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Because Nazi references can be so irresponsibly inflammatory, and therefore have been so often abused, I haven’t yet compared the threat posed by China to the rest of the world to that posed by Nazi Germany. (In my view, these comparisons have been used even more recklessly lately in U.S. domestic politics, chiefly to describe former President Trump and his views and policies.) So even though the People’s Republic, its ambitions, and its burgeoning capabilities do scare the living daylights out of me (and should scare you), I was nonetheless pretty surprised to see precisely this comparison just made by Robert D. Atkinson.

Atkinson is the head of a technology-focused Washington, D.C. think tank who I’ve known since the early 1990s. I’ve admired some of its work and haven’t been so crazy about other examples of its output, but I’ve never, ever considered him a boat-rocker, much less a rhetorical bomb thrower. In fact, my criticisms of the numerous studies and articles issued by his Information Technology and Innovation Foundation stem from my view that they’re way too cautious when it comes to countering China’s wide range of predatory economic practices (which include predatory technology policy practices like the theft and extortion of intellectual property).

And I’ve attributed much of this caution to the Foundation’s donor base – which is dominated by the U.S. and in some cases foreign tech and manufacturing companies that have worked so hard to send so much production and employment, and (voluntarily) so much technology to China for decades. It’s true that many of these firms are now crying foul as Beijing in recent years has aimed to strengthen its own entities’ positions at the foreigners’ expense. Yet their stubborn opposition to the unilateral Trump tariffs and some key sanctions on the Chinese tech outfits that have been major customers made clear their vain hope that they could somehow have their China cake and eat it, too.

Yet here comes Atkinson in the Fall issue of The International Economy (a publication that’s as – proudly – establishment oriented as they come) with a piece titled “A Remarkable Resemblance” likening China’s international economic policies to those of “Germany for the first forty-five years of the twentieth century” – which of course include the twelve Nazi years (1933-1945).

As the author argues, Germany during these decades was:

a ‘power trader’ that used trade as a key tool to gain commercial and military advantage over its adversaries. Likewise, China’s trade policy is guided neither by free trade nor protectionism, but by power trade, with remarkably similar strategy and tactics to those of 1940s Germany. Understanding how Germany manipulated the global trading system to degrade its adversaries’ capabilities, entrap nations as reluctant allies, and build up its own industries for commercial and military advantage, just as China is doing, can shed light and point the way for solutions to the China challenge.”

Atkinson reports that this description of German policies came from a 1945 book by the important economist Albert O. Hirschman, which concluded that “[I]t’s is possible to turn foreign trade into an instrument of power, of pressure, and even of conquest. The Nazis have done nothing but exploit the fullest possibilities inherent in foreign trade within the traditional framework of international economic relations.”

The author rightly observes that

Hirschman’s key insight was that some countries— in this case Germany under three very different government regimes from 1900 to 1945—focus not on maximizing free trade or even on protecting their industries, but on changing the relative power of nations through trade to achieve global power. Germany’s policies and programs were designed not only to advance its own economic and military power, but to also degrade its adversaries’ economies, even if that imposed costs on their own economy relative to a free trade regime.”

Germany also consistently sought, as the author points out “to make it more difficult for its trading partners to dispense entirely with trade with Germany, thus creating dependency.” And if that’s not enough to convince you about the comparison with China today, Atkinson himself notes that the German policy recipe also included massive industrial espionage, and Hirschman identified a major element as the equally massive dumping (selling at prices way below production costs) of goods into foreign markets to destroy overseas competition.

Atkinson’s diagnosis of the problem is so spot-on that it makes his recommended solution especially disappointing. Kind of like President Biden, he believes that the best internationally oriented option by far (on top of more effective support for U.S. industry, which I strongly support) is forming a “NATO for trade” that would be

governed by a council of participating [free trading] countries…if any member is threatened or attacked unjustly with trade measures that inflict economic harm, DATO [the “Democratically Allied Trade Organization] would quickly convene and consider whether to take joint action to defend the member nation.”

I’ve already pointed out that the consensus on standing against China economically among America’s allies is way too weak to enable such multilateral approaches to succeed. But as long as we’re talking in terms of NATO – the military alliance between the United States and much of first Western and now Eastern Europe – and the Cold War, let’s not forget two other big problems. First, NATO (and this also goes for America’s security ties with South Korea and Japan) was never so much an alliance as a protector-protectorate relationship. The vast bulk of the heavy lifting was always done by the United States.

This allied security dependence in turn has produced the second major obstacle to a DATO’s effectiveness. Because the United States coddled allied defense free-ridingcand opened its markets one-sidedly for so long, the allies’ protectorate status was substantially cost-free economically, and even came with trade rewards no other country could remotely offer. (In addition, as I’ve also written, the creation of an American nuclear umbrella combined with the stationining of U.S. “tripwire” forces on the NATO frontlines in Germany also greatly minimized the military risks of siding with Washington.)

Today, however, economic power between the United States and the allies is more evenly distributed, and the allies’ profitable trade with and investment in China has, as noted in my aforementioned writings, greatly increased the economic price they would pay for lining up against China.

Still, by comparing the China threat to the Nazi threat, Atkinson’s article significantly bolsters the case for the United States escalating its response to the “all of society” level – or at least intensifying it qualitatively. Let’s just hope, as the author writes, that this time around the United States fully awakens a lot faster.