China, donors, economists, globalization, Huawei, Im-Politic, Isaac Stone Fish, Jeffrey D. Sachs, national security, Project Syndicate, technology, telecommunications, think tanks, trade war, Trump, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Washington Post
I’ve always been skeptical of claims that money explains everything about where prominent folks stand on policy debates. Sure, money talks loudly, and that’s why, for example, I’ve so consistently reported on how leading U.S. think tanks are lavishly funded by corporate interests (e.g., here) and even by foreign governments (e,g, here) with huge stakes in matters on which they regularly comment, such as trade and globalization issues.
But I’ve believed that for the most part, their positions are also at least partly sincerely held – reflecting either an inability even to question what they’ve learned in school, or the power of group-think in their professional and social circles (inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway in particular these realms tend to overlap substantially), their honest convictions, and typically some combination of the above.
I still refuse automatically to write off analysts who disagree with me as simple donors’ mouthpieces, but a recent incident has reminded me that – in the words of a close long-time friend – when seeking to understand political behavior, the most cynical explanation is rarely wrong.
The story begins with an article on the Project Syndicate website – a sort of digital global op-ed page (which, to be sure, overwhelmingly publishes writers with globalist/establishment viewpoints) – by economist Jeffrey D. Sachs.
Sachs is a world-renowned figure in his field, but as with many of his colleagues, seems to assume that mastery of conventional economic concepts translates into expertise on all other subjects. (Google “Krugman, Paul” for perhaps the leading example of this phenomenon.) So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see him writing on the recent American arrest, on sanctions-busting charges, of a senior executive from the Chinese telecommunications entity Huawei – even though he has no special credentials on China, or technology, or national security.
I was very surprised by the nature of Sachs’ attack on the U.S. action, which ran on December 11. Most criticisms of the arrest focused on whether it would escalate the U.S.-China trade war – whether because it signaled a more aggressive turn in Washington’s approach, or because it would trigger Chinese retaliation – or whether the United States ultimately could curb China’s technological development, or whether the American tech industry could continue excelling after a cutoff of its access to Chinese markets or parts and components.
But according to Sachs, the Huawei arrest mattered most because it showed that “The Trump administration, not Huawei or China, is today’s greatest threat to the international rule of law, and therefore to global peace.” That’s pretty out there given that Huawei’s largest shareholder is a Chinese telecommunications company owned outright by the Chinese state, that its close relationship with Beijing has caused governments the world over to limit its presence in their markets for national security reasons, and that the Chinese regime itself has been challenging international law, and in turn peace and security, in the South China Sea region.
Still, I was inclined to write off Sachs’ diatribe as yet another example of Trump Derangement Syndrome, or the outgrowth of idolatry of the globalization status quo fanatical enough to fuel (sincere) outrage at any development threatening to change it – e.g., President Trump’s decision to confront China’s trade predation.
As a result, I was inclined to dismiss as off-base the reaction of one of my Twitter followers to Sachs’ article: “I guess we know who is signing Jeffrey Sachs’ paycheck these days.”
So imagine my surprise when, on December 12, Washington Post columnist Isaac Stone Fish reported that Sachs had written the forward to a big report put out by Huawei in November.
Nothing necessarily improper there. Academics engage in such activities all the time. And if Sachs genuinely believes that an entity that clearly is an arm of the repressive Chinese government deserved “kudos” for “producing… a timely and clear roadmap to help governments, businesses and civil society [emphasis added] to create digital nations on the path to sustainable development,” well that’s his business.
What is massively improper has been Sachs’ reactions to Fish’s questions about Sachs’ relationship with Huawei in light of his glowing praise of the entity both in the report and in his Project Syndicate piece: “Did Huawei pay you for that [the forward]? If so, don’t you think you should disclose that?”
Rather than respond to Fish, Sachs stonewalled – in fact, going so far as to delete his Twitter account.
In the process, he not only made it difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has something to hide when it comes to Huawei. He’s also unavoidably created shadows over two respected organizations with which he’s been closely affiliated: Columbia University’s Earth Institute (which he headed between 2002 and 2016), and that Institute’s Center for Sustainable Development (which he heads now).
I’ve been looking for evidence of Huawei or other Chinese funding for these organizations, and haven’t found any yet. But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been any (perhaps funneled through third parties?), and that it hasn’t colored their work. Because like I said, when seeking to understand political behavior, the most cynical explanation is rarely wrong.