Daniel S. Smith

Lost Decade by Robert Blackwill & Richard Fontaine

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Review of Lost Decade: The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power. Richard Fontaine & Robert Blackwill. Oxford University Press. 2024

Is the US sleepwalking into irrelevance in Asia? “Lost Decade” by Robert Blackwill and Richard Fontaine (B & F) throws down the gauntlet. They argue America’s “Pivot to Asia” never happened but needs to now. Buckle up for a look at US blunders and a roadmap to revive American influence in the Indo-Pacific before it’s too late. 

The United States & China have a complex relationship. Everything is interlinked. B & F dissect the multiplexity therein. 

Harvard professor and Blackwill’s co-author on their book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Graham Allison, thinks the US & China are “Destined for War.”

B & F are not as pessimistic. They serve as referees, rewinding the tape and setting the record straight. Echoing Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2020 campaign bumper sticker, “In God we trust, everybody else bring data,” the authors bring the receipts to back up their claims. The statesmen offer clarity through the thicket of complexity in a well-organized and intelligible narrative

This is much needed because the US-China relationship is at an inflection point. The two major powers find themselves on the opposite sides of conflicts in the Middle East & Europe, with both vying for economic influence around the globe. 

While Chinese president Xi Jinping has solidified his rule, US president Joseph R. Biden Jr. is mounting a tough reelection battle against former president Donald J. Trump. Many are speculating Joe Biden will not be the nominee come fall, predicting he will be replaced by former first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, US Congressman from Minnesota Dean Phillips, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, to name a few. There is much uncertainty, but all seem like safe bets for the military-industrial complex. 

Can the American system of liberal democracy meet the Chinese challenge? Or is the Chinese state-led authoritarian model better suited for industrial policy in what Azeem Azhar describes as the “Exponential Age?” Can democracies adapt to the accelerating pace of the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions? The World Economic Forum (WEF) writes in its paper: “Agile Governance: Reimagining Policymaking in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” 

“The complex, transformative and distributed nature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands a new type of governance to address the interlinked dynamics of the pace and synergistic nature of emerging technologies; the transnational impact of technologies and broader societal implications; and the political nature of technologies.” 

Can the US make the shift without experiencing a calamity like Pearl Harbor or 9/11?

B & F are more than qualified to answer these questions. Blackwill is the Henry Kissinger fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He was ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003, then served as a United States National Security Council (NSC) deputy for Iraq till 2004. He is author of many books, such as a 2016 analysis of sanctions entitled War by Other Means: Geopolitics and Statecraft. 

Blackwill with Indian PM Narenda Modi, courtesy Getty Images

Richard Fontaine is no less impressive. He is CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), succeeding Victoria Nuland as head of the DC-based national security think tank. A former foreign policy aide to Senator John McCain, Fontaine is North American director of the Trilateral Commission. Founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission helps steer relations between North America, Europe and Asia. In 1992, Washington Post columnist James Mills noted in his satirical piece “BEWARE THE TRILATERAL COMMISSION: “Some call them “the shadow government,” “the Establishment,” the “global elite” that runs the world.” Blackwill has also been involved with the Trilateral Commission for many years, writing a book Engaging Russia: A Report to the Trilateral Commission (Triangle Papers) in 1995. 

Richard Fontaine, courtesy CNAS

Though conspiracy theorists tend to exaggerate the influence of individuals & organizations on world affairs, B & F are the epitome of foreign policy insiders.

The authors come from different generations. Blackwill’s generation, which includes Vietnam veterans, is passing the torch to Fontaine’s cohort. Unfortunately Blackwill’s colleagues, having enjoyed four decades of American dominance, are leaving Fontaine’s compatriots the duty of “managed decline” and “strategic contraction.” 

B & F’s principle argument is though there was much fanfare about a pivot to Asia, it never happened. This was a mistake: “Washington created unmet expectations across the Indo-Pacific of significant new regional activism, and it generated similarly unrealized fears of abandonment in Europe and the Middle East.” Furthermore:

If the 1965 escalation in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq represent America’s greatest post–World War II failures of commission, Washington’s collective failure to respond adequately to the stunning growth of Chinese power across the 2010s stands as perhaps the most consequential US policy omission since 1945.

Is the US security guarantee still credible? Or, echoing John Lennon, should we all lay our flags down and work together as a planetary species to reduce suffering? 

Without nationalism, can democracy survive? Trust and patriotism are on the wane across the West. Dictatorships may be more efficient than democracies. It may be time to transition to a new model that depends less on participation and the will of the unenlightened masses. 

Leo Strauss, the philosophical father of neoconservatism, wrote in Natural Right and History and Persecution and the Art of Writing:

Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed…..Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people. Those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior….The people are told what they need to know and no more.

As the old joke goes: what is the difference between capitalism & communism? In capitalism, man rules over man. In communism, it is the other way around.

The authors are far from fans of the Chinese model. They criticize the CCP’s repression & digital surveillance. Yet they are casting stones from a glass house. The West is hardly innocent on this score, as Shoshanna Zuboff demonstrated in her book Surveillance Capitalism. 

An appreciation for human rights supposedly undergirds US diplomacy abroad. Yet as over 40,000 civilians have been killed in Gaza and millions displaced, while Western leaders simultaneously repress protests, this seems out of date if it were not always a lie.

The US takes the moral high ground while partnering with Saudi Arabia and other autocratic regimes and helping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skirt accountability from international organizations that are supposedly the backbone of the post WWII order like the International Criminal Court (ICC). Trump was being brutally honest when he said the US does not care about the suffering of the Uyghurs, the oppressed minority in Western China. It is just another tool to use against Beijing. 

For the past two centuries, the United States was a Europe-first power. Americans began focusing more on Asia after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as well as Hiroshima & Nagasaki on August 6 & 9th, 1945.

The Soviet Union was the US’s main enemy, but it  collapsed in 1991. The Gulf War convinced Chinese leadership the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) needed to modernize. The US enjoyed unipolar hegemony, so the Chinese feared the US could do to them what it did to Saddam Hussein. 

Joseph P. Nye Jr., the legendary Harvard professor and “godfather of the pivot,” released a report in 1995, writing: “In the early 1990s, there was a widespread belief both within and without government that ‘geo-economics’ had replaced geo-politics.” This report was the first to recognize China as a threat to US dominance, and to offer suggestions on how to contain the PRC. 

The US failed to integrate China into the liberal international order. In his 1999 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton summed up this approach: “It’s important not to isolate China. The more we bring China into the world, the more the world will bring change and freedom to China.”

Mr. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, told the Japanese leadership that this would be the “Pacific century.” Yet 9/11 and his close ties to Latin America prompted him to focus elsewhere. B & F write: “The price of focusing time and attention on Asia, it appears, is the absence of significant crises in other regions”

The 2008 financial crisis fueled a backlash against free trade that undermined the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the author’s argue was the Pivot’s economic centerpiece. 

Domestic politics is hindering the national interest. Humans are still in the loop. When an auto plant in Gary, Indiana shuts down and moves to Guadalajara or Guangzhao, people suffer. The age-old remedy is generous adjustment assistance including retraining, pay and relocation assistance if needed. 

Is it worth screwing over, say, 40,000 workers in a sector that will be impacted by a harmonization of tariffs, to benefit humanity? More cynically, if one argues the purpose of these trade agreements is to transfer power upward, then the best way to preempt opposition is by offering some assistance; if we properly assist those who stand to lose,voters will be more likely to accept trade liberalization. 

The local impacts the global and vice-versa. Sentiment in a diner in rural Iowa is relevant to business people and policymakers in Beijing, Seoul, London and Los Angeles. The US & China’s relationship touches everything, including likely the clothes you are wearing and device you are reading on.

Aware of this, Barack Obama promised to be “America’s first Pacific president.” He slammed Bush’s flawed foreign policy, but change was easier said than done. The pivot was set off by a 2011 essay by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she argued it was “among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.”

Yet Trump withdrew from TPP. B & F argue since  economic policy is foreign policy in the Pacific, this was a big strategic failure. 

But American workers have been devastated by free trade agreements. Employers have used capital mobility to whipsaw labor across borders, setting off a global race to the bottom that is best epitomized by suicide nets installed outside FoxConn worker housing. No wonder presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Trump opposed the agreement in the 2016 campaign.

Meanwhile, the total wealth of China’s household sector has risen from 179 trillion yuan ($27.7 trillion) in 2011 to 574.9 trillion yuan ($89 trillion) in 2020, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 12.38%. 

Yet a recent Monthly Barometer report notes that many high net worth individuals (HNWIs) are fleeing China. This is an early warning sign the country is in danger. Francisco Betti, Head of Global Industries for the WEF wrote from the Annual Meeting of the New Champions (ANMC) in Dalian: “China’s current economic story is one of transition rather than decline.”

China has become increasingly punitive towards its own people and other nations since COVID-19. Australia pushed to open an inquiry into the origins of Sars-CoV-2 and China hit back with tariff increases. Some commentators argue the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The consensus still points toward a zoonotic origin, but the original surety has faded.

With relations between Biden & Xi deteriorating, now is an opportune time for the US to change course. It is worth exposing the author’s argument in full:

“The ongoing degradation of Russian military power amid the war in Ukraine—and the revelation that Moscow’s military might is significantly less than originally thought—is combining with European steps to increase defense budgets, acquire new capabilities, and enhance military production lines. As a result, Russia will pose no serious conventional military threat to NATO allies in Europe for the foreseeable future. This provides a historic opportunity to pivot US air and naval forces from the defense of Europe to new locations in the Indo-Pacific.”

In my review of the 2024 fiction book Deaths at Davos, I criticized the author for arguing Trump would abandon NATO, leading to a Russian military victory in Ukraine. Instead, Trump’s strategy of urging NATO members to up their defense spending seems to fortify the alliance. 

All of this poses a problem for global governance. William R. Rhodes, President & CEO of William R. Rhodes Global Advisors, and Stuart P.M. Mackintosh, Executive Director of the Group of Thirty argue:

“China is challenging Western-dominated global institutions by growing the BRICS+ forum. As global power dynamics shift, the ability of international forums to address global challenges diminishes, further complicating efforts to tackle issues such as climate change, migration, and pandemics.”

B & F push for extending the defense budget and joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). They claim America’s values are a key advantage in the competition with China’s illiberal worldview, and so this soft power should be promoted abroad.

The authors could have spent more time thinking about risk. Should the US preemptively destroy any rogue GPU farms that could pose an existential threat to humanity, as Eliezer Yudkowsky argues? What impact will 3D printing, which promises to upend supply chains, have on the relationship? All technical advances can be misused. There are no technical advances that are safe. It is likely the CCP fears AI becoming more powerful than them, and thus outside their control. 

Historians may argue the book is too short-sighted. It focuses on modern history. Most of the documents have not been declassified. 

Yet there is a tendency to fall into infinite regress. What is a book about US-China relations, after all, without discussion of the Opium Wars & Ping Pong Diplomacy? The authors argue “To trace the story of US involvement in Asia is to tell the story of America itself.” How can we understand the dynamic without undertaking a deep study of Thucydides’s work? And how can we understand Thucydides without knowing the story Athens, Carthage & Rome? 

Interested scholars will find a wealth of literature on these topics in the library. B & F do a good job keeping the focus somewhere between narrow and broad. They give the reader what they need to know, no more, no less. 

And who might that reader be? A congresswoman. An investment banker in Hong Kong. A political science graduate student. A foreign service officer. A former foreign minister. An executive at Baidu. Leaders of the CCP. 

Though most American politicians would not be interested in reading Thucydides, the Chinese leaders sure are. Their decisions are informed by millennia of history. The same is true for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin wrote a six thousand word essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrianians,” going back over a thousand years to justify his invasion of Ukraine. 

This debate over democracy vs autocracy in the 21st century is at the heart of the book. Can the American system survive? Or does the future belong to China? Lost Decade is a key intervention into what is likely the most important conversation of our time. 

About the Author
Dan is a historian and human rights advocate
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