Rumors of War
Will future historians recount how World War III was started by an unknown and rather eccentric American economist obsessed with China and by a president desperate to stay in power by stirring nationalism after a disastrous and unpopular first term? Let’s hope not but consider some troubling trends.
In response to a tweet of mine pointing out that President Trump is (characteristically) “both for and against lockdowns,” a Twitter follower suggested that the coronavirus was an act of war:
If you feel the need to point fingers, why not point out the real culprits, the CCP [Communist Party of China]? It is really hard to believe that the international spread was not intentional. It is beyond criminal gross negligence. An act of war, literally.
He is not the only one to have caught the most virulent strand of the current war virus.
The idea that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a government lab in Wuhan has been circulating for a while. A second idea appeared that it could have been a bioweapon. Although there is no evidence for either hypothesis, neither is impossible but the second one is much less likely. Leviathans, of course, are not known for their trustfulness, their intelligence of things, or their organizational efficiency.
We know, from history and from any realistic, non-romantic theory of political power, that it is often in the perceived self-interest of rulers to start wars. As Randolf Bourne famously said, “war is the health of the state.” Of course, some defensive wars against an actual aggressor may be desirable under certain constraints, but this is not what is under consideration here.
Few American voters suspect that there is at least one American official who has been agitating for more than a trade war with China and that the Covid-19 pandemic has provided him with an ideal, scapegoat-like excuse. Peter Navarro, director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, created by Trump, has been, for a long time, arguing for real war with China—or at least for actions that could only lead to war.
In “Peter Navarro’s Conversion” (Regulation, Fall 2018), I explained how Navarro’s protectionist crusade was driven by, or drove, his opinion that the Chinese government had to be confronted militarily. A few short excerpts:
Fast-forward 23 years to Navarro’s 2007 book, The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won. Largely devoid of economic analysis, it looks like a pre-write of the June OTMP report. In the book, he argues that China is a totalitarian and corrupt country on the verge of popular revolt, and that the Chinese government is trying to build an empire. …
He still wants to work within the system when he recommends using international organizations and negotiations to pressure the Chinese government to reduce its protectionism. However, he does not exclude “military might to back up the prescriptions.” …
Navarro’s 2011 book Death by China … argues that the United States and China are in an “undeclared state of war” and that a real, non-trade war between them is possible. …
In 2015, Navarro published Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World. It deals mainly with a future military confrontation between the United States and China, and ways to prevent it if possible. It too has a companion documentary, subtitled “Will There Be a War with China?” In both, Navarro argues that the U.S. government must build a strong military advantage over China with the help of its allies. American consumers must stop financing China’s own military expansion with their purchases of Chinese goods. A “trade rebalancing” would “slow China’s economy and thereby its rapid military buildup,” according to the book.
On the contrary, in his 1984 book The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues are Stealing America, Navarro had argued against protectionism, noting that “it is highly possible that our defense capability might actually be enhanced—not damaged—by import competition.”
While I am on the topic of war, I should add that my friend Mark Brady had a point when he criticized a recent post of mine (“Collectivist or Confused Clause in the WaPo,” Econlog, May 10, 2020). He argued that, contrary to my argument against collectivist-speak, it makes sense to say, for example, that “Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fought the battle of Stalingrad” and that everybody understands what it means. I implicitly grant his point above by saying something to the effect that bureaucrats and politicos like Navarro want a war between the United States and China. But note in which sense this apparently collectivist way of speaking is correct: by attacking the Chinese government’s armed forces, the US government would aim at bringing the whole American population into the war willy-nilly, exactly like the Chinese government would aim to do with its own subjects.