Home > Q&A > Special Guest: James Fallows of “The Atlantic”

Special Guest: James Fallows of “The Atlantic”

May 21st, 2009
James Fallows, National Correspondent at The Atlantic (Photo: The Atlantic)

James Fallows, National Correspondent for "The Atlantic" (Photo: The Atlantic)

Today Bellum is pleased to bring you exclusive commentary from James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic.  Mr. Fallows has written for the publication for more than 25 years and his work has appeared widely in such outlets as Slate, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Prospect.  Before his career in journalism, Fallows, a Rhodes scholar, served as President Carter’s chief speechwriter as the youngest person ever to hold that position.  It was a privilege to gauge Mr. Fallows’ outlook for the near-term future of geopolitics across an array of topics:

1. In the final book before his death, Samuel Huntington wrote of the challenges to America’s national identity, asking: “Who are we?” Other observers, including Bernard Lewis, have said the West doesn’t know what it is anymore and is thus worried it will prevail against militant Islam. As an American observer yourself — traveling the world, covering the war, etc. — what do you think about these questions?

I have great respect for both these men — and, in the case of Samuel Huntington, whom I knew in various  incarnations over the decades, an appreciation of his personal approachability, decency, and humor. If it weren’t for his unfortunate death, I would make a catty comment, namely:  These people need to get out more!

The West abroad: Complex- but generally positive- relations

"The West abroad": A complex- but generally positive- picture

Of course I won’t say that. What I will say, with great respect, is that these sound like the concerns or fears of people who have not spent a lot of time outside the Western world recently. From my perspective, in having spent the past three years straight in China and having traveled frequently and lived abroad periodically over the twenty years before that, I have few if any concerns about the lack of a clear Western identity or a muddle sense of Western culture. The sense of what “the West” connotes is clear enough through most of the world that it barely needs itemization or explanation. It involves: the assumption of a rule of law; the assumption of an accountable government; the assumption of freely-operating media and academic communities; and the assumption of the individual’s rights against the state — no matter how short the reality may fall from any of these ideals from time to time. It means the ideal of citizenship as distinct from race or religion; and of experience working out communal differences in constitutional ways. Plus, there is of course the assumption of economic and stylish modernity and pizzazz.

Some aspects of this identity are both attractive and admirable in the rest of the world’s eyes. Some are attractive and dangerous. But they are all very powerful. For each western figure worried about a lack of confidence or clear self-awareness on the West’s part, there must be 100 people in other parts of the world worried about the power and dominance of that very Western culture. I think the 100 people have more evidence on their side — that is, not that they should worry, but that there is something real and formidable about today’s Western culture.

2. China suffers from kleptocracy, but is it basically stable or brittle? How badly does China need to keep its manufacturing trade surplus?
Chinas bureaucracy may be aided by side deals and occasional under-the-table activity, but it is no kleptocracy

China's bureaucracy may be aided by side deals and occasional "under-the-table" activity but it is no kleptocracy. (Photo: Getty Images AsiaPac)

The two sentences in the question raise two different issues, in my view. The trade surplus is the more containable issue. As many people including me have discussed at length in recent years, the last three decades of China’s rise toward industrial modernity have depended on an economic symbiosis with the United States. The American public has, on average, consumed more than it has produced — which has allowed the Chinese public to produce more than it consumes, and sell the difference to the Americans. This export-heavy manufacturing boom has created problems for China’s and the world’s environment. But it also has propelled a huge, rapid, and generally positive social transformation, in which many tens of millions of people have been given a choice other than no-wage toil on the farms.
For reasons of economic fundamentals not worth going into now, it is simply not possible for China to run as large a trade surplus over the next ten years as it has over the past ten. The US and Europe can’t afford to over-consume to the necessary degree. So the trick is what it will take for China to develop its own internal consumption patterns. That is, China has to move from depending on factory jobs for exports, to depending on factory and service jobs for the domestic market. That process is underway, and everyone in China is aware of it. The question is how long it will take and how many dislocations will occur in the interim.
Now, the kleptocracy question: that’s a term I’ve never applied to China, and don’t intend to. To me that implies a Burmese / old Indonesian situation, where leaders take so much out of the society that it’s bled dry for everyone else. No one can think that of China. Instead you have a political, business, media, and academic structure built on “rule of man” rather than “rule of law.” People trade favors. They make exceptions. They go in the side door. They take a cut. But my sense is the legitimacy of the whole system depends on the widespread sense that people *on the whole* are moving ahead. My obvservation is that most people feel that way, and for now the system is resilient.
3. Ralph Peters recently suggested Robert Gates is best SECDEF we’ve ever had. What do you make the challenges he has taken on — procurement, budgetary priorities, vested interests in the services?
George C. Marshall: Still atop the mountain, but Gates is charging fast...

George C. Marshall: Still atop the mountain, but Gates is charging fast...

I don’t know about the historic rankings. It’s a limited and quirky field, and it includes George C. Marshall, who is presumptively the best in anything he does. I will say that it is hard to see how Robert Gates could have had a much better start than he has had under Obama.
Yes, the U.S. military budget is still unsustainably high. Yes, American troops are likely to be committed for years in Iraq and Afghanistan — where, in my own view, Obama is making too big a bet on being able to “fix” things. Yes, too many weapons projects are being nursed along rather than eliminated or rethought. And so on. But all of these changes take time, as Obama has shown in other fields. And at the moment I can’t think of someone likely to have done better across a variety of issues than Gates.
4. You’ve been in journalism for over thirty years. With newspapers going out of business and public confidence in editorial boards plummeting, are you optimistic for the future of journalism?
Not even the internet contains enough space for my full answer to this question!  Short answer: short term pessimistic, long term confident.  The short term pessimism is for the obvious reasons, including those I laid out ten-plus years ago in my book Breaking the News. Essentially all the commercial, technological, and sociological assumptions that underlay the American news business for roughly 100 years after the Civil War have now been eliminated or changed. So just about every business providing news services is in trouble, and every concept about how to make money, is nearing the end of its natural life and needing to be replaced by something else.  It really is a crisis of the old regime like those we read about in the history or sociology books.
I am confident that in the long term an economical system for collecting information about the world in general, and its specific recesses, will emerge — simply because the information is so necessary for successful social functioning.  I just don’t know, at the moment, what that system will be. If I did…. watch out Murdoch and Google.
5. Are there any macro trends or themes that you find important but aren’t getting enough attention?

Yes.  (Is there a followup question?    ;)

Bellum thanks Mr. Fallows for his time and for his insights.

Staff Q&A

  1. May 23rd, 2009 at 16:21 | #1

    Hi, nice posts there :-) thank’s for the interesting information

  2. May 24th, 2009 at 06:12 | #2

    Hi, nice posts there :-) express’s recompense the compelling information

  3. Stu
    May 24th, 2009 at 14:28 | #3

    Everything James Fallows writes should be required reading. In addition to The Atlantic, I strongly recommend his blog. (accessible at jamesfallows.theatlantic,com).

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