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Sport for Joe

Andrew Cockburn’s portrayal of Joe Biden’s legislative career was seriously distorted [“No Joe!,” Letter from Washington, March]. As Biden’s European policy adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1994 to 2005, I saw him deal masterfully with the two topics of most concern before the attacks of September 11, 2001: the Balkan wars and NATO enlargement.

Remarkably, Cockburn’s article fails even to discuss the Balkan conflicts. As early as September 1992, Biden publicly advocated for lifting the arms embargo that discriminated against the Bosnian Muslims, the principal victims of Serbian aggression, and for striking the aggressors with airpower. His proposal became US policy, of course, but only after three years and 100,000 deaths. Similarly, in 1998, Biden called for putting a stop to the Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanians, and NATO’s air campaign in the spring of 1999 accomplished this. As a result, Biden remains a revered figure in now-i­ndependent Kosovo and among the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Cockburn does mention NATO enlargement, but in a clichéd and incorrect way (“an ill-conceived initiative that has served as an enduring provocation of Russian hostility toward the West”). The impetus for enlargement came not from the United States but from the Central European leaders. Biden and I took a fact-­finding trip to the candidate countries, but first stopped in Russia. In Moscow we met with most of Russia’s leading politicians and with Boris Yeltsin’s National Security Council. While not happy about the former Warsaw Pact members possibly joining NATO, they were not overly concerned. In fact, we discussed eventual NATO membership for Russia, something that Vladimir Putin publicly considered as late as 2001. Putin’s subsequent hostility toward the West has employed NATO as a convenient whipping boy to distract attention from his authoritarian rule at home.

Incidentally, in the climactic seven-­day Senate debate in March and April 1998 on NATO enlargement, the Republicans, who were in the majority, asked Biden to be the bill’s floor manager—an acknowledgment of his expertise on the subject and a demonstration of their trust in his bipartisan fairness.

Michael Haltzel
Alexandria, Va.

A Tale of Two Committees

Kishore Mahbubani has long been of the view that the West, and the United States especially, must get used to the idea that China’s rise is unstoppable [“What China Threat?,” Criticism, February]. In presenting this case in your pages, he states contentious propositions as fact.

For instance, the claim that the past two hundred years of Western ascendancy have been an aberration, and that the world is reverting to the mean of Eastern dominance, has romantic but not necessarily intellectual appeal. Mahbubani says that within the next fifteen years China’s economy will be bigger than the US economy, but this is by no means assured. The great economic catch-up of the past forty years occurred against a backdrop of liberal global order that is now fraying. China’s economic growth is slowing, and the country has to cope with major structural issues, notably a rapidly aging workforce, deleveraging, and the break in the renminbi’s peg to the US dollar. I expect China’s GDP relative to the United States’ to be little different in 2025 than it is today.

Further, it is debatable whether China has “decided that they can be responsible global citizens.” Human rights and the rule of law aside, many internal critics of Xi Jinping believe he has set the country on a course of foreign confrontation. Western nations are now starting to distinguish the benign pursuit of regional influence from more legally questionable interference.

The new adversarial relationship between China and the West, in other words, is certainly not down to one party alone. The burden of change lies at least as much on China as on the West.

George Magnus

Kishore Mahbubani responds:

George Magnus challenges my claim that the two-hundred-year period of Western ascendancy was an aberration. But China and India were indisputably the world’s largest economies until the 1800s for one simple reason: until the Industrial Revolution, most societies had comparable levels of technological competence. Hence, the most populous countries had the largest economies. Today, because Western economies have shared the gifts of Western civilization with the rest of the world, other societies are catching up.

Magnus predicts that China’s US dollar GDP will be little different relative to that of the United States in 2025 from what it is today. How about in 2050? Or 2075? Magnus is right that China’s economy currently faces many challenges, but China’s capacity to manage these challenges has also improved considerably.

Magnus rightly argues that it is debatable whether China is nonaggressive. However, in the past thirty years, China has not fought a single war, while the United States and NATO have militarily intervened in several countries. The best way to curb future Chinese aggression is for the West to lead by example. This is why multilateralism should be strengthened. Can Magnus propose a better solution?

Pragmatically, the question is: Should Western policymakers prepare for an underperforming or an overperforming China? If the latter occurs, the West will have to make major structural adjustments. My goal, as a friend of the West, was simply to issue a wake-up call.


Because of an editing error, “No Joe!” [Letter from Washington, March], by Andrew Cockburn, incorrectly referred to remarks by Joe Biden in 2006 as made prior to his first attempt on the White House; he was then preparing for his second run. We regret the error. 

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May 2019

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