I am not sure how China handles emigration internally but I believe there's something like 150k Chinese nationals in the employment based immigration backlog. There's also lots of Chinese studying in American universities on student visas that go home when the visas expire.

Now there's of course a national security component as well. You don't want spies coming in and exfiltrating technology and know-how through work and student based immigration. Nevertheless I'd like to think we can work through those challenges and that the upside to doing so is self evident.

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> I thought the biggest barrier to that would be on the other side, China not letting such people leave?<

I believe a concerted, obvious US effort to grab China's best and brightest might well trigger more widespread use of exit bans by Beijing to block run-of-the-mill emigration (currently that tactic is normally reserved by the regime for persons suspected of wrongdoing, or their family members). But there's little prospect of this given that exactly the opposite is happening: the US has become quite a hostile environment for Chinese researchers and scholars, and their numbers in America are falling over the long term. It's hard indeed to imagine a bipartisan consensus emerging for a biggish immigration increase designed in part to attract skilled Chinese.

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>>might well trigger more widespread use of exit bans by Beijing to block run-of-the-mill emigration

I think this misunderstands China's internal politics.

The vast majority of Chinese are not college-educated/bound urban elites and never will be. It's THIS majority that the government is actually afraid of - the 90% who aren't elites.

The government's main calculation WRT the risk of an elite uprising is that (1) the elites are well outnumbered, and (2) the elites may have their complaints and be quite vocal about them, but they aren't actually willing to stake their lives on those complaints (similar to most bourgeois classes most places).

OTOH, an uprising of the other 90%... would be untenable.

Also, one of the most enduring aspects of the government's mindset is the idea that their biggest and most useful resource for solving any problem is "just throw people at it".

So, those ungrateful elite emigres may comprise a large amount of the US's high-skilled immigration, but they're still actually only a tiny percentage of the country's educated class of >100M people. If anything, it *benefits* the government to have the squeakiest wheels go be entitled somewhere else, and they have PLENTY of people from that other 90% who are perfectly happy to take their place and have more babies than the people they're replacing would have.

Beijing would only close down emigration if they were planning on starting a war. Not because they wouldn't want to get brain-drained, but because (1) they'd just need bodies and (2) they'd want to insure against the risk of an unpopular war leading to a mass population exodus like happened to Russia.

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Not sure why you introduced the prospect of an "uprising." My comment didn't touch upon that, nor did I make any claim that the Xi regime fears its elites. I was merely speculating on Beijing's response to a concerted, obvious US program to poach their most highly educated elites (in STEM fields).

We're not doing anything like this, so I'm not anticipating a response from China. There's nothing to respond to! But would the Xi regime take no action if the United States launched such an effort—a robust, targeted, effective program to entice top Chinese scientists to decamp for America? I think it's quite likely they would do so, and I believe one such tool would possibly be an increase in the use of exit bans, which, as far as I know, under the status quo are largely reserved for persons suspected of (usually financial) crimes. They also have restrictions in place limiting the ability of CCP officials (above a certain pay grade) in good standing to go abroad (such persons normally are not allowed to possess passports).

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>>Not sure why you introduced the prospect of an "uprising."

I brought it up because that's their central calculus for making these kinds of decisions. It's the first question they ask themselves before all others.

>>But would the Xi regime take no action if the United States launched such an effort—a robust, targeted, effective program to entice top Chinese scientists to decamp for America?

I disagree with your answer, on the grounds that I just don't see a "robust, targeted, effective program" being large enough to make a difference to the CCP. They still have >100M educated people. The absolute MOST that Americans would tolerate from just China alone would be, what, 600k/year? And that's assuming some insanely progressive consensus policy.

We simply couldn't poach their scientists fast enough for them to care even if we wanted to. Which is totally a reason to just go ahead and do it! Might as well; war -- even cold war -- like football, is a game of inches after all.

Outside of a real war, they won't bother. Their immigration to America is already dropping off due to the perception (some combination of real and imagined) of widespread hostility, and probably also from people seeing the writing on the wall WRT Cold War II ramping up.

If we started a new program to bring that immigration back up, they might respond to it out of *sheer spite or reflex*, but it won't be because they're seriously afraid of us brain-draining them. Xi mostly just wouldn't want to look weak by letting a perceived slight go unanswered.

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I hate to be the one who keeps having to point this out, but China's warship numbers are inflated by about 300 glorified PT boats that they stuck missile launchers on and called "hulls".

We're even in numbers of destroyers, frigates, and cruisers, leading them in subs and carriers.

The most worrying aspect is that we can't *ramp up* our destroyers/frigates/cruisers/subs/carriers/everything else. Not that we don't have enough of them already.

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I used Pearl Harbor specifically to highlight the difference in capacity between 1941 and now. If we lose fleet assets in a Taiwan fight we'd have a very hard time replacing them, while China could have new boats in the water in months.

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To be fair, we still HAVE military shipyards. They just operate at a rather slow pace. Safety is a top priority. There are not back-orders. The government doesn't use the DPA to magically make their logistical snags disappear; if they have to wait a few extra weeks for some cable or widget or whatever, they just wait and report a delay back up to their program. People go to barbeques on weekends; bean-counting managers and accountants forbid them from doing overtime.

It remains to be seen just how quickly we could pump out the first replacement Arleigh Burkes in a real emergency, but I have a gut feeling that we're leaving a lot of slack on the cutting room floor -- INTENTIONALLY, no less, because we care about a lot of other things in peacetime.

Ditto any defunct shipyards currently rusting away. DPA >>> NEPA + CEQA. Presidential attention, gubernatorial attention, and a damned national emergency will have a way of speeding eminent domain and other sorts of suits through the relevant courts.

I'm not saying it'll be *enough*. I'm scared precisely because I don't think it necessarily will! But we're in the 1935-1938 phase of economic disparity right now: Back then, the German industrial base looked downright scary, and ours was depleted by the Depression.

The danger right now is that the trajectory of the conflict might be closer to 1941 than 1938. If we don't want to be caught with our pants down (IE 1938), then we should act like the conflict is closer to 1941 and start breaking some emergency glass.

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"But we're in the 1935-1938 phase of economic disparity right now: Back then, the German industrial base looked downright scary, and ours was depleted by the Depression."

Its much worse than that. From a purely manufacturing perspective, we're Germany and China is the US in terms of population and potential. Germany had far more advanced weapons and military while the US was mostly potential. Now its the US with advanced weapons and military potential while China's is mostly potential.

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I dunno. I mostly agree. I *want* to disagree, because I’m biased for my own country, but I can’t do so without resorting to special pleading WRT how our technology might truly have a shot at holding off the upstart this time.

The only historical example I can muster is Trafalgar: The French thought they could outnumber and outgun the British. But the Brits were just better: better ships and more disciplined crews, better leadership, etc.

It’s entirely possible that could happen. I’m just worried that we won’t do any of the other things necessary to keep a slim or lucky victory from being a one-off.

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In a battle those things really matter. In a war, they matter less. The old saw about the Tiger being three times as good as a Sherman, but the US could produce 4 Shermans for every Tiger the Germans could produce.

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May 21·edited May 21

I also want to point out some of the insane military construction boondoggles we routinely pay for. The Littoral Combat Ships. The Zumwalts. The Seawolfs. I really think we should stop trying to build "hyperfuturistic sci-fi weapons" and just built rifles and artillery shells and old-fashioned surface ships with missiles and guns.

Unless DARPA can build phasers. I'm all-in on phasers.

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My understanding was that the point of those programs was that since we already had all the ships we could support during peacetime, we would keep our industry alive by making a bunch of hyperfuturistic moonshot projects.

Which was reasonable at the time.

We just never anticipated that the boondoggles would undermine support for ramping back up to court a peer adversary BEFORE they came within spitting distance of outproducing us.

The LCS’s and other boondoggles were basically our MIC trying to replicate the F-22: Create a generationally superior system that discourages everyone else from even trying to match it, so you only have to produce a token superiority force of them.

Theoretically, if you could keep doing that over and over with every type of weapons system, you create an edge that no one can ever overcome. Instead of being the English and just lucking into longbows being the right weapon for the moment, you dedicate an entire R&D complex to inventing the next longbow, and the next after that. You’d never find yourself getting beat by a raggedy band of plucky upstarts with some weapon you overlooked or couldn’t invent, because you keep an upstart mentality and always lead the field in inventing the new weapons.

Could have worked. Just wasn’t insulated enough against public opinion.

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I can't remember the name of it, but there's a 1950's era sci fi short story that is specifically about a civilization that gets conquered in a war by its opponent who is fielding vast fleets of largely disposable spaceships while the side the story is focused on keeps working to build increasingly convoluted and expensive weapons systems that don't work.

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Found it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18038608-superiority

(Someone else did most of the work)

https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/192895/sci-fi-short-story-side-with-the-most-advanced-technology-loses

And... found my physical copy in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke", page 395

Note from the foreword(by Clarke) in my copy(typos mine, Britishisms theirs)

"Superiority was inspired - if that is not to pretentious a word - by the German V2 rocket programme. With 20/20 hindight, it is now clear that the Third Reich's attempts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, which was too late to have any major influence on World War II, sapped its resources and contributed to the Allied victory."

Soon after publication, 'Superiority' was inserted into the Engineering curriculum of MIT - to warn the graduates that the Better is often the enemy of the Good - and the Best can be the enemy of both, as it is always too late."

(Also says that the characters were based on Wernher Von Braun and General Walter Dornberger)

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A related one is Asimov's The Feeling of Power, about a man who rediscovers how to do math long after humanity has become completely reliant on computers and the implications for an ongoing war.

https://urbigenous.net/library/power.html

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I think the bigger concern is that we are more reliant on our Navy to project power than China is, and our ships may be increasingly vulnerable to missile attacks. See the Russian Black Sea Fleet, RIP.

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The Black Sea Fleet had barely-functioning missile defenses.

The Houthis and Iranians have been giving us target practice for 6 months now, and we've battle-tested our surplus missile defense tech in Ukraine, including downing a Kinzhal. Most of that was without even having to resort to CIWS, but when we DID have to use that once or twice, it worked TOO.

I'm not concerned about our vulnerability to missile attacks, I'm just concerned about how well our stockpiles will last out in an extended conflict. Taiwan would be a "home game" for the PLAN, and their missile stocks are a good bit bigger than ours. Even if our overall edge in *speed* of logistics can shrink the away-game disadvantage to a negligible amount (IE, if it takes them 1 day to get a missile to the front and us only 2, that's pretty much a wash), we would still need to actually BUILD the missiles to keep up with their production.

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China has made, and continues to make, major progress in its offense missile capability and is a much greater threat to the US air bases and the navy than in those other cases.

A bit dated, but showing the trend through 2017: https://www.rand.org/paf/projects/us-china-scorecard.html

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Most of that missile progress was simply catching up to OUR missile capabilities, which still outstrip them in pretty much every category -- speed, range, accuracy, etc**.

** There's a wide variety of missiles, so it's kinda difficult to do apples-to-apples.

But the important thing there is, we didn't just call it a victory when we stopped the Houthis and Iranians; we've been testing against our OWN missiles for DECADES, and we test in all the worst-case scenarios and simulating foe capabilities precisely to prevent any minor oversights from spiraling into bigger catastrophes.

The report itself points out that their ASBMs aren't the real threat, it's the submarines...

... and it just so happens that ASW is like the #1 thing we obsess about training against. Literally our entire navy is oriented towards countering the submarine threat first and foremost, and then only doing other shit once we've locked that down.

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They don't depend on air bases and surface ships like we do so our missile capability is less important in deciding a war. The biggest challenge in facing their missile threat is the sheer volume of sophisticated missiles they can send at our forces. We're in danger of being overwhelmed.

I hope we maintain and expand our ASW capability but we'll have to see how it plays out. China can produce a lot of submarines and has a big population to man them.

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While Americans may be playing footsie with a new isolationism, this is nothing like the 1930s. We have a huge, advanced and highly professional military with the ability to project power worldwide (which, obviously, neither Russia nor China has). We have a network of allies with whom we are mostly on the same page in terms of the threat of those two nations. We have a home population that still adores the military and is unlikely to demand massive cuts in the DoD budget.

If the MAGA Republicans seize power for an extended time or the Democrats become too beholden to the progressive Left, those advantages could decay over time, but we're far from that now.

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While you’re generally correct, the big problem is not JUST that we’re behind on production capacity, but that ramping it up is a slow process.

You need machine tools like mills in order to make other machine tools, as WELL as to make whatever weapons you actually need. When you build more machine tools to expand your overall capacity, you have to take some of the ones making weapons out of those production lines. It's the military equivalent of "seed corn".

If we ramp up our machine tool capacity NOW, we can get a head start without having to build as many actual factories.

But in a wartime situation, we don’t want to be starting from behind and be undergunned in the most important early phases of a conflict.

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There's much to what you say but I want to caution people about the WWII mobilization analogy (in general; not in response to your comment). We don't do that thing anymore. We're not going to have factories with rows of B-24s or Sherman tanks coming off the line or with thousands of workers flooding the floor on round the clock shifts. Heck, we're not going to draft millions of men and women into the military for that matter.

War materiel is going to become even more high-tech, specialized and (very) expensive. It will depend on worldwide supply chains. It will depend on very highly skilled workers managing increasingly automated factories. Clearly, that will have to ramp up as actual war looms, but exactly how we do that in such a world is not that clear, and whatever it will be it will be nothing like the 1940s.

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This is precisely why I'm obsessing about the *tools*. The tools are at the root of pretty much every activity involved in automating supply chains -- from the mining to the refining, from the prototyping to the production.

All the knowledge work in the world won't change the fact that a CNC machine can only make so many widgets at a time. Every production line, every mine, comes down to those widgets at some point along the line.

Knowledge work can tell us how to make our widgets slightly more efficiently and in ever more varieties. But it can't double the number of CNC machines for making those widgets.

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It feels more like the prelude to WW1.

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Nah, that was the 1990’s.

A big empire collapses, chaos in the Balkans, followed by 30 years where a rising industrial power comes onto the world stage and a wave of authoritarianism seizes up the traditionally democratic powers’ longstanding hegemony.

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Ukraine feels like the Balkan Wars though

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Uhh not really.

The Balkan Wars were a bunch of chaotic ethnic conflicts of minor powers attacking even smaller powers under the general goal of ethnic cleansing.

Even in its hollowed-out state, Russia is not a minor power, it's a big player. Although they're using ethnic cleansing in Ukraine, the goal isn't to push all the Ukrainians into Romania; it's to conquer the entire country as a prelude to further conquest and secondarily to permanently subjugate Ukrainians into a second-class status under an ethnic Russian minority who are intended to eventually subsume/replace them.

Ukraine isn't the Balkans, it's Manchuria -- which Japan saw as merely the first step in a long campaign to realize its right to rule all of East Asia.

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founding

Gaza and Yemen are the Balkan wars. Ukraine is Catalonia. It’s not perfectly analogous to the run up to either world war, but clearly has elements of both.

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How quickly people forget Syria.

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It’s more of the fact that the Balkan Wars revealed the changes and technological transformations of warfare used in WW1 that makes me view the war in Ukraine as a parallel moment.

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Every war does that. It's not a useful heuristic for the sorts of geopolitical patterns Casey was describing.

The "changes and technological transformations of warfare" can tell you HOW a war will be fought, which *may* somewhat indicate WHO's most likely to win, but they won't be all that useful for telling you WHAT wars will be fought or WHY. At best, they *might* tell you how *willing* someone might be to fight a war, but that's far from the only factor in the calculations that go into wars, let alone one of the biggest ones.

RE Ukraine, it can certainly tell us that drones could end up being a big part of a conflict with China. But Casey's comment was about the *trajectory* of the lead-up to such a conflict, not the technologies that are going to go into it.

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My assumption is the Ukraine conflict makes an American defense of Taiwan more likely, not less. Although I will say, if China invades Taiwan, expect the business community, which makes tons of money trading with China, to push hard for us not to do anything about it.

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And I bet Ukraine has changed Chinese calculations about invading Taiwan. China has a huge advantage there because Taiwan is really close to the mainland. They have a huge disadvantage, compared to Russia, in that there's lots of water between them and the island, with all the military problems that entails. They can't be too comforted by Russia's inability to conquer a small country, let alone failing completely in their huge initial attack, and the vast losses it has incurred for very minor gains.

I'm sure the Chinese generals are telling Xi that the situations aren't comparable and of course the completely untested PLA would sink the US Navy and overwhelm Taiwanese defenses in the first few weeks, en route to an overwhelming victory. But unless Xi is a total idiot, watching Putin stumble about would have to give him second thoughts.

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I think a specific learning is that most American/Western weapons broadly work as advertised. You can learn to counter them but that takes time.

This suggests that steaming a huge hostile fleet into range of thousands of American anti-ship missiles is not a good idea.

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What's your logic here? (The first part, not the part about the business community).

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So prior to the Ukraine invasion, I think what might have gone down is:

1. China invades Taiwan

2. Enormous pressure is brought to bear by big businesses, from the NBA to Boeing to Apple, to do as little as possible about it.

3. We do as little as possible about it, maybe imposing some symbolic sanctions and sending some aid to the Taiwan resistance, but that's about it.

Post-Ukraine, I think we at the very least have to do exactly what we are doing for Ukraine, and probably do more than that because Taiwan is a formal ally and Ukraine was not.

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I agree the US will do more than your pre-Ukraine scenario outlines. But I guess I'm not exactly sure how Russia's invasion of the Ukraine changes the US calculus either way. As I see it, any US president would be under utterly enormous political pressure to go to war with the PRC if the latter launched a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. But that's mainly because of deep, bipartisan hostility toward China (and not anything to do with Ukraine). There's also the possibility—it's hard to judge how likely though China hawks like Noah Smith claim it's very probable—that, in the wake of a Taiwan invasion, Beijing would preemptively attack US assets (Okinawa, Guam, surface ships) in the region to stymie any potential US response. In other words, they might strike us first. That, very obviously, would mean a full-scare great power war.

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I suspect and hope it's an example of Noah Smith getting way out over his skis on this one (and wouldn't be the first time).

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Oh, TBC, the Taiwan scenarios are very depressing. And I basically hope Xi et al. are bluffing and realize that.

On the other hand, one of the scary aspects of the China hawkery (which I agree with Matt (and Biden and Trump) that we have to implement) is that China decides "screw it" either due to falling economic fortunes and/or the security dilemma (interpreting US moves as offensive, not defensive) and decides to invade anyway.

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Re: the "screw it" aspect—deterrence is great if it works. But if it doesn't work, you're very likely worse off than if you hadn't publicly committed to a robust response in the first place. In other words, if China is certain or near certain the United States will intervene militarily to protect Taiwan—but they decide to invade anyway (ie, deterrence fails)—then they have no reason to refrain from striking us first. If they believe war with America is truly inevitable if they invade, the rational course of action for China is a preemptive attack that seriously degrades the ability of the US to project military power in the region. I think this is an under-discussed potential drawback of Joe Biden's decision to abandon strategic ambiguity (our policy for 70 odd years) in favor of interventionist clarity.

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I think a lot depends on how the neighbors react. If Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines (and India too) decide that their interests are best served to allow China to grab Taiwan, then there's nothing the US can do. If they stand strong, I think the US will be there too. Unless we have President Donald Trump Jr in office.

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This is a really depressing prediction, but I bet if we defend Taiwan we will get very little support from the international community. It will just be us and maybe the handful of countries that still recognize Taipei as the legitimate government of mainland China.

It's in almost everyone's interest to placate the Chinese Communist government. That's not going to change even if we defend Taiwan.

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How is Taiwan a formal ally?

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The Taiwan Relations Act commits us to defend Taiwan on some level. It has also been bipartisan US policy through every administration since Nixon.

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The Taiwan Relations Act doesn't obligate the US to actually defend Taiwan (nor does it say the US won't, this seems to be ambiguous).

I'm not sure there's any consensus on the US defending Taiwan either-- Biden's comments on defending Taiwan had to basically be walked back.

And notably there's no US/Taiwan treaty to formalize any ally relationship, as the US has with countries like South Korea and the rest of NATO.

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founding

Aren’t there also important parts of the business community that *lose* huge amounts of money *competing* with China, who would encourage us to push back? It’s not like the business community was strongly anti-Trump when he pushed the Chinese tariffs.

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I've always thought that, but in practice, especially in the 1980's and 1990's but even more recently the business community has been massively pro-trade with China and objectively pro-regime.

I think it's fair to say that without the business community's basic support for making a bunch of money in China, BOTH Tinanmen Square AND Hong Kong would have resulted in massive diplomatic and economic punishment against China.

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I was thinking about something, and maybe this a personal "Take Bakery" idea because the idea isn't fully-formed yet in my mind. There is talk about us living in a redux of the 1920s-30s. If we are, it is because it has been roughly 100 years since the rise of global fascism back then, and almost everyone who remembers it is dead. A similar idea -- the Civil Rights Movement began taking off in the 50s, 100 years after anyone who remembered the Civil War was dead. This is "para-historical analysis," yes, but I kind of wonder if history doesn't move in 100-year cycles? It's ironic, if that should be true, because humanity has created works of art, architecture, literature that have lasted thousands of years, but we undergo collective amnesia once a century.

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May 21·edited May 21

One of the things I find frustrating is that our political culture has fallen into a state of navel gazing grievance. I think the Biden admin has on balance been pretty good, but it hasn't articulated any sort of larger vision. The cultural left part of the coalition certainly has none. And that's not even getting into the disgraceful cult of personality the the right has decayed itself into.

The big concern is probably that the United States Will probably need to be kicked in the ass in some way. That's generally what happened over the 20th century. The difference is that by the time that happens it could be too late.

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I like that Freudian slip. We need to stop navel gazing and start naval gazing!

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My phone just updated and the new autocorrect is not only aggressive but apparently also has a sense of humor!

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I'm deeply pessimistic in general as a person, and I can't help but think that the US has peaked as a world power in a way that will never be fully recoverable. I can easily imagine a future in a few decades with China as the dominant world power, and the US a faded empire like the British and others before. I just don't see how our domestic squabbles are ever resolvable in a way that allows us to regain our former influence. And the demographics just favor China (and maybe someday India) too much. But One Billion Americans is still a great idea!

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You'd think something like a direct attack by the Chinese on the US mainland would unite Americans but at this point I'm sure each side would find a way to blame the other rather than coming together like we mostly did post 9/11. The Iraq War and our response to the Pandemic make a unified response seem like an impossibility.

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I think those sorts of larger vision are beloved by the Council of Foreign Relations but typically don't have much to do with the real world.

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The scary thing about Xi's CCP is how much the leadership seems to buy their own propaganda. They get sideswiped by covid protests, countries responding to dumping efforts, when countries default on their Belt and Road loans and just hand over the bad capital investments, and find that Wolf Warrior jingoism has made all their neighbors start rearming.

The CCP demands unequal treaties with all other nations. Xi expects a tributary system where obligations flow only one direction and the promises of the CCP are never kept.

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founding

In terms of buying their own propaganda, I think there’s a lot of people who see the high ranking of Chinese universities on international objective metrics based rankings, and see how Chinese researchers are climbing the ranks of publications in international journals, and think this is more meaningful than it actually is. Because those metrics are all quantitative and objective, they are easy to game, and Chinese universities have given their researchers strong incentive to game them, by finding journals with low standards that still count.

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I think that undersells it a bit though: Chinese science is pretty impressive, in large part because they are investing in it. They get plenty of Nature papers after all.

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founding

There’s a good number in Nature - but nothing like the same sort of fraction we see when we look at all journals included in the metrics.

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Great article! As you point out it’s very important to increase collaboration with Europe and other friendly countries. For the EU specifically, it’s kind of shocking that the US and EU don’t have a free trade agreement, which I think just gets mired in agricultural rule conflicts and pettiness. Another issue is European perception of the US as more of a competitor than an ally—I’ve heard Europeans provide a list of their external competitors as being Russia, China, and the USA. When pressed they admit the US isn’t in the same league but they keep saying it anyway.

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author

US/EU trade negotiation has a lot of sticking points — the tariffs are already very low so you’re really talking about harmonizing regulations which is sensitive — but it’s worth pursuing.

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founding

In the Happy Universe matt described in his main post, where China liberalized and joined the world order, it would be clear that there are three and a half major poles - China, US, and EU (with India as a half pole that would still be growing into its status). This would have been a kind of productive competition, with many points of disagreement as well as agreement.

Maybe a decade earlier, Russia would have been the extra half pole as opposed to India, and in the view from Europe, Russia might still look larger than India, but it sounds like these people are living in the Happy Universe rather than the real one (where competition between the US and Europe is real, but not of the same nature as either with Russia or actual world China).

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That sounds like east Germans and some eastern Europeans, I certainly have never heard this sentiment where I live (Scandinavia). I don’t think it’s very widespread in Europe.

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I have heard this sentiment outside of the former communist bloc in the EU (and years before Trump became President to also respond to theeleaticstranger), but I also think it's something that's clear from statistics.

For example, I would bet that the Poles or the Lithuanians are much more pro-US than they are pro-Russia, and also more pro-US than the French. I think it's also clear from Germany's foreign policy pre-2022 (unless you include Merkel in the east Germans).

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I heard some people say this in France and Belgium but that was during Trump, so perhaps things have shifted. My sense was that Trump really hurt US/EU relations via his various trade policies and in general gave Europeans the sense they couldn’t rely on us. It’s great for the EU to take more responsibilty for its security, but if the US could provide the message in a more positive way: “you can handle things but we still have your back” rather than as Trump has done by simultaneously accusing them of being freeloaders and also questioning whether we would even help them in the event of a Russian attack.

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French anti-Americanism long predates Trump or George W. Bush or even Reagan: