In this Cold War between Trump and China, beware the enemy within

 As tensions rise across the Pacific, whose side are US socialists on?

If you’d told me 30 years ago America would be in another Cold War with another communist superpower by 2019, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that, simultaneously, socialism would be the height of fashion with young Americans, I would have directed you to a psychiatrist.

But here we are. Three decades ago Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay “The End of History?”, hailing the victory of liberal capitalism over all its ideological competitors, but especially over communism. The essay he needs to write today is “The Upend of History?”

In 2016 a Cold War between the United States and China seemed like the febrile fantasy of Steve Bannon and a few fringe academics. Even Donald Trump’s campaign threats to impose tariffs on Chinese goods struck me as a throwback to an earlier era. I remember patiently making the counterargument that the incoming Trump administration would be better served by improving relations with China and Russia and making the permanent members of the UN security council act like the five great powers after the Congress of Vienna — maintaining a global balance of power.

I had been reading too much Henry Kissinger. I should have listened more to Graham Allison, another Harvard-trained veteran of US national security policy. When he told me he was writing a book on the US-China relationship with the title Destined for War, I was incredulous. Chapeau, Graham. You were right.

“When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” Allison wrote, “alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course . . . War between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognised. Indeed, on the historical record, war is more likely than not.”

Since the publication of Destined for War two years ago, the world has gone his way. It’s as if Allison’s “Thucydides trap” — derived from the ancient Greek historian’s observation that war between Athens and Sparta was inevitable — has a magnetic force, drawing the US and China towards it.

“What made war inevitable,” wrote Thucydides, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.” In the space of barely a year, Americans have suddenly grown fearful of the growth of Chinese power. What was once the position of a few alarmists is the new orthodoxy in Washington, shared by Republicans and many Democrats, foreign policy wonks and technology nerds. We may not be destined for a hot war, but we certainly are on track for a cold one.

In the Cold War the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 was the moment America woke up to the red menace. I’m not sure quite what the Chinese Sputnik moment was — maybe the publication last year of Kai-fu Li’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.

China-bashing is no longer about unfair trade policies and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. The trade war that Trump launched against China last year has morphed into a tech war over 5G networks, artificial intelligence, online payments and even quantum computing. Of course there’s an old-fashioned arms race going on as well, as China stocks up on missiles capable of sinking aircraft carriers. But that’s not what’s cool about the Second Cold War.

As in the First Cold War, the two superpowers are ideologically divided, with President Xi Jinping reasserting the importance of Marxism as the foundation of party ideology even as Trump insists: “America will never be a socialist country.” And, as in the First Cold War, both superpowers are seeking to project their economic power overseas.

So what are the big differences? First, China is now a match for America in terms of GDP, whereas the USSR never got close. Second, China and America are economically intertwined in what I once called “Chimerica”, whereas US-Soviet trade was minimal. Third, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in America (between 350,000 and 400,000) and 2.3m Chinese immigrants (half of them naturalised), whereas the number of Soviet citizens in America was always tiny.

Is a new Cold War a bad thing? Not necessarily. It’s certainly preferable to our acquiescing in a Chinese world takeover. And the last Cold War was also characterised by massive investments in technology, which had all kinds of positive economic spin-offs.

The worst features of the last Cold War were the protracted and bloody proxy wars fought in places such as southeast Asia, Central America, southern Africa. Right now, there’s not much sign of that kind of thing happening again, though watch Venezuela, where the kleptocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro has long depended on Chinese cheques but Washington is now backing the opposition leader, Juan Guaido.

So what’s not to like? Well, one thing. It wasn’t inevitable that the West would win the last Cold War. And it’s far from clear that it’s going to win this one. China seems a more formidable antagonist than the Soviet Union was, demographically, economically and technologically. For many countries, including staunch US allies such as Australia, Beijing’s economic pull is hard to ignore.

But I am more worried by America’s enemies within, who are surely much more numerous than during the Cold War. I don’t mean the Chinese immigrants, though I fear that in a new Cold War they might have their loyalty called into question, like German-Americans and Japanese-Americans during the world wars. My concern is with those native-born Americans whose antipathy to Trump is leading them in increasingly strange directions.

The vogue for socialism among Democratic voters is one sign of the times. According to a recent Gallup poll, 57% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view socialism positively, as against 47% who view capitalism positively.

The left-wing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done much to make socialism sexy on Capitol Hill this year. Even more disturbing, because it is much more subtle, is the way her fellow Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, is making Islamism acceptable. Last week she and her allies won a significant victory by turning a resolution intended to condemn Omar’s recent anti-semitic remarks into one that also condemned “anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities” and deflected the blame for those who “weaponise hate” onto “white supremacists”.

Like her supporters on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Omar knows attacking Israel and accusing its American supporters of dual loyalty is an easy way to draw progressives to the Islamist side. Funny how she has nothing to say about Beijing’s persecution of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, hundreds of thousands of whom are being held in “vocational training centres ”. In the old Cold War such camps were called the gulag.

So what if we reran the Cold War and half the country sided with the enemy? It wouldn’t be the end of history. But it might be the end of liberty.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Micky Goodfella Cohen won’t take out Donald Trump

 The president’s ex-lawyer squeals, but no one knows when this show ends

In the entrance to the US Senate members’ dining room there’s an old menu from March 24, 1941. On the back — presumably to record a bet — seven senators wrote the dates when they thought their country would enter the Second World War. Theodore G Bilbo, a Democrat from Mississippi, thought “never”. So did D Worth Clark, one of the two senators from Idaho. Millard Tydings, of Maryland, hedged, guessing either July 14, 1941 “or 1961”. A fourth senator said September 17, 1945.

Aside from Tydings, only three of the seven predicted the nation would be at war before the end of the year, and not one of them got the month right. (They guessed July 24, August 24 and September 24, whereas the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was on December 7 and the German declaration of war on America on December 11.)

Now imagine a similar exercise in March 2019. On what date will Donald J Trump leave the office of president? If, as in 1941, the majority of your seven senators were Democrats, I would guess that at least three would predict January 20, 2021 — the day the constitution requires Trump to hand over the White House if he is defeated in the 2020 election. But I doubt they would all say that.

Senate Democrats are under instructions not to talk about impeaching Trump, but I am sure more than a handful think about it. So perhaps two out of seven would go for an earlier date, perhaps some time next year. But that would leave two pessimists. The first might say January 20, 2025, acknowledging that the president they love to hate could win a second term. The most pessimistic of them all, having read all those overwrought articles from two years ago about the coming Trump tyranny, might write “never”.

One great benefit of recording such political wagers is that, years later, they can remind historians that the familiar past they study was once the uncertain future. We all know the United States eventually joined the fight against Axis powers. But that did not seem inevitable to many Americans, even in March 1941. In the same way, no one should pretend to know for sure how long the Trump presidency will last.

True, last week was not a good one for Trump. For the many liberal journalists yearning to re-enact Watergate, Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House oversight committee on Wednesday was beyond thrilling. Back in June 1973 this was the role played by John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House lawyer, who testified before Congress that the Watergate case was a “cancer growing on the presidency”.

In his opening statement Cohen called Trump a “racist”, a “conman” and a “cheat.” Cohen said that, well into the 2016 presidential campaign, he was working on Trump’s behalf on a big property project in Moscow, despite Trump’s repeated insistence he had no business dealings with Russia. And Cohen provided fresh testimony (but no compelling evidence) that Trump was in the know about the efforts of WikiLeaks and the Russians to release dirt about Hillary Clinton at key moments in the campaign.

Yet somehow Cohen’s appearance was more The Godfather or Goodfellas than All the President’s Men. “How many times,” asked Representative Jackie Speier, “did Mr Trump ask you to threaten an individual or entity on his behalf?”

“Quite a few times,” Cohen replied.

Speier: “Fifty times?”

Cohen: “More.”

Speier: “One-hundred times?”

Cohen: “More.”

Speier: “Two-hundred times?”

Cohen: “More.”

Speier: “Five-hundred times?”

Cohen: “Probably, over the 10 years.”

That’s Henry Hill from Goodfellas talking, not John Dean.

I met Cohen on one occasion only, in Trump Tower in the heady days of the post-election transition in December 2016. Future White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, whom I’d known for years, had invited me to pay a visit. It was a fascinating afternoon. I met Trump’s pick for national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who struck me as disciplined but dim. I met the soon-to-be chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who struck me as just the opposite.

But it was Cohen who convinced me that I should maintain a healthy distance of several thousand miles from the administration that was being formed. The way he talked strongly suggested that, in his eyes, the federal government was a chain of casinos the Trump Organisation had unexpectedly acquired at a bargain-basement price.

Sure enough, it turns out that Cohen’s job was indeed to play the mobster on Trump’s behalf. But what we heard last week was a litany of low crimes and misdeeds predating the president’s inauguration, not the “high crimes and misdemeanours” in office that article 2 of the US constitution says are grounds for impeachment. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, the founding fathers had in mind “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust”.

So long as the president’s party has the upper hand in the Senate, and so long as his approval rating does not collapse — as Nixon’s did in the course of the Watergate hearings — any move to impeach Trump is going to fail and might even backfire on the Democrats, as impeaching Bill Clinton backfired on the Republicans in the 1990s. Reality check: Trump’s job approval number is currently 44%, exactly what it was at the start of his presidency and substantially above the low (37%) of December 2017. By the time Nixon was forced to resign, his approval was down to 24%.

In any case, three things are going Trump’s way right now. First, the economy. Growth last year came in at just under 3%, and the Federal Reserve’s January decision to stop raising interest rates should keep the show on the road into 2020. Second, a rising proportion of voters seem to like Trump’s tough line on China, which is why he should not prematurely strike a trade deal with Xi Jinping when the two meet later this month. Foreign policy triumphs are politically worthless at this early stage of an election cycle; like Nixon in 1972, Trump needs to be the global dealmaker in the months when voters are making their minds up.

Finally, the leftward lurch of the Democrats continues and with it their desire to nominate a candidate who will appeal to young and minority voters. Try to imagine one of the frontrunners campaigning for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and student debt forgiveness, only to find the news cycle dominated by Trump’s latest Asian summit, his Middle Eastern peace plan or the humanitarian disaster caused by socialism in Venezuela.

Watergate destroyed Nixon only after he had won one of the biggest landslides in American history. Trump’s scandals have come to light much sooner, a year and a half before he has to face the voters. What lies ahead for this most erratic of presidents? Write your guess on the back of the nearest lunch menu and file it for future reference. It will be as good as any senator’s.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Brexitian Rhapsody going on far too long

 Trump and May should remember rock-star brinkmanship can kill

Freddie Mercury was a man who believed in going all the way to the brink. Watching the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a long-haul flight last week, I was reminded of what an extraordinary risk-taker he was. As a rule, I am not a great consumer of rock band biopics. In fact, I used to think that This Is Spinal Tap had killed the genre for ever. Yet somehow you can’t stop watching Bohemian Rhapsody, mainly because of Rami Malek’s mesmerising performance as a rather-too-toothy Freddie.

Brinkmanship was the way Mercury lived his life — not only his bisexual love life, but also his musical life. Bohemian Rhapsody was as revolutionary a pop song as anything since the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. I vividly remember becoming obsessed with it over the 1975 Christmas holidays. Borrowing a cassette recorder from my parents, I bootlegged it from Radio 1 so that I could explore over and over again its strange six-part structure and mock opera libretto.

It was indeed brinkmanship that led to the release of the song as a single. The film casts Mike Myers as a stereotypical record label executive. “What on earth is it about?” Ray Foster rants incredulously. “Scaramouche? Galileo? And all that Bismillah business. It goes on for ever — six bloody minutes!” To overcome this kind of resistance, Queen simply handed a tape of the song to the Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, who “accidentally” played it on his show. This was true musical brinkmanship. It must surely have breached the band’s contract with EMI. But, of course, it worked, forcing the record company to release one of the biggest hits in its history. So brinkmanship can succeed. The big question of 2019 is how far the Freddie Mercury approach can be safely applied to politics.

Brinkmanship is a word with a long history. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, described “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” as “the necessary art”: “If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into a war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” For Dulles, brinkmanship meant that the United States must be willing to threaten nuclear war to resist communist expansion, whether it threatened Berlin or obscure islands off Taiwan.

This high-stakes approach was much criticised by liberals, who feared nuclear Armageddon more than they feared the consequences of appeasing the Soviet Union. Yet Eisenhower’s Democrat successor, John F Kennedy, gave a masterclass in brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

When Kennedy learnt that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, he decided to impose a naval blockade to halt further Soviet shipments of military hardware to the island. In a television address, he issued an ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of missiles. In case Moscow did not comply, Kennedy ordered the preparation of an invasion force — unaware that the Soviets already had enough battlefield nuclear missiles on Cuba to destroy any invading army.

Saturday, October 27, 1962, was probably the day in history when the world came closest to destruction. At 10.22am an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SA-2 rocket, fired by the local Soviet commander without authorisation from Moscow. Meanwhile, another U-2 had unintentionally strayed into Soviet airspace near the Bering Strait. When Soviet MiGs took off to intercept it, Alaskan-based F-102As were scrambled.

Robert McNamara, the defence secretary, recalled stepping outside the White House after a harrowing meeting of the National Security Council’s “ExComm” to savour the sunset. He wanted “to look and to smell it”, he later said, “because I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see”.

We know now that Kennedy’s brinkmanship paid off. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was sufficiently intimidated to cut a secret back-channel deal, whereby he agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba if the Americans withdrew theirs from Turkey. But did that seem the most likely outcome that Saturday night? No. One senior Kremlin adviser telephoned his wife and told her to “drop everything and get out of Moscow”.

The stakes are much lower today, it’s true. But the tactics are similar in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus far, President Trump’s brinkmanship has not served him well in his battle to force Democrats to fund his Mexican border wall. But he is still going to the brink with the Chinese. If there is no significant progress in the trade talks between the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and his Chinese counterpart, Liu He, Trump will raise tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports from 10% to 25%. Without a stay of execution, that will happen at 12.01am Washington time on March 2.

Less than four weeks later, at 11pm UK time on Friday, March 29, the UK will crash out of the European Union with no transitional arrangements in place if Theresa May cannot get some version of her withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons. In each case, going over the brink means not war but significant economic disruption.

People in the City who are paid to attach probabilities to negative scenarios seem confident that Trump will postpone the tariff hike and Britain will avoid a no-deal Brexit. But the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody keep haunting me: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, / No escape from reality.” Are you singing along, Theresa May?

As March 29 draws inexorably nearer, will it be a case of “Too late, my time has come”? Perhaps this is the true meaning of the mysterious song, written during the period when Britain joined the European Community and released five months after the 1975 referendum: “Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go. / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.”

Certainly, the way some members of the European Research Group conducted themselves last week recalled Freddie in full flow. “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye,” they sang as they inflicted yet another defeat on the prime minister. “Oh baby, can’t do this to me, baby, / Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”

The song ends fatalistically with a refrain of “Nothing really matters, / Nothing really matters to me.” As the short life of Freddie Mercury made clear, that “que sera, sera” state of mind is often associated with those who practise brinkmanship. High-stakes risk-taking made Queen one of the most successful rock bands ever. But it also meant that Freddie was dead at 45.

As I watch the games of political brinkmanship being played on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder if people are underestimating just how quickly rhapsody can turn to ruin.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is now available as a Penguin paperback

The s-word will scupper Democrats’ 2020 hopes of beating Donald Trump

 Trump is gleefully using socialism as a stick to beat his opposition with

Last week I began to understand how the Democrats will lose the 2020 presidential election. The reality is that they are not one party, but two: a liberal and a socialist. The former can beat Trump — but not if it is associated with the latter. Socialism is a term for so long regarded as anathema in the US that it used to be avoided altogether: instead of “socialism”, one said either “progressive” or “the s-word”.

These days, however, the s-word is no longer taboo. The Democrats, in their eagerness to recruit a new generation of young voters, have admitted a faction of radical ideologues into their midst.

Exhibit A is the Green New Deal unveiled on Thursday by the Bronx’s very own La Pasionaria, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), and the rather less glamorous 72-year-old Massachusetts senator Ed Markey.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not in denial about climate change. Yes, the evidence is pretty compelling that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases are causing average temperatures to rise and the weather to become more volatile. But I am not quite sure how this is “related” to the “large racial wealth divide” and “gender earnings gap” referred to in the Green New Deal on page 3 or the “systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices” on page 4.

The Green New Deal asserts that climate change has “disproportionately affected indigenous peoples, communities of colour, migrant communities, deindustrialised communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities and youth”.

However, this drearily familiar list of the victims of patriarchy and white supremacy bears only a tangential relationship to the real Americans who were killed or lost their homes in last year’s Californian wildfires.

The measures proposed in the Green New Deal to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” are breathtaking. More nuclear power stations? Er, no. Comrades, we’re talking about a “10-year national mobilisation” on the scale of the Great Patriotic War . . . sorry, I meant the Second World War. By the end of the Green Leap Forward, 100% of US power demand will be met from “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources”, which means geothermal, hydro, solar and wind. Nukes are out, according to the FAQ sheet on the “10-Year Plan” released by AOC’s office.

“All existing buildings in the United States” are going to be upgraded “to achieve maximum energy efficiency”. And there is going to be investment in high-speed rail “at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary”. All this is going to be financed “the same way we paid for the original New Deal, World War II, the bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich and decades of war — with public money appropriated by Congress”.

While they are at it, the people’s commissars are also going to “guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security to all people of the United States”, not to mention “(i) high-quality healthcare; (ii) affordable, safe and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and nature”.

The highlight of AOC’s FAQ sheet was the pledge of “economic security” for people “unable or unwilling to work”.

This is what you get when you recruit your legislators more or less directly from college. For this is the language of countless student union resolutions, freighted with the pious verbiage of today’s “intersectionality”, oblivious to the echoes of the totalitarian regimes of the past. And yet this document has been endorsed by (thus far) five of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

Meanwhile, in the real Democratic Party, all hell has been breaking loose. Just over a year ago the party was celebrating the swearing-in of a new governor in Virginia, the former army medic Ralph Northam, who during the election campaign had accused his Republican rival of “fearmongering, hatred, bigotry, racial divisiveness”.

Symbolising the new, progressive South was the election of the African-American lawyer Justin Fairfax as lieutenant-governor — not forgetting the bravery of the attorney-general Mark Herring in refusing to defend the ban on same-sex marriage in the Virginia state constitution.

Last week all three men were battling for political survival after a) the publication of a photograph from Northam’s medical school yearbook showing two students, one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood (it’s not clear which is Northam); b) the allegation, strongly denied by Fairfax, that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004; and c) the admission by Herring that he, too, wore blackface in college.

It is political suicide for the Democrats to embrace the campus socialism of AOC. Just as the #MeToo movement has so far destroyed the careers of more liberals than conservatives, so the endless scouring of college yearbooks for evidence of racism will destroy the careers of more Democrats than Republicans. Reminder: before civil rights, the Democrats were the Dixiecrats, the party of segregation.

On Tuesday, AOC and the rest of the House Democratic Women’s Working Group turned up for Donald Trump’s state of the union address dressed in white, an allusion (they thought) to the suffragette movement and a rebuke to the arch-sexist in the White House. This meme took about 30 seconds to reach my phone: “I haven’t seen so many Democrats in white since they started the KKK.”

Trump’s speech was not only delivered with a panache that took his opponents by surprise. It was also subtly crafted to expose the fatal contradictions between the Democrats and their socialist succubi. Sure, there was red meat for the Republican base on the economy, immigration and abortion. But the blue potatoes of bipartisanship were more plentiful — infrastructure investment, criminal justice reform, China-bashing — as appealing to the ageing Democratic leadership as they were repugnant to the youthful lefties.

I lost count of how many times he forced Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democrat, to applaud. AOC’s face was a rictus throughout.

“We are born free and will stay free,” Trump declared early on. “America will never be a socialist country.” But he saved the best for last: a broadside against the crumbling Chavista regime in Venezuela, “whose socialist policies have turned [it] from the richest country in South America to the poorest on Earth”.

There are a great many reasons why Trump ought to be a one-term president. Yet the further the Democratic Party lurches to the left under the influence of AOC and her fellow social justice warriors, the higher the probability of his re-election. In American politics, unlike in Europe, those who live by the s-word die by the s-word.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, is now available as a Penguin paperback

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