Monday, December 2, 2013

Clash of the Titans of Eleven-Dimensional Chess

Just a quick note for now.  James Fallows has a new post up at The Atlantic about China's foreign policy.  Specifically he's interested in whether the Chinese leadership is fiendishly clever or embarrassingly clumsy (and yes, he draws the obvious connection to the same question about Barack Obama):
Some people think that any step it makes reflects the far-sighted shrewdness of Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu (at right) onward. For whatever reason, such an outlook is particularly popular among Australian analysts. Eg this about the ADIZ and this more generally, though here is one from an American.

Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership's (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China's foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.
"I'm in the second camp," Fallows says, and proceeds to explain why.  I want to read the whole article later (and also Fallows's take on whether Obama is a chessmaster or a klutz), but this bit caught my eye, referring to the Chinese leaders: "They're bad at predicting foreign reaction (as a result of only being able to read slanted news)."

This is probably true, but I think it applies no less to Obama and other American presidents.  Whether it applies to other world leaders I don't know, but I would expect so.  Remember, for example, when Obama believed that the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act because his staff brought him the headlines from corporate media that didn't bother to read the opinion?  I'm not impressed by Obama's intellect to begin with, but it's apparent to me to me that the longer he's been in the Oval Office, the dumber he has become, because the only media he listens to are apparently the corporate ones, with their slanted perspective.  It would take a conscious, deliberate decision to make sure that his staff brought him news and opinions from a wider range of sources, and I see no reason to believe Obama ever made that decision.  Despite their obsession with poll numbers, elite American politicians are generally quite clueless about what their own people are thinking, let alone the rest of the world.  And that's why the world gets into such trouble -- because its elites shut themselves off from information they badly need, and mainline distortions from media that only know the perspective of the investor class.

This story (from Stephen Vizinczey's The Rules of Chaos [McCall, 1970, 47]) may be a little too neat, but it's the right place to tell it.
These hypothetical suggestions (and the whole genesis of my argument about power) originated in my instructive experience of growing up in a police state, the chaotic world of a most tightly oppressed small country, communist Hungary, ruled until 1956 by the dictator Rakosi -- a multilingual and well-educated Batista.  He had enormous power -- including the power (which he exercised) to murder most of the leading figures of his own party, his ministers, the president of the republic and anyone else he happened to think of.  But apart from the killing, he had less to do with what went on in the country than the most ineffectual democratic leader.  He prevented people from electing the government, but this did not allow him to govern them.

For instance, stealing became a matter of honor.  In 1951 Rakosi went to open a big factory in the new town of Stalinvaros, only to find on arrival that there was nothing in the place, only empty walls -- every machine, every screw, even the doorknobs and windowpanes were missing.  As the progress reports went on multiplying while the new factory was in fact diminishing, no one in the chain of command dared to pass a true word upward (a lot of people on the site managed to get themselves transferred the previous year), and so Rakosi did not learn what had happened until he actually went inside the building.  You couldn't have less control than that.  In this instance the dictator himself must have recognized that terror served him ill, and there were no arrests of executions reported on account of the missing factory.
One of Vizinczey's maxims is that Power Weakens as It Grows, and I think its truth can be seen in most organizations.  The United States of America is not a dictatorship or police state (though we're rapidly moving in the direction of the latter), but the only way for a leader to be spared bad news by nervous underlings is to have people he can trust to bring it to him -- maybe specifically delegated to do so.  Even in the US, where someone who brings bad news to the Leader is unlikely to be shot or sent to an Arctic prison camp, there's great reluctance to harsh his buzz by telling him what he (or she) doesn't want to hear.

Another telling anecdote from The Rules of Chaos (page 48):
During the few victorious days of the 1956 [Hungarian] revolution, the most shocking discoveries in the files were not the straightforward political murders of communist officials or grumblers, but the private, personal scores which had been settled under the aegis of the fight for socialism ... A dictator cannot even control the direction of violence: through the unavoidable sharing of dictatorial power with its executors he unleashes anarchy in which the local police chiefs roam about freely as armed and capricious bandits in every town.
Like the story of Rakosi and the missing factory, the difference between a dictatorship and a free society is a matter of degree rather than kind.  People are remarkably good at convincing themselves that their personal dislikes and grudges (and vice versa) are matters of principle.