The Passive-Aggressive Superpower

President Donald Trump speaks during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House, April 10, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)Unilateralist tough-guy talk will get us nowhere against China.

The leadership of the World Health Organization is awfully eager to please the junta in Beijing. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) writes in National Review:

In December, the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. In mid January, despite accumulating evidence of patients contracting what we now know as COVID-19 from other people, the organization repeated the [Chinese Communist Party’s] lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. In January the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. These actions are unacceptable and should not be allowed to continue.

National Review editor Rich Lowry writes:

Without China’s deceit and WHO’s solicitude for Beijing, the outbreak might have been more limited, and the world at the very least would have had more time to react. China committed unforgivable sins of commission, affirmatively lying about the outbreak and punishing doctors and disappearing journalists who told the truth, whereas the WHO committed sins of omission — it lacked independence and courage at a moment of great consequence.

All true. What to do?

The Trump administration is calling for cuts to U.S. support for WHO. This is typical not only of the Trump administration but of the U.S. temperament in general when it comes to multinational organizations — and it is especially true when our policies are informed by the populist sensibility. And it is not going to produce the results we want.

The populist Right has long been contemptuous of the United Nations and its affiliates — and not without good reason. (The populist Left is less a bit less hostile, focusing its anti-globalist energies on an enemy it holds in common with the populist Right: multilateral trade accords, trade organizations, and affiliated agencies.) The UN is generally ineffectual and frequently corrupt. Some of its agencies are nakedly left-wing political projects designed to oppose the United States and its allies (e.g., UNRWA), others are centers of boutique radicalism (UNICEF), abortion mania (Commission on the Status of Women), etc. Conservatives cheered when John Bolton declared that we could take the top ten stories off the UN building in Manhattan without its making any difference to the world.

But instead of pursuing a program of genuine robust reform, we have pursued a program of passive aggression — heavy on the passive.

When it comes to the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, there are basically three possible avenues of progress.

We could simply declare these organizations beyond redemption, pull out, and go it alone. Conservatives have long dreamed of abandoning the UN. President Trump has spoken often of his desire to pull the United States out of the WTO. The calculation there is that the United Nations needs the United States more than the United States needs the United Nations, and that the same goes for the WTO — and that without the United States, these organizations would become incoherent and, eventually, inactive. The United States, this argument goes, would be in a better position to pursue its own interests unilaterally. Those are some pretty big assumptions; but, in any case, the United States has never shown any convincing willingness to pursue reform through exit.

We could work to reform these organizations. That would mean engagement with a level of energy, intelligence, and capacity for sustained long-term action that our federal government has not shown in some time. That would also mean weathering the populist passions on both sides of the aisle in the pursuit of an agenda that is the one thing our so-called nationalists cannot abide: authentically national, meaning a consensus program defined by genuine broad national interests and not by our desire to hand out favors to special political constituencies (e.g., zombie firms such as General Motors) or to use the international stage to act out dramas rooted in domestic tribal rivalries.

We could abandon these organizations and attempt to replace them with new ones, preferably in alliances of liberal-democratic countries with a shared commitment to basic principles including procedural democracy, freedom of speech, property rights, the rule of law, minority rights, etc. One immediate challenge would be forging an American consensus on freedom of speech, property rights, trade, etc., which has at least partly unraveled. This, too, would demand of us a level of activity and commitment that the U.S. government may not be able to muster.

Or we could go with none of the above.

Instead of one of those options, we bitch and moan and complain, we make toothless threats, and we sometimes dickey around with tariffs, as though that were going to bring Beijing to heel. That’s a joke: The Trump administration, whose trade warriors present themselves as the tough guys when it comes to China, got bought off, and cheap, with some easily broken promises about increasing U.S. exports to China in the future.

Getting real reform out of Beijing would take something else entirely. It would be nice to have, say, a leading voice in an Asia-Pacific economic bloc that includes every major economic power in the region except China, one that was designed specifically to counteract the outsized influence Beijing has in the area — which is exactly what the Trans-Pacific Partnership was supposed to be. That instrument was scuttled by so-called nationalists who couldn’t figure out which end of that shotgun to point at the target.

If we really want to see change in China — and don’t want to go to war in pursuit of “regime change” — then we have to be willing to use the tools that will actually get that job done, which isn’t a national sales tax on imported flip-flops. And it isn’t the United States threatening to leave the WTO: It is the United States, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia threatening to expel China from the WTO and impose economic sanctions on the Beijing government, and doing so with a united diplomatic front. “Globalism” is precisely the instrument with which to bring Beijing to heel. Unilateralist tough-guy talk (and we’ve been hearing that since Bill Clinton in the 1990s — remember the “Butchers of Beijing”?) has got us nowhere and will get us nowhere.

Complaining is not going to get it done. Neither is cutting our contribution to this or that international agency — do you really think that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus et al. are going to start flying coach if we short them a few hundred million, or do you think that money will come out of actual operations? We already know the answer to that.

If you want to be treated like a superpower, then act like a superpower.

Words About Words

“Choate” is not really a natural word; it is a lawyers’ neologism of relative recent vintage. Though it mostly appears in legal contexts, choate was first popularized, controversially, by a young man who did not attend law school: Winston Churchill, who was an uneven student, easily bored, and who was pushed in the direction of a military career early on. “For years I thought my father, with his experience and flair, had discerned in me the qualities of military genius,’ he wrote. “But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar.” Churchill, one of the great writers of his time as well as one of the greatest statesmen, once wrote of a “choate and integral conviction” and was roundly mocked for it, including in the pages of the New York Times. The word “inchoate” looks like it should mean “not choate,” but it does not; it derives from a Latin word, incohāre, meaning “to begin” or to make a first effort at. Something that is inchoate has been begun but not fully developed: an inchoate political program, an inchoate plan for a course of action, etc. The faulty back-formation “choate” has worked its way into the legal lexicon.

But not without a fight. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was known to stop lawyers using the term and lecture them about its illiteracy. National Review contributor Bryan Garner, editor of the Dictionary of Legal Usage and a widely admired authority on general usage, authored a book with Justice Scalia (Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges) and told Ben Zimmer of the New York Times that the justice was “disgusted” by the word. Zimmer writes:

A lawyer named Randolph Barnhouse learned this lesson the hard way in November when he appeared before the Supreme Court as counsel to a company selling tax-free cigarettes over the Internet. Barnhouse said the opportunity to recover taxes on the cigarettes was an “inchoate” interest, not yet fully formed. “Any recovery would not be property until it became choate, until there was an amount of money assigned to it,” he explained.

Scalia stopped Barnhouse cold. “There is no such adjective,” he declared. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as choate. There is inchoate, but the opposite of inchoate is not choate.”

Not willing to let the matter go, Scalia went on, “It’s like gruntled,” noting that some people mistakenly think that the opposite of disgruntled is gruntled. (Tell that to P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote in one of his “Jeeves” novels, “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”)

This isn’t the first time that Scalia has publicly assailed choate. Back in December 1992, when hearing the oral argument for I.R.S. v. McDermott, he told a hapless lawyer, “You know that there is no such word as choate,” arguing that “choate is to inchoate as sult is to insult.” When it came time for Scalia to write the majority opinion in that case, he had to do some creative editing when quoting a 1954 precedent, United States v. New Britain, in which Justice Sherman Minton used the dreaded word.

Some of these innovations are useful, and some are of such long standing that the erroneous derivation behind them has been almost lost to memory. (“Cherry,” for example, came into English as the false singular of the French cherise, which sounded to someone like it should be the plural of “cheri” but is not.) Some novelties simply accrete into our decadent language with no aesthete there to babysit English usage, contracept these abuses, or legislate against them.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader, Robert, writes in to give Peggy Noonan some well-deserved grief for writing that New York City is the “epicenter” of the 2020 pandemic. Epicenter, which I briefly touched on in an earlier edition of The Tuesday, is one of those words that have a feeling of importance to them — why write about a plain old center when you might write of a fancy new epicenter? — but it does not mean center. The center of an earthquake is below the surface, and so for convenience we speak of the epicenter, which is the point on the Earth’s surface above the actual center of the earthquake. A surface phenomenon such as an epidemic (or pandemic, which really means the same thing but sounds more intense) does not have an epicenter — it has a center. “The epicenter of the world is any point on its surface,” Robert writes. That is true, and the Wall Street Journal headline atop Noonan’s column, “New York Is the Epicenter of the World,” is nonsense on stilts.

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Home and Away

Reviewing an excellent new biography of Michael Bloomberg in Philanthropy, I write about the former mayor’s success as a political plumber — seriously, he applied his data-nerd thing to grease clogs in the city’s sewers and was successful at it.

As a libertarian-leaning conservative, there is much about Bloomberg — his views and his style — that doesn’t exactly fill me with warmth. But while I’m not pro-Bloomberg, this book reminds me there are reasons to be anti-anti-Bloomberg. The nerdy omnicompetent manager we meet in its pages did some profoundly useful things in New York City. And he could be powerfully helpful to his country in the future as a private fixer of public problems. If he can locate the right clogs in the system to focus on.

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In Closing

This is the beginning of the Easter season, when Christians celebrate the redemption of the world through the Resurrection. At the same time, Jews celebrate Passover, commemorating their delivery from slavery in Egypt. In March, Hindus celebrated Holi, their spring festival, and in late May, Muslims will conclude a month of Ramadan fasting with Eid al-Fitr. The sense that the world requires renewal, moral and physical, is very close to universal. Perhaps there is something in that worth meditating on in these difficult times.

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