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Posts Tagged ‘foreign policy

“In order for the United States to do the right things for the long term, it appears to be helpful for us to have the prospect of humiliation. Sputnik helped us fund good science – really good science: the semiconductor came out of it.”*…

Now the question is the semiconductor itself… and as Arthur Goldhammer explains in his review of Chris Miller‘s important new book Chip War, the answer may not be as clear as many suggest…

In left-liberal circles there is a rough consensus about what has gone wrong with our politics over the past 40 years. The critique can be summed up in two words: neoliberalism and globalization. Although these capacious ideological generalizations cover a multitude of sins, the gravamen of the charge against both is that, in the name of economic efficiency and growth, globalizing neoliberals of both the right and the left justified depriving national governments of the power to reduce inequalities of wealth and income, promote equal opportunity, and protect the health and welfare of the citizenry. Neoliberals prioritized property rights over social and political rights and protected markets from political meddling. They removed regulatory fetters on the movement of capital and sought the cheapest labor they could find to put their money to work. As a result, from the late 1970s on, governments across the developed world retreated from the social democratic reforms credited with fostering the harmonious prosperity of the three decades following World War II—the period the French have dubbed les Trente Glorieuses—thereby triggering a populist and xenophobic backlash while polarizing previously consensual political systems and weakening resistance to authoritarian demagogues.

This account of political change across the Western world since the 1980s has much to recommend it, not least the implication that the globalized neoliberal regime has sown the seeds of its own impending demise. This is the view espoused in one form or another by a number of excellent recent books, among them Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Michael Tomasky’s The Middle Out, and Bradford DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia. Yet each of these estimable authors embraces the notion that the novel feature of the period was superstructural, to borrow a term of art from the Marxist lexicon: All believe that ideology was in the driver’s seat and that it was the readiness of left-liberals to accede to the tenets of market-first ideology that established neoliberalism as the unsurpassable political horizon of the age (to borrow a phrase from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre).

But what if this superstructural interpretation is incomplete? What if it blinds us to a deeper transformation of the means of production themselves? What if the key innovation of the 1970s and ’80s was the advent not of neoliberal ideology but of the microprocessor, which simultaneously created new markets, dramatically altered trade flows, and shifted both the economic and military balance of power among nations? And what if this crucial technological innovation can trace its roots all the way back to the aforementioned Trente Glorieuses? What if the glory years of social democracy saw the benefits of higher education spread much more widely than ever before, disseminating technological skills throughout the world and making it possible to tap far more of humanity’s collective brainpower, while creating a web of interdependent corporations spanning both the developed and less developed worlds? The microprocessor not only became the flagship product of the neoliberal era’s dominant industry but also served as its indispensable instrument, without which it would have been impossible to tame the torrents of information necessary to manage far-flung supply chains and global capital flows.

Chris Miller’s Chip War deserves credit precisely for redirecting our attention from superstructure to base, from the high political drama of the past four decades to the more prosaic business of manufacturing microchips. At its most basic level, the book offers a masterful history of the semiconductor industry, from the invention of the first transistor in 1947 to the incredibly complex machinery required to deposit tens of billions of nearly atom-sized switches on a silicon chip no larger than a fingernail. Miller, who teaches international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, emphasizes the national security implications of a global supply chain in which components crucial to U.S. defense must pass through choke points such as Taiwan subject to intervention by commercial and strategic rivals. But the history he recounts in vivid detail also tells a more hopeful story, illustrating the way in which globalization has made it possible to mobilize humanity’s collective brainpower to achieve progress that no single country could have achieved on its own.

In assessing the national security risks posed by China’s semiconductor ambitions, some analysts seem to have accepted Andy Grove’s adage that “only the paranoid survive” at face value. While one former UK intelligence official argued that “we should accept that China will be a global tech power in the future and start managing the risk,” the United States, taking a darker view of China’s aims, has set out to stop China in its tracks by pressuring allies to reject Huawei chips and by banning the export of certain U.S.-developed technologies to China, most notably with the CHIPS Act of 2022 and related legislation.

Such aggressive policies could backfire, however. Miller quotes China tech policy analyst Dan Wang, who argues that American restrictions have “boosted Beijing’s quest for tech dominance” by catalyzing new Chinese government policies that support their local chip industry, including the training of tens of thousands of electrical engineers and condensed matter physicists. There are good reasons to worry about China’s military ambitions, but it is probably futile to try to halt the spread of technology as though it were a bulk good susceptible to blockade. There are also less aggressive ways to alleviate Chinese threats to the global supply chain: For instance, U.S. incentives have encouraged TSMC to move some of its operations from Taiwan to Arizona.

Finally, history shows that trying to stymie competitors by impeding the flow of technical information is unlikely to work against an adversary like China, with a large pool of educated workers and substantial ability to invest in research and development. Remember that Britain tried to monopolize early nineteenth-century textile technology, but Samuel Slater, the “father of the American Industrial Revolution,” used his knowledge of British machine designs to develop better technology in his adopted country. The way to compete effectively with China is not to ratchet up bellicose rhetoric about defending Taiwan or attempt to halt the spread of technical know-how by drafting new CHIP Acts, but to educate American workers and foster closer cooperation with other countries that have taken the lead in developing key aspects of the semiconductor manufacturing process. The history that Miller recounts demonstrates that what matters most in achieving technological leadership is free movement of people and ideas, not tariffs, export controls, or paranoid levels of fear. The best counterweight to Chinese military and commercial ambitions is the collective brainpower of the democratic world, not chip embargoes and saber-rattling…

The United States wants to stop China’s semiconductor industry in its tracks. Here’s how that could backfire: “Chip Shots,” from @artgoldhammer in @DemJournal. Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “No, I Do Not Think the Microprocessor Doomed Social Democracy,” an elaboration on and response to Goldhammer from Brad DeLong (@delong).

* Bill Gates


As we ponder policy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that Microsoft launched its first hardware product, the Z-80 SoftCard.

The brainchild of Paul Allen, the SoftCard was a microprocessor that plugged into the Apple II personal computer, allowing it to run programs written for the CP/M operating system. CP/M was a very popular OS for early personal computers, one for which much software was written. Indeed, the word processor WordStar was so popular that users purchased the SoftCard and a companion “80-column card” just to run it on the Apple II. At one point, the SoftCard product brought in about half of Microsoft’s total revenue. It was discontinued in 1986 as CP/M’s popularity waned in the face of competition from Microsoft’s own MS-DOS (and the growing popularity of Microsoft’s Word and Excel applications).


“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”*…

Brad DeLong on the dangerous misunderstanding at the root of the current discussion of the “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase coined by Harvard’s Graham Allison, meant to evoke the potentially deadly tensions that arise when a major rising power (read “China”) threatens to displace a major ruling power (read “the United States). Allison’s account is very pessimistic; DeLong argues that it needn’t– shouldn’t– be so..

“Thucydides Trap” claims to be shorthand way of describing the grand-strategic dilemmas of the Classical Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the second half of the -400s. But it is a bowdlerized version. The actual complexities of the situation have been elided.

Thus important parts of the lessons that can be drawn from Thucydides’s description in The Peloponnesian War of the start of the war have been ignored.

And lessons can be drawn. For, as Thucydides said, he had tried to write his history as:

a treasure for all time… [because] knowledge of the past… [is] an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it…

The situation in the second half of the -400s in the Greek world was thus:

The Spartan oligarchy had held preeminence. It had conquered and continued to dominate Laconia and Messenia. Its enserfment of their populations meant that Sparta alone, among major city-states, had a large and rich enough class of landlords who could train intensively for war, since they not have to assist in the farming themselves.

But there was a big problem with the Spartan system, as Aristotle was to note: Rich Spartan men tended to marry rich Spartan women. Thus, over time, wealth inequality grew. This diminished the size of the pool of Spartan landlords who could afford the full training régimen. The number of full Spartans in the military phalanx was dropping steadily, by perhaps a quarter in each generation.

The Athenian democracy, by contrast, was gaining in strength from generation to generation.

Athens held a central place as the maritime-commercial hub of a Greek world rapidly growing in population and wealth. Each generation saw more economic activity flow through Athens. Each generation saw Athens grow bigger and richer. Each generation saw more silver flow into its treasury. Athens had—excessively cleverly—transformed other city states’ agreements to provide warships to stave off any renewed Persian invasion into cash payments to Athens, which Athens then could and did use as it wished. Thus each generation saw the power of the Athenian state grow as well. And each generation saw a greater share of other Greek city-states become what local democrats elsewhere called “allies” and local oligarchs elsewhere called “subjects”.

In 500 Athens would have had no chance in an all-out war with Sparta. In 430 it could go toe-to-toe. By 360, had catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War been avoided, Athens’s hegemony would have been near indisputible.

In this situation what, from a rational perspective, should the grand strategy of Athens in the second half of the -400s have been? It is clear:

  • Do not annoy the Spartan lion.
  • Focus on growing trade and commerce
  • Focus on making alliances
  • Focus on solidifying the nascent Athenian empire.

The future was on the side of Athens.

Korkya came to Athens at the start of the 430s, and said “we will join your alliance if you well help us push Sparta’s ally Korinth out of Epidamnos”. The Athenian answer should have been this: “You have not been our friend in the past. Join our alliance first. Then, in a generation, we will back you in all your disputes. But not now.”

Instead, Athens backed Korkyra with military force. And Korinth went to Sparta. Sparta was, usually, wary of large long-term commitments outside its heartland—the main purpose of its army, after all, was to keep the helots subservient and the taxes flowing, which was hard to do if the Spartan phalanx was far from Laconia. But Athens’s choice of open military confrontation with a key Spartan ally was enough to overcome their reluctance.

And so the Athenian Empire fell.

The lesson for a rising power? Whatever you seek to do now that may be very difficult will be easy in two generations. So postpone doing anything potentially difficult and wait for the tide to bring all the good things to you.

The lesson for a declining hegemonic power it is somewhat more complex. Outside the frame of Thucydides is the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was not the beneficiary of its generation long war against Athens. The beneficiaries were in the short-run, Persia; in the medium-run, Thebes; and in the long-run, Makedon. A declining power should take a long, hard look at itself, and consider whether curbing this particular rising power is in its own long-run interest. The task for a declining power is to create a world in which it can live comfortably when it is no longer hegemon. You can argue over whether Sparta would have had a comfortable and valued place in a counterfactual Athenian Empire circa -300. But it certainly did not have such a place in the post-Athenian Ægean world of Thebans, Argaiads, and Hellenistic despots.

From his invaluable newsletter, Grasping Reality, “The Deceptive Thucydides Trap,” @delong.

Margaret MacMillan


As we heed history, we might recall that on this date in 1966, the #1 song in the U.S was The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Those who wish to perfect themselves must regard their losses as lessons and learn from them what sorts of things to avoid in the future.”*…

Ponder a mystery…

Ask 100 historians to rank the foreign policy teams of the post Truman presidencies. What might they say?  My wager: the majority would pinpoint the administration of George H.W. Bush as the most accomplished of the modern era. The men and women who served under President Bush have a distinguished list of accomplishments to their name: they brought the Cold War to a victorious conclusion, integrated two Germanies into one whole, managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc without the outbreak of violence, shepherded South Korea and the Philippines into the democratic fold, saved South America from a regional debt crisis, enshrined human rights and neoliberal economics as the conceptual foundation stones of the new post-Cold War order, and presided over two military victories—first in the now largely forgotten Panama intervention, second in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That war’s 100-hour land campaign was one of the most spectacular military triumphs in American history—a triumph made the more impressive by the massive global backing the Bush team mustered to support it. A vast number of countries mobilized troops to join in the coalition, even the Soviet Union supported this American-led intervention, and the United States did not have to pay a dime. Allies abroad were convinced to finance all operations.

It is a substantial set of accomplishments. Even those who might disagree with some of their favored policies (say the administration’s embrace of free trade as a bedrock principle of their new world order) will admit that the foreign policy team that directed America in the late Reagan and Bush Sr. years was fantastically effective at moving the world towards their own vision of the good.

Such nice things cannot be said for the poorest showing of the post-Truman era. Here again a commanding majority of experts is likely to have a consensus candidate: the administration of George W. Bush, particularly during its first term. The demerits are many: a poorly conceived strategy of the War on Terror, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the mismanagement of that country’s occupation, their failure to prevent its subsequent descent into civil war, the mistaken attempt to remake the People’s Republic of China a “responsible stakeholder” in an American led international system, and Russia’s alienation from this same system all occurred under the watch of the Bush 43 team. To this may be added a one final disaster, the subject of this series: it was this group of statesmen that had responsibility for Afghanistan in the early aughts. As they squabbled in Washington, their field of victory sank into our military quagmire.

How different the legacies of these two groups of officials!

But there is the catch: these are not two groups of officials. The national security teams of Bush 41 and Bush 43, America’s most accomplished and most reviled set of statesmen officials… were the exact same set of people. The authors of America’s Cold War victory were the architects of America’s 21st century defeats. There lies the mystery! With more collective experience under their belts than any foreign policy team since the Founding Era, with a greater list of accomplishments than any group of national security elites since the creation of the modern national security state, the statesmen-officials of the second Bush administration should have accomplished glorious deeds. They should have lived up to their track records. Instead, they delivered failure and catastrophe. How could this have happened?…

Find out at “Learning From Our Defeat: The Skill of the Vulcans,” from Tanner Greer (@Scholars_Stage).

[Image above: source]

José Raúl Capablanca


As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 2014 that One World Trade Center formally opened in lower Manhattan. The tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, it was erected as a replacement for (and is the namesake of) the North Tower of the original World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


Reanimating International Relations…


From Foreign Policy, an article by Daniel Drezner (professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, contributing editor to Foreign Policy, and author of the forthcoming Theories of International Politics and Zombies):

Night of the Living Wonks

Toward an international relations theory of zombies

There are many sources of fear in world politics — terrorist attacks, natural disasters, climate change, financial panic, nuclear proliferation, ethnic conflict, and so forth. Surveying the cultural zeitgeist, however, it is striking how an unnatural problem has become one of the fastest-growing concerns in international relations. I speak, of course, of zombies.

For our purposes, a zombie is defined as a reanimated being occupying a human corpse, with a strong desire to eat human flesh — the kind of ghoul that first appeared in George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, and which has been rapidly proliferating in popular culture in recent years (far upstaging its more passive cousins, the reanimated corpses of traditional West African and Haitian voodoo rituals). Because they can spread across borders and threaten states and civilizations, these zombies should command the attention of scholars and policymakers.

Read the full article– and a marvelously metaphorical article it is– here.

As we reassure ourselves that we with no brains needn’t fear their being eaten, we might recall that it is with this date in 622 that the Islamic calendar begins. As Wikipedia explains:

In 638, Abu-Musa al-Asha’ari, one of the officials of the second Caliph Umar in Basrah, complained about the absence of any dating system in the correspondence he received from Umar, making it difficult for him to determine which instructions were most recent. This report convinced Umar of the need to introduce a calendar system for Muslims. After debating the issue with his Counsellors, he decided to start the calendar with the date of Muhammad’s arrival at Madina tun Nabi (known as Yathrib, before Muhammad’s arrival).

The Islamic calendar numbering of the years thus began with the month of Muharram in the year of Muhammad’s arrival at the city of Medina. According to calculations, the first day of the first year corresponded to Friday, July 16, 622 (even though the actual emigration took place in September).

Because of the Hijra event, the calendar was named the Hijra calendar, and it’s dates distinguished by the suffix “AH.”


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