The Better Letter: Plowshares into Swords

We're at war with China.

Over the past 75 years, wars between global powers have essentially disappeared. The world’s most sophisticated thinkers tell us that, unlike the vast bulk of human history, the world’s great powers today are no longer inclined to go to war with one another on account of the spread of democracy, the increase of wealth, trade, and globalization, and (most importantly) the spread of Enlightenment values. After millennia of slaughter, and despite obvious evidence of current violence, humankind has, at long last, finally attained the Long Peace.


I’m naturally skeptical. To begin with, as I have written before, human nature doesn’t changeThose convinced of their moral superiority need a good dose of Flannery O’Connor, for whom evil is ever-present and stares back at you from the mirror. Or they should spend an hour on Twitter.

The end of history illusion is a powerful drug. 

Still, we shouldn’t dismiss out-of-hand the idea that humankind is beating “their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” 

The most prominent advocate of the idea that war is disappearing – although neither the first nor the only – is Harvard’s Steven Pinker. His book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, debuted to rapturous praise in 2011. Bill Gates, for example, called it “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” 

Pinker’s central thesis is straightforward and simple: humankind has become increasingly less violent over the centuries, and will likely continue to do so. 

As Pinker sees it, “the pacifying forces” of “democracy, trade, and international society” are behind the Long Peace. Therefore, we should expect this peace to last so long as we continue to maintain the trends of American global policy since World War II (except when Donald Trump was president), including growing international trade, strengthening of international institutions like the UN, and strong diplomatic ties between states.

Not surprisingly, Nassim Taleb disagrees quite violently with this thesis (Pinker’s response is here). Taleb and his collaborator conclude that Pinker has underestimated the average casualty numbers about three-fold, meaning the actual data doesn’t really show a decline in violence over time. 

Although he wasn’t the first to make the point, Taleb also argues that the distribution of modern war is fat-tailed rather than normal. Accordingly, the distribution of war is better described as “long periods of increasing peace, punctuated by large upward leaps of violence.” Thus, the stochastic process of conventional wars between large powers no longer applies because of the advent of nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear retaliation. Warfare between nuclear powers is fat-tailed.

Therefore, Pinker only seems right for now. The next big war will likely be devastating. The Long Peace may end with the Last War. In other words, volatility has decreased in the near term, but a fat-tailed distribution could blow those numbers up eventually.

This thesis accounts for the relatively recent appearance of the two World Wars, the Communist atrocities of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, and the Holocaust. Accordingly, as with markets, there will be various, perhaps long, periods of “great moderation,” punctuated with ginormous bangs.

Really, it’s just Taleb’s famous Thanksgiving Turkey Problem in a somewhat different context.

We should not rely upon humans being angels to avoid catastrophe. What we need, instead, are institutions that are robust to demons.

The actions of demon China, the world’s next great superpower, put Pinker’s thesis into grave doubt. That dangerous reality is the focus of this week’s TBL.

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Plowshares into Swords

Last week’s TBL linked a very long Nicholas Wade piece on the origins of COVID-19 and the pandemic. If you haven’t already, you can read it here. If you can’t or won’t take the time (as I said, it’s very long), I’ll summarize some key points for you, relying heavily on Jonathan Last’s account, which you should read and to which you should subscribe (he does the heavy lifting here).

We don’t currently know if SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans from the wild, if it escaped from a lab in Wuhan, or some hybrid combination. The evidence isn’t conclusive either way.

Wade argues that the lab-escape evidence is more compelling. Those scientists who have insisted from the start that the virus clearly emerged from the wild have been making assertions far in excess of the evidence, perhaps driven by their various conflicts of interest.

At least two important conclusions can be drawn from the available evidence.

  1. We are unlikely ever to know, conclusively, where SARS-CoV-2 came from because, whatever the source, the Chinese government handled the outbreak with stunning dishonesty and irresponsibility; and

  2. The Chinese government is highly unlikely ever to pay any sort of price for these actions.

If SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab, the Chinese government has engaged in a conspiracy of enormous proportions. If SARS-Cov-2 jumped to human populations organically, then the Chinese government’s management of the crucial early days of the outbreak was a failure of enormous proportions.

Either way, China’s authoritarian government has deceitfully foisted untold horrors on the world. The death toll had China started an actual shooting war might not have been as high.

And absolutely no one should be surprised. 

There is broad American agreement that the Chinese Communist Party poses a major threat to the United States, our allies, and other democracies across the globe. Previous U.S. administrations generally shared this view and, according to the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released in March, China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” China’s leaders, the Guidance continues, “seek unfair advantages, behave aggressively and coercively, and undermine the rules and values at the heart of an open and stable international system.”

As I have noted before, the data is/are clear. Globalization is a very good thing overall. It’s simple enough for a t-shirt. On the other hand, former President Trump’s trade policies were an economic failureFree trade works, which explains why the world as a whole keeps moving in that direction, Mr. Trump notwithstanding.

Globalization has political benefits, too. It can enhance global prosperity while reducing tension and conflict. It is absolutely the correct default approach and the right approach with the vast majority of the world. 

Remember, Pinker’s view extols “the pacifying forces” of “democracy, trade, and international society.”

I used to think it was the best approach with China. Not anymore. I believed, consistent with U.S. foreign policy pre-Trump, that with free trade, open markets, and a growing standard of living, China would inevitably, if slowly, become a freer and more pluralistic society.

I was wrong.

There are plenty of moral reasons to question trade with or investing in China. The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of human rights violations including the quashing of dissent – now extended to Hong Kong, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups (most prominently the Uighurs), forced abortionsforced labor, a failure to honor cyber-espionage agreements, and much more.

Just 60 years ago this same regime intentionally starved millions of its citizens to death. Right now, this regime runs a system of secret internment camps designed to suppress millions of religious believers.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has launched a vigorous campaign to overtake the United States as the leading global player. The authoritarian Xi has overseen an ugly crackdown on those living in Hong Kong and inside the mainland; flexed China’s military muscles in the South China Sea and threatened Taiwan; and used technology to surveil, censor, and threaten its own people and those beyond China’s borders.

The Chinese threat is intensified because China’s population is growing at its slowest pace in decades, with a plunge in births and a graying workforce. This problem (and it is a problem since the Chinese economy depends upon masses of workers, doesn’t have a strong system to provide for its elderly, and hasn’t yet made its overall population affluent) presents the Communist Party with one of its gravest social and economic challenges. It also increases the danger of aggressive action. 

At a minimum, our national security demands that we question continuing to trade so freely and so actively with China. But I don’t think that’s enough.

As Last explains, if China were a small country or even a minor power, it would face an avalanche of sanctions from the United States and the rest of the international community for its handling of the novel coronavirus. Those sanctions would surely intensify after the pandemic because the international community would stage a full accounting of the Chinese government’s role in the outbreak.

However, as Last also argues, because China is the world’s largest country and newly-minted second superpower, there will be no such accountability. China will pay no price for its primary role in the COVID disaster that crippled the world. Instead, China will continue expanding its territorial claims and seeking to project power globally.

Most fundamentally, no one will hold China accountable because it is both (a) the world’s leading source of cheap manufacturing; and (b) the largest market in the world.

Pinker and Joshua Goldstein argued in The New York Times that Chinese leaders would be crazy “if they blew off the very basis of their legitimacy, namely trade-based prosperity, by starting a war.” They’re crazy.

It’s not a shooting war (so far), but war it surely is. If we are to avoid full-on war, we (and the world at large) need to take China on immediately and aggressively.

Totally Worth It

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Jackson Browne has recorded a new solo version of his brilliant song, “The Pretender.”


This week’s benediction is “Child of Love,” by We the Kingdom and featuring Bear Rinehart. Rock on.  

All the lies I believed in | Left me crying like the rain | Then I saw lightning from Heaven | And I've never been the same.

…I am a child of love.

Thanks for reading.

Issue 63 (May 14, 2021)