Best of 2019 by Foreign Affairs Magazine
Politics (2019 - 180 pp.)
Some people are Economist readers. Others are New Yorker readers. Still others are Atlantic readers. I am a Foreign Affairs reader.
Best of 2019 contains twenty of Foreign Affairs magazine's print (10) and web (10) articles, totalling 180 pages and 70,000 words. It's a magazine that reads like a short story collection, with topics bouncing from the American sovereign debt to Iran to China. Writers include professors, diplomats, journalists and Council for Foreign Relations fellows.
The book has neither an introduction nor a conclusion, so there is little to suggest a unifying theme. There are recurrent trends within the vast scope of the articles, though:
- The USA's time as world hegemon may be ending. Naturally, as one would expect from a magazine entitled Foreign Affairs, any solution to this problem requires skilled diplomacy. Whether President Trump is achieving such skilled diplomacy is an opinion held strongly by each individual writer regardless of which side that writer takes.
- China represents the biggest threat to the current world order. The extent to which China's power will increase or decrease over the coming decades is, again, up to each writer.
- A great power war is at least possible, and at least some sort of war is inevitable. In fact, there are wars going on right now.
I did not find much difference between the print and web articles except that the print articles tend to be slightly longer. This makes sense, as I, like many, tend to prefer flipping physical pages when taking in longer-form material. (Or in this particular case, reading a PDF rather than doing lots of scrolling.) In the event you're interested in reading some, but not all, of these articles, here's a paragraph on each:
In "How a World Order Ends And What Comes in Its Wake", Richard Haass compares the post-World Wars order from 1945-present to the Concert of Europe and its aftermath from 1815-1914. The end of the Cold War, peripheral states' rejections of trade, and the rise of China have all made the world order more volatile, according to Haass. In response, the USA has either engaged in overreach (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) or underreach (Syria, Yemen, Ukraine). Haass's core thesis is that our current world requires just the right amount of diplomacy, which means more action on climate change, trade and cyber-operations while admitting that the old order, like the order of 1815-1914, isn't coming back. I'm inclined to agree, if only because the 30-ish years since the end of the Cold War have seen so much change already.
In "A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story", Jill Lepore explores the history behind what it means to be American and how that can, and will, shape American foreign policy. She points out that in the wake of the Civil War, a certain sense of American-ness arose, but it eroded in the 1970s due to a more fragmented set of academic studies focusing on social groups within the USA. Each nation has its own national history, argues Lepore, which is essential for the survival of nationalism. In America's unique case, with no American ethnicity or language to speak of, 19th-century-style ethnolinguistic nationalism is simply not an option. Lepore exalts the Constitution and classical liberal principles, but rather than push her own American nationalism, she implores the reader to join the fray.
In "Who’s Afraid of Budget Deficits? How Washington Should End Its Debt Obsession", Jason Furman and Lawrence H. Summers posit that the mounting American debt, marked by a projected debt-to-GDP ratio of 105%, simply isn't that important. Although they cite multiple economists who equate debt with impending doom, they note that the long-term nadir of interest rates allows governments to take on more debt. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, when soaring interest rates led successive Presidents Bush and Clinton to adopt deficit-reducing policies, the America of 2020 can afford to borrow. How much the USA should borrow remains a matter for debate, making this article inconclusive.
"E Pluribus Unum? The Fight Over Identity Politics" is a serious of letters to the editor in response to an article by Francis Fukuyama, written by Stacey Y. Abrams; John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck; and Jennifer A. Richeson, and then a response to the letters by Francis Fukuyama. It's an interesting format for Best of 2019, which I appreciated because it allowed the already concise nature of the articles to become even more concise.* The main point of agreement is that identity politics are relevant, with Fukuyama eventually admitting that he did not portray them as being relevant enough. The only qualm I have with this entry is that it does not contain a copy of Fukuyama's original article that garnered so many responses. I can estimate its contents fairly accurately based on all the references to it, but without the actual article, it's difficult to hold an opinion.
In "The Longest Wars: Richard Holbrooke and the Decline of American Power", George Packer tells a vivid story of the life of one of the USA's longest serving foreign relations experts, from Holbrooke's origins in early '60s, pre-war Vietnam to his final years advising President Obama. The only thing that left me confused was why this story surfaced in 2019, nine years after Holbrooke's untimely death during surgery, rather than right after his death or in 2020 (to mark ten years). I was fascinated to read about Holbrooke's Vietnam experience and how, later in his career, he was pilloried for comparing the USA's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to Vietnam so often.
"The Self-Destruction of American Power: Washington Squandered the Unipolar Moment", Fareed Zakaria takes the reader back to those halcyon years from 1991-2001: from the USSR's dissolution until 9/11. The idea that America held a greater share of the world's power than it does now, in the age of the $13 billion aircraft carrier, is truly stunning. However, Zakaria is quick to point out that commentators in the aftermath of the Cold War didn't see a grand, unipolar USA; instead, they predicted a multipolar world, or even a Cold War that was really won by Germany and Japan. What opportunity did America miss out on? Zakaria rightly notes that we'll never know.
In "Putin the Great: Russia’s Imperial Impostor", Susan B. Glasser discusses Vladimir Putin's admiration of Peter the Great, and Russian imperialism in general, followed by an excoriation of Putin's falling approval ratings and domestic struggles. With protests mounting, and Ukraine in stalemate, Putin's previous dynamism has faded into "stagnation". Glasser finishes with a comparison between Putin and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader Glasser portrays as antithetical to Putin's ambitions: ineffectual and unable to do more than survive atop the mountain. Barring a Russian economic miracle, I don't know what will improve Putin's legacy.
In "Trump’s Assault on the Global Trading System[…] And Why Decoupling From China Will Change Everything", Chad P. Bown and Douglas A. Irwin track President Trump's withdrawal (TPP) and renegotiation (NAFTA, US-Korea FTA) of the USA's international trade agreements, as well as increasing barriers between the USA and China. They predict two rival trade blocs, based around the USA and China, that will force countries around the world to choose between them. Bown and Irwin suggest a more win-win approach for the Trump administration that moves away from seeing trade as a zero-sum, win-lose game and instead focuses on greater engagement with the World Trade Organization.
In "The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Are Washington and Beijing Fighting a New Cold War?", Odd Arne Westad sets out the parallels between American-Soviet relations in the late 1940s and American-Chinese relations now, with an emphasis on how national ideologies shape foreign relations and economies. China's relative economic power is higher than the USSR's was in the postwar era, with great power war being a memory; however, Westad states that the Chinese national feeling of humiliation from the mid-19th century until 1949 remains alive. That said, Westad makes a good point that Chinese people in 2019 are more willing to be competitive to get ahead than their 1940s USSR equivalents, who observed the socialist economics of the day. Westad also emphasizes the world's lurch toward multipolarity, rather than Cold War-era bipolarity, which should make for a more interesting world - as long as it doesn't get, to quote Westad, "unruly".
In "War Is Not Over: What the Optimists Get Wrong About Conflict", Tanisha M. Fazal and Paul Poast push back against the notion, espoused by President Obama during a 2016 speech to the United Nations, that great power war is over and that the international system works. Fazal and Poast look to two main determinants, lower body counts (which simply mean more war-related injuries) and the lack of a world war since 1945 (if anything, the World Wars were aberrations). Fazal and Poast are right, of course, that 19th-century-style lightning wars could be back on the rise and that the casualties may be more likely to be hospitalized than dead. They point to improved surgery, better hygiene in warzones, and the difficulty of collecting accurate data in countries in the midst of civil war. Fazal and Poast do not, however, mention democratic peace theory; a contrast between their hypothesis and this theory would be a good subject for a future article.
"Warnings From Versailles: The Lessons of 1919, a Hundred Years On" by Margaret MacMillan was one of the articles I looked forward to reading most, considering I have read Paris 1919, The Uses and Abuses of History, History's People and The War That Ended Peace. MacMillan engages in a lengthy and enlightening discussion of the dynamic in 1919, and how it differed from 1815 and 1945; at the close of World War I, Europe was not tired of war. MacMillan warns against American isolationism and partisanship, contrasting the failure of the League of Nations and the success of the United Nations.** Ironically, MacMillan's discussion of her historical specialty is reminiscent of Holbrooke's injection of Vietnam into various conversations. Even more ironically, MacMillan's urging for the USA to enforce international norms when countries like Russia and China flout them may be the most hawkish stance in the entire book.
In "Trump’s Foreign Policy Is No Longer Unpredictable: Gone Are the Days of a Divided Administration", Thomas Wright separates the Trump administration's foreign policy into two eras, up until summer 2017 and then afterward: when it was unpredictable and then when it was predictable. Wright focuses on President Trump's reticence toward international agreements, such as withdrawing from the planned TPP ratification and Trump's public lamentations over NATO funding. Exactly how willing the Trump administration is to withdraw from international obligations is largely untested, though; I, like Above the Law a year before Trump's election, frequently see Trump's statements as psychological anchors meant to sway the conversation in his desired direction. If European NATO funding cratered, would Trump seek to withdraw the USA from NATO? We don't know, because Germany stepped up.
In "Iran’s Other Generation Gap, 40 Years On: Among the Revolutionary Faithful, the Young Seek Confrontation While Their Elders Embrace Change", Narges Bajoghli takes on the generational shift in Iranian politics from Islam to economic and class issues. Since a revolutionary government is always past-focused, its goal being to remove the previous government, after a few decades the identity question inevitably surfaces. We've defined who we aren't. Who are we? As someone who has reviewed generational theory on this blog - more than once - it's fascinating to see Bajoghli's on-the-ground observations regarding Iranians below the age of 40, who have only ever known a post-revolutionary state. It'd be interesting to see a follow-up article now that the Revolutionary Guard has faced a setback in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
In "The Problem With Xi’s China Model: Why Its Successes Are Becoming Liabilities", Elizabeth C. Economy^ breaks down Xi's successive concentrations of power and Chinese products that had loosened under Deng Xiaoping. From CCP involvement in Chinese citizens' day-to-day lives, to a new policy stipulating that hospitals will only be reimbursed for Chinese-made devices, Xi's push toward a monolithic China will, according to Economy, make China less influential in international trade and projects. Most concerningly, Economy points to the Belt and Road Initiative; will China's many partners in that endeavour be able to trust it? Economy's other thesis, that these problems are of Xi's own making and that, therefore, he can fix them, is simpler, but Xi shows no sign of loosing the strings on the Chinese economy.
"What a Military Intervention in Venezuela Would Look Like: Getting in Would Be the Easy Part" by Frank O. Mora brings the CFR's wargaming to Latin America. Mora rightly points out that the USA has not invaded a Latin American country since 1989, during the Cold War: who knows what an invasion of Venezuela would look like? Mora compares and contrasts an air strike-based invasion versus a full ground invasion, and notes that either would result in a protracted operation even if the Venezuelan military surrenders immediately. Mora's ultimate thesis, that an invasion of Venezuela is a bad idea, is bolstered by his observations that air strikes would require some ground troop follow-up in order to ensure the stability of a new regime, whereas a full ground invasion would require 150,000 troops.
In "The Global Language of Hatred Is French[…] And Anti-Semites and Islamophobes Both Speak It", Marc Weitzmann discusses the anti-religionist ideations of French-speakers from France and Algeria, as well as Francophiles from the English-speaking world. French Anti-Semitism was present in the 1800s, While Weitzmann's ability to list known anti-Semites and Islamophobes is encyclopedic, they often have little in common; for example, what does Eric Zemmour, who apparently praised the Charlie Hebdo killers, have in common with the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front? In regard to his discussion of Reynaud Camus's early anti-Semitism, before a 9/11-inspired shift to Zionism and Islamophobia, Weitzmann penned quite possibly the wittiest line in the whole book: "a three-month-long intellectual psychodrama for which only the French have patience." (156)
What would CFR be without more wargaming? "What a War With Iran Would Look Like: Neither Side Wants a Fight, but That Doesn’t Eliminate the Danger" by Ilan Goldenberg warns against what would surely be a costly, protracted war if the USA and Iran ever chose to fight it. Iran's mountainous terrain, strong national identity in contrast to postcolonial states like Iraq, and strong public institutions make it a very poor invasion candidate. Unlike in Mora's Venezuela hypothetical above, Goldenberg posits, probably accurately, that Iranian citizens would not turn on their government if their country were suddenly invaded. Contrarily, the military would probably have more support than before the invasion. I'm most inclined to agree with the opening phrase of Goldenberg's title: neither side wants this fight.
In "The End of Asylum: A Pillar of the Liberal Order Is Collapsing—but Does Anyone Care?", Nanjala Nyabola points to the lack of international treaty reform regarding ongoing migrant crises. Refugee camps, where people stay for an often indefinite duration, are "open-air prisons". She correctly points out that poor countries are more likely to grant asylum than rich countries, but this is virtually unavoidable, as few rich countries currently border countries with migrant countries. Substantial refugee migration occurs directly over land borders. Japan and Australia, for example, are rich countries that share a land border with absolutely no one.^^ Then there is the case of Turkey bordering Syria; is Turkey "rich"? The American and Hungarian opposition to a treaty expanding asylum is an interesting commonality that I imagine she will explore in a future article.
"The Demolition of U.S. Diplomacy: Not Since Joe McCarthy Has the State Department Suffered Such a Devastating Blow" by William J. Burns is a scathing rant against the Trump administration's foreign policy. Evidently, Burns is no fan of Trump. The comparison to McCarthy is interesting, as the theme of "disloyalty" was a driver of the Red Scare, but there has not (yet?) been a similar worry that current American officials will show ideological loyalty to a foreign power. This could be a greater concern if, for example, the USA shows more sympathy to pro-Maduro protesters.
The book's closer, "The United States Should Fear a Faltering China: Beijing’s Assertiveness Betrays Its Desperation" by Michael Beckley, is one of the strongest articles. Beckley uses a data-driven, well-sourced approach to explain why he thinks China, despite its meteoric rise through the ranks of the Great Powers, is fragile. Its infrastructure projects are too large to serve their users, as entire cities of empty apartment buildings show. Its GDP growth is largely funded by government rather than by private industry. With the Chinese Communist Party having so much say in large companies' strategic decisions, investor confidence is waning. Beckley's comparisons to the pre-World War I Russian Empire and to Imperial Japan are disquieting. Xi appears to be a defter political operator than Nicholas II or Hirohito, but as with any current event, only time will tell.
Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 8
*A good fiction comparison is many of the 18th-century English novels, which virtually have a chapter per page.
**Regardless of your views on the United Nations, "still exists" is a sufficient barometer for success in this context.
^The writer of this article having the last name "Economy" is on par with how I had a law school professor named John Law.
^^In fairness, Japan shared the island of Sakhalin with Russia from 1905-1945.