Monday, February 25, 2013

 

PRC, D.C. and the Myth of Scheming

Ezra Klein has a strong blog post regarding a fallacy he sees embedded in the Chinese hacking every organization under the sun in the District.  The Chinese are looking for the "Master Key," he argues, because in China even the products of nominally independent think tanks are really secretly the work of government officials.

Klein argues that it is folly to attempt to find such connections between the power brokers and think tank products:
This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody’s plan. It doesn’t. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they’re doing it with less information than they need.
That’s been a key lesson I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.
 It is akin to the fallacy behind conspiracy theories - complex or unusual events don't necessarily require complex or unusual explanations.  Pardon the crassness, but people are flawed, they bumble and shit happens. Klein argues that it is actually a hidden strength of the DC method:
They’re missing our real strength, the real reason Washington fails day-to-day but has worked over years: It’s because we don’t stick too rigidly to plans or rely on some grand design. That way, when it all falls apart, as it always does and always will, we’re okay.
All of this reminded me of Luttwak's recently released The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy.  Luttwak argues that the purported strategic wisdom of Chinese history actually impedes China's ability to successfully carry out policy in the international sphere.  During the waring states period, massive intrigue and Game-of-Thrones-esque maneuvering was possible because of a common language, in addition to ethnic and cultural homogeneity.  International politics, on the other hand, is marked by disparate languages, ethnic groups and cultural  heritages.  In this hodge-podge, deep stratagems aren't feasible because people have a hard enough time understanding one another when they aren't attempting to dissemble.  In short, the fear of inscrutable Chinese strategists playing a brilliant long con on the world is simply not plausible because it would require a degree of cosmopolitan understanding of other nations and societies that no nation has successfully achieved.

[As an aside, one of my pet peeves is the invocation of go by a threat inflator or other proponent of the argument that the  strategically brilliant Chinese are playing an indescribably long game.  I'm no dan, but I am more than a beginner (I played around 15 kyu when I had time to devote to the practice) and that is more than enough knowledge to dismiss nearly every analogy using go as incoherent or laughably simplistic as to be useless.  The two exceptions that I can think of are David Lai's Learning from the Stones [pdf] and of course Scott Boorman's The Protracted Game.]



Comments:
"Luttwak argues that the purported strategic wisdom of Chinese history actually impedes China’s ability to successfully carry out policy in the international sphere. During the waring states period, massive intrigue and Game-of-Thrones-esque maneuvering was possible because of a common language, in addition to ethnic and cultural homogeneity. "

I have always thought this a very shaky argument. The seeming cultural unity of the WS era is more a matter of Qin and Han dynasty propaganda than it is a reflection of actual history. During the WS the various kingdoms patronized different philosophical systems, dressed differently, spoke different languages, and considered themselves quite culturally unique - Chu and Qin (who would later conquer the rest) were considered particularly 'barbarian' and not really part of the same civilizational continuum as the state of Qi and those under he hegemony. (I imagine Byzantine views of the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms were similar in tone). Cultural, linguistic, and philosophical unity came after political unification, not before it.
 
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